- An exceptional overview of '80s Japanese ambient and environmental music.
- What continues to fuel the love of gentle Japanese music from the 1980s? Word-of-mouth fascination percolated in the output of Midori Takada and Yasuaki Shimizu, spurring reissues and global tours from previously dormant artists. YouTube's sidebar is awash with unlikely algorithm-jamming uploads (Hiroshi Yoshimura's 1986 LP Green is sitting pretty on more than 1.4 million plays, thanks to user "Professor Swag"). Even arch indie rock referentialists Vampire Weekend sampled Haruomi Hosono on their new single. For music that doesn't overtly demand attention, it's done a remarkably strong job of sustaining it.
There has been no unified driver behind all this. Small waves lap ashore with irregular timing, each bringing a forgotten find of chill tunes worth hearing about. Spencer Doran's 2010 mix Fairlights, Mallets And Bamboo significantly broadened awareness of this era, and cut to the heart of its appeal. Its dreamy synthesiser washes, old-world percussion and air of mysticism feel timeless. It's fitting, then, that Doran, whose group Visible Cloaks update this Fourth Worldly float for the digital era, has parlayed his expertise into a new compilation for Light In The Attic. Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990 represents the most thorough attempt yet to place this wonderful music in its correct historical and social context.
Much of the material on Kankyō Ongaku seems to be fishing from a similar rock pool, and the links between assembled artists—who produced, engineered or added an extra shimmer of vibraphone to who—circle round like an ouroboros. This is no coincidence. Satoshi Ashikawa, who begins the compilation with "Still Space," was a founding figure. In the late 1970s, likeminded fans of twinkling, threadbare compositions made by John Cage and Philip Glass bonded in Ashikawa's record and book store Art Vivant, nestled on the 12th floor of a department store in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district—purportedly the first place in Japan one could acquire Brian Eno's Music For Airports.
From there, a movement sprung of musicians who wanted to further interrogate Japan's ongoing relationship between physical space, close listening and minimalism. They made pieces to reflect and assist daily life, wrapping tracing paper around the contours of the urban environment to produce a delicate sonic stencil. Even the premature death of Ashikawa, in 1983, just months after working with his idol Harold Budd, did not deter the pace of progression. This loose coalition of masters thesis holders, professional sound artists and prog musicians went on to become one of the great avant-garde sets, rivalled only by the New Yorkers they fondly cribbed notes from.
The use of "environmental" in the compilation's subheading is instructive. As well as Oberheim and Prophet-5 synthesisers and early computer interfaces, compositions here make use of volcanic stones (Toshi Tsuchitori's "Ishiura (Abridged)"), a custom-built delay effect run through a water tank (Inoyama Land's "Apple Star") and even "biofeedback" from brain waves (Takashi Toyoda's "Snow"). The music is strongly evocative of Japan's natural landscape. Hiroshi Yoshimura's "Blink," which daintily stretches and yawns into life, was created on the piano while Yoshimura stared out his window. The sighing tones of Yoichiro Yoshikawa's "Nube" cleanse like an onsen. By contrast, the primordial arpeggio stew of Joe Hisaishi's "Islander," as muggy as a day spent on the subtropical island of Yakushima, is a precursor to his later work composing evocative music for Studio Ghibli.
A lesser-known facet of the scene Kankyō Ongaku highlights is the link to big business. On the surface that seems odd. How could these none-more-zen sounds have come from corporate commissions? Records of this kind were marketed to the public as "lifestyle modification tools." Only Yasuaki Shimizu seems to gesture toward this curious alliance, and even then his stance is unclear. The cover for his album Music For Commercials could be read as sardonic commentary on commercialism encroaching into national art heritage. But his piquant miniature on this compilation, "Seiko 3," was made for a watch manufacturer.
Kankyō Ongaku ultimately makes these quibbles immaterial. Japan's bubble economy of the 1980s not only facilitated the profitable environment in which these artists thrived, but bound up musical innovation with pride in industry, respect for the natural world and the importance of inner harmony. The compilation's pristine sounds speak of a rare symbiosis that paid off handsomely. Haruomi Hosono's "Original BGM" is among the best examples. On paper, a slab of background music made for the fashion retailer Muji doesn't seem all that inviting. On record the truth is anything but. Hosono cycles between two crystalline synth phrases for a full 16 minutes, unhurriedly letting the notes fall across the stereo field like dewdrops. It is the kind of music you could imagine spending the rest of your life listening to.
01. Satoshi Ashikawa - Still Space
02. Yoshio Ojima - Glass Chattering
03. Hideki Matsutake - Nemureru Yoru (Karaoke Version)
04. Joe Hisaishi - Islander
05. Yoshiaki Ochi - Ear Dreamin'
06. Masashi Kitamura + Phonogenix - Variation III
07. Interior - Park
08. Yoichiro Yoshikawa - Nube
09. Yoshio Suzuki - Meet Me In The Sheep Meadow
10. Toshi Tsuchitori - Ishiura (Abridged)
11. Shiho Yabuki - Tomoshibi (Abridged)
12. Toshifumi Hinata - Chaconne
13. Yasuaki Shimizu - Seiko 3
14. Inoyama Land - Apple Star
15. Hiroshi Yoshimura - Blink
16. Fumio Miyashita - See The Light (Abridged)
17. Akira Ito - Praying For Mother / Earth Part 1
18. Jun Fukamachi - Breathing New Life
19. Takashi Toyoda - Snow
20. Yellow Magic Orchestra - Loom
21. Takashi Kokubo - A Dream Sails Out To Sea - Scene 3
22. Masahiro Sugaya - Umi No Sunatsubu
23. Haruomi Hosono - Original BGM
24. Ayuo Takahashi - Nagareru (LP Only)
25. Ryuichi Sakamoto - Dolphins (LP Only)