Marihiko Hara & Polar M: Beyond

On some recordings, the marriage of acoustic instruments and electronics can seem like an awkward fit. That's anything but the case on Beyond, where pianist-composer Marihiko Hara and guitarist-composer Polar M (Masumi Muranaka) achieve a comfortable and well-integrated balance between the two that makes their combination seem like the most natural thing in the world. Long admirers of each other's work, the Kyoto-based artists decided that the time was ripe to produce an album together, resulting in a collaboration designed to go beyond their solo output.

The opening seconds of “April 15th” immediately suggest that the recording will be an extended exercise in elegant soundsculpting when sparse piano chords establish a mood of melancholic serenity that's gradually complemented by guitar shadings and the speaking voice of contemporary dancer Mia Cabalfin (whose voice appears in three of the album's ten pieces).

In a typical setting, Hara's refined piano playing and Muranaka's atmospheric guitar textures function as the nucleus around which constellate a host of complementary electronic sounds and treatments. In a representative piece like “Tide,” the piano playing exudes a sophisticated, jazz-inflected quality that recalls Bill Evans, even if the settings themselves are stylistically closer in spirit to electroacoustic ambient-classical dreamscapes. Muranaka's focus is similarly centered on mood-building and consequently, rather than soloing in the conventional sense, he uses the guitar in painterly manner to enhance a given track's overall sound design.

With Muranaka exchanging his electric for an acoustic guitar, “Leaves” oozes a dreamlike, pastoral splendour that's easy to surrender to, while “Morning Path” evokes the image of hikers undertaking a joyous trek on a dew-covered summer morn. Elsewhere, the pair strip their music down to its skeletal essence during the limpid meditation “Lost Constellation,” where piano and guitar reverberations echo in equal measure. An occasional light-hearted playfulness seeps into the material, with “Modern Tales” departing from the album norm in wedding a loping beat pattern to syllabic fragments of Cabalfin's voice. But such beatcentric moments are rare on a soothing set that's largely devoted to delicate moodscaping. What helps distinguish Beyond from other recordings of its genre type is its repeated emphasis on acoustic piano and electric guitar sounds.

November 2013