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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Hiroshi Yoshimura's Surround
Irina Shtreis , January 12th, 2024 11:40

A reissue of the pivotal concept album by the Japanese environmental music propagator eliminating the boundaries between the inner and outer space. Words by Irina Shtreis

In late spring 1985, Japanese composer Hiroshi Yoshimura was commissioned to produce a sequence of musical pieces for construction firm Misawa Homes. In keeping with their sustainability policy, the company intended to incorporate music into their living spaces. Just as with light, heat and airflow, these compositions were to become a natural element that would enhance the environment within the buildings. Co-produced with the company’s in-house sound designer Hiroyoshi Shiokawa, the resulting six ambient compositions came under the title Surround in 1986 as part of Misawa Homes’ Soundscapes series. They were composed in accordance with the building company's Sound Design Office “solving noise issues with soundproofing and insulation technology; designing room sound field with acoustic technology; creating sounds that better the environment”.

Needless to say, the name of Hiroshi Yoshimura doesn’t ring a bell instantly. His status in native Japan as a pioneer of environmental music – a literal translation of the genre kankyō ongaku, an East Asian analogue of ambient – did not initially spread beyond the borders of the archipelago, though the works of the composer became highly sought after by enthusiasts with deep knowledge of Japanese electronic music. That was until 2016 when Hiroshi Yoshimura’s albums were uploaded in full on YouTube, still a grey area safe from the copyright restrictions applying to Spotify and other platforms. Some of his works such as the first album Music For Nine Post Cards (1982), achieved a nearly viral effect. The sudden spike of interest was followed by a Light In The Attic reissue along with a new version of his fifth full-length Green (1986).

Although the Japanese genre emerged as a reaction to fast urbanisation, it embraced the future in a fashion similar to krautrock and Eno’s experiments with ambient. Surround certainly shares minimalism and a sense of space with both genres. The opening track 'Time After Time' sets the pace for the whole album – an equivalent of a slow-motion walk in a garden with water cascades. Its stripped-down arrangement with arrhythmic descending chords and triplets is made entirely on the Yamaha DX7, an instrument also favoured by Eno who was an influence on Yoshimura to pursue the ambient path. By the time the Japanese auteur released Nine Post Cards, Eno had collaborated with Harmonia, the German group made up of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius of Cluster and Michael Rother of Neu! The hum and distant toy piano ringing on the title track of Surround echo the sonic palette of 'Sehr Kosmisch' from the trio’s seminal 1974 album Musik Von Harmonia. In one of the interviews, Rother explained that Harmonia’s work was inspired by idyllic natural surroundings, hence the name of the band.

Yoshimura aimed at exploring the full potential of just keyboards and synths. His impressionistic approach and lightness of touch call back to the future-oriented tendencies and experimentalism of various early 20th century composers – the furniture music of Erik Satie and musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer. The term coined by Satie as musique d’ameublement denoted background music performed by musicians. Such set would be accompanied by a printed manifesto that read: “Furnishing music completes one's property; it's new; it doesn't upset customs; it isn't tiring; it's French; it won't wear out; it isn't boring”.

The idea of this music being entertaining seemingly spoke to Yoshimura who was interested in the history of the Fluxus movement which also included Satie among other members. Similarly, the idea of making a soundscape for a project of a specific construction firm can be interpreted with a pinch of irony. Yet, Yoshimura’s history of artistic interaction with spaces proves he treated them as a visual artist would treat a canvas and Nine Post Cards was composed specifically to be played inside a museum. Shiokawa underlines the link between visual elements and the music: “The way in which Yoshimura incorporates common, everyday sounds to the art spaces he designs and creates share a similar approach with his work as a visual artist. With a nod to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, this method is a common thread that runs through [his] body of work, from graphic notations, Xerox art, photography and environmental videos, to his performances involving handmade can instruments”.

Still, despite this obvious connection with European music, this is undeniably Japanese art, Surround in particular. The focus on elements of nature (both in titles and the sound) is worship-like. Penned by the composer, the original liner notes emphasise the connection between music and the air as well as their shared weightlessness: “If Surround can be listened to as music that’s as close to air itself, allowing us to enter each listener’s sound scenery, or as something that exists within a new perspective, expanding the middle ground between sound and music and transforming it into a comfortable space, it would be much appreciated. Its volume should not become a hindrance to a conversation and should be placed in the same family of sounds as the vibration of footsteps, the hum of an air conditioner, or the clanging of a spoon inside a coffee cup. With the addition of city noise from outside the window, you may hear it in a completely new way.” In a way, this statement reiterates Eric Satie’s manifesto. Although composed for a still environment, the music is dynamic. The visual and aural merge as much as do music and the environmental sounds.

Regardless of the surroundings, listening to the album is a gratifying experience as it gives a strong sense of connection between the inner and outer worlds. Shiokawa believes that Surround and Green are two complimentary parts that comprise a new whole. “I consider Surround to be Hiroshi Yoshimura’s yin, and Green to be his yang”, he writes in the liner notes. “Green seems to have been created as an expression of the pure joy felt by Yoshimura as he accepted his first commission for an album of environmental music, and you can feel it brimming with exuberance as you listen to it. In comparison, Surround seems to express Yoshimura’s honest and unaffected, albeit somewhat lonely outlook towards his seemingly ordinary city life”. Whether combined with Green or listened to on its own, Surround is a self-sufficient statement.