I first heard the music of Susumu Yokota in the flat of my friends Luke and Caroline, sometime in the early 2000s. This was in their Sussex Gardens phase, in a loft apartment, with a view over the trees, that was, somehow, simultaneously sumptuous and sparse. Into this echoing, homely space Luke lanced a CD whose cover depicted a delicate watercolour of what looked like hummingbirds resting next to some lilies between bouts of frenzied feeding. Immediately the temperature in the sun-filled room seemed to grow warmer, the colours more intense, the mood more relaxed, in spite of the best efforts of my children who had started chasing each other around Caroline’s kitchen with the abandon of non-league footballers let loose on the wide open spaces of Wembley. The album was called Sakura and I knew that I was hooked.
In love might be a better description. I set about getting my hands on it as soon as possible, and the albums that quickly followed, the riddling, austere Grinning Cat (also released in 2000), and the even more challenging textures of The Boy and The Tree (2002). That I found myself disappointed by those subsequent albums should not have come as a surprise. What I had wanted was Sakura Parts 2 and 3. When you have heard perfection, you want more of it, not cut-up experiments in a new direction. No matter. While those later works have grown on me over time, nothing will budge me from my view that Sakura is the most beautiful album ever made.
Since that moment in Luke’s flat I have taken it everywhere. And there is nowhere that has not welcomed it. The coffee table moment after dinner with friends. Long solo journeys to remote schools in the Devon outback. Anything with a view of the sea. But it always seems to feel most at home back in the kitchen, perhaps with a pile of marking or a new poem on the table, a soup of something burbling in the background, with the prospect of coffee or a friend about to drop by. It is both dreamy and empty, rhythmic and still, hazy and fully technicolor.
My copy of the CD came with an insert advertising other works by Yokota from the Leaf and Skintone labels. One of them, Magic Thread, thematically a precursor to Sakura, is described thus: ‘Yokota demonstrates the knack of conveying tension through ambient, like wind rustling over abandoned urban landscapes, an intangible presence conveyed through seemingly empty musical spaces.’ Another, my personal favourite, on Image 1983-1998, a compilation, reads: ‘This is the sort of music you put on while you’re doing the washing up only to find it has taken control of your very soul.’ Never a truer word.
Luke and Caroline live and work in America now, and I see them once a century. Each time I put on this album I see their kitchen, their unfettered view of the back of Paddington; I hear my children screaming and giggling; I can smell the soup burbling, the coffee about to be poured. Everything, Luke’s laughter, Caroline’s amazing food, is vividly apparent to me. It is all gift, and light, and friendship.