Does your music spark joy? Marie Kondo’s suggestions on tidying up your life come from a Zen Buddhist embrace of simplicity, one that finds a gorgeous aural equivalent in the two hours’ worth of minimalist compositions on Kankyo Ongaku. Inspired as much by French composer Erik Satie as Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, Light in the Attic’s superb anthology brings together an unlikely variety of Japanese musicians all following a shared path of what translates as “environmental music.”
The music is in part a response to the same cultural moment that gave rise to the city pop of Minako Yoshida and Taeko Onuki: A period in ‘80s Japan marked by a certain excess. As compiler-annotator Spencer Doran writes, it was, “a time when economic prosperity and corporate excess helped to carve out unlikely musical spaces for serenity and reflection amidst the chaos of city life.” Some of this music was made by artists following their own bliss, but other tracks were made for TV, or to sell air conditioners and use as department store muzak. Yet whether the sounds were meant for purely commercial use or for art, each track falls within a unifying vision that’s rare in an anthology.
Hideki Matsutake’s “Nemureru Yoru” comes from a cassette release meant as a sleep aid, which featured a voice counting sheep (hence the instrumental included is the “karaoke version”). The pulsing beat includes sounds that evoke a passing subway train, a level of white ambient noise suitable for a busy city trying to lull its residents to slumber. “Environmental music” gave musicians such as Yasuaki Shimizu, prone to hectic genre-jumping on his album Kakashi, a chance to go sweeter, as on the brief piece of music “Seiko 3” composed for a watch commercial. On the other hand, Joe Hisaishi, best known for his sentimental film scores for Hayao Miyazaki, was more of a Terry Riley minimalist early in his career, as can be heard on the pulsing “Islander.”
Fans of Light in the Attic’s I Am the Center may be looking for more of that private press new age sound, but where that concept lent itself more readily to noodling, Kankyo Ongaku is streamlined (and sometimes, literally streaming, the sounds of water adding ambient texture), its soundscapes built out of short, repeated figures or textures painted by synth washes and natural sounds, as on Akira Ito’s “Praying for Mother / Earth Part 1.”
One of the few tracks on Kankyo Ungaku that isn’t completely relaxing is from its best-known artist. Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Loom” is the band’s only track co-written by unofficial fourth member Hideki Matsutake, who provided the sleep aid heard on this comp. Reworked from Matsutake’s own “The Infinite Space Octave,” it featured an audio illusion that produces a sound that seems to ascend or descend at an alarming rate, but the initial tension is soon broken for more subdued textures that lead effortlessly into Takashi Kokubo’s “A Dream Sails Out to Sea – Scene 3,” part of an tropically-themed album released to sell air conditioners. That’s the strange joy of capitalism, that art can emerge from the most money-hungry aspirations as well as from the most pure aesthetic intentions.
Kankyo Ongaku opens and closes on gentle melodies that evoke the piano line on Music for Airports—and they were both commissioned for retail stores. Satoshi Ashikawa’s “Still Space” was made for the record and book shop Art Vivant, which took up the 12th floor of a department store and specialized in music by Eno and John Cage—whose embrace of Zen Buddhist principles brings us full circle.
Haruomi Hosono’s nearly 16-minute “Original BGM” closes the album with a piece commissioned by the Muji department store for its background music (you can hear a nearly three-hour set of this music on YouTube). It’s melody seems familiar, but Hosono takes Robert Wyatt’s tinkling, contemplative timbre and transforms that sentiment into lush synth washes that reverberate through your speakers, refusing to remain in the background and quietly insisting to send good vibration tingling through your bones. One imagines that, even if Muji didn’t sell a lot of merchandise thanks to such music, it left customers with a relaxing and addictive shopping experience. While it’s far from the restless, inventive work on his ‘70s and ‘80s solo albums—reissued in a successful LITA campaign last year—it’s more proof of this versatile yet impossibly coherent concept that unites musicians from a variety of musical walks to come together for a more perfect union of sound and environment.