Earlier this year I caught up with dear old chum Floating Head and we set ourselves the challenge of each recording a mix of Japanese ambient music. Several months later the work is done and here it is: two different takes on an hour-ish mix of ambient music by Japanese artists.
Floating Head’s description of how he put his mix together is included below, so here's my blurb. Floating Head and I go way back and connected over music, and an interest in Japanese art and literature among other things. We’ve mostly lived in separate cities (he in Barcelona, me in Melbourne) so we’ve kept in touch by sharing music, and talked music and reading recommendations, so this seems a natural extension. On his last visit we were talking current music interests – he mentioned Yui Onodera, I was on a Haruomi Hosono obsession – and we noted Susumu Yokota’s recent premature death, and our general abiding fondness for ambient music. From there somehow we got onto the idea of a challenge, a way of shaping our listening and providing an objective. This is the sort of thing I’m always keen for, given my sense of drowning in music and the flitting I do haphazardly from one world to the next.
Until the our mixes were finished all details were secret. Surprising only one overlap (Gallery Six’s ‘Hakasui Gasansui’), and very different sounds and approaches. I’m currently fascinated with the slick polish of 1980s music production of the more commercial variety, and Japanese 80s music seems to go one step slicker. That goes for ambient/new age music of that period too, as exemplified by artists like Yoshio Suzuki and Hiroshi Yoshimura, and everything on Hosono’s Yen Records label, where even twee lo-fi is hi-fi. I wanted to celebrate this sound, linking it with more recent, older, and varied work by Japanese artists. Beyond that I wanted it to be repeatedly listenable, erring on the pleasant side, without ruffling feathers (by either abrupt dynamic shift, or boring through lack of).
As for whether Japan has a unique take on ambient music, through associations with Zen tradition, a particular understanding of nature, space and silence, or somesuch, I would rather not comment. One thing that can be noted is that there does seem a large volume of ambient music made by Japanese artists. Is this the result of the economic boom in the 1980s and a need for corporate relaxation (see root strata), or a pervasive market for it by western audiences? Or a particular knack for synthesis? Or those notions touched on above...?
DJ Tropical Breeze: Japanmbient Mix:
1 Minamo Beginning Durée 12K 2010
2 Toshiki Kadomatsu Sea Song [Reprise] Sea Is A Lady BMG Victor 1987
3 Gallery Six Hakasui Gasansui Shimmering Moods 2015
4 Hiroshi Yoshimura Green Green Air Records Inc 1986
5 Yoshio Suzuki Meet Me In The Sheep Meadow Morning Picture JVC 1984
6 H Takahashi Soft Wave Sea Meditation Entertainment Systems 2015
7 Yoshio Ojima Serene Une Collection Des Chainon I Wacoal Art Centre 1988
8 Pass Into Silence Iceblink Calm Like A Millpond Kompakt 2004
9 Inoyamaland Morn Music for Myxomycetes Transonic Records 1998
10 Toshiro Mayuzumi Mandala Mandala Symphonie Columbia 1969
11 Midori Takada Trompe-l'oeil Through the Looking Glass RCA 1983
12 saburo ubakata from late spring Reflection Primal Kaico 2013
13 Susumu Yokota Azukiiro No Kaori Sakura Leaf 2000
14 Yoshio Ojima Glass Chattering Une Collection Des Chainon I Wacoal Art Centre 1988
15 Satoshi Ashakawa Image Under Tree Still Way Sound Process 1982
16 Akio Suzuki Bottle K7 Box Alm Records 2007
17 Haruomi Hosono wakamurasaki Tale of Genji OST Sony 1987
18 sawako Piano.cote Nu.it Baskaru 2014
19 Yui Onodera Cloudscape 01 Cloudscapes Serein 2015
20 Ryuichi Sakamoto Nostalgia Three Decca 2013
21 Kazumasa Hashimoto Ending Epitaph Flyrec 2004
Here's Floating Head's comments:
"To be honest I can’t quite remember the exact reason how this started. The real origin of the seed of the idea could have come from anywhere, perhaps just the need to have a basic concept to tie a mix together. Why Japanese in particular I cannot really say anymore. I don’t remember if there was a particular album or anything that triggered it off. But in any case, I remember discussing it with my good friend, fellow music lover and radio presenter Josh/DJ Tropical Breeze while in Melbourne at Christmas time. The idea from that time was that we would each prepare a mix of Japanese ambient music and publish them around the same time. Since then it has been a steady immersion in as much Japanese ambient, synth pop and experimental music as possible, around 6 months of focussed listening. While we did exchange names of artists and albums, there was no other insight into what the other was doing until we shared our mixes and track lists this week. Several of the artists consequently overlap, although in the end there is only one track that is the same between mixes, Hidekazu Imashige/Gallery Six’s Hakasui [Shimmering Moods].
