Music

Yumiko Morioka: A good time to find refuge in a reissue of her ambient sounds

Yumiko Morioka's debut album tapped into Japan's environmental music scene of the 1980s

by Russell Thomas

Contributing Writer

“It’s so strange to do this at such an uncertain time as now,” Yumiko Morioka says, though in some ways the reissue of her first and only album, 1987’s “Resonance,” couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.

“Many people who listened to my album told me that my music made them calm and had some soothing effects,” she continues. “So I truly hope that my music can have some effect for the people who are staying at home, feeling sad and worried.”

The calming effect of “Resonance” is immediate. Opening track “Komorebi” begins with a single, reverberating F note — a pebble falling in a pond, with sustain rippling from where the tiny stone broke the surface. As the track progresses, deft flourishes on the piano keys flicker brightly, leaving warm, reverb-laden chords in their wake. A fitting sound for a track whose name roughly translates as “sunlight filtering through trees.”

From there on, it’s clear that the vibe will be a significantly chill one.

Scheduled for a digital and limited press vinyl rerelease on April 15 via Metron Records, which gave us Hiroshima producer Meitei’s “Komachi” last year, “Resonance” first appeared deep in the midst of Japan’s kankyō ongaku (environmental music) scene in the 1980s, released on Akira Ito’s Green & Water imprint.

Alongside Japan’s bubble economy and its yuppie culture, kankyō ongaku — the country’s environmentally lilted contribution to the genre of ambient music that began embryonically with French composer Erik Satie (1866-1926) and his “furniture music,” and was fine-tuned by Brian Eno in the 1970s — existed in stark contrast to the decade’s rampant commercialism.

Recent years have seen a resurgence in the appreciation of Japanese ambient and, in cases such as this one, has led to rereleases of once under-appreciated albums. “Music For Commercials” (1987) by Yasuaki Shimizu saw a remastered outing in 2017, having previously been cited as an influence by artists such as Oneohtrix Point Never, while in 2019 Spencer Doran of Visible Cloaks curated a compilation titled “Kankyo Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990.”

Why the genre has found popularity again now is a discussion for another time, but back then it was a mostly underground scene.

“Unfortunately (ambient music) was not that popular then in Japan,” Morioka says. “Techno was very popular. My album didn’t sell well.”

For Morioka, making music was a matter of putting art before profit.

“Perhaps, after all the electronic music, you feel like listening to natural sounds,” she says. “It was also a time in which environmental problems started to get really serious.”

Though artists such as Morioka and Ito, and Hiroshi Yoshimura (1940-2003) in particular, exemplified this naturally minded movement of music — with albums released with titles such as Yoshimura’s “Green” and “Flora” (1986 and 1987), and “Marine Flowers (Science Fantasy)” by Ito — creating music that might appeal to the listener’s ecological conscience was not something that Morioka set out to do.

Instead, it was Brian Eno’s “Ambient” series that inspired her; the first album of which, “Music for Airports,” was designed to be played continuously as an installation. It was also the first work to be released under the ambient tag — something that Eno himself described “as ignorable as it is interesting.”

“I fell in love with it. It liberated me from lots of musical rules and it just felt so good listening to it,” Morioka says. “I wanted the sound floating in the air, blending into space and time.”

A portion of “Resonance” is reminiscent of composer Satie. “Odayakana Umi” (“Calm Sea”), is warm and salon-esque, illustrating the rising and falling of waves with its expressive timing, while “Ever Green” sounds as though it could have been inspired by a rainy walk on the streets of 19th-century Montmatre, rich as it is with ostinato, switching between major and minor versions of itself, simultaneously vacant and deep with feeling.

“I hope Erik Satie is not offended,” Morioka jokes when I mention this similarity. “I adore his work.”

However, her first memories of playing the piano are not her happiest.

“My mother was a piano teacher, and she started to teach me when I was only 3 or so,” she says. Not having much say in the matter, she would practice hard to please her mother.

“This could be the reason why I’d rather compose my own music now, rather than playing the classical piano,” she says. “Back then, it was not so enjoyable as a kid who wanted to play outside instead of practicing the piano.”

After a stint at a boarding school in Maryland from 1971, Morioka enrolled at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she studied from 1974-78.

“Haight-Ashbury was still alive with hippie culture,” she recalls, adding that the scene there helped broaden her horizons. “John Adams happened to be the head of the composition department there. He wasn’t famous back then, though. His classes of new music workshops were so interesting, and I really admired his piano works. I was even lucky to be able to perform his new writings on the stage.”

Also invited to those workshops held by Adams, a minimalist composer who would go on to be a Pulitzer Prize winner, were such future luminaries as Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Terry Riley and others. It was there and then that Morioka decided to write her own music.

And it wasn’t just solo work — by the 1980s, Morioka was already writing for other artists, kickstarting a composing career with Toshihiko Tahara’s debut single “Aishu Deito (New York City Nights)” in 1980, and continuing as recently as 2018 with idol pop group King & Prince.

“One thing I am capable of is making up music in similar styles very easily,” she says.

She recounts an assignment while attending Gakushuin Girls’ Junior and Senior High School: write a piano sonata in the style of Mozart, which she did. So well, in fact, that all her friends thought it was actually a Mozart sonata.

“I am not sure you can call it totally creative,” she says, “but I can come up with something that the client wants.”

After meeting her American partner in Tokyo, Morioka emigrated to the United States in 1994 to start a family, living first in Charlottesville, Virginia, before relocating to Marin County, near San Francisco, in 2014.

It was in the U.S. that Morioka discovered music wasn’t her only passion.

“I really feel that I was a chocolatier in my past life,” she says. “I have this very particular sense and instinct when it comes to chocolates.”

She studied at L’ecole Valrhona in France, moved back to Tokyo last year and opened a truffle shop, Setagaya Truffle. The reasons for her return to Japan weren’t as sweet, however.

“My house was completely burned in the 2017 California wildfires,” she says. “My neighbor woke me up at about 1:30 a.m. and I could see the whole sky was lit up and smelled the smoke.”

After experiencing the fire, she says nothing surprises her.

“My feeling toward (the COVID-19) pandemic is, of course, that it’s terrible and stressful,” she says. “(But) if you can’t go outside, it is a good time to go inside — to meditate and contemplate.”

And for that, “Resonance” provides the perfect refuge.

Yumiko Morioka’s “Resonance” will be released on April 15. For more information, visit https://metronrecords.bandcamp.com/album/resonance.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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