A Gene from a Genome: The Transient Tapes of Muzan Editions

Muzan Editions’ icon-like logo is hand stamped into each of their releases.

Named after a portmanteau fusing the Chinese characters for “dream” and “mountain,” Muzan Editions is a small-run cassette label based in Nara, Japan. Its artists span the rainbow of contemporary electronic music, pursuing a dream of technology within the mountain of consciousness: inspecting, magnifying, and refocusing sonic feeling with wider wonder. Listeners could summarize the label’s aesthetic as nocturnal music for solitary vigils; yet deeper immersion yields music more vigorous than sheep-counting soundtracks for the underslept or overwhelmed.

Like a foreign plant species traveling to distant shores by way of burr, gut, wave, or breeze, Muzan is a label led by a trio of non-native humanities enthusiasts who each found their varied way to Japan. Andreas Holderbach previously organized experimental music shows in Germany where he pursued degrees in Japanese Studies and Sociology. When not teaching English and German in Osaka, Andreas manages Muzan’s accounting, tape duplication, and order fulfillment. Christopher Olson, who has a background in photography and design, handles the creative aspects of Muzan. He lives in Nara and makes sound work under the name Standard Grey. And Joshua Stefane, the label’s manager of artist relations, studied philosophy in Toronto, doing graduate work in Kyoto—focusing his thesis on the ontology of apologies. By day he works in a bioethics laboratory in Osaka, focusing on ethical and legal issues relating to genetic sequencing.

Beside coloring the music that Muzan curates, Joshua’s science background inspires the electronic music that he makes as Endurance. “Having to study the ins and outs of complex systems at work (like how genetic information is gathered, stored, used, and protected) has paved the way for a deeper knowledge of how sounds come into being and can be manipulated.” Humbled by the same sciences which fascinate him, Joshua readily admits, “I didn’t know a gene from a genome when I first started at the lab. Learning about ‘new’ worlds both big and small has been a kind of sublime experience, i.e. terrifying and beautiful at the same time.” Muzan, too, draws influence from diverging disciplines. A queasy beauty puckers their releases, fusing art with science and culture with craftsmanship.

Muzan Editions celebrates its first tape batch party. They lovingly assemble releases by hand.

Muzan began as a toothless idea in early 2017. Although the fledgling label is still erupting with milk teeth, Joshua notes, “I don’t know that there was any deep philosophy behind the idea—and perhaps there still isn’t—but we soon realized that we were uniquely placed—both culturally and geographically—to do something interesting.” The catalyst came while Joshua was performing music throughout Japan’s Kansai area. While touring as Endurance, he met talented Japanese musicians whose work wasn’t readily available. Such fandom led to releases by Hegira Moya and Cheekbone.

In contrast, Muzan’s Japan Tour Editions showcases releases from non-native Japanese artists. More than just an imprint, it’s an experience for all—label, artists, and fans—as each release culminates in a tour of Japan, “The prospect of coming to Japan to perform the material definitely had an influence on the artists and sound of their work, which is another point of uniqueness that we value.” The Tour Editions spurred unique releases by Florian von Ameln, Bastian Void and Ant’lrd, and, most recently, Lee Noble.

Nara, Japan, is filled with temples, shrines, and ancient ruins—some 1,300 years old. Dreamland (pictured both above and in the featured image) remains Nara’s derelict Disneyland.

Muzan’s aesthetic also reflects its surroundings. Christopher and Joshua both live in Nara, Japan, where Joshua treasures the 1,300-year-old ruins which surround him everywhere he turns, “The history of the place is not only in the air, but literally at your feet, a fact that emphasizes both the weight of history and also the transient nature of things.”

A fractured, crumbled quality looms not only within the label’s music but within its design: “the icon-like Muzan stamp, as well as the single image that adorns the cover of each work; the paper stock; and, indeed, the very fact that we are releasing on tape—a medium vulnerable to the passages of time like no other.” Both transient and timeless, Muzan Editions’ music lies scattered like ruins against a hillside. It’s a place we return to—despite the weathered darkness—willingly.

Lee Noble ~ Ashenden

Lee Noble’s sonic pinwheels spin in place, purr, twirl, toss. Recorded primarily in St. Paul, Minnesota, a feeling of roaming wetlands dampens Ashenden. “Sanyo Loop” shuffles through a synthesized field recording: frogs croak near creeks, pussy willows poke through fog, monastic vocals cast palms upwards. “Alpha Yellow Day Star” shivers with pollen in swaying bass. Mewing lugubrious lows, “Phase Melody For Tape Loops DIGITAL” sounds skeletal as autumn branches. Affirming his music’s visual nature, Noble’s sparkling drone track, “Franklin Gothic,” shares a title with a typeface used in headlines. Clean as its namesake, it bubbles with bright charm, scrubbing grime from our psyche, leaving us scratching in places stinging with air. The roaming moods of Ashenden prove that the next season is but one season away.


Kyle Landstra ~ Within / Without

Linguists take pause. Just as prepositions describe a relationship between things, “Within / Without” serves as a predicate for a frictionless force dwelling within (and without) us all. Kyle Landstra recorded both of its long-playing tracks in real time. A symphony of laser-beamed synths telescopes into bottomless pools; just step in, lie back, and push off—spinning with outstretched limbs. On “Within,” deep sea currents swell in slow melodies. Some intone like cowled monks; some hum with dusty circuitry; others shine bright enough to guide a boat to shore. On “Without,” the listener sits still beneath a dome theater, immersed in total darkness. Tilt the head back and awe at an 8-story screen: watch comets streak across the sky, burning with our past and future.


