Howdy y'all, and welcome back to Album of the Year 2014, our daily writing series on our users' favorite records from the year of our sub's founding! Today we've got BornAgainZombie
discussing Kishi Bashi's Lighght
. May 13, 2014 - Joyful Noise Recordings Listen: Bandcamp Spotify Apple Music Background
The story of Lighght
starts in two places. The first, chronologically speaking, doesn’t even begin with Kishi Bashi. It begins with the poet Aram Saroyan, who infamously created controversy with his 1965 piece titled “lighght,” a poem solely consisting of that word exactly in the center of an otherwise blank page. When talking about the poem, Saroyan often discusses its unique visual impact as a poem that's "see[n]
rather than read," making note of how "you can see it all at once. It’s instant.” The piece didn't cause much contention in the poetry scene of the time — understandable, considering its tameness compared to something like Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which had quite literally gone through an obscenity trial the previous decade
. But beyond the poetry world, the piece was met with criticism after George Plimpton chose to include "lighght" in The American Literary Anthology
, thereby paying Saroyan $500 for his singular word. Soon thereafter, the poem became the target of a backlash led by Republican congressman William Scherle for what he considered a waste of the National Endowment for the Arts' funding. Much of the story can be read in full in Ian Daly's terrific piece about the history of "lighght" for Poetry Foundation
, but suffice it to say that Saroyan casually scoffed at the whole uproar, and the poem's legacy — inadvertently — endured in part because of the critical attention put on it.
The second place starts with Kaoru Ishibashi, otherwise known by his stage name Kishi Bashi, a multi-instrumentalist who got his start with electronic rock band Jupiter One and a brief stint in of Montreal. Ishibashi began to make an impact on his own with the 2012 album 151a
, his first release under his stage name. Perhaps the most succinct way of summarizing the sound of Kishi Bashi is that he incorporates violin arrangements into lush, expansive pop songs via loops, samples, synthesizers, and his distinctively compassionate voice. In describing his style and use of genre, Ishibashi refers to himself first and foremost as “a pop musician,”
but is quick to note that part of his pop instincts come from the fact that he’s classically trained, considering himself “an experimentalist” in how he merges elements from these two artistic impulses.
Where these two artists intersect is, predictably, Kishi Bashi's second album, titled after Saroyan's poem and released through Joyful Noise Records on May 13, 2014. One of the album’s songs, “Q&A,” was developed from a 30-second chorus Ishibashi had written for a Kickstarter backer of 151a to her best friend
helped hone and refine Kishi Bashi's signature sound from 151a
, and Ishibashi has since continued to expand that sound on two more studio albums since Lighght
's release. Review by BornAgainZombie
“Lighght.” What does that word mean, to you, when you see it? If you had no prior knowledge of this album or the poem it was based on, how would you interpret that linguistic invention when you first saw it? Now let’s say you’ve familiarized yourself with the context above, and now you know the history of the poem this album takes its name from. How would you draw your own connection between these two identically titled properties, one overtly inspired by its predecessor? If you were to look into the articles talking about this album, the extent that most of them discuss the title amounts to making a brief mention of the Saroyan poem before moving on to talk about the album as its own identity
, as if the poem is just a segue and the music can be interpreted and critiqued in isolation from its inspiration. That’s certainly a valid reading, looking at the music as its own entity. But it’s strange, isn’t it? It’s right there in the title, yet so few reviews talk about it beyond making a cursory connection.
In the years since Kishi Bashi released Lighght
, I've come across only one article briefly discussing the larger creative ties the album's title has with the music it's paired with
. With such a striking choice for titular inspiration, and with only a single inscrutable neologism to go on, it's an album title that practically demands consideration and analysis. After all, Kishi Bashi's music is anything but perfunctory, weaving several layers of complex string arrangements over electronic loops and beats to wed classical influences with baroque pop leanings. In order to properly get to the root of what makes Lighght
endure over time, I feel a need to explain how Ishibashi's choice of this title is a reflection of his aims: a means of drawing parallels to how we take meaning from art, even the most ambiguous and simplistic of art, years after it is made.
This is because, essentially, Lighght
came about the same way any person making art creates in a realm already populated by art — it takes influence from others, builds upon existing pieces, cannibalizes, repurposes, and makes anew. No art is made in a completely inspirationless vacuum. Even art that births something entirely new is often spurred about by disparate pieces of origin, and enters into a global artistic space that will build upon its innovation. Just as Saroyan brought "lighght" to life by expanding upon a preexisting word, so is all art brought into being.
