Graded on a Curve: Kankyo Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990

Once a largely dismissed and often derided genre, New Age music’s critical reevaluation has been a welcome development, in part because it expanded the style’s history while deviating from expectations and in turn enlarging the potential for pure enjoyment. Light in the Attic has been crucial to this shift in perception, and with new release Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990 they remain at the forefront of this continuing reappraisal. Offered in a package of exquisite design, either as a 3LP with Stoughton “tip on” jackets, slipcase and poster, or as a 2CD with a hardbound book, and both with enlightening notes by Spencer Doran, it’s in stores February 15.

As the title to this set makes plain, part of the reason for Light in the Attic’s success in rehabilitating New Age music is directly related to an inclusive approach that branches into the more reputable associated styles of Ambient and Environmental. However, I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America 1950-1990, the box set that kicked off the label’s dig into the vaults back in the autumn of 2013, was a pretty specific undertaking. It boldly proclaimed its New Age orientation and said enter if you dare.

What initially sparked my interest was the term private press, which suggested that the contents might deliver something better than expected. Bluntly, it was unlikely to be worse. The second intriguing thing was the timeframe, which largely predated the ’80s popularity of New Age and by extension my lived experience with the form. Well, that collection not only exceeded my hopes, but in deflating stereotypes and uncovering a wealth of unheard artists (G. I. Gurdjieff, Wilburn Burchette, and Laraaji being the main exceptions), it delivered one of the sweetest multi-disc releases of its year.

In late 2016, (The Microcosm): Visionary Music of Continental Europe, 1970-1986 saw Light in the Attic dropping the New Age tag entirely, though it was clearly a sequel (indeed promoted as such), and it did a fine job of linking the New Age goings-on documented throughout I Am the Center to Kosmische, a style many mosey sorta sideways into appreciating due to its link to Krautrock.

Differing from the first installment, (The Microcosm) was fairly loaded with recognizable artists, e.g. Vangelis, Ash Ra Tempel, Popol Vuh, Rodelius, and to a lesser extent Deuter and Ariel Kalma, inclusions that might’ve led some who’d initially dismissed I Am the Center to reach back and check out its contents (though I kinda doubt this was by deliberate design on Light in the Attic’s part).

Now, I can imagine some readers are muttering under their breath something along the lines of enough with the New Age rehabilitation, already! It’s well-known that the style is more interesting than people once assumed. And hey, I understand this line of thinking, but old genre prejudices do die hard; when the topic of New Age gets mentioned currently, the likelihood of dismissiveness, if not as prevalent as it once was, is still common. I’ve caught it up close and personal. Just the other day, in fact.

And so, I think it’s worth emphasizing that as someone who would once wince in reaction to New Age’s surface blandness, my adjustment in viewpoint came not through an awakening at a healing retreat but through the simple act of putting on headphones at home while sitting in a chair. Environmental listening, it certainly was. Those who still lump New Age in with Smooth Jazz or Easy Listening (not to completely dismiss those forms, either) should consider taking a plunge. Kankyō Ongaku would be a fine place to start.

Not that Light in the Attic is promoting this set as a third installment in a New Age reconstruction project that was never explicitly named as such, anyway. Instead, it’s the second entry in their Japan Archival Series, a program which began in the summer of 2017 with Even a Tree Can Shed Tears: Japanese Folk & Rock 1969-1973. That was a superb collection, but after an intense, admittedly rather quick inspection of Kankyō Ongaku’s thoughtfully ordered and annotated whole, I rate this one as even better.

It achieves this status by leaning deep into the first two styles in its title. As the notes explain, Kankyō Ongaku literally translates to “environmental music,” with the text additionally pointing out that the music included here, alongside interest in John Cage’s Zen Buddhist-influenced work and Brian Eno’s ambient output, sprang from a late ‘70s Japanese obsession with French composer Erik Satie.

Of these 25 pieces (only 23 on the 2CD), I’d say roughly six are by names with some currency (to varying extents) beyond Japan (the set is being promoted as the first ever fully-licensed collection of this music outside its country of origin); for starters, that includes Interior, a group who released two albums on Windham Hill (winning a Grammy in the process), Hiroshi Yoshimura, whose superb Music for Nine Postcards was reissued by Empire of Signs (and distributed by Light in the Attic) in 2017, and on side one of the vinyl, Ayuo Takahashi, who had a few CDs on John Zorn’s Tzadik label in the first half of the ’00s.

Indisputably the name with the biggest worldwide profile is Yellow Magic Orchestra, represented with “Loom” from their ’81 album BGM. Also featured: “Dolphins” (the other vinyl-only cut) from YMO member Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ’85 Esperanto album, and “Original BGM” (the set’s longest piece) by Haruomi Hosono, also of YMO, which brings Kankyō Ongaku to a close.

“Original BGM” (stands for background music, don’tcha know) is taken from the release BGM 1980 – 2000, but it was originally commissioned by the Muji department store chain for in-store play, a facet of design it shares with numerous other selections here (specifically, it was music to be heard in, or just as likely to not be heard in public spaces, instead constructed to enhance everyday existence).

And yet, as Hosono reworked the piece into “Dark Side of the Star,” which served as the final track on his ’84 solo LP S-F-X (notably not one of the Hosono LPs reissued last year in a big spurt by Light in the Attic), the music’s malleability (and its substantiality in contrast to the trite innocuousness of subpar New Age or for that matter, Ambient) gets nicely reinforced.

Other artists make appearances here that are to varying degrees surprising. There is Yoshio Suzuki, who played on LPs by jazzmen Joe Henderson, Sonny Stitt and Art Blakey; Yasuaki Shimizu, who’s known for Music For Commercials, his nifty 1987 entry in Crammed Disc’s Made to Measure series; and Masashi Kitamura, who was part of ’80s Japanese underground avant-rock act YBO² (quite the heavy affair).

Even as Fumio Miyashita and Akira Ito were both members of the psychedelic Far East Family Band, their inclusion here isn’t such a shock as that group also spawned New Age cornerstone Kitaro. Likewise, former member of the Taj Mahal Travelers Takashi Toyoda, who in the notes gets evaluated as a contemporary of Miyashita and Ito. And big fans of the radio program Hearts of Space might recognize Shiho Yabuki, whose Purple Sails CD was released on the show’s record label back in 1989.

If you’re noticing a lack of general description here, that’s because in the pursuit of a largely unified objective, individualist qualities aren’t in high supply (at least immediately), though that shouldn’t imply facelessness. The minimalist (not Minimalist) home-recorded keyboard resonances of Satoshi Ashikawa’s “Still Space” contrasts sharply from Hosono’s pleasant but full-bodied “Original BGM”; if not wide-ranging, the journey between is consistently appealing in its focus. It’s suitable to say the experience is wholly worthwhile as it deflates received wisdom and shallow impressions.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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