Cheekbone ~ つかの間 [Tsuka no Ma]

Bathed in a Polaroid haze, Cheekbone’sつかの間 [Tsuka no Ma] is soft enough to swaddle, and thick enough to lather. Swirling through space dust, “Erioclaucin” drifts on stellar winds while a new star is born. Referencing a tropical plant used to make dyes and spices, “Curcuma Longa” bubbles warmly, staining ears and hands bright yellow. “Hidden Dancefloor” turns a subterranean cave into a hidden dance club. Stray light filters through a ceiling crack, fractured in ebbing water. Back aboveground, a nearby highway drowns tinny wind chimes on “Slower Eastwind.” Morning traffic reminds us that others exist. Whether waking for duty or desire, all must rise, eventually.


Overscan ~ The Marriage of Violence and Desire

Overscan lovingly lifted the title of his new album, The Marriage of Violence and Desire, from David Toop’s Ocean of Sound—a seminal book considered a “poetic survey of contemporary musical life from Debussy through Ambient, Techno, and drum ‘n’ bass.” Direct references are dangerous: they gain strength from reinforcement yet demand demonstration. Living up to its title, The Marriage of Violence and Desire sequences tracks for tone and texture, silence and sound. “The Narrows” skitters nervously; awash in fuzzy synths, melodies shiver through snarling static, then freeze into blinking cells. A cheeky title for a track of pretty folktronica, “Opus Zero” features acoustic guitar pinging in glitchy spasms. Charged with static electricity, “Silks” runs smooth as vintage nylons torn by Ben Frostian menace. By album’s end, the crowd remains seated, waiting for the lights to turn on.


Ant’lrd / Bastian Void ~ Dream Forest Somnambulist

During an 18-year tenure helming Sega’s AM2 team, Yu Suzuki created some of Sega’s biggest arcade hits and pioneered polygonal 3D gaming. Ant’lrd and Bastian Void tweak joystick-guided sound worlds dedicated to the legendary game designer. Using modular synth, drums, phone, and cassette tapes, Ant’lrd channels the manic energy of a red-eyed Tokyo. The four-part forest somnambulist suite dreams of a pachinko parlor ruptured by black holes. Other recordings, such as “prcssvs III of III.edit,” blend free jazz percussion on the frappe setting.

Bastion Void crafts post-apocalyptic rave music from modular synth and open-source software. “Seeing Twos” plays hopscotch through neon tunnels punctuated by flamethrower duels. In quieter relief, “Garden Level II” wanders a moonlit yard rustling with breeze. Triggered by human hands, yet daring complete control, Dream Forest Somnambulist sprawls across trellises which have no common form.


Hegira Moya ~ 閑静な住宅街 [Quiet Residential Area]

In just under 20 minutes, the two tracks comprising Hegira Moya’s 閑静な住宅街 [Quiet Residential Area] captivate with the detail of a Gothic novel. On “歪んだ部屋 [The Bent Room],” one imagines the lone protagonist patrolling a quarantined port long past curfew: looped guitar drips with condensation, suspended by industrial clatter. Cycling through foreign scales, squeaky keyboard flutters above rib-ratting bass. “地下公園 [Lowline],” too, begins in blackness. Water sloshes in a deep cavern echoing with percussion: faint footfall skirts creaking planks until syrupy synths float into yet blacker space.


Andreas Brandal ~ The Work of the Spider

Inspired by Hungarian film director Bela Tarr, Andreas Brandal’s The Work of The Spider weaves a sticky web from somber silk. Long past last call, “We Are Resurrected” roams a vacant jazz lounge littered with debris. Wading through broken glass, flanged keyboards wring out tired twang from a lonely guitar. “The Work of The Spider” navigates a seafloor with ankle weights, the way lit only by passing anglerfish—woozy bass tolling through an underwater cemetery. “The Perspective” wafts over organ pipes tickled by a scratchy beat hushed in the pews. More tranquil than industrial, and more unruly than ambient, The Work of The Spider imagines electronic music for alien communions. The tithing, as always, is optional.


Florian von Ameln ~ Interbellum

Charred field recordings coat studio instruments on Forian von Ameln’s Interbellum. “Interbellum 1921” mixes feedback with e-bowed guitar over a backdrop of playground chatter. The album’s breeziest recording, “Interbellum 1922,” fades trembling guitar notes doubling as sine waves. “Interbellum 1923” chops vocal samples into grainy loops which repeat numbers ad nauseum; a resonant bass line wobbles in the knees. The grey skies may linger and the flowers may wilt, but “Live at Environment 0g, Osaka” sounds utterly heartbreaking against its backdrop of children at play. Interbellum weeps for past wars; but it weeps the hardest for wars to come, the ones most avoidable, because, for reasons nonexclusive, we should have learned by now. (Todd B. Gruel)


About Todd B. Gruel

A bearded biped who still believes in 35mm film, 6-string guitars, and jet black cats.


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