Kankyō Ongaku (Various Artists) | Japanese Ambient, Environmental and New Age Music | Review
Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson
Ambient music’s origins lie in Erik Satie’s ‘furniture music’, which was designed to blend with atmospheric noise (the sound of cutlery during dining, for instance) rather than serving as the focus of attention. The term ‘ambient music’ itself was then first used by Brian Eno (whose pioneering albums include ‘Discreet Music’, ‘Ambient 1: Music for Airports’ and ‘Ambient 4: On Land’) in the 1970s. ‘Ambient’ has evolved over the subsequent years to become a byword for ‘atmospheric’, and the label often overlaps with modern classical, music concrète, jazz, post-rock, drone and even techno. There are often debates about whether or not rhythmic elements can exist in ambient music, but suffice it to say that the selections for this album appear to have been made on the basis of what sounds good, rather than overly rigid definitions.
Like Scottish whisky, ambient music is a phenomenon that has been greatly appreciated, explored and reverse-engineered in Japan. This compilation of Japanese ambient music recorded in the 1980s was assembled by Spencer Doran from Visible Cloaks. It features an elegant front cover and a title that means ‘environmental music’.
Many of these tracks call the natural world to mind, whether it’s in their titles (Takashi Toyoda’s ‘Snow’ and Interior’s ‘Park’) or in their sonic characteristics (Yellow Magic Orchestra’s ‘Loom’ features the sound of dripping water, and Akira Ito’s ‘Praying for Mother/ Earth Part 1’ prominently incorporates the sound of running water underneath its gentle wash of synths).
Joe Hisaishi’s ‘Islander’, meanwhile, is reminiscent of Terry Riley’s ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’, and closing track ‘Original BGM’ by Haruomi Hosono is a not-so distant cousin of the pieces on 1978’s Music for Airports. However, it’s natural that musicians working in this period would show the influence of such prominent figures, and while they share sonic characteristics, these are not slavish imitations and are worthwhile compositions in their own right.
One of the highlights is Hiroshi Yoshimura’s ‘Blink’: an extremely delicate piece played on electric piano with a barely audible synth accompaniment. In less than five minutes, it creates a very unique and beautiful atmosphere.
In an unusual move, Light in the Attic Records has limited the digital version of the album to just ten tracks, rather than the full set of 23. This frustratingly obliges the listener to invest in one of the expensive physical formats in order to hear the full compilation. However, the double CD and triple vinyl releases include an essay by Spencer Doran and extensive liner notes, so are bound to attract collectors.