Hiroshi Yoshimura was sitting with his eyes closed. Beneath him, a mat. Beside him, several stones. In his hands he held a soprano saxophone. It was September 1977, and he and the musician Akio Suzuki were staging a performance titled HOT BREATH. For the next 12 hours, their time would belong to the act of listening. The 36-year-old composer wanted his music to be “as close to air itself” as possible, and it’s easy to imagine that on that Saturday, he captured something at the level of particles. Above his head hung a paper structure dubbed the “cloud mobile.” It twirled as a result of his movements and his playing, and maybe the opening of a nearby door. If he longed to be part of something grander, something interconnected, Yoshimura got there one modest gesture at a time.
Yoshimura, who died in 2003, believed that any given artwork—like individual human existence itself—represented a single thread of a much larger tapestry. He joined the Taj Mahal Travellers in 1974, and under the leadership of Fluxus artist Takehisa Kosugi, the free-improvisation group held concerts in the city and in nature, often accompanied by footage of the ocean. Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports would arrive at the tail end of the decade, bringing with it something new: kankyō ongaku, or “environmental music,” a style of site-specific sound art. Yoshimura’s first foray into the genre came with 1982’s Music for Nine Post Cards, created to be played back at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. The spirit of the piece recalls something he once said of a Harold Budd performance: “full of kindness and refinement, allowing us to open up our hearts without limits.” Yoshimura’s compositions were similarly self-effacing and similarly transformative, meant to affect the way we interact with the world.
Yoshimura would spend his career writing songs for public spaces, and the fullest realization of that was his 1986 LP Surround, commissioned by Misawa Homes Institute of Research and Development as a set of soundscapes for the company’s prefabricated houses. The task was daunting: He had to make people’s homes—the most intimate, comfortable place in anyone’s life—even more hospitable. The album’s most arresting quality points to his solution: It encourages an appreciation for everyday beauty. Yoshimura was keenly receptive to the sublimity of the world around him; he’d once spent an entire day looking heavenward, playing his piano to the steady drifting of clouds. Such dedicated practices may have informed the natural rhythms at the heart of Surround, where patient metallophone and guitar-like melodies swim in reflecting pools of limpid electronic tone. The synths on “Something blue” are as charming as they are inviting, every phrase like a cresting wave to float upon. It sounds like Eno’s “1/1” if the latter were twice as fast and suffused with childlike whimsy. It’s this playfulness that sets Yoshimura’s music apart. The music of forebears like Erik Satie, who he loved since high school, could often be construed as forlorn; Surround’s brand of introspection is eminently hopeful.
Comparing Surround to the work of Yoshimura’s contemporaries helps clarify the uniqueness of the Japanese composer’s vision. In the 1980s, Steve Roach and Michael Stearns constructed interplanetary fantasies, Budd & Eno’s The Pearl turned new-age reverberations into mythical dreams, and Ambient 4: On Land was dark and moody, filled with atmospheric intrigue. Yoshimura’s work is far more down to earth, unconcerned with imagining new locales. In “Green shower,” a woodwind-like melody trickles down like rain, landing in a pool of rippling synths. When a higher-pitched tone arrives, it does so with the warmth of a sun breaking the horizon. Conjuring entire landscapes out of a few meager layers of sound, Yoshimura seems to encourage listeners to focus their senses and notice how much music already surrounds us.
For decades, Yoshimura wrote down his thoughts about music in notebooks. Perhaps most insightful was when he mused, “My music is not mine, but the sounds which are not mine are also my music.” As John Cage had with 4’33”, Yoshimura found that anything could be compositional material, that he was a mere participant in the universe’s collective symphony. This is especially apparent on his albums incorporating field recordings, like 1986’s GREEN or 1993’s Wet Land, but similar ideas also animate Surround. On “Water planet,” glistening synths intermittently appear, one note at a time—sometimes offering a semblance of melody, but mostly just sparkling amid diaphanous drones. The song resembles an important precursor to environmental music: suikinkutsu, a Japanese garden ornament where water droplets echo inside jars.
Music this tender feels like a generous embrace. That is the prevailing impression of Surround’s 11-minute centerpiece, “Time forest.” Its synths oscillate without pause, tremolo pulses in constant motion. Halfway through, deep synthesizer chimes offer a welcome sense of stability amid the soft tumult. “Serenity might be the supreme music I am aiming at,” Yoshimura once said. He wasn’t endorsing escapism; he detested rock’n’roll for pursuing just that. His music instead prized hyper-awareness of one’s surroundings. Even his peers making kankyō ongaku couldn’t quite reach this careful balance. At times, their works could be too dramatic, or leave one drifting aimlessly. With Surround, each new development is vital, and its quietude is a site for active engagement.
In the original liner notes for the album, Yoshimura requested that it be played at a low enough volume to allow space for conversation. He wanted its contents to be on the same level as, say, the patter of footsteps. Turn the title track up to 11 and you can hear the emotional pull of its synth pads. Bring it down several notches and all that remains is a low hum ringed by a faint glimmer—it feels, quite beautifully, like walking through mist. In a way, Yoshimura’s work is the antithesis to musique concrète: If those composers exerted dominion over nature, reconfiguring sounds through tape-spliced collages, then Yoshimura was merely surrendering to it.
Yoshimura made his way through the world via sound, once declaring, “I look with my ears.” He gives us a chance to experience that on “Time after time,” the magnum opus of his entire oeuvre. There’s a startling clarity to each mallet strike, and when hearing it alongside the ambient noise of one’s living quarters, everything—the rustling of dog tags, the clanging of silverware—seems imbued with an extra glint. His music can be understood as an alternate version of Pauline Oliveros’ deep-listening practices, except without the long-form drones and extended retreats. To become extraordinarily attentive, he simply gives you the sparest of sounds. At his concerts, Yoshimura had performers wear paper bunny ears to signal that people should listen closely. On Surround, he asks us to be like a rabbit grazing in the evening stillness, perfectly attuned to our surroundings.
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