The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

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MAY 2021 Issue

From Space to Environment, Fluxus to Furniture Music: The Women of Kankyō Ongaku (Part II)

Shiho Yabuki. Illustration by Non Nakagawa.
Shiho Yabuki. Illustration by Non Nakagawa.
“This is Fluxus!” — Mieko Shiomi on Satie

Mid-century Fluxus artists like Mieko Shiomi, Group Ongaku, and Kankyō no kai (the Environmental Society) employed furniture as a tool of percussion and performance, but it wasn’t until a handful of extraordinary female pianists popularized and expanded upon the work of French composer Erik Satie that Japan would come to truly know “furniture music”—the catalyst to kankyō ongaku as we define it today.

Satie’s compositions pioneered both objet sonore (sound object) and musique d’ameublement (furniture music)—groundbreaking ideas that innovated a new dimensionality in music, treating it as object, as installation. While his greatest champion in the West was unquestionably John Cage (who debuted Vexations, 1893, in 1963) it was Aki Takahashi, and her husband Kuniharu Akiyama (a Fluxist musicologist, critic, and environmental composer), who would launch Japan’s own “Satie Boom.” An internationally renowned pianist, Takahashi’s interpretations of Satie, as well as Takemitsu, Xenakis, Nam June Paik, and Stockhausen, came at a fertile crossroads; her wildly popular concert series, The Complete Works of Erik Satie, paralleled Brian Eno’s Music For Airports (1978), and the debut of the Sony Walkman. These decisive releases, emerging alongside the “sculptural nonlinearity”1 granted by advances in studio production technology, offered exciting opportunities for musician and listener alike.

Although most took to Gymnopédies over Satie’s more challenging or sardonic compositions, the “ambivalent atmosphere”2 of his work was deeply influential in Japan, commercially and conceptually. This fruitful meeting of Satie and technology in the late ’70s produced a new generation of highly skilled experimental musicians, each with a keen sense of space and, briefly, plenty of financial support. Bolstered by the Parco-Saison culture of hypercapitalism, musicians enjoyed the patronage of major corporations and labels. JVC’s Music Interior, for instance, was founded on the concept of furniture music, releasing crucial environmental albums by Seigén Ono, Yoshio Suzuki, and Ichiko Hashimoto. The Saison group backed Satoshi Ashikawa’s “Wave Notation” series of albums, which introduced kankyō ongaku as heir to objet sonore, Fluxus environmentalists, and Satie—elements that informed Ashikawa’s sound design. The series included Hiroshi Yoshimura’s ambient “mail event,” Music for Nine Postcards, as well as Ashikawa’s seminal 1982 album, Still Way (Wave Notation 2). Ashikawa, who would die at 30 the following year, orchestrated the latter record alongside a team of eclectically talented women: his wife Masami Ashikawa on flute, vibraphonists Midori Takada and Junko Arase, Yuko Utsumi on harp (performing the entirety of the 12-minute long “Landscape of Wheels”), and pianist Tomoko Sono. Tender, elegant and lithe, patient in repetition and tone, Still Way is a touchstone of Japanese ambient.

“After I had hit various parts of the piano, it occurred to me a fish griller might make a percussive sound.” Interview with Satsuki Shibano, 1991

The final release in the “Wave Notation” series was Satsuki Shibano’s 1984 solo record, Erik Satie (France 1866–1925). It was Shibano who threaded Satie—all the vexation and velvet—into the legacy of kankyō ongaku. Leaving her early fame in the classical world, she was integral to landmark ambient albums such as Yoshimura’s Static (1988), Motohiko Hamase’s #Notes Of Forestry (1988), and many more records on the era’s premiere ambient label, Newsic—an imprint of the Wacoal Arts Center, also known as Tokyo’s iconic Spiral building.

The Wacoal label was deeply influenced by its founder’s decades-long friendship with Toshiro Mayuzumi—a pioneering figure in electronic music and extra-instrumental technique. Subsequently, Shibano’s first full album with Wacoal, Rendez-vous (1991), an interpretation of Pascal Comelade compositions, is also her first to integrate nontraditional elements such as eggbeaters, sampling, prepared piano, even a fish griller. Rendez-vous also features her longtime collaborator, the groundbreaking composer and programmer Yoshio Ojima. Among the pair’s most ambitious projects is the satellite radio experiment, St.GIGA; backed by Nintendo in the early ’90s, St.GIGA offered an uninterrupted stream of ambient that folded field recordings, spoken word, and sound collage, synchronized to the tide cycle of Tokyo Bay. Such a mélange is also found in their Caresse (1994), which cites “collage materials,” including Satie’s “Le Porteur de Grosses Pierres” and Ojima’s own Une Collection Des Chaînons 1&2: Music for Spiral (1988).