And so is all life, each new generation following those who came before. If there is to be any cohesive reading on Lighght
as a whole, it’s that life and art are metonyms for each other, each birthed from prior beings in a recursive life cycle. This understanding of life and art’s mutual traits is most clearly drawn on "Bittersweet Genesis for Him AND Her," where Ishibashi recognizes the shared reflexivity of these concepts and synthesizes their overlapping qualities. Lyrically, the song draws from creationist myth and imagery to craft a narrative about literal artistic creation. It’s here that the most concrete unspoken bond between Saroyan’s poem and the album is at play, the scenario Ishibashi describes following from a narrative that begins with the words, “Let there be light.” Light as depicted in “Bittersweet Genesis” emanates from the moon (“a miracle of light”) and from a city risen well after the original creation of life. Both, Ishibashi implies, are their own signs of life thriving, reflective of the beauty and improbable artistic power of life as made by natural phenomena and human-made invention.
But not everything about this creationist reimagining is utopian. “Bittersweet Genesis” ends with its lovers-as-creators spitefully destroying all they have made after it has not properly appreciated their efforts, choosing to raze everything to start over again. Tellingly, the most painful moment of doing so is the destruction of the hills formed into the earth, “because [they] made them first.” In such devastation, something beloved is lost as collateral damage, as is often the case with those consumed by art to the degree it interferes with their own lives. Art, by nature, is made by synthesizing life, and the means by which it is manifested into physical form demands some kind of destruction of life. To make art is to devote some portion of your life that you can never return to. Even in Saroyan’s case, where the time spent making the art was miniscule, writing out “lighght” used up paper made from a natural entity that allows our lives to exist. This isn’t to condemn the making of art, as such methods of synthesis and meaning-making are vital to our continual understanding and enrichment of human life. But I bring this up to explicate how there is an inherent energy and matter exchange that one must take part in to make art.
It can be easy to get bogged down in the existential despair of devoting this amount of time and resources into making art, into fearing that you are putting your efforts into something that could be more practical or make more of a lasting impact on the longevity of the world. That tethered dilemma makes for the sort of internal agonizing that “the earth would dry of song if I sang you one,” as Ishibashi puts it on “Carry On Phenomenon.” But, without that sacrifice of time and resources, there cannot be a means by which a phenomenon can carry on, no way for any piece of art to endure throughout time given the materials needed to ensure art’s maintenance and reproduction.
Yet, there lies in the interplay of life and art a commentary about what art reveals about the people who make it. In Saroyan’s case, he learned to emphasize the visual elements of his poetry through photographers Richard Avedon and Hiro’s mentorship during his education
, a fascination that he continued to pursue in his later work for the stage and in teleplays and documentaries.
Similarly, a possible throughline of Lighght
as an album is reading each song as a separate narrative charting reincarnated figures of the romantic partners in creation from “Bittersweet Genesis,” who continually find new meaning in each other as they meet one another through human history time and time again. There's a recurring theme throughout the album of celebrating the intrinsic art in just living, of viewing the act of being and loving another on par with divinity or classical periods of artistic innovation. Traces of this thread emerge in a number of stray lyrical asides: the point-of-view character in “The Ballad of Mr. Steak” joking that fate mistook them and the title character for a “pair of star-crossed lovers”; the conceit of two lovers meeting, breaking up with one another, and then repeating the process in new evolutionary forms on “Hahaha”; the chorus of “Q&A” seems to hint at the song being a direct continuation of the narrative in “Bittersweet Genesis” with the line, “We were together in another life / In that dreaming, you probably were my wife.” To home in on that last song in particular, whereas “Bittersweet Genesis” finds wonderment in the crafting of all physical existence, “Q&A” — its direct follow-up on the album — aims for the polar opposite, appreciating the simple beauty in the relationship between its two characters more than their celestial origins. For a majority of Lighght
, improbable or predestined love and connection is the main lyrical focus, envisioning romantic partners connecting across space and time (and, in “Hahaha,” even species). This perpetual recursion posits that humanity, as is art, is fated to link each life to another somewhere further in time. Just as no piece of art exists in a void, no single life exists without relation or impact to another.
But there’s something about the phrasing of those lines from “Q&A” about the “dreaming” of a previous life that hint at something larger Ishibashi is saying about life’s relationship to art, and vice-versa. Dreams, by nature, are a form of projection, of one’s subconscious imparting the deepest psychological elements of oneself onto others and the world surrounding them. Ishibashi’s use of dreams to imagine an idealized soulmate falls into the same realm as Carl Jung’s description of the psychology of interpersonal projection. In Jung’s words, “It frequently happens that the object offers a hook to the projection, and even lures it out. This is generally the case when the object [themself] is not conscious of the quality in question: in that way it works directly upon the unconscious of the projicient.”
