A kind of tone poem about the move away from old folk traditions to the industrial age, not just in Japan, but around the globe.
Originally released in 1983 but sounding older, even timeless, Victor Cavini’s Japan was a German library music composer’s approximation of Far East moods, and something of a cross-cultural miracle. This commercial endeavor, akin to a cultural ventriloquist act, is fueled with fascinating prog and other sensibilities far beyond its obvious scope. While most library music albums play like collections of mood fragments, this one is a coherent album, its sequence evoking ancient wisdom and the slickness of the modern world.
Cavini was the pseudonym of production music veteran Gerhard Trede–you can hear some of his piano music in season two of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”—and what the versatile musician accomplishes is more than a mere impersonation. Trede, who died in 1996, was a musical omnivore, proficient in some 50 instruments from around the world. Made for the fabled German library house Selected Sound, the album’s 14 tracks are simply given Roman numerals to distinguish them, but Trede wildly varies his approach.
The opening track is a pleasantly conventional piece for koto and shakuhachi. There’s nothing in this overture that veers from the expectations set forth by the impressive Buddha on the album cover. But Trede quickly if subtly shifts on “II,” a one-minute piece whose dense string arrangement is the first of several tracks here that recalls German prog-rockers Popul Vuh, whose dense electric-acoustic music often tapped Asian modes. So Japan builds a quiet tension early on between unassuming background music and something more slyly effective.
The music strays further off course. While the woodwinds and electronics of “VII,” for example, make a moody simulacrum of traditional Japanese music (albeit with unconventional instrumentation), “VIII” uses its stringed instruments in an almost Celtic rhythm. “IX” uses traditional strings and percussion as a jumping off point for a dense arrangement that leans more heavily into Popul Vuh territory. Too bad it only lasts 1:58.
Trede shades his Japan in varying levels of density. At just over two minutes, “XII” establishes its mood simply through a spare percussion arrangement, like a series of heavy water droplets. After dropping out most instrumentation, “XII” is a fully orchestrated bit of pseudo-orientalism which may be the most stereotypically library-sounding track here. It’s frankly disappointing; until this point, the album for the most part transcended kitsch, but this unlucky number comes off most like mid-century exotica. Yet the closing “XIV,” led by a funky bassline, sends the album out in a different direction that finally synthesizes all the influences that came before it. There’s even some fuzz guitar, which makes a fascinating contrast with the quasi-Japanese woodwinds.
The very concept of Japan may be off-putting to some, like a Benny Hill skit in which the British comedian wears buck teeth and slurs his consonants. But this isn’t a cheap trick; in just over a half hour, Trede takes what could have been a cheesy musical travelogue project and turns it into a fairly compelling suite with a distinct dramatic structure that offers what seems to be a tourist-trap approach and then turns it inside out in as many tracks as there are lines in a sonnet. That number might not be a coincidence: this album is a kind of tone poem about the move away from old folk traditions to the industrial age, not just in Japan, but around the globe.