My shortlist for the mix was 100 tracks clocking in at around 12 hours of sound if unedited and unmixed, so about one third of the tracks made the final cut and plenty more that didn’t make it. Consequently there is also quite a bit of overlap between tracks, with the first 17 tracks all fitting in to the first 25 minutes alone. That is, for the first 25 minutes there is generally at least two and sometimes up to four tracks playing at the same time. It’s a bit less crowded by the end.
One thing that surprised me making the mix, which was assembled carefully on Adobe Audition and in no way was mixed live, was that the tendency was to mix down tracks and not up as is usually the case. Not sure if this is something specific to Japanese ambient or it relates more to the superimposition of multiple tracks at the same time. In any case, the mix uses a lot of dynamic range and tries to emphasise the noise and the silence where possible.
I have seen quite a few Japanese artists complaining about lazy Western journalists describing their music in terms of Zen and related concepts, probably without really understanding anything about Zen and having only a post-card image of what Japan is really like. In any case, I really appreciate a lot of the material I found was based on field recordings and even in some cases people playing instruments as if joining in with nature and natural sounds as well as of course some temple sounds and related audio phenomenon. It would be interesting to talk directly to a lot of the artists and to see what terms they would use to describe their sounds and if Zen is a genuine interest or it is just a coincidence.
Floating Head: Japanese Ambient Mix:
1 Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O. La Novia - Speed Guru (Live in Tokyo) Acid Mothers Temple 2002
2 Tetsu Inoue Background Story Instinct Ambient 1996
3 Ametsub Faint Dazzlings Mille Plateaux 2010
4 Ghost Masttillah Drag City 1996
5 Geinoh Yamashirogumi Shohmyoh Victor 1988
6 Ground Zero Paraiso 1 Trigram / ReR Megacorp 1995 / 2005
7 Gallery Six Hakusui Shimmering Moods 2015
8 Yui Onodera Rhizome 4 Gears Of Sand 2007
9 Buddhastick Transparent Labyrinth (Lunatique Lux) Sharira 1997
10 Adzuki 秋 / Autumn Adzuki Self-released (Bandcamp) 2014
11 松本 一哉（Kazuya Matsumoto） たゆたう水月（Tayutau suigetsu） Spekk 2015
12 Chihei Hatakeyama A bronze pike Room40 2015
13 松本 一哉（Kazuya Matsumoto） 秋霖（Shurin） Spekk 2014
14 Yasuaki Shimizu Kono Yo Ni Yomeri #2 Better Days 1982
15 Tetsu Inoue Remote DiN 2005
16 Stilllife 彗星 Nature Bliss 2014
17 Ippu-Do Alone Epic 1982
18 Stilllife やがて霞とともに Nature Bliss 2014
19 Ametsub 66 Mille Plateaux 2010
20 Michiru Aoyama World Shimmering Moods 2015
21 Yoichiro Yoshikawa Crater On The Moon (Short Version) Eastworld 1987
22 Yamaoka Late in summer Twice Removed 2015
23 Fourcolour Double 12k 2016
24 ENA Absorption #2 Samurai Horo 2014
25 Go Hiyama Hiku Stroboscopic Artefacts 2011
26 A.O.T. ”フィードバック (Go Koyashiki Remix)” (Rundgång) SonuoS 2013
27 Yui Onodera Semi Lattice Part 5 Baskaru 2015
28 Dumbtype Drawing #3 Digital Narcis 1997
29 Toshifumi Hinata Colored Air Alfa 1986
30 Maki Asakawa Onna Honest Jon's Records ? / 2015
31 Fruit Of The Original Sin Interscape (-X) Kin Sound Recordings 2001
32 Susumu Yokota Shinsen Leaf 2000
33 Buddhastick Transparent Morpheus (Eve Eva : X) Sharira 1996