+is+not+conscious+of+the+quality+in+question:+in+that+way+it+works+directly+upon+the+unconscious+of+the+projicient.%E2%80%9D&source=bl&ots=z4ZD_Ruq1u&sig=ACfU3U3od1TqUFwV7gErSIlpGpQMKFXYuw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj198SEmobsAhUDd98KHaOoCTAQ6AEwAnoECAEQAQ#v=onepage&q=%E2%80%9CIt%20frequently%20happens%20that%20the%20object%20offers%20a%20hook%20to%20the%20projection%2C%20and%20even%20lures%20it%20out.%20This%20is%20generally%20the%20case%20when%20the%20object%20himself%20(or%20herself)%20is%20not%20conscious%20of%20the%20quality%20in%20question%3A%20in%20that%20way%20it%20works%20directly%20upon%20the%20unconscious%20of%20the%20projicient.%E2%80%9D&f=false) Under this lens, the point-of-view character in “Q&A” is projecting onto the other party the ideal qualities they see in her, the qualities that they believe make her a lover transcending space and time. The act of projection itself carries with it its own connotations, as Jung had also stated that “the general psychological reason for projection is always an activated unconscious that seeks expression.”
“Expression,” as you can imagine, is the operative word in that quote when tying it to art. The personhood behind any piece of art is worth consideration, as subjectivity is present in each aspect of a person’s choice to make something and how they choose to present that art. Therefore, it stands to reason that art is a projection of the person behind it. Where Kishi Bashi complicates this notion is in taking that same logic and applying it to personhood itself, or — at least — how we present ourselves as people to others. Ishibashi frames all the interpersonal narratives on Lighght
as ones where the viewpoints he sings from express what they want to mean or represent to another. “Once Upon a Lucid Dream (In Afrikaans)” is loaded with declarative statements in this vein (“I want to know how it tastes when you throw it at the moon / I want my heart to be cold as ice”). All so the point-of-view character can embody what they imagine the object of the song is looking for, to atone for the fact that the protagonist of the song feels like their life is “a mess of a parody,” a failure of projection, as it were. What these metaphoric lyrics are masking are the bluntest expressions of want in the song: “I need to know this love is real” and “I really want to know, was it a dream?” In the context of this song, the protagonist wishes to make their subconscious projections of love into a conscious reality, in the same way artists want to bring their envisionments of their work to fruition. This analogue for self-expression emerges similarly in the first line of album closer “In Fantasia,” where Ishibashi’s character notes that “the mirrors lie to us, they plant a seed” of who these people should believe themselves to be. What goes unspoken is that this line implies a rebuking of what mirrors represent — how these people are perceived by others visually — for a sense of self that aligns truer with these characters’ internal understanding of themselves. Once again, the act of self-projection is the main source for the characters on Lighght
But reading into Ishibashi’s adoption of the title of Saroyan’s poem cannot simply be kept to lyrical analysis; in trying to draw a direct line between “lighght” and Lighght
, there comes a question of making sense of the differences in modality. After all, a bright, complex baroque pop album isn’t really within the same artistic space as an intentionally minimalist experimental poem, now, is it? As much as Lighght
embodies how Saroyan’s poem emphasizes the ambiguous ethos of that singular word, it doesn’t seem to resemble Saroyan’s approach toward evoking that quality from a first glimpse. Though the two don’t overlap in style or genre or medium, where they do share similarities is in how both possess the same characteristics as an entirely different movement of art: neoclassicism. Drawing the connection between neoclassicism and Kishi Bashi’s music is relatively easy enough. Neoclassicism refers to art “produced later” than the classical periods of Greek and Roman art, “but inspired by antiquity” nevertheless
; likewise, Kishi Bashi’s style takes direct inspiration from classical music’s instrumentation and sound, blending it with a postmodernist sensibility toward pop song structures and indietronica production techniques. On songs like “Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It!,” his compositions of violin parts often act as texturing for the pop-leaning guitar and bass sections of the songs, even taking the place of the guitar as the featured solo instrument following the song’s bridge. The quick violin plucks that form the melodic foundation on “Once Upon A Lucid Dream (In Afrikaans)” are more reminiscent of fast guitar strums than orchestral arrangements. Both “The Ballad of Mr. Steak” and “Carry On Phenomenon” primarily feature booming electronica arrangements, with the violin acting as the instrument adding an emphatic flourish to the mix. As if that weren’t enough, Ishibashi directly spells out his borrowing of neoclassical approach at the beginning of “Carry On Phenomenon,” with the lines, “What a beautiful life away / Naked from all the Apollonians / For their radiance shines on and on / And on and on and on....” This opening quartet works on two levels related to neoclassicism: firstly, it references by name a philosophical dichotomy proposed by Frederich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, a concept inspired by the “antiquity” of the opposing characteristics of Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus
, the former representing logic and the latter representing emotion; secondly, it establishes the key subject of the song — an active encouraging of the ways in which art and history endure throughout time, which allows for the “antiquity” that inspires neoclassicism to linger.
