Very broadly, one of things that interests me most in art are the fuzzy edges of classifications: when things stop being something and become something else. Galaxies is far out on the fuzzy edge: if I heard it without knowing it was music, it would never occur to me that “music” was an appropriate description of it. It comprises field recording that sounds like they’re literally, er, in a field, with lots of chirpy bugs looking to hook up, some rain, a smattering of thunder, and a few remote passing vehicles.
Not entirely dissimilar recordings are sold as relaxation aids, not as music, but labeling this recording as music — and giving it the formal length of almost exactly one hour — invites the listener to look for the things we expect in music: motifs, variation, repetition: structure. The length of the piece doesn’t make it easy to determine how structured it is: there are discontinuities of volume, but do they follow long crescendos? It’s hard to say. Was that car perhaps the same car from ten minutes ago? The listener can also look for structure at the micro scale. We don’t usually think of cicadas or grasshoppers or whatever they are in terms of notes and chords, but it’s certainly possible to transcribe them as such.* And there’s also the “4:33″-ish dimension: by nature, Galaxies will interact with the sound in your listening environment, so, arguably, you can’t hear it exactly the same way twice.**
Giving the piece the title “Galaxies” further invites the listener to look for meaning in the soundscape and/or the selection/structuring of it. Is Asano making a statement about the quantity and diversity of life? Or perhaps about how closely examined things reveal complexities of structure not originally apparent? (Points of light become pinwheels of points of light & so on.)
With pieces like this I can also rarely discount the possibility that playing a joke on the audience is an aspect of the work (to a greater or lesser degree), but Galaxies has another interesting meta dimension: it’s the product of a prolific artist — Asano’s 44th album — but it follows a several year drought between releases, which might suggest that Asano finds it particularly important (or worked particularly hard and long at the creative decisions it embodies).
Galaxies is well outside my comfort zone and musical expertise. I can’t say I get it, or even that I enjoyed it. But I did find it very thought-provoking, and I’m not sorry I devoted an hour to it.
Asano makes it uncommonly easy to experience his work, if you’re so inclined: You can download his entire catalog at Koji Asano.com.
* this sort of reasoning always makes me think of a science fiction/fantasy story that made an enormous impression on youngun-me called (I think) “Rites of Spring” (or maybe “The Rite of Spring”) that started out with the unbalanced scientist protagonist decoding a message in the pattern of raindrops hitting his windshield. The Internets have not helped me track it down. Apparently it was not published in F&SF as I thought.
** True of all music taken to extremes, I suppose, but much more evident here than in a 3-minute pop song.