Japanese ambient/minimalist composer Chihei Hatakeyama first netted American attention with his 2006 album Minima Moralia, an album full of engaging, contemplative songs on the beloved label Kranky. He’s released a number of other records in the intervening years, and has since expanded his resume to include “label owner,” with his own White Paddy Mountain.
Hatakeyama followed a winding path into the music industry, as he explained over a series of email exchanges. “I started playing guitar in a cover band while I was a High School student, playing songs by bands like Metallica. Then, in university, I was collecting CDs and LPs, and I formed a post-rock band with other students. We were influenced by Krautrock and the Velvet Underground.” Hatakeyama was also interested in making electronic music, but the equipment he needed in order to do so was costly. When the Mac Powerbook G4 was introduced in 2001, Hatakeyama bought one and began writing songs inspired by people like Stephan Mathieu, Loren Connors, Stars of the Lid, and William Basinski. “Eventually,” he says, “through the Internet, I was able to find others interested in making this kind of music, so I formed a band with Tomoyoshi Date called Opitope.”
Hatakeyama founded the label White Paddy Mountain in 2010 as a way to “release some live recordings and unreleased tracks,” but eventually it expanded to include numerous collaborations with other artists as well as several standalone albums. “White Paddy Mountain’s philosophy is to release artists who have their own consistent aesthetics, such as ambient music and experimental music,” he says. “From now on, I would like to [release works that] collaborate with traditional Japanese culture, such as the tea ceremony.” Nevertheless, Hatakeyama doesn’t view his work or the label’s as strictly Japan-facing, saying, “I think music is universal. I do not distinguish between music and nationality.”
The label also features a wide variety of striking cover art—Hatakeyama describes each individual image as, “the beautiful collaboration of visual artists and musicians.” We asked him to walk us through seven releases that serve as an introduction to the label, and that reflect its goals and presentation; his quotes are incorporated throughout each description.
Described by the Buenos Aires-based Durand, whose work Hatakeyama discovered on the Spekk label, as “an album to come back home,” La Estrella Dormida was inspired by Durand’s train journeys, where he would watch sunset dissolve into night. Consisting of a series of short, quietly entrancing pieces, it captures both ambient’s 1970s origins and its sweeter-sounding 1990s offshoots. “I would describe his music as a fairy tale,” Hatakeyama says, “because I feel that a variety of fairies speak through it.”
Hakobune, one of the many Japanese artists Hatakeyama has featured, also found inspiration in the heavens for this one-track album. Apsidal motion is a guitar drone-based composition which Hakobune says grew out of the “beauty of a starlit sky of the Niigata,” a prefecture on the northwestern, less-populous coast of Japan’s main island, Honshu. “I think many artists would be impressed if they could look at that beautiful starry sky,” says Hatakeyama. “Many ambient musicians are inspired by nature. I think the reason why is very simple: nature is our origin.”
White Paddy Mountain features a wide variety of collaborations, including this effort between Hatakeyama and Ken Ikeda, who is known for his film soundtracks, sound artist work, and more. The album is contemplative, but there’s also a playful, subtly active energy at work. “On this album, there are songs based on an improvisational session in Ikeda’s studio,” says Hatakeyama, “while other songs were based on his memories of older songs.”
Asuna who, like Hatakeyama, has released work across a variety of labels, first appeared on White Paddy Mountain with an album inspired by a scene from a Russian film in which a “girl is always sending missing letters.” It’s a cryptic, intriguing image, which reflects Asuna’s own mysteriousness. “He has a very large number of musical styles,” Hatakeyama says, “so this album is not typical.” Bubbling, almost tense elements fuse with deeper, moodier textures throughout. “I think he refuses to simply stay in one particular genre,” Hatakeyama says.
One of Hatakeyama’s most recent releases, from earlier this past summer, Grace’s hour-long title piece captures Hatakeyama’s gift for deep, serene compositions that seem to effortlessly ease into the infinite. “When I am composing,” Hatakeyama says, “I do plan for the length of the song. The earlier version of “Grace” was composed for a live performance in April of 2015, and it had been assumed to be 50 minutes in length.” The album also features a song called “I Am A Cat,” which was inspired by a 100-year-old Japanese novel with the same title. “I wanted to make “I Am A Cat” feel like a flow of calm time,” Hatakeyama says. “The prototype for this song was composed when I was touring the west side of Japan. One year previous to that, Federico Durand was coming to Japan, and we had talk about this novel [I Am a Cat]. Those memories provided suggestions for this song.”
Satomimagae’s work on Koko shows that White Paddy Mountain’s catalog contains more than just instrumental explorations. Her cool-but-clear vocals and delicate acoustic performances, with extra production touches lending shade and gentle mystery, make for a different kind of late-night listening. “This approach is quite rare in Japan,” Hatakeyama says, “and her style is unique. I think that there is a very good balance of voices and instruments. Lyrically, the themes are drawn from her life.”
Moonlit Invocations by FJORDNE, the psuedonym of Tokyo composer Shunichiro Fujimoto, is an explicit tribute to ‘60s American jazz. FJORDNE’s general approach involves sampling and reworking performances, and here the result is a moodily beautiful jam. But it’s not all nostalgia. As Hatakeyama notes, “This particular album is also influenced by Tortoise’s fourth album, Standards.”