Tying neoclassicism to Saroyan, however, is trickier and might prove to be somewhat of a contentious claim. Saroyan takes inspiration from prior art for his poetry, but from other forms of media rooted in the visual rather than any classical ideal of poetic form. Saroyan’s muses in poetry, like Louis Zukovsky and Robert Creeley, worked within the same contemporary minimalism
, meaning he wasn’t drawing from any classical period of his chosen medium as Kishi Bashi does with music. If we are to put strictly classical poetic forms in relation to Saroyan, the only thing we can say about his relation to it is that he skewed from it perhaps as much as possible while still creating poetry. But by looking deeper into the core features of “harmony, clarity, [and] restraint” emphasized in neoclassicism, we can recognize these as traits that Saroyan’s “lighght” possesses in its expressive brevity and simplicity. The former two elements, especially, are ones that Kishi Bashi’s music holds as well in its synthesis of classical and pop. Ishibashi prioritizes the harmony and clarity of his melodies even when his loops or violin parts grow multifarious and complex.
But, to return to the object of comparison that I am projecting onto this reading of Lighght
, there comes into question the most literal connection between Ishibashi’s album and “lighght”: that of the subject both pieces are titled after. As mentioned above, “Bittersweet Genesis” is the song on Lighght
that most directly links its concept to light’s many manifestations, but it’s far from the only song on the album to deal with light imagistically. On its basest imagistic level, Ishibashi always keeps the titular element of the album at play. On “Q&A,” the images Ishibashi continually returns to surrounding the song’s narrative are, tellingly, ones of light: “candles against the sun” and a post-chorus refrain in Japanese where the two characters compare themselves to fireflies. “Sunlight” and “radiance” appear multiple times on “Once Upon A Lucid Dream (In Afrikaans),” to the point that the song culminates in its protagonist staring at sunlight so long that they blind themselves to try to make their love feel real. Fittingly, that devastating quality of light on “Lucid Dream” emerges toward the end of an album-length escalation of light’s power and effect, a gradual unveiling of the unfathomable brilliance light can yield. This is ultimately not too dissimilar from Saroyan’s poem, which “otherstream” poetry critic Bob Grumman notes uses its idiosyncratic depiction of light to depict "intimations of his single syllable of light's expanding, silently and weightlessly, 'gh' by 'gh', into...Final Illumination."
The genre and style of the album, even beyond both Ishibashi and Saroyan’s incorporation of a neoclassical sense of reinvention, seems intentionally composed to evoke the hyper-emphatic qualities of light that Grumman mentions of Saroyan’s poem. The violin solos on tracks like “Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It!” and “The Ballad of Mr. Steak” glide across their compositions with ethereal levity, holding a lightness in weight and tone. The tracks that perhaps most accurately transpose the visual qualities of seeing the poem “lighght” are the two “Impromptu” interlude tracks, each of which only provide the listener with that single word and the accompanying stray violin loops to elicit a brief yet lucid sonic palette for the listener to take in. These short musical snippets reflect Ishibashi’s explanation for adopting “lighght” as the title of his album: “The whole idea of playing with words and invoking larger emotions through just small changes is something that kind of resonated [with] me
.” Like “lighght,” these “Impromptu” pieces say as much as they can in as little space possible, accomplishing the same concise yet potent effect while trading in Saroyan’s stark minimalism for a luminously bold maximalism. All the while, these interludes encompass the breathlessly dazzling qualities of light more succinctly than any other passage on the album, all harrying flurries of overlapping violin loops without any of the ebbs and flows of the more structured songs surrounding them.
