The small, chirpy commuter city of Kuki-shi isn’t the Japan of pachinko parlours, smoky bars and the neon-lit, mile-high skyline of nearby Tokyo. This is where farmers grow crops and retirees get old; the “real Japan”, I’m told, countless times, through the course of one mid-August afternoon. It’s 34°C and, it seems, the only thing wetter than the heavy, humid air is the brown rice paddy on the edge of town where sound artists Yosi Horikawa and Daisuke Tanabe stand, ankle-deep in water, trousers rolled up, in quiet concentration.
“I want to use unique sounds in my music so I’m always searching for something new,” says Tanabe, treading carefully through the field. “That brings me to places like this.” It might not look like it, but here in this remote pocket of rural Japan, the duo are recording music. And they need insects.
“Music is similar to sculpture; you’re using sound as a material to build something”
If it looks odd to the bemused locals, it won’t be to anyone familiar with the pair’s music: Tanabe and Horikawa are two of the best-known “field recorders” in Japan. Which means that, instead of creating music solely from synthesisers in a studio, the pair produce ambient electronica by transforming recordings of anything from waterfalls to bird song into transcendental audioscapes that, says Horikawa, utilise “the hidden musicality of everyday sounds”.
In 2019, Horikawa and Tanabe set up their own record label, Borrowed Scenery. Its most significant release yet is Horikawa’s Spaces, his first full-length album since 2013’s Vapor. Six years in the making, it sees him continue his travels around the world in search of found sounds: Vietnam, its second track, samples jungle sounds from its namesake country; Mine uses hammers hitting metal in Poland’s Guido Mines as a hi-hat and Nubia, the album’s final track, finds a riff in chants recorded on the banks of the River Nile. Tanabe follows the same tradition: released on Mumbai-based imprint Knowmad Records, 2018 EP Cat Steps loops overheard conversation and gurgling water from Icelandic caves over contorted, broken beats. It’s one-part rave, one-part jungle. It shouldn’t work but, like much of the duo’s output, it does.
Still, not all their sounds are recorded so far from home. After what appears to be a satisfying recording session in Kuki-shi, we climb into the car for our next stop: Washinomiya, one of the oldest Shintō shrines in the Kantō region. It’s here we’d find a totally different kind of sonic continuum, reckons Tanabe. I’m dubious. Still, senses heightened, I become slowly aware of the crisp, crackling chirruping of crickets as we approach the shrine. Then, at 6pm, a recorded lullaby plays from a public speaker, the daily clocking-off alert for the town’s workers.
What Yosi Horikawa began recording in his childhood bedroom on a tape-deck boombox, looping rhythms he’d play on the rubbish in his room. His debut album, 2013’s Vapor, was a huge indie hit that found fans in BBC Radio 1’s Benji B and electronic-pop producer Kelly Lee Owens. Since then, he’s performed at Glastonbury and his soundscaping form of electronic music has been lauded by BBC Radio 6 Music’s DJ Gilles Peterson.
He says “I try to create new landscapes in my music, like a soundscape montage. So when I record, I simply open my mind and ears and push the record button.”
Listen to The sound of putting pencil to paper becomes a richly textured dancefloor banger on Yosi Horikawa’s Letter.
Upcoming Yosi Horikawa’s new album, Spaces, is out now on self-founded label Borrowed Scenery.
At that point, I get it: with its fetishisation of nature and its many civic e-jingles, just about anywhere in Japan can offer endless aural inspiration for anyone willing to simply stop and listen. “In a sense, that’s why exploring sound is an everlasting mission for me,” says Horikawa.
Field recording is nothing new, and nor is it a genre limited to Japan. Still, there are few countries in the world that can claim such a profound relationship between space and sound. From each metro station’s hassha merodi (departure melodies) to card-payment tunes, ambient noise is everywhere. It’s a tradition that started as far back as the middle Edo Period when the suikinkutsu (literally, “water cave”) was a popular feature of the Japanese garden, a small, clay ornament designed to amplify the curative sounds of splashing water in preparation for a tea ceremony.
What As a field recordist, Kyoka is drawn to the sounds of the after-hours. She uses her microphone to record cars speeding down desolate motorways, finding that as they travel from left to right they create a natural phase. As a producer, though, during the winter months she spends her time in Berlin, testing out her material in the epicentre of European techno. She’s released music on the legendary British dance music imprint R&S Records, and has just performed at Manchester’s Aphex Twin-curated Warehouse Project.
She says “Sound is very talented, and I want to uncover the talent of that sound as much as possible. I want to help realise that.”
Listen to For granulated techno designed for dark basements, listen to Kyoka’s Flashback.
Upcoming Album Is (Is Superpowered) is available now.
