Yasuaki Shimizu’s artful jingles

by Russell Thomas

Contributing Writer

An effective commercial jingle wedges itself into your brain. There’s the incessant repetition of Meow Mix, the harmony of McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” or the youthful chorus of “Biiiku, biku, biku, Bic Camera.

Thirty years ago, though, Belgian record label Crammed Discs released an album titled “Music for Commercials” whose songs sounded nothing like your standard jingle. Recently rereleased overseas, the album is about to get a Japanese reissue, according to the man behind it, saxophonist and composer Yasuaki Shimizu.

“From the late 1970s until around 1984, I was involved in composing music for many TV commercials,” Shimizu, 63, tells The Japan Times. “I was struck with inspired ideas as I was composing during this period, so I kept creating songs at the whim of these inspirations.”

The melodies found their way onto a growing mountain of cassette tapes in a storage room, he explains, before he took some of them to Paris when he made the city his home in 1985.

There he met and befriended Crammed Discs director Marc Hollander, who approached the composer with an offer to release some of his music. Shimizu pitched a few different ideas.

“I must have ended up offering him two or three different potential albums,” he recalls. “Among them was a collection of my commercial works, which Marc took interest in.”

Thus, in 1987, “Music For Commercials” was born — a compilation filled with commercial music, almost every track titled after the product for which it was intended.

Commercials at the time relied a lot on catchy jingles. Nowadays, though, Japanese ad firms work closely to match products with popular musicians in order to boost exposure on both sides. These pairings happen sometimes even before an album has been written.

Shimizu’s music, however, is nowhere near as stable or safe as the music that finds its way into the ads of today: Broad strokes of intermingling saxophone lines scuttle on loop for a series of tracks that advertise Bridgestone; sweeping strings and glittering sounds summon a heavenly atmosphere for Seiko; and with breathy choral synths and regency cello, Shimizu conjures up Tachikawa pens. This sort of gleaming ambience makes up the majority of “Music For Commercials,” a sublime feeling that speaks of luxury idealism and aspiration, capturing the mood of Japanese consumerism in the 1980s: Shimizu says the advertising industry at that time was “very exciting.”

On the other hand, and reflecting a simultaneous feeling across the country, Shimizu exerts a great deal of industrial kinetic energy on his songs. “Ricoh 2,” for instance, has this officious constructivist sound — staccato, bustling, urban and modern — and, in kind, the percussion of “Seiko 5” tumbles along a dynamic road to success. And while “Suntory” paints a glittering, heavenly picture of pouring golden whisky into a frozen glass, it is also heavily percussive, oozing movement and business.

The music, in essence, is heavily experimental, awash with synthesizers, bold refrains, strange vocals. Given the constraints of an industry in which image is managed down to the most minute details, it’s a wonder Shimizu was able to get away with most of these songs.

Speaking at first of a traditionally disconnected and conflicting relationship between creator, supplier and consumer, Shimizu notes that from the early 1980s the lines between each began to blur.

“It was like the sponsors (the supplier) were becoming more active in the creative role,” he explains. “Rather than just pleasing the consumer, they were asking for a different level of performance from us.”

Most importantly, the notion of “advertisements as works of art” began to take hold.

“As a result,” he says, “I was able to create commercial music with total freedom.”

Vivacious experimentation is at the heart of Shimizu’s entire musical voyage. Though he has worked with many different artists, from Ryuichi Sakamoto to Bjork, it is his saxophone interpretation of Bach’s six Cello Suites that is perhaps most notable. Recording these new versions with an instrument that feels wholly 20th century is already in itself a step forward toward the modern, but the way in which they were recorded takes it one step further to pure reinvention.

“I recorded each suite in a different location,” Shimizu explains. “For example, we recorded in a huge underground space at a quarry, and in a space deep inside a mine tunnel where there’s water dripping.”

Vibrating in the different shapes and volumes of these areas, the saxophone resonates surprisingly and becomes entangled with other ambient noise. How something as common as a saxophone becomes something otherworldly in the hands of Shimizu says a lot about his attraction to the aural. “I have always been attracted to sound at the most basic level,” he says.

With this notion of sound as a concept — a wider meaning intended by Shimizu — it’s easier to understand the unconventional way in which “Music For Commercials” conjures feelings and states of mind as opposed to memorable hooks. It is a credit to the genius of Shimizu that music intended for commercial use ended up released as part of Crammed Discs’ “Made To Measure” composer series, described by the label as “the aural equivalent of a collection of art books.” Simply put, his music is art.

Despite the achievement of turning Japan’s bubble-era capitalism into high art — an aesthetic that in recent years has been idolized by vaporwave artists, a genre influenced and informed by Muzak, Japanese funk and commercial jingles — Shimizu views the currently ongoing expansion of consumerism as a “black hole.”

“In the Japanese version of ‘Music For Commercials’ we added a subtitle that read ‘Respect for the Art of Shopping’ to the sleeve,” he says. “For me this was completely sarcastic. I despise the consumerism of this century. Still, there is a drive for this consumption. At my core, I am totally ambivalent about it.”

The final track on the album, “Seibu,” seems to sum up this sentiment. Timpani boom with regal orchestration in a triumphal march, a bass vocal croons victoriously, announcing not just one single product but the palaces that house them: shopping malls. Shimizu employs this theatrical coda, distilling the shallow exuberance of shopping into a shard of brilliant intoxication — and you realize that, on some level, all of this has been less glorification than sonic satire, its heavenly sequences tipping into exaggerated classical landscapes while ticking time and industrial sounds seed it with reality.

“In retrospect I don’t think I was ever composing music purely for commercial purposes,” Shimizu admits. “Even if I received a request for a really rigid, inflexible piece of commercial music, I would still hide some sense of playfulness in there and subvert the original meaning.

“I doubt I’d be able to make music if I were unable to do such things.”

The Japanese edition of Yasuaki Shimizu’s album “Music for Commercials,” with new liner notes by Chee Shimizu, is set to be released by Rice Records in early spring. Shimizu’s 1982 album “Kakashi” was also rereleased at the end of 2017 via Palto Flats and WRWTFWW Records. Shimizu also heads up experimental rock band Mariah, founded in 1980. For more information, visit www.yasuaki-shimizu.com.