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Make Brexit bearable...with Japanese ambient music

Make Brexit bearable...with Japanese ambient music

Tender and soothing, with a note of melancholy, it is an aural balm for these troubled times

Tender and soothing, with a note of melancholy, it is an aural balm for these troubled times

Tom Nuttall | April 18th 2019

With a heavy heart, I tuned into a Brexit debate on the BBC one recent evening. A mix of old Japanese ambient music I had stumbled across online was playing quietly in the background. Originally intending to switch it off, I changed my mind when I realised that its twinkling harmonies were rendering the experience wholly more bearable. When the audio momentarily dropped out, leaving Jacob Rees-Mogg to bleat on, a cappella, it was like having the shower suddenly turn cold.

I discovered this music one afternoon in Athens late last summer. Wandering the quiet side streets, a friend and I stumbled upon a small pop-up shop. As she pottered happily among the knick-knacks inside, I sank into a scuffed armchair conveniently located on the kerb. I ate a fig from a plate proffered by the eccentric proprietor, noted a passing cat, and allowed the soothing, iridescent music streaming from a speaker on a nearby stool to drastically slow down the world. It was perhaps the most peaceful five minutes of my year.

Brian Eno, an early progenitor, said ambient music should be as “ignorable as it is interesting”. Often beatless, usually synthesised, ambient aims not necessarily to command attention but rather to shape moods or sharpen surroundings. In its 1980s vintage the Japanese variety, often inspired by sounds taken from nature (forests, birds, the sea), can be intricate and austere, witty and effusive. But where European ambient has often dabbled in darkness, particularly in recent years, the default mood of its Japanese cousin is a tender, cryptic melancholy I find tremendously moving.

The addiction I have developed to this music has soundtracked my early months in Berlin, where I moved late last year for work. Germany’s hedonistic capital grinds to techno, of course, but – though I’m no stranger to the clubs – these days I’m more often found indulging the solitary pleasures my new discovery affords. Different producers attach to different moments: the cinematic creations of Inoyama Land or Takashi Kokubo (pictured above) confer a noirish sheen on late-night S-Bahn journeys; bathing in the warm gurgles of a Hiroshi Yoshimura album takes the edge off lonely evenings in my new home. Gazing up at the TV tower in Alexanderplatz, my ears filled with H. Takahashi’s shimmering psychedelia, I was finally able to see the functional beauty others had so often claimed for this icon of Berlin architecture. And, unlike almost any other type of music, I can write to this stuff.

There was a thrilling purity to these new finds. I knew nothing about these producers, their labels, their antecedents or successors; my listening was liberated from the dull weight of accumulated knowledge. So it was a trifle irritating to learn that I was late to the party. Japanese ambient, it turned out, has been the hipster aural balm of choice ever since 2010, when Spencer Doran, a musician from (of course) Portland, Oregon, made “Fairlight, Mallets and Bamboo”, a mix of music he had unearthed while gigging in Japan. More compilations and reissues followed, and as the music found a new audience, often via YouTube, long-forgotten Japanese composers were hauled out of retirement. Some even hit the road again.

Almost a decade on, Doran has compiled “Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990”, a triple-disc set issued by Lights in the Attic, a Seattle-based label. Appraising this music can be like weighing the merits of lighting units or air-freshener aromas; some tracks amount to little more than wind chimes or droplets of piano. But two stand out. “Blink”, taken from Yoshimura’s 1982 album “Music for Nine Post Cards”, layers a pair of simple electric-piano melodies atop thin synthesized chords, slowly fashioning a rich, sorrowful world from the sparsest of elements. (The whole album, written for a Tokyo contemporary art museum, is a delight.) 

The second highlight is “Original BGM”, by Haruomi Hosono (pictured top), a member of the successful electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra who took an ambient detour later in his career. This Eno-esque excursion consists of little more than two lugubrious synth patterns unfolding over 16 minutes, but rewards the patient listener with harmonic depth that delivers an inscrutable warmth. The piece was commissioned in 1983 by Muji, purveyors of utilitarian stationery and home goods, as in-store mood music to hasten the transfer of yen from the pockets of Japanese salarymen to the cash register; “BGM” stands for “background music”. (Many 1980s Japanese ambient producers were in thrall to the work of Erik Satie, the early 20th-century French composer whose “furniture music” was designed as background sound.) As Doran’s excellent liner notes explain, several tracks on “Kankyō Ongaku” owe their existence to the corporate largesse in which 1980s Japan was awash. One was used to flog watches, another accompanied sales of an air-conditioning unit.  

 

Despite its debts to Mammon, this music has a peculiarly other-worldly nature that can lend itself to baroque simile. One YouTube commenter says “Original BGM” puts him in mind of “going to a job interview, but being greeted by a man-sized frog in a suit. He speaks softly and kindly to you while smiling faintly. You talk about your dreams and aspirations over coffee at a local café while it rains outside.” Whatever state of mind this surreal scene conveys, it is not so distant from my mood during that sun-spangled afternoon in Athens.