In 1996, the Environment Ministry unveiled a list of designated places and traditions around the country that demanded appreciation not for how they looked, but how they sounded.
The selections in “100 Soundscapes of Japan” may not have been terribly adventurous — bird songs, temple bells, gurgling rivers — but the list’s mere existence was notable. Even now, you’d have to go all the way to Finland to find anything comparable.
Japan’s relationship with sound is certainly unusual. While walking the 88-temple pilgrimage of Shikoku, Neil Cantwell, a British musician, writer and sometime filmmaker, recalls staying with a woman who “just talked for hours about how much she loved the sound of the rain on the leaves.” In Japan, he says, sound “provides this really deep inspiration for a lot of people I’ve met, which I just haven’t encountered anywhere else.”
Cantwell has spent the past decade approaching this relationship from different angles: via academia, film, music and now virtual reality. His 2011 documentary, “KanZeOn”, co-directed with Tim Grabham, explores what he describes as “the physicality of sound and how it sits in a landscape.” Told across a series of meditative, elliptical sequences, it follows a trio of musicians steeped in Japanese tradition: shō player Eri Fujii; Akihiro Iitomi, an expert in kotsuzumi drumming and noh theater; and Akinobu Tatsumi (aka Ta2mi), a Buddhist monk who moonlights as a beatboxer and hip-hop scratch DJ.
The hip-hop connection makes sense to Cantwell, whose first exposure to traditional Japanese music came via its use in the work of producer DJ Krush.
“It’s not just the harmony and the notes: the range of expression is in the texture of the sound,” he says of gagaku, Japan’s ancient court music. “I think you could say the same for the character of Japanese hip-hop.”
Cantwell originally met the musicians of “KanZeOn” while studying Japanese religion as a university exchange student in Fukuoka, and gigging on the local music scene. This month, he’ll be returning to Kyushu for some belated screenings of the film, which will be followed by an appearance at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo.
He’ll be using the occasion to launch a new project, devised in collaboration with British radio broadcaster Nick Luscombe, which aims to map Japan’s sound world using an unlikely combination of crowd-sourced field recordings, film, virtual reality and Buddhist mandalas.
For Japan Sound Project, Cantwell and Luscombe will be encouraging members of the public to submit 17-second audio and video clips of their favorite sounds — a reference to the 17 syllables used in haiku poetry. Later on, they’ll be capturing some of the featured locations in 360-degree, 3-D footage, to create immersive environments that can be enjoyed on virtual reality devices like the forthcoming Oculus Rift and Sony Morpheus.
And that’s where Cantwell’s background in academia comes in handy.
“Historically, religious mandala diagrams are using symbolism of language, sound and physical space in a way that can be quite transformative on your mind, and make you think about the world differently,” he says. Japan Sound Project may not be the only initiative of its kind, he concedes, but “I can’t imagine there’ll be too many people consulting eighth century esoteric Buddhist mandalas for mapping out their virtual world.”
The “KanZeOn” screening tour runs from April 15 to 22. For more information, visit japansoundportrait.tumblr.com. The related Japan Music Project event will take place at Aoyama Cay in Minato-ku, Tokyo, on April 23 and feature DJs Peter Barakan, the BBC’s Nick Luscombe, Ta2mi, Neil Cantwell and some from the Flau record label.