Thursday, April 18, 2019

"Kankyo Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990" and Light In The Attic's Japan Archive Series

One of the great unmined veins of popular music of the postwar era spans the Japanese underground of the 1960s and 70s, all the way up to the crest of the New Wave in the late 1980s. This year sees a series of compilations unearthing gems from these largely overlooked movements and scenes. First and foremost among them, Light In The Attic's Japan Archive series, inaugurated in late 2017 with their first volume, "Even A Tree Can Shed Tears: Japanese Folk & Rock 1969-1973". Exploring the late 60's and early 70s protest era through the music of such pioneers as Yellow Magic Orchestra's Haruomi Hosono, jazz songstress Maki Asakawa, ragged garage from Hachimitsu Pie and the influential pop-folk of Happy End. The New York Times feature, "The Hidden History of Japan's Folk-Rock Boom" details the musical players and ethos of this explosively political time in Japanese history. Following on the first edition, the second and third volumes arrive this spring and summer with a sublime assembly of Japanese "interior music" on, "Kankyo Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990", and later this summer, the rarefied City Pop sound is to be collected together on the "Pacific Breeze: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1975-1985".

In the excellent liner notes supplied by Visible Claoks' Spencer Doran for the edition, he rightly sites that ambient music in Japan started, much as it did elsewhere, with Erik Satie, Marcel Duchamp, Morton Feldman, John Cage and their 20th century contemporaries being taught in university courses attended by these then-young electronic pioneers. By bridging modernist and postmodern modes of composition with the then-concurrent forays into "musical furnishings" supplied by Brian Eno, their ideas about background, modes of attention, functionality, and the abstracting of authorship came to the fore. These were to then intersect with the timing of notable advances in technology. In the hands of this generation of electronic pioneers, hardware manufactured for the consumer market was to meet culture-specific notions of environment and sound. The arrival in the west of of this assembly of "Lullabies for Air Conditioners: The Corporate Bliss of Japanese Ambient", as Simon Reynolds points out, couldn't be more perfectly timed. Just in recent years, labels like Palto Flats, WRWTFWW, and Doran's own Empire of Signs have unearthed rare and much sought-after gems, "Telling the Musical History of Japan's Ambient Era". A trio of these recordings have garnering a degree of attention rarely seen for such works of quietly eccentric minimalism. Yasuaki Shimizu's masterful electroacoustic pop heard on "Kakashi", the refined sublimity of Hiroshi Yoshimura's "Music for Nine Post Cards", and the incomparable micro-percussive soundworld of Midori Takada's "Through the Looking Glass", have finally made their way to western ears. The particularly long and circuitous course Takada's music has taken is explored by The Guardian in their, "Ambient Pioneer Midori Takada: 'Everything on this Earth Has a Sound'".

Almost as a companion to the Japan Archive edition, the UK Culture of Soul label have issued their own overview of City Pop and J-Boogie. As a second showcase of a sound that expressed the optimism and exuberance of Japan's 1980s economic boomtimes, "Tokyo Nights: Female J-Pop & Boogie Funk" is focused more explicitly on the women-led bands and female solo artists within these concurrent genres. Both compilations present a music which took in influences from Caribbean reggae and disco, Pacific Island exotica, American R&B and boogie, and a fixation on technological futurism. Look no further than Hosono, Shigeru Suzuki & Tatsuro Yamashita's album Pacific, for evidence of the riches to come of this techno-exotica fusion. Having established themselves in electronic solo and group efforts of the decade before, producers like Tatsuro Yamashita, Toshiki Kadomatsu, Hiroshi Sato, the hugely influential Haruomi Hosono (who is himself going through a reissue revival in the west), were quick to embrace the latest studio equipment and technology. Their roles on both of these collections are as producers and engineers on a staggering multitude of albums. More than just working behind the scenes, these producers generated the thematic character and mode of much of this decade's sound. It is a sound to a time of economic success in Japan; urban lifestyles of indulgence, and the taste for nightlife, produced glitzy discotheques and a soundtrack to this new, lavish era. Epitomizing these attitudes, City Pop emerged as a sonic expression of the imagined neon wonderlands dotted with sandy beaches and metropolitan skylines.