The ambient jams of ‘Kankyo Ongaku’ will help you achieve full consciousness

An interview with the makers of a new compilation highlighting innovative New Age and avant-garde artists previously overlooked outside Japan.


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The ambient jams of ‘Kankyo Ongaku’ will help you achieve full consciousness

An interview with the makers of a new compilation highlighting innovative New Age and avant-garde artists previously overlooked outside Japan.

Brian Eno is the artist most associated with ambient music, after essentially pioneering the genre with his 1978 record Ambient 1: Music for Airports. The cover of Ambient 1 is a roughly drawn map — a dull beige and green landscape is cut through by thin blue lines symbolizing rivers and small lakes — that is, most importantly, indicative of how it sounds. Eno’s ambient music typically references an environmental landscape, and Ambient 1 sounded like something one would listen to while taking a leisurely walk through a verdant woodland.

In the 1980s, a burgeoning crop of Japanese musicians followed Eno’s lead, and made ambient music rooted in their own surroundings. Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990, a newly issued collection by Light in the Attic that compiles recordings made between 1980-1990, sounds like a direct reaction to Japan’s urban environment. At the time, Japan was living through a bubble economy, a period of great economic wealth where many artists found substantial economic resources and backing for their projects. Some artists composed music for corporate advertisements and retail stores; some stuck to the avant-garde; others dabbled in both; all sought to create a space within the thriving capitalist system to reflect and create.

As Spencer Doran, the curator of the compilation, writes in the collection’s liner notes, these albums were marketed as “a respite from stresses of the business world and city life.” In 1991, the bubble popped, and the following ten years became known in Japan as the “Lost Decade.” The economy declined and resources for experimental music fluttered, making this collection of music from the 1980s especially unique.

The collection includes names that dedicated ambient fans will find familiar, like Ryuichi Sakamoto and Hiroshi Yoshimura, as well as artists who until now have been virtually unheard of in the West. While context is essential, understated variations on this record exemplify the capability of ambient music to evoke different emotions: soothing, erratic, contemplative. The playful melodies of “Apple Star,” by the duo Inoyama Land, are spacey and psychedelic, with an underlying pastoral tone the duo inherited from krautrock. By contrast, Takashi Toyoda’s “Snow,” which appeared on his album Big Bang, transposes “biofeedback” from brainwaves into music, according to the liner notes. There’s solace to be found in its New Age repetition and subtle undercurrent of violin, while the slight variances foster a heightened awareness.

Along similar lines, Haruomi Hosono, who originally signed Inoyama Land to his Yen label in 1983, wrote “Original BGM,” which was initially commissioned by the retailer Muji to be played in its stores. The song’s long soft tones wash over the audience, and are slowly complimented by subtle iterations with a build up to higher-pitched notes before gliding down to an even plane of deep bass tones; I’m sure its sixteen minutes sounded great during the Muji shopping experience. Meanwhile, Toshifumi Hinata’s “Chaconne” sounds like the score for a drama or true crime thriller. The recurring notes create a space for action and suspense, jarring the audience into keen yet unsettling sense of what’s going on. Takashi Kokubo's “A Dream Sails Out To Sea - Scene 3” originally appeared on his 1987 album Get At The Wave: I'd like to live in that atmosphere, which had been commissioned by the electronics corporation Sanyo to promote its new high-end line of air-conditioners; the song's wave-like textures, nautical beeps, and wind chimes are the result of actual beach recordings. The diversity of sound within this niche group is stark, but these artists’ early innovations constitute a treasure trove for anyone trying to learn about a compelling period of music history, or even those just looking for something pleasant to listen to at work

The Outline spoke to Doran, founder of the Empire of Signs record label, which released Yoshimura’s Music for Nine Postcards last year, and curator of the Kankyo Ongaku compilation about the process and background behind the new collection. We also spoke with Inoyama Land’s Makoto Inoue and Yasushi Yamashita about their influences, environmental cues, and their thoughts on their long-awaited wide recognition.

Where did the title of the album Kankyo Ongaku originate from?

Spencer Doran: Kankyo ongaku was the way that the term “ambient music” was originally translated. The term has this complex history and before that it was used in reference to muzak [music played in retail stores] and corporate-tuned spatial design for buildings. All these musicians that were part of the kankyo ongaku scene like Satoshi Ashikawa and Hiroshi Yoshimura adopted the term and shifted it to be something that was not just ambient music but also a way that they thought about sound existing in space — that the environment you are listening to music within is something that’s inseparable from the music itself.

It’s a John Cage influenced idea of music not existing as this thing that’s detached from reality or that you’re experiencing in an ultimate way; instead, it’s a part of reality and a part of life. It’s this thing that exists in the environment of whatever space you’re experiencing it in. As ambient music became more popular in the ‘90s through its association with the club music scene — the same kind of way it became part of public consciousness in the UK and the US — then they started using the actual term ambient music. The term kankyo ongaku fell out of use, and is more used in terms of field recordings and things like that.

There are some tracks on the record that include field recordings, right?

