Kankyō Ongaku

Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990 

A new compilation follows the ripples of Brian Eno's ambient series in 80s and 90s Japan

One of the big complaints of the Spotify era is that music is everywhere, and not in a good way. We all live against an endless wallpaper backdrop of music; there’s a nagging undercoat of sound that follows us wherever we go. From the piped Magic FM of the shiny shopping mall to the Britpop-on-roids one hears at sporting events and the ringtone R&B that dominates the top deck of the number 56 bus, it’s always there. The only way to drown out that sound is to immerse yourself in your own soundtrack and block out the rest of the world. 

When Eno made Ambient 1: Music for Airports in 1978, it was with an ambition of creating the kind of music that would defuse the intensity of an airport terminal with a “dispersed horizontal form of listening, like Satie’s ‘furniture music’”. Although he’d made ‘quiet’ records before, Eno’s Ambient series was the first time the music was created with specific concepts in mind: the creation of soundbeds for everything from airports to the British landscape – even lunar missions. 

In Japan, the ripple effect of Eno’s ambient records was felt in a very real way. Musician Satoshi Ashikawa ran a record and book shop in Tokyo called Art Vivant, and was the first retailer to import Music For Airports to the country. The shop quickly became a hub for “new music” – the genre that had yet to be bunched together under Eno’s chosen shortcut name – and Ashikawa’s own compositions took the lead from Eno’s recent work. His gorgeous recording ‘Still Space’ is less like gently humming background muzak, more the soundtrack to the stars blinking in and out over head. Pursuing Ashikawa’s drive to make music that would “drift like smoke and become part of the environment surrounding the listener’s activity”, it is part tranquilliser Headspace meditation/part pacifier for a sleep deprived child. 

‘Still Space’ is featured on Kankyō Ongaku – Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990, a compilation of like-minded artists released on the peerless Light In The Attic label. The twenty three tracks blur into each other, but that’s rather the point. These aren’t show stoppers, they’re music made for the inside of buildings or for watch adverts; for Muji shops or even for a promo album made as an advertisement for an air conditioning unit. Compiled by Spencer Doran from Oregon duo Visible Cloaks, Kankyō Ongaku is a fascinating, occasionally playful account of a musical movement specifically built for the background. 

While some of the music drifts a little close to the milky reassurances of New Age music (‘Praying for Mother / Earth Part 1’ places seemingly random plinking notes over the top of rippling running water that challenges the listener to not run to the loo), other tracks, such as ‘Variation – III’ by Masashi Kitamura + Phonogenix, move gorgeous ambient chords around the sound of waves licking the shoreline, a peace punctured occasionally by a chū-daiko drum to wholly peaceful affect.

Together, the twenty three tracks here promote a warmth that feels somewhere close to paradise. In fact, Kankyō Ongaku leaves you wondering what would happen to our society, to Britain in 2019, if we toned things down a bit and tuned into these frequencies in our public spaces? My god. That’s nirvana right there. 

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