There’s a moment in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away that has stuck with me ever since I first saw the film’s trailer. The film’s heroine, a young girl named Chihiro, is taken to see her parents, who have been turned into pigs (don’t ask — just go see the movie). In one of the movie’s most eye-opening scenes, she’s led by the mysterious Haku through a grove that peels away like a stage curtain, revealing a seemingly endless corridor filled with flowers of unimaginable color. As she pushes through this kaleidoscopic maze, you truly get the sense that’s Chihiro has crossed over into a magical world.
It’s a short scene, easy to miss if you blink, but everyone who catches it always comments on its beauty. It’s probably my favorite scene in the movie, perfectly encapsulating the world of wonder that Miyazaki so thoroughly creates.
I mention this because I had a similar sensation when I first heard parts of Make Me Hard (Hard Ni Sasete in Japanese), Tujiko Noriko’s second album. Listening to them on my headphones at work, my office faded away, replaced by shimmering curtains of sound that fluttered about like they were caught in a spring breeze.
Strange and otherworldly sounds floated about, disappearing just as I noticed them, dancing on the edge of awareness. Meanwhile Tujiko’s childlike voice cooed and babbled in my ears, sometimes in Japanese, but more often than not in some strange little language of her own creation.
It would be easy to use words like “glitch” and “electronica” to describe Tujiko’s music, to lump her in with all of the others who take gigs of loops and samples and run them through FruityLoops and AudioMulch. However, there’s a sense of wonder and spirit of play in Tujiko’s music that sets her apart from most of the laptop crowd. I get the impression that she’s just as delighted and amazed by the sounds emanating from her software as the listener, and probably moreso. This carefree spirit lets her transform any sound that might be wandering about, regardless of its mundanity, into something magical.
The album opens with the sounds of Tujiko fumbling about in the kitchen, with glasses clinking and silverware rattling, while humming to herself. True, it’s not a unique concept to sample everyday sounds and, over the course of a song, transform them into something that barely resembles their original form. But comparing Tujiko to, say, Matmos or Oval seems woefully inadequate when explaining the lush assortment of textures and loops that Tujiko creates and shapes.
By the song’s end, the listener is in a world of sound far removed from the confines of a crowded apartment. Tujiko makes it seem effortless, her dreamy “la la la“ ‘s sounding more like the song of a little girl playing in her room than a “serious” electronic musician hunched over her keyboard and fussing with settings and preferences.
Most of the songs on Make Me Hard pass the 6 minute mark, giving Tujiko plenty of time to develop and feel out her songs. Combined with the music’s surreal, dreamlike qualities, this usually means that songs drift and meander about on their accord. I suppose some might find that a bit trying, as these songs show little inclination to any anything but drift and shimmer. And Tujiko shows little desire to prod or push them in any way. Oftentimes, she seems far more content to lose herself within her sounds, to let herself become completely absorbed and carried away by the clouds of bubbling, gurgling sound floating out of her control. And yet, this very act of losing herself allows Tujiko to create some of the album’s warmest and most human moments.
Despite the amount of digital manipulation present, “Fly” has a surprisingly romantic and intimate feel to it. Tujiko’s vocals sound especially tender, and she coos as if she’s singing to a sleeping lover, softly and gently lest she wake him up. Tiny flecks of sound flutter about like motes of sunlight, growing brighter and more numerous as the sun peeks through the blinds. Dark drones and noises groan off in the distance, the rumble of crowded streets trying to break into the quiet little world created by Tujiko’s voice.
As the song continues, it’s obvious that this sleepy little world will end and the new day’s activities and worries will come rushing in. Even so, Tujiko’s voice keeps its soft, breathy feel, as if trying to preserve the intimacy for as long as possible.
“Wire” is the album’s gentlest and shyest track, and possesses a similarly sleepy feel that is not all that dissimilar from Múm’s music. Gently coaxed from its slumber by the vocals of Tujiko and Yoshihto Tsujimura, the song responds in its final minutes by wrapping them in soft layers of hazy tones and piano trickles.
Whirring, clattering sounds ricochet back and forth across “Karappo“ ‘s surface, and an actual beat (one of the few on the album) thumps away below the surface. In some ways, this is probably the most song-like track on the album, and Tujiko responds with one of the album’s strongest vocal performances, as layers of her voice rise up, call out, and support eachother.
Listening to Tujiko’s music, the easiest and most obvious comparison would be Björk’s more, such as Vespertine and especially the Dancer in the Dark soundtrack. And while there’s a fair amount of validity to that comparison (the gasping, heaving wails of Track 2 do have a very Björk-esque feel to them), Tujiko’s innocence and naïveté makes Björk sound like a priggish old crone by comparison.
But personally, I find that Tujiko’s glossolalia often has more in common with Liz Fraser’s angelic voice, probably moreso than most goth and shoegazer sirens. That’s especially true on the Cocteau Twins-y Track 8, which develops at the same baroque pace as Treasure, right down to the icy spangles that flit about like something Simon Guthrie might’ve composed had he owned a PowerBook in 1984.
Lately, I’ve begun to wonder if my music reviews aren’t becoming too reductionistic, if instead of writing about albums, I’m in fact dissecting them. I sit at my computer and try to describe each intriguing sound, beautiful melody, and moving lyric in as much detail as possible, and all the while think that I’m capturing the essence, the meaning of the album. But when I’m done, there isn’t much left it seems. In trying to explain the beauty, I wonder if I haven’t explained it away.
But then along comes an album like Make Me Hard, which resists attempts to dissect and explain it. I’ve sat here, listening to each song again and again, trying to wrap my head around the baffling array of sounds that Tujiko creates and come up with adequate descriptions and metaphors, and each time she leaves me more perplexed and frustrated than before. The few descriptions I have come up with feel downright clumsy compared to Tujiko’s sounds, which so easily defy my attempts to capture them long enough to write about them.
Simply put, there are tiny worlds within these songs. Colorful, magical, vibrant little worlds that I suspect Tujiko herself stopped trying to explain and understand a long time ago. She seems perfectly content to let herself be dazzled and amazed by these sounds, to let herself get drawn in and lost amongst their magic and mystery, and I should really learn to do the same.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.