SD: Yeah: Akira Ito’s “Praying for Mother Earth” and the Masashi Kitamura + Phonogenix track “Variation - III.” That’s something that is pretty common in a lot of music of this era in Japan. [The artists were] living in a hyper-capitalist urban environment where Japanese culture became dislodged from its usual relationship with nature and the natural world. So you can see that as a way that people can reconnect with these traditional Japanese values and things that have been lost in the urbanization of Japanese culture.

I see some of this music as contradictory to the values of a capitalist culture, but a lot of the music was developed strictly for ventures like advertisements and Muji, right?

SD: I don’t think there’s any sort of cognitive dissonance between the music and semi-capitalist notions that it comes out of because it’s more about finding ways within the realities of everyday life in a capitalist system to design your own sort of experience and your own peace of mind — taking the fact that you’re in the system at face value and then finding a way to make spaces for art or experience within that.

Do you think that this record will increase the popularity of some of these artists in America, a place where they have unfortunately been overlooked?

SD: I hope so. Part of the intent of this compilation is to have this music become part of the canon of ambient music. This music has been, I think, really tragically left out of this canon until recently. There was this big Pitchfork “50 Greatest Ambient Records of All Time” and there’s not a single Japanese artist included. That was very much a sign.

This music is getting popular through the internet and this is just a tool to establish these people as the iconic figures that I think they are. I always say that if [Hiroshi] Yoshimura had the distribution of his music in the West that people like Eno or someone had that he would be on equal footing of people who are the architects of ambient music.

Inoyama Land

How does it feel to be part of the Kankyo Ongaku collection?

Makoto Inoue: Each of the songs on the collection were created for different purposes, and have been consumed by listeners with differing tastes. When those songs are placed alongside each other, I noticed musical similarities and peculiarities that were not apparent before. The fact that my own work is included allowed me to re-examine my own standing at the time.

Yasushi Yamashita: I feel delighted to be able to sit along the edges of this album.

Is it strange being recognized for a song you recorded 36 years ago?

MI: It may sound strange, but I feel that works created 36 years ago and works created just yesterday both exist equidistantly from my current state of consciousness. Sometimes a song that’s been thrown into an unorganized drawer gets taken out by someone somewhere and gets pleasure out of it. That makes me happy.

YY: Rather than it being strange, it’s a bit of a mystery. But on the other hand I do feel that we’re finally being recognized.

What first made you interested in making music together?

MI: It started when a member from a fringe theater company in London came to Tokyo for a new performance called “Collecting Net.” We were put in charge of creating the music for this, and from then on we started doing improvised performances together.

Who are some of your influences?

MI: At the start there was a lot of involvement from Koichi Makigami (Hikashu). We enjoyed improv performances with tabla player Kenji Sakasegawa. The one who understood and supported Inoyama Land’s music was Kōji Ueno (songwriter, ex-Guernica).

YY: Cluster, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream. Taj Mahal Travellers from Japan, Gamelan music from Indonesia, and Indian music were also influences. Jazz, classical, contemporary classical, film soundtracks, easy listening — every type of instrumental music had some kind of influence.

Did you feel like Inoyama Land were part of a larger movement in the 1983 when you initially recorded “Apple Star”?

MI: At the time, I didn’t have much proper knowledge of music production. Almost by accident, I realized that I could create new, vibrant sounds with the synthesizer by using my own voltage control system (i.e. VCO, VCF). Recording those sounds was like a painter sketching a fragment of his imagination, and I never thought that others would even care about it. I didn’t think that we were part of any movement.

YY: I didn’t think that we were part of a larger movement, but it did feel that we were sitting in the fringes of something that was moving.

Inoyama Land

Inoyama Land

How do you think the booming economy in ’80s Japan influenced your music?

MI: The bubble economy transformed the landscape of both cities and nature, and it greatly changed the way the eyes saw the colors and forms of daily life. I think that had a big impact on my musical imagination. Expo pavilions, theme parks, museums, and national stadiums were being built throughout Japan starting in the late ’80s, and I think the circumstances that led to Inoyama Land creating environmental music for those facilities were also affected by [the bubble economy].

YY: We started getting commissions for music for public facilities, and we started creating music with a different stance. But it didn’t change the essence of Inoyama Land. If anything the various commissions opened up a new door for us and became a great source of stimulation.

Do you think your work will continue to be recognized by a larger Western audience?

MI: I’ve been thinking that I’d like to stay conscious of the fact that I am Japanese. It’s my belief that if the impressions I take in from my local surroundings are reflected in my works, the presentation of that local environment itself will result in a global connectedness.

YY: I’m not sure, but I’m very curious about how we’ll be recognized from now on.

Are you all still making music? If so, what are you working on now?

MI: Currently we are interested in communicating to our next generation, and the generation after that, the value of the music that we like. For that reason, we’re thinking that the music we currently make must be true to our own musical tastes, even more so than it has been in the past. The ideas that constitute that music, whether they are from yesterday or from 36 years ago, are connected in the same manner, are transformed in the same manner, and will continue to express themselves in new ways.

YY: Of course we are still making music. We are still playing live as well. Nothing has changed since 41 years ago when Inoyama Land was formed.