Review: sawako – sounds

18 tracks, 33 minutes. In memoriam Sawako Kato (1978-2024).

Review: sawako – sounds

Kenneth Kirschner tells a beautiful story about sounds, so I’d recommend reading the full text on the release Bandcamp page. But to summarise: after being asked to contribute a track to a 12k compilation back in 2003, Kirschner asked the compilation participants to send over one or two sound files, with the intention of building a track out of these sources. Shortly thereafter he received a golden CD-r in the mail, with no context save for the felt-tipped writing on the front:


This release is the exact contents of this CD-r. In the years since Kirschner had quizzed sawako on this album (was it even an album?), yet her answers remained elusive. Funnily enough I’m writing this review on the back of researching another curious golden disc: the one included on the two Voyager spacecraft back in 1977, intended to demonstrate “the diversity of life and culture on Earth” to any beings that might discover them. There are many analogies, particularly if we adopt the role of the disc recipient in both cases. We encounter a disparate array of sounds, unified by a purpose regarding which we may speculate, but ultimately to which we don’t have access. We may listen and derive interpretations that the sender never intended. There is a gulf between the two parties; of distance, of time, of understanding. One major disparity is that the Voyager golden record strived to retain the meaning imbued by its sender, whereas sawako’s disc seems to deliberately keep its context grounded on the planet of departure.

Aptly, so many of these “sounds” – 18 in total, spanning about half-hour of music – invoke environments in which we’re hearing activity second-hand, or through a wall, or at a distance. Voices can be heard calling from over a hill, half-hidden beneath a chorus of cicadas. Sparse piano notes reach us through a filter that accentuates the top frequencies, like listening to the instrument being tuned through a metal straw. Most of sounds occurs on the peripheries of spaces and on the brink of listener consciousness, translucent enough to sink into field recorder's noise floor or a tinnitus ring. One can imagine sawako stopping suddenly, ceasing her own footsteps and the rustle of clothing, in order to engage in the aural equivalent of squinting, targeting her attention at something right at the back of the frame – assuming she didn't imagine it.

The title sounds is ambiguous in terms of its attribution of agency. If anything it subdues the role of sawako; these are just “sounds” rather than compositions, with the abrupt starts and endings lending to the sense that they were captured casually and edited minimally. “15” starts halfway through a car horn, while “08” cuts out just as some strange new tones start to emerge, like the punching-in of a code on a dialling pad. Yet for every consistent characteristic one attempts to identify, there are pieces that run in the other direction. “09” has a very intentional arc, with rapid-fire beeps seeming to conjure a deep, harmonically rich drone from beneath, before reverting back to the beeps and forming a perfect palindrome. At the centre of "13" is a blaring vehicle horn that causes the recorder to distort; it's the one moment of raw foreground on the selection, which throttles an otherwise subdued, trance-state listener into momentary sparkling alertness.

Kirschner talks about imploring people to hear this disc, passing it around like “some secret underground zine”. Writing about music is always reductive, but in this case perhaps doubly so. Maybe sawako’s playful refusal to elaborate on sounds was intended to keep all options open. This could be a proper album. Or perhaps it’s a collation of ideas that could each form the genesis of an entirely distinct project. Or perhaps it's the inverse: a set of abandoned and unused scraps, which never found their home within a sawako album proper. Or perhaps this eager speculation is the whole point. sounds feels like a homage to listening as an act of questioning, shorn of the expectation of answers. Thank you sawako.