But any discussion of light and its place in our world cannot be made without an acknowledgement of darkness, that which stands as its natural contrast and balancing force. Ishibashi knows this, and thus ends the album with an intentional final contrast to all the light that preceded it. The album's very last line on closer "In Fantasia," itself the most somber track on the record, is the most overt mention of darkness: "In Fantasia, the air is dense to me, it hurts to scream / At windless castles in the darkness, too faint to see…" In the span of two lines, Kishi Bashi sets a multifaceted portrait of the many forms this opposing element can take — darkness in place of light, dense air where previous songs captured a light breeziness, sight marred by an absence of light rather than being blinded by it. The incomplete trailing off of these lines is just as telling as what is said before they stop; this darkness exists in an inconclusive perpetuity, as light does as well. Light is everlasting but not ever-present, its existence implying the darkness that waits in its shadow. Just as there cannot be minimalism without maximalism, or there cannot be the Apollonian without the Dionysian, there cannot be light without darkness. And so, therein lies a question: is "lighght" an embellishment to combat the darkness? Saroyan never explicitly says, nor does Kishi Bashi. But something about the word "lighght" feels a little stronger than "light" alone can muster.
I stand at a curious crossroads as I near the conclusion of this piece. Because, as strange as it sounds, writing everything above wasn't my initial idea for how to most faithfully capture the effect of Kishi Bashi's titling scheme. Early in my writing process, a part of me debated, if only for a brief second, making my piece on Lighght
an exact simulacra of the Aram Saroyan poem the album takes its name from. Just writing “lighght,” claiming it would be doing the most justice the album could possibly get, and walking away. I know it feels antithetical to propose that one could chuck all the previous paragraphs of writing out the window but, just for a moment, I want to entertain this hypothetical scenario. Let’s say that I were to just write the album title, just let that neologism linger as Saroyan did. In choosing that approach, I’d consider the visual effect of the term, how that internal repetition evokes a sort of emphasized lightness, bringing out the airiest and most delicate part of the word “light” to extend its floaty weightlessness. “Light” feels like a sigh; “lighght” feels like gliding. And then there’s the sound of the album itself: the same kind of exuberant grace and deft complication that uses minute tweaks to perfect its artistic roots. Even at the record’s more melancholic turns, there are slits of light spilling through, a kind of light stronger and more persistent than the word “light” insinuates. The lightness of Kishi Bashi’s music is not a negation of the darkness, not an ignorance of darkness’ existence, but a rebuffing of light to combat it. Light itself may not be strong enough to overtake the darkness, but lighght stands more of a chance.
In effect, that’s the only proper way to completely, succinctly describe what the album sounds like, what effect it creates. I can write endlessly about this album, and its progression of what Saroyan’s work and neoclassicism represent. But does that really get the point across any clearer than the word Kishi Bashi and Aram Saroyan used as a descriptor? After all, this isn’t a particularly heady album; even with lyrics dense with interconnected historical, mythological, and theological references, it’s often a purely ecstatic and jubilant listen whose indie pop influences make it infinitely compelling. At the end of the day, there’s really only one word I need to do justice to what this album is. Lighght
is buoyant, it’s elegant, it’s tremendously moving. But most of all, it’s
lighght Favorite Lyrics
Picture our wedding, it'd be summer sour and summer sweet
We'd paint the ceiling red, we'd go to the Greek and straight to the street
Concerned but never bleak, we'd find the day about you and me
And with our eyes we shall see
Between you and me
Who's crazier for the other one?
- "Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It!"
We blasted through the hills!
They were the first to go, and the most painful so
Because we made them first when we learned to bleed
With our fingers on the seeds that sowed in the dirt
And then cried when we came in the glorious masterwork of life ending
And beginning again
- "Bittersweet Genesis for Him AND Her"
Darkened bridges sink away into the brackishness
Swirling sin into a rainbow of atrophy
When the winters help the golden autumns take it's leave
Spawning passages for vampires
To suck and feed
When we were Manta Rays floating as carelessly
With every wave we felt what we were dreamed to say
And in our fantasy we'd sting each other see?
And try to sweep the leg but we have none hahaha Talking Points
- What do you take this album’s title to mean in relation to the music? Do you see it as tied to Saroyan’s invention of the word? Or do you see it as purely a descriptor of Kishi Bashi’s music?
- What do you think might be other inspirations for Kishi Bashi’s music that I hadn’t brought up? What artistic movements or periods or schools of thought do you think he draws from most in his compositions?
- How has this album held up for you since its release in 2014?
- I didn’t have much space to tie it into this particular analysis, but isn’t “Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It!” just one of the most perfect pop songs of the 2010s? (God, just the escalation it comes at you with after the bridge… I love it.) If you have another favorite song on this album, what is it and why?
- Are you the answer to my question?
Thanks again to BornAgainZombie
for their excellent work! Tomorrow we'll have one up on Mitski's Bury Me at Makeout Creek
! As always, discuss the album in the comments below and we'll have the remaining schedule down there as well!