“Creativity is the unfolding of unknown realms within the self … each of us is daily creating a unique universe, a unique environment.” — Shiho Yabuki, The Body is a Message of the Universe
(liner notes)

As the post-industrial urban environment intensified, ambient grew in popularity, moving listeners further inside. Shiho Yabuki, another classically trained pianist, figured prominently among the many musicians who began to explore healing music—a scientific branch of kankyō ongaku integrating sound therapy methodology and binaural recording. A celestially inspired Tendai Buddhist, Yabuki’s early music is darkly ethereal in atmosphere; The Body is a Message of the Universe (1987), released through her own Esthetic Music label, included part of a synth-laden suite she wrote in dedication to the 1200th anniversary of the Enryaku-ji Temple. Working with the Kanebo Beauty Research Laboratory, Fujisawa Pharmaceutical Company, Apollon, and the influential American label Hearts of Space, Yabuki pioneered the New Age movement worldwide, while further shifting kankyō ongaku towards an analyzed interior. Her interest in the healing properties of alpha-wave 1/f fluctuation is best captured in 1990’s New Meditation, whose “Pastel Wave” is just as its title connotes: soft, undulating, weightless. A thoughtful balance of earth against ether, such compositions remain stunning examples of late ’80s ambient.

“Shuji Terayama said ‘throw away your books, and go to town’ … [should we] ‘throw away the Walkman, and go to town’? It is necessary to reconsider the sound environment of the city … The ears that loves the car horns are the ears of the city.” — Koharu Kisaragi, translated from her 1986 book,
How to Play the City

Though the next few women only brushed shoulders with kankyō ongaku, their breadth and vision as artists articulated and advanced its core motivation—an examination of our daily environment—across disciplines. Indeed, as Shiomi, Fluxus, and the Environmental Society demonstrated early on, Japanese art is intrinsically intermedia. And as the ’80s progressed, fine art, music, performance, and architecture continued to thrive within each other, as well as diversify and deviate into wholly new genres.

A theater director, composer, actor, activist, educator, philosopher, and critic, Koharu Kisaragi was a notable polymath who, like Ashikawa, passed away much too young (via cerebral hemorrhage in 2000). In 2017, Kisaragi was introduced to wider audiences through the repress of her collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, “Neo-Plant,” a single released from her sole album, Tokai No Seikatsu (1986). Technically, Kisaragi is also included on the recent Kankyō Ongaku compilation, under the credits for Ayuo Takahashi’s “Nagareru,” a truncated version of the over seven-minute track originally released on the 1985 album Memory Theatre. A collaborative work between Kisaragi and Ayuo, nephew to Aki Takahashi, its touches of Satie are finely balanced within a swirling rush, lightly guided by Kisaragi’s unearthly vocals.

Kisaragi’s own Tokai No Seikatsu (“Urban Life”) wavers between funk and folk, wired techno-pop and languid drifts. “Paraffin” is a standout track; its sampling, sonorous percussion and meandering narrative captures her dark sense of theatricality. The album also speaks directly to Kisaragi’s life’s work as an artist and public intellectual. As the founder and director of the theater group NOISE (as in urban “white noise”), her productions scrutinized the psychological strain of the city, tradition, and especially shizuka—the quiet disposition expected of Japanese women. Though sharing the sociological concerns confronted by Ashikawa’s environmental music, Kisaragi’s work more closely resonates with an earlier, more bombastic avant-garde impulse. Indeed, her most famous play, Moral (1984), reads more like a series of Fluxus happenings; integrating jarring vocal arrangements, projections, scores, and flickering Paik-like sets, she overwhelmed her audiences visually and audibly. An “unfinished experiment,” Moral satirized the hyperbole of a bubble-era Tokyo. In the end, she revived the inherent musicality of language, the body and the city itself.

Midori Takada shares in this intermedia tradition. Trained in Tadashi Suzuki’s philosophy of the physical over the emotional, Takada’s performances possess a hypnotic quality—every movement of her body is exercised carefully, precisely.

