The Light in the Attic compilation Kankyō Ongaku, an enticing sampler of environmental, ambient and new age music from the ‘80s, opened up a rich new world of Japanese music for Western ears. While Haruomi Hosono’s breezy extended piece “Original BGM,” intended for use as shopping mall background music, closed that set, it was a more somber, minimalist track by Satoshi Ashikawa that opened it. WRWTFWW Records, who reissued Midori Takada’s 1983 ambient landmark Through the Looking Glass and music by other likeminded Japanese artists, has done the same for Ashikawa’s 1982 album Still Way (Wave Notation 2), and it’s a must for fans of Light in the Attic’s essential anthology.
By its very nature, the album seems to resist superlatives; modest in its ambitions, this is music meant for the background. The composer said as much, explaining that his work is “intended to be listened to in a casual manner, as a musical landscape or a sound object—not something that would stimulate listeners but music that should drift like smoke and become part of the environment.” Still Way, carefully orchestrated by Ashikawa, indeed works as a pleasant alternative to white noise. But it rewards an intense, meditative concentration—in fact, it sounds like an altogether different album when you pay attention, its beauty growing deeper the closer you listen.
The album is performed on acoustic instruments, the core group employing two vibraphonists, Midori Takada and Junko Arase, as well as pianist Tomoko Sono and harpist Yuko Utsumi, with Ashikawa’s wife Masami playing flute on a few crucial tracks. The opening fragment “Prelude” sets up the quartet’s delicate interplay. The simple melody is carried by harp and piano, while the vibes ring out a subtly chiming decay. “Landscape of Wheels,” performed entirely by Utsumi, plays out a similar tension for nearly 12 minutes. It begins with a minimalist melody that seems to echo traditional Japanese music, but as the hands play tenuously against each other, the figures overlap and repeat and become a kind of slow, gorgeous drone; when one hand drops to play what amounts to a brief bass line, the effect is startling.
The haunting “Still Park,” in both ensemble and solo piano versions that together add up to nearly 17 minutes, likewise builds on simple figures. The harp again begins the piece, with a gently rising figure recorded as if at a slight distance. Piano and vibes come in for subtle countermelodies; if the notes of a piano decay fairly quickly, those of the vibes linger, the sustained chimes resonating for far longer than it takes to strike a note. If you’re playing this while doing chores, it’s easy to just let the sound register as a pretty, unassuming soundtrack. But if you listen hard, you hear the tension, not anxious so much as aching, and the piano solo version, shedding the decay rates that add texture to the ensemble piece and relying solely on that minor key melody, is absolutely melancholy, too bittersweet to remain in the background.
Ashikawa is heavily indebted to Erik Satie and Brian Eno, but this is more than an homage. The piano line of “Still Park” has echoes of the “Gymnopédies,” and its repetition suggests a more tender “Vexations,” while Masami Ashikawa’s layered flutes on “Still Sky” echo Eno’s “Discreet Music.” But, at least compared to Eno’s ambient work, Ashikawa’s deceptively spare arrangements feel more complex both musically and emotionally. The austere modernism seems to burst open on “Image Under the Tree,” whose harp melody again resembles traditional music. But the impressionistic flute—sustained so it almost sounds like a synth—creates something that evokes both a streamlined technological future and an embrace of nature.
The Wave Notation series began with Hiroshi Yoshimura’s Music For Nine Postcards, a more synth-heavy, Vangelis-like affair. Still Way is, as its title suggests, a slow mover, but that minimal structure opens up enormous worlds.