Takashi Kokubo didn’t know it back in 1985, but he was about to be at the forefront of one of Japan’s most coveted musical exports: kankyō ongaku (environmental music), an offshoot of ambient music that summons worlds and fills spaces with synthesized, and sometimes natural, sounds.
“When I created ‘Digital Soundology #1 Volk von Bauhaus,’ I didn’t even know what ambient or kankyō ongaku was,” Kokubo tells The Japan Times via email. “Later, I discovered what I made was indeed kankyō ongaku. Maybe it just wasn’t a big scene in Japan at that time.”
For sound designer and composer Kokubo, his music was simply a reaction to what he felt at the time was “too much.” Contemporary ’80s genres like pop and rock were too message-focused; even precisely composed forms, such as a Beethoven sonata, were something he didn’t want to listen to.
“I was fed up in the early ’80s with that sort of ‘I want to convey this’ message,” he says.
Now, 35 years after its original release, “Volk von Bauhaus” is seeing a vinyl rerelease courtesy of Madrid-based record label Glossy Mistakes — but it’s not the first time Kokubo’s music has been rediscovered by audiences outside of Japan. Back in 2018, his 1987 work “Get At The Wave,” an “image album” originally created for a high-end Sanyo air-conditioning unit, was reissued as “A Dream Sails Out to Sea (Get at the Wave)” by Lag Records.
Ambient music has certainly been making a comeback in recent years. Alongside other reissues such as “Resonance” by Yumiko Morioka earlier this year and Yasuaki Shimizu’s “Music for Commercials” — as well as the 2019 compilation “Kankyo Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990,” a who’s-who of Japanese ambient music — Kokubo’s “Volk von Bauhaus” colors in the blanks of a decade otherwise known for bubble-era jollity.
When asked why he thinks ambient music is making a resurgence, Kokubo says, “Isn’t the contemporary music scene a ‘too much’ kind of situation? Isn’t there a need for casual music with a faint message that you listen to unintentionally?”
Kokubo’s desire to create music that was neither overly composed, nor had any particular strong message to put across, was realized when he first laid hands on a Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument). The A-side to the album consists of two-bar repetitions enabled by this “new tool,” as Kokubo puts it.
“I wanted to make music the same way that Picasso paints.”
There are snippets of birdsong, a resonant cavalcade of marimba and breathy pads in a gleaming zoetrope of sound that whirls endlessly in ‘Playing Among the Gods,’ whereas ‘Melancholy II’ transforms the atmosphere into something swamp-like and haunted, a slow, twilit march that feels like embryonic video game music.
These loops, alongside A-side closer — the aptly named ‘Before You Dream,’ which is a sea of glitter ebbing and flowing on a cloud beach of soft, simple melody — are the most legible tracks on the album. The B-side are instead what Kokubo calls “fractionations,” beginning with the cosmic anti-sonata of ‘Fluctuation #1’ with its random, puffy beat.
“They’re all composed by an automatic computer-playing program,” he says. “I’m just changing some autoplay parameters from song to song. So I didn’t make it because I wanted to create sharpness.
“It just happened.”
Named “Volk von Bauhaus” after the German art school of the same name founded in 1919, Kokubo chose this title to echo the sense of “newness” of the early 20th-century design movement. Random patterns result in a sense of coldness — as in the far-off meteor shower aesthetics in the piercing “The Insane Time Keeper” and sci-fi-ready “Daze / Fluctuation Step 1” — as much as a sense of drama, such as in the thick textures and voidsome feeling evoked in final track “Chaos.”
The rerelease, however, comes with a bonus track, the gentle “Kairo no Ongaku” (which translates to “Corridor Music”), as if an antidote to the harshness.
It was originally envisaged as music composed for a building, specifically a corridor — and a twisting, turning one at that — similar to the hushed spaces found in European churches, says Kokubo.
“I wrote this so that listeners can feel a sense of time paralysed, of something sacred and extraordinary,” he says. It isn’t the only time that his music was created with a location in mind.
His 1992 work, “Barcelona: Gaudi’s Dream” was a sonic reaction to a physical space, not only the architecture of Antonio Gaudi — including the famously never-finished cathedral, La Sagrada Familia — but largely by Barcelona itself, the city having received much attention in Japan ahead of the 1992 Olympics.
“I had a strong admiration for Gaudi’s architecture, just as I admired Bauhaus,” he says. “I remember being strongly impacted by the mysterious harmony between the city of Barcelona and Gaudi’s creations. The sound of the city and the bells of the church wrapped in stone buildings were a very fresh stimulus to me.”
The result is three tracks that clink and clank with bells in a relaxing swathe of sounds, vast glimmering chords and intricate chimes, all inspired by the city — a place, physical buildings.
Along with his career as a musician inspired by different environments and artistic styles, Kokubo’s services as a sound designer have been employed in varying sectors of Japan, and appear in many places throughout the country. The point of sound design, Kokubo says, is to “take responsibility for society” by making sure the sounds and music he creates are effective.
“People of all ages will come into contact with this sound and music, so with a strong sense of responsibility, we design sound and music that will surely achieve its purpose and exert its functions.”
Kokubo’s most famous project came along in 2007 when he was approached by service provider Docomo to design the Earthquake Early Warning system alarm that sounds on mobile phones when an earthquake of 5 or more on the shindo seismic scale is detected.
Kokubo took three months researching alarm sounds in Japan to come up with the jolting alert, which is a considered burst of three sounds, moving from low to high frequency — not intended to cause anxiety, of course, but to switch the brain to “attention” mode.
From the harshness of his latest reissue and his fear-inducing earthquake alarm, to his calming back catalog of music, for Kokubo, there is one constant.
“What I often try when it comes to sound design is: ‘Let’s breathe slower than usual.’”
This year has been a tumultuous one, and with all the anxiety and concern it has brought, Kokubo’s creations are a good reminder to pause, take a breath and appreciate our surroundings.
For more information on Takashi Kokubo, visit www.studio-ion.com (Japanese). To purchase “Digital Soundology #1 Volk von Bauhaus,” visit www.glossymistakes.bandcamp.com.