If you could hear the sound the sea might make, when every living thing has gone from the Earth and nothing remains other than a few stranded ghosts; and grey water laps against abandoned shores under endless grey skies; or if you could hear, as Julian Cope describes this music, the creaking sound of the rigging on the Mary Celeste after all human life had vanished from it; if you could hear the last bird left on Earth, soaring through a measureless and sullen sky, you would find, I am sure, that it would sound just like Takehisa Kosugi’s extraordinary album from 1975, Catch Wave.
Takehisa Kosugi is a Japanese experimental composer and violinist, born in 1938 and and has worked with musicians as diverse as John Cage and Sonic Youth. His music, usually associated with the neo-Dadaist ‘Fluxus’ movement, a word that derives from the Latin word for ‘flow’, is liberated from all the conventional notions of structure and boundaries and instead flows, aimed nowhere but not aimless, in a limitless, timeless space.
Catch Wave is undoubtedly his most famous recording. Its opening piece, ‘Mono Dharma’, is built on a single, barren drone above which hovers a distorted, oscillating solo violin sliding in and out of notes that have no name. It is music that conjures up an unspeakably haunted loneliness, music that speaks of abandonment, emptiness, the end of things. There is a minimalist vastness in its textures, like you are hearing the trapped souls of things that have long gone – the cry of a whale from a hundred thousand years ago, still echoing from the cliffs.
The second of the album's two pieces is ‘Wave Code’. More unsettled than the earlier track, this music, too, is rooted in a long, forlorn drone; but what grows from it here are strange, alien groans and grunts and chants: voices in the dark – perhaps the new bud of grotesquery that grows, slithers, out of the abandoned apocalypse of ‘Mono Dharma’.
It’s that drone – that empty, thin, desolate drone – that brings these two very different pieces together and leaves you feeling that they are perhaps just showing you different sides of the same picture, telling you different versions of the same story.
The simplicity of this music is in some ways what makes it most remarkable, and most haunted. Stripped of every ornamentation, of every convention, of every bit of structure, you are left wondering, horrified, that this godforsaken place might be how things really are.
The whole thing goes for just under 50 minutes, but this music makes you feel that you have been immersed in something much more timeless than that. It is music which, despite its avant-garde experimentation, feels like it could have been dug up from underneath the earth, where it had laid buried – perhaps a secret, perhaps a prophecy – for millions of years.
Catch Wave is music that you feel has been around long before you ever were and will stay around long after you ever will be. Your place in it doesn’t even create a bleep on its endless, empty heaving sea.
Thanks to Paul Kidney at PBS FM's Ear of the Behearer for introducing me to this stunning piece of music.