An extraordinary percussionist, she’s collaborated with artists worldwide, from Kakraba Lobi to Kang Tae-Hwan. Making her 1978 debut in the Berlin Philharmonie, Takada broke with classical tradition early on to follow her growing interest in the polyrhythmic, repetitive patterns of African, Asian, and American minimalism. The early ’80s found her collaborating throughout the kankyō ongaku world, as well as releasing two remarkable records with her percussive trio, Mkwaju Ensemble, and her first solo album, Through the Looking Glass (1983). Takada self-produced this record in just two days, on a shoestring budget. Using a constellation of marimbas and chimes, a reed organ, and coke bottles—all carefully placed amid the microphones to form “a three-dimensional sound sculpture”—she created a vast yet palpable soundscape, a masterpiece of distant thunder and dew.

Among Takada’s more under-recognized releases is her collaborative record with Mayumi Miyata, Nebula (1987). Miyata is a world-famous performer of the shō, a traditional mouth organ common to gagaku (a style of Japanese court music usually dominated by men). Extending the instrument’s chromaticism by adding extra pipes, Miyata became the first musician to play shō as a solo instrument within contemporary classical music. Indeed, she premiered work by Takemitsu and Cort Lippe around the world and collaborated extensively with Cage. Released on Sony’s “Sound Forest” series (home to Satoshi Sumitani’s crystalline 1986 Forest Marvelously), Nebula finds Takada and Miyata at their most minimal and mystic. An ethereal plain punctuated by sun showers of shō, the album’s diaphanous percussion drapes a room, amplifying and contouring Takada’s sculptural technique. A few years later, hues of this ethereal ambience return on Takada’s Lunar Cruise (1990), a unique collaboration with her Ton-Klami bandmate, and renowned jazz pianist, Masahiko Satoh. Flickering between pealing improvisation and oneiric indulgences, the album proved as genre-defying as the decade it had only just ascended.

“Sound, but also substances like water, and phenomena such as shadows and falling … are all attractive subjects I am eager to engage with creatively. As a girl fascinated by nature I dreamed of capturing it, not in music or painting or writing, but by some more direct method, and on growing up, I found each work I produced to be no more than a vestige of the search for that method. The journey continues.” — Shiomi, press release from Exploring the Stars

These are just a few of the women who worked at the height of kankyo ongaku. Today, younger artists like Aki Tsuyuko and Midori Hirano carry on the ambient tradition, while their predecessors continue to expand the genre into the 21st century; Takahashi regularly releases albums and performs, and Shibano has remained quite prolific. In 2019, she and Ojima collaborated with Visible Cloaks on FRKWYS Vol. 15: serenitatem, and they continue to explore their own creative partnership through the Les Disques Des Chainons (during the 2020 lockdown, the pair broadcast a number of live streams through their YouTube channel). Miyata also collaborates widely across art and music—from projects with Bjork and Matthew Barney to stirring compositions by Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa.

Labels Palto Flats and WRWTFWW have been repressing the work of Midori Takada, leading to her first release in nearly 20 years, Le Renard Bleu—a 20-minute EP, short film, and now stage show (“Ceremonial Blue”) created in collaboration with producer and singer Lafawndah. Shiho Yabuki continues to work as a musician, healer, and self-described “magician;” when not performing, she runs a seaside music hall, guesthouse and owl café in Kumano, Tennyoza. The past year she has also been live streaming, with her owls, on YouTube. And just last year, Kisaragi’s friends and former colleagues marked the 20th anniversary of her death through a year-long festival of her plays, organized through the Tokyo theater group, LABO! Unfortunately, many of these were canceled or moved online because of the pandemic, but the events have nonetheless renewed enthusiasm for her work.

Mieko Shiomi, now 83, recently exhibited new work in a sound art exhibition in Tokyo, Exploring the Stars (2019), with artist Takuma Uematsu. For “Chance Music (Music of Rain),” Shiomi laid out a sheet of paper in her garden, tracing drops of rain before they evaporated. These were turned into a score played on a music box, creating the most environmental interpretation of “water music” yet.

  1. Paul Roquet, Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 58.
  2. Ibid.


Sadie Rebecca Starnes

Sadie Rebecca Starnes is an artist, writer, and editor from North Carolina. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, LA Review of Books and Artforum, among others, and she’s held many solo exhibitions in both Tokyo and NYC. She lives and works in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

All Issues