But it was the late 1970s when what would become known as kankyō ongaku (“environmental music”) emerged as a bona fide musical genre. Its exact origins are debated, but it’s thought that the arrival of Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, in 1978, as well as the emergence of synthesisers like the Roland TR-77, inspired a generation of artists to produce minimal ambient music designed to be a kind of sonic backdrop to everyday life. This year, the genre saw a renewed interest thanks to Seattle imprint Light in the Attic’s Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980–1990, the genre’s first ever major compilation, released to wide acclaim in February. “While decades old, [the music] feels uncannily suited to contemporary listening habits,” said Pitchfork.
One of the genre’s first leading lights was Takashi Kokubo. We meet at a hotel lobby in Shibuya, Tokyo. With jet-black mop hair and a satin shirt embroidered with palm trees, he speaks in slow, calming, spare tones reminiscent of his music. He explains that Japan’s economic boom of the 1980s was a big driver of kankyō ongaku. Because of the government tax breaks offered to corporations who invested in the arts, companies would commission producers to create music for their superstores or electronic products. Released in 1987, Kokubo’s defining album, Get at the Wave, was actually commissioned by Sanyo and came free with every purchase of one its higher-end air-conditioners.
What Former self-confessed heavy-metal obsessive Daisuke Tanabe crafts intricate and experimental electronica that finds influences from outsider dance music; jungle, rave, IDM and glitch. Since starting to take music seriously around 10 years ago, he’s released tunes on London jazz-funk label Brownswood Recordings, Ninja Tune and BBE. He recently toured with the French hip-hop producer Onra.
He says “Music is similar to sculpture; you’re using sound as a material to build something.”
Listen to Pinebee is perhaps the only record to use the ticking of a clock as a jungle breakbeat.
Upcoming Check label Borrowed Scenery for future releases.
Re-released last year on limited-edition vinyl, the record uses samples of waves crashing against the shoreline of a Japanese seaside town. And Kokubo, it turns out, is still an active field recorder with what he describes as a life-long dedication to capturing sounds that are undisturbed by humans – what he calls, tenderly, “natural quiet”. “
When I go to the jungle or the forest, I have to let the sounds guide me,” he says. “And, whenever I record, I bow before I start. I tell the place I am here and that I respect the landscape.”
Other field recorders find inspiration in urban centres. With earphones plugged in, I meet an artist known as Kyoka in the ever-frantic afternoon rush of Tokyo’s famous Shibuya crossing. She has released music on German label Raster-Noton and is a revered DJ known for her experimental, granulated, often-chaotic techno sets.
“Field recordings are my instruments,” she says, recording device in hand, as 2,500 people brush by on the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. “Natural sound is like music to me.” Our next stop is the well-off residential neighbourhood of Nishi-Ogikubo. From Shibuya, we take the Yamanote Line west, the metro where every station has its own distinct theme tune (known as eki-melo). After a short walk, we hole up at a small, slightly unlovely, open-door mom-and-pop restaurant.
“I want somewhere loud and confined,” says Kyoka, as she moves around the dining area, looking for the best exposure to the disquiet. She decides on a barstool and begins to find a natural beat in the rambling chatter from outside and the high-pitched pings of a frying pan in the kitchen. She even pinpoints some keys rattling down the street. Taking her proffered earphones, I plug in: the room immediately bursts with exuberant sonic textures. I feel like I’ve gained a new sense. And, again, I get that same sense from days before: it’s all there, you just have to listen.
What Chihei Hatakeyama makes music for meditation, incorporating processed guitars, pianos and modular synthesisers with the sounds he records across his home city of Tokyo. Solo, he’s released over 70 albums, while his record label, White Paddy Mountain, has become a beacon for Japanese ambient and new-age music.
He says “I find inspiration in various places across Japan. Solitary islands, mountains, books and movies, yet I make music that is quiet and melodic. In a sense, I am imitating nature.”
Listen to Hatakeyama collab with Berlin’s Vida Vojić – Heliosphere.
Upcoming Recorded in Vancouver, Ghost Woods was released in August.
But where the music really comes to life is on a Sunday night at Circus, a club in Shibuya where Yosi Horikawa is hosting an album-launch party for Spaces. He opens his set with Longing, a skittish, slowly undulating track that juxtaposes blissful piano melodies with recordings of the djembe, an African drum. A crowd of 200-odd twenty-somethings begins to move to the frequencies of far-off lands; a kind of Aphex Twin soundtrack to Planet Earth. It’s probably the politest rave I’ve ever been to. People don’t so much as dance as sway from left to right, taking extra care not to invade anyone’s personal space. As Horikawa leaves the stage, even the customary chants of “One more tune!” that demand an encore at parties throughout Europe are replaced by a metronome-like union of gentle applause.
Even so, Horikawa obliges and returns to close with Bubbles, the standout track from his Wandering EP and perhaps the only club record that finds its hook in a bouncing ping-pong ball. “Performing in a club is a strange feeling. But I like that strangeness,” says Horikawa, after the show. “But I want people to take a trip somewhere special when they hear these sounds.” He might’ve got his wish. I leave with the sense that, sure enough, I’ve been on Horikawa’s sonic expedition: in a single room, I’ve heard the world.