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Morning Picture: A Guide to the Japanese Ambient Series ‘Music Interior’
From Yoshio Suzuki, Seigen Ono, to Ichiko Hashimoto, here are our essential releases from the cult minimalist imprint.
Inspired by Erik Satie’s belief that music, just as beautiful as a painting or a piece of furniture, is an expression of one’s individual and personal lifestyle, Japanese label JVC created an imprint to explore an emerging form of minimal music. Not far removed from Brian Eno’s ‘Ambient’ series or Satoshi Ashikawa’s Wave Notation, in the ‘80s JVC’s Music Interior was an early release series that served as the genesis of what was later defined as “environmental music” in Japan. With newly developed techniques in soundscape design and architectural acoustics, avant-garde artists and studio savants began making deeply textural music as a way to elevate their surroundings.
Along the way, they discovered new ways for music to be absorbed, composing songs that somehow functioned more as sound installations than active-listening experiences. This led to collector favorites such as Hauromi Hosono’s Watering a Flower (1984). A cassette made purely to amplify the retail experience at Muji and Takashi Kokubo’s Get At the Wave, the promo recording was given to people who bought Sanyo AC units as a way to improve their home environment further.
The compositions themselves draw heavily from the French musical impressionism movement led by Satie and Debussey, employing sparse lullaby-like piano melodies and pairing them with calming forest field recordings and absorbing strings and acoustics.
Over its short run, the label pursued many sonic directions, moving beyond its initial taste for minimalism to release an exciting catalog of new age, fusion, and neo-classical music. Though most were informed by Satie’s idea of “furniture music” and are sophisticated background soundscapes designed to simply “compliment” your environment, the music is far from background filler and is undeniably worth your full attention.
Here are some of our favorites from the great JVC imprint Music Interior (1984-1986).
Yoshio Suzuki – Morning Picture (1984)
The Music Interior flagship: Yoshio Suzuki’s ‘Morning Picture.’ Bassist Suzuki’s debut on the imprint was his first solo release, one that retired his straight jazz past — years playing with Art Blakey and Stan Getz — in favor of a foray into the lush, dreamy electronics he is now known for. Entirely self-composed, on ‘Morning Picture’ Suzuki plays keys, bass, drums, synths, and even a Linn drum machine to form a reinvented musical identity. The result is one of the great electro-acoustic environmental jazz records: brimming with sweet, melancholic melodies and deep impressionistic ambience. A masterpiece.
Seigén Ono – Seigén (1984)
It’s hard to believe that Seigen Ono composed this debut at just 26. Featuring contributions from almost all Mariah members, including Yasauki Shimizu and Masanori Sasaji, Ono crafted an eclectic mix of highly sophisticated symphonic pieces, traditional eastern percussion tracks, and bouts of hypnotic minimalism. He evokes hints of Steve Reich, Don Cherry, Brian Eno, and Igor Stravinsky all in the same album. In the liner notes, here’s how Ono explains his approach to minimalism:
“I need space. I need slow music, but I also need loud, heavy music. People say that ‘New Age’ music is calm and quiet, but for me it also has to involve straight-ahead rock plus the avant-garde. There are many studio musicians in Japan who play beautifully with no mistakes. But they have no personality. A good computer sequencer can give you that, but I require personality.”
Masahide Sakuma - Lisa (1984)
Lisa is the first solo effort from revered Japanese musician/producer Masahide Sakuma. Sakuma started his career playing bass in a B-52’s-inspired new wave band Plastics and went on to play on many 80’s Japanese cult classics like Hiroyuki Namba’s Who Done It?, Pegmo, and almost all the Dip in the Pool albums. Sakuma’s solo debut, released in 1984 — a few years after Plastics disbanded — is a notable departure from that group’s sound. Lisa touches on diverse styles ranging from ambient and avant-garde to folk, fusion, new age. It illuminates Sakuma’s ability as both a multi-instrumentalist and composer. Each track is wildly different, but still completely enjoyable and cohesive.
Ichiko Hashimoto – Ichiko (1984)
Ichiko Hashimoto is a jazz pianist, composer, and singer who has also had a career acting in television and film. Ichiko is her Music Interior debut and is a vast departure from her Kazumi Watanabe-produced synth-pop debut “Beauty.” It strips away the drum machines and jumpy sequenced synthesizers to produce an album of pure piano balladry.
Yoshio Suzuki – Touch of Rain (1986)
Yoshio Suzuki’s final album for Music Interior continues his singular brand of smooth jazz and ECM modalism by offering another unique take on environmental jazz music. Often favouring spacious piano, clean electric guitars, and dreamy electronics that culminate in some of the most beautiful ‘mood’ music there is, Touch of Rain is highly recommended for fans of ECM, Pat Metheny, and Jun Fukamachi.
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