Album of the Day: Kankyō Ongaku, “Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980​-​1990”
By April Clare Welsh · February 15, 2019

Corporate big bucks and avant-garde music aren’t the most obvious bedfellows—but throw user experience into the mix, and you’ve got a viable cultural phenomenon: kankyō ongaku. In 1980s Japan, as the country continued to enjoy an unprecedented post-war boom, it became the world’s second-largest economy; companies like Sanyo and Muji pumped cash into the arts to enhance the experiences for its consumers.

Across Light in the Attic’s compilation of kankyō ongaku, which translates to “environmental music,” you’ll hear a promo LP for a Sanyo AC unit, a printer commercial, a Seiko watch advert, and the in-store music for Muji. Some of the country’s most famed artists, including Haruomi Hosono, make appearances. Compiled by Visible Cloaks’ Spencer Doran, it’s the first time that any of these recordings have been available outside of Japan.

This was Japan’s version of muzak—incidental music used to soundtrack “the spaces, products, and experiences” of that fruitful era. However, stripped back, without the perceived excess of their U.S. equivalent, these minimal experimental soundscapes engaged with a deeper mindset than cheesy elevator jingles. The cover photo by photographer Osamu Murai depicts the work of celebrated architect Fumihiko Maki; the album opener is a serene piano lullaby called “Still Space,” a track that works like a sonic palette cleanser for the mind, where architectural acoustics place emphasis on the quiet spaces between the notes.

Kankyō Ongaku offers a sublime meeting of ambient, folk, and natural sounds. Album standouts “Variation III” and “Praying for Mother / Earth Part 1” are trained in the New Age school of ambient that uses environmental sounds to make the listener feel closer to nature; babbling brooks, lapping waves, and chirping birdsong all feel pleasantly surreal.

Elsewhere, traditional instrumentation and jazzier, forward-thinking experimentalism collide. On “Ishiura,” a reverie of dancing idiophones makes room for meditation, while “Ear Dreamin” adds synthesized choir voices to a junkyard of organic percussion. With warm rushes of synths, “Seiko 3” is a retro-futurist flirtation with time, while “Blink” suggests a jazzier update of Eric Satie. Kankyō Ongaku’s long and winding journey through soothing and stirring ambient utopias is an expansive compilation, and one that can help provide shelter from the outside world.


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