wed 28/09/2022

Reissue CDs Weekly: Kankyō Ongaku | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Kankyō Ongaku

Reissue CDs Weekly: Kankyō Ongaku

Delightful and illuminating dive into Japanese ambient, environmental and new age music

Haruomi Hosono on stage with Yellow Magic Orchestra in New York, 1979Mike Nogami/Light In The Attic

Of the 20-plus names gathered on the superbly packaged Kankyō Ongaku, it’s likely that only Yellow Magic Orchestra and their members Haruomi Hosono and Ryuichi Sakamoto are familiar to most non-Japanese listeners.

Initially, it seems a big ask to hope buyers will fork out for compilation tracking potentially uncharted musical territory but the full title stresses that what’s heard isn’t so perplexing.

Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980–1990 collects exactly what it says. “Kankyō ongaku” translates as environmental music. Nothing here is unapproachable. According to the accompanying book's introductory essay, kankyō ongaku was first used in the Sixties and then encompassed sounds like chimes incorporated into architectural features.

Kankyō OngakuAs a distinct musical category, kankyō ongaku gained traction after Eno’s Music For Airports album reached Japan in 1977. Around the same time, a 1975 exhibition featuring the music of Erik Satie began fomenting what the essay calls a “Satie craze.” Musicians picked up on the both angles, especially Yellow Magic Orchestra’s veteran sonic maverick Haruomi Hosono. Kankyō Ongaku amply demonstrates that Hosono was not alone. He was also not operating in a geographic vacuum as acknowledged in 1983 when the Davids Bowie and Sylvian collaborated – separately – with Ryuichi Sakamoto, another Yellow Magic Orchestra member.

Kankyō Ongaku is sequenced for listening flow rather than in chronological order of each track’s original appearance, so determining whether a musical evolution took place within the loosely defined remit isn’t immediately possible. However, the date range covered spans the period when digital instruments and recording supplemented and supplanted analogue equipment. Cutting-edge gear produced by Japanese companies like Roland and Yamaha was more quickly available to local musicians than those in other countries and the use of tresh tools inevitably changes the music. However, the potential effects of these factors are not addressed in the track-by-track commentary.

Date-wise, just under half the tracks – 25 on triple vinyl, 23 on double CD – are from 1983 to 1986. The 1990 end of the chosen time-line is represented just once, as is 1989. For anyone not conversant with this field, it is impossible to determine whether such a weighting reflects a surge in recordings of this type during the early to mid-Eighties or if it is a result of the compiler’s taste.

Kankyō Ongaku_Yoshiaki Ochi_Natural SonicImponderables aside, Kankyō Ongaku is a delightful and illuminating collection. Every track is great. Until now, barely any of this has been released outside Japan and an overview was lacking. Joe Hisaishi’s “Islander” (1982) sets off a Terry Riley synth pulse against keyboard wash and spare arpeggios. Pattering percussion suggests a Japanese origin. Percussion figures strongly overall. Indeed, Yoshiaki Ochi, whose compelling “Ear Dreamin’” (recorded in 1990 for the Natural Sonic album, although it was first performed in 1983) appears, is a percussionist whose work includes sound design for spaces within corporate buildings.

It is striking how much of this music seamlessly merges environmental sounds (birds, dripping, water lapping) with traditional percussion (including fingers clicking) and electronic instruments. It is a terrifically seductive slant on new age music.

Haruomi Hosono’s “Original BGM” (1984) is yet another treasure. It was recorded to be heard in Muji stores. “BGM” is a contraction of “background music.” Yoshio Ojima, who began making similarly minded music in the Eighties and is also included, is quoted in the booklet remarking that when he heard “Original BGM” in one of the shops he realised that the “kankyō ongaku boom had finally arrived.”

For those not lucky enough to have been there back then, the essential Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980–1990 will be where their own kankyō ongaku boom begins.

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