Andy Beta explores the Japanese innovator's key electronic works.
"They looked something like The Beatles, and I expected maybe they were just a little more cosmopolitan than me," Parks recently told the Light In The Attic label about his first encounter with Japanese music legend Haruomi Hosono. And while Hosono's folk-rock band from that day didn't quite attain Beatles-like levels of fame, his next band, Yellow Magic Orchestra, were pioneers in electronic music, at the zeitgeist of technopop along with the likes of Kraftwerk. Their proximity to the biggest tech companies in Japan allowed YMO to integrate the latest synthesizers, samplers, sequencers, drum machines, computers and digital recording technology the moment they became available. In their home country, Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi became superstars and they even made inroads outside Japan. Their music was played at the Paradise Garage and by The Electrifying Mojo on Detroit radio. They were covered by Michael Jackson and appeared on Soul Train.
At the height of YMO's fame in the early '80s, Hosono began to explore ambient music using the newest technologies. "Whenever I was back in my room I'd cover the TV with a semi-transparent sheet and use it as a light source, and listen to minimal music like Brian Eno and the Obscure label," he told me. "Not long after that time, I DJ'd an event where I played a Gregorian chant simultaneously with a drum machine—that's when I started to express those feeling I had towards that kind of music." These explorations dovetailed with the cutting-edge technology arising from Japan's biggest companies like Sony, Yamaha and Roland. "What changed the way I create music was a micro-computer named Roland MC-4 and MIDI, which happened concurrently," he said. "I tried out each new product that came out. The most unique of all, but the most difficult to operate, was the Yamaha DX-7, but I eventually was able to figure it out."
Figure it out might be an understatement. "Hosono's role in Japan has been more of a mentor than a musician," Terre Thaemlitz wrote in a 2003 paper about Japanese electronic music. "Most of today's Japanese electronic producers still confess a debt to Hosono's broad influence." (One of Thaemlitz's earliest albums, 1997's Couture Cosmetique, was released on Hosono's Daisyworld Discs, and Thaemlitz also contributed to the ambient house album Interpieces Organization, Hosono's collaboration with Bill Laswell.) That influence also spread throughout Europe and the US. You can hear Hosono productions in almost any setting: Hunee's Essential Mix, Powder's nine-hour DJ set in New York, Peggy Gou's Instagram. To understand just how the 71-year-old has infiltrated modern dance music, one need only look to NTS Radio's designation of Haruomi Hosono Day, featuring an array of old and new producers alike spinning four decades of his music: 2ManyDJs, Lafawndah, Japan Blues, Visible Cloaks to name a few. "The first time I heard records like Cochin Moon and Paradise View, I was completely entranced by their freedom of tone, narrative points of view, and highly personal sound design," said Lafawndah. "Hosono's music is by far the hairiest, funniest, most freaked-out of the post-YMO milieu. It's also some of the most moving. His committed curiosity is palpable, and he drew new musical maps that we're still trying to decipher."
Hosono was one of the earliest artists to understand how electronics can be freeing: from virtuosity, from education, from nationality and culture, from ego, from gender even. "The notion of plastic identity—of being easily impressionable, readily melted down and reformulated—also plays a part in Hosono's incorporation of themes of Transgenderism," Thaemlitz wrote.
This month, Light In The Attic's new series of Hosono reissues will reintroduce five of Hosono's solo albums to the West for the first time ever, from 1978's Paraiso and synth-prog stunner Cochin Moon to 1989's swing jazz/acid house opus Omni Sight Seeing. But these are just a few sides of the genius of Hosono-san. His career remains unlike any to be found elsewhere, at times like Neil Young, at others like Kraftwerk or Eno, while his electronic work in the late '80s and '90s made him contemporaries of The Orb, Bill Laswell, 808 State, Mixmaster Morris and Atom Heart. But as the era wore on, Hosono found himself bored by conventions and formulaic approaches to electronic music-making. As he himself put it in his Red Bull Music Academy interview, he found himself "adrift in the sea of ambient music." And so he hit reset and returned to pop music.
To celebrate the occasion of his classic solo albums finally being made widely available, Hosono played his first-ever show outside of Japan at London's Barbican in June. For an artist with innumerable musical transformations in his body of work, one wasn't quite sure what to expect from the master. That said, a rollicking set of early rock & roll and boogie-woogie was surprising, to say the least. Whether or not Hosono will ever return to electronic music, his explorations into cutting-edge technology continue to inspire new artists, his massive catalog containing countless treasures and moments that are as exquisite as a pearl, meaning a lifetime of musical discoveries to be had for newcomers and dedicated Hosono fans alike.
Here, we explore some of Hosono-san's key electronic music experiments. It's by no means a definitive list—his jaw-dropping productions for the likes of Miharu Koshi, Testpattern, Sandii And The Sunsetz, Interior and Inoyama Land could easily be a feature all on their own.
In April of 1974, almost a decade into his career as a musician, Hosono, illustrator Tadanori Yokoo, essayist Katsuhiko Ohta and photographer Yoshino Ōishi spent a month traveling in India. Yokoo at this point had already introduced Hosono to the wonders of Kraftwerk, and while Hosono had previously used synthesizers on Paraiso, by his own admission, India transformed his perspective on synthesizers. (A hallucinatory bout of food poisoning may have also been a factor.) Conceived as a score to an imaginary Bollywood film (Hosono was awestruck by the vocals of Indian playback queen Lata Mangeshkar), Cochin Moon on the surface seems to take cues from Isao Tomita, Jean-Michel Jarré, Tangerine Dream and other synth albums of the era. Yet in revisiting the album, Hosono's approach to the synthesizers and sequencers is singular, sending utterly alien sounds deep into the stratosphere.
With contributions from Sakamoto and Takahashi, the roots of YMO could be heard on Cochin Moon. Soon after, YMO became pop superstars and Hosono didn't release any solo music until the band took a break in 1982. While Sakamoto was off filming and scoring Nagisa Oshima's homoerotic World War II drama Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence with David Bowie, Hosono stayed busy, too. Hosono established Yen Records with Takahashi, producing and playing on nearly every release on the imprint. He also made his first solo album in five years. He leaned heavily on the wonders of the MC-4 and Emulator, utilizing an early form of sampling to structure the bewildering songs that comprise Philharmony, chopping up vocals, breath and gongs to achieve a unique effect. "Sampling around that time had very low resolution, but it actually gave it a very interesting effect," Hosono said. "Samplers allowed musicians to explore beyond simply creating music, and develop more of an editing sensibility. Ironically, even if you wanted to, you can't really go back and achieve that sound now—the right equipment is hard to come by."
Watering A Flower
One of the rarest entries in the Hosono catalog also presents a fascinating merger of avant-garde strategies and commerce. In 1983, the first Muji store opened in Tokyo, and Hosono was commissioned to create background music for in-store use. Hosono was not unfamiliar with the format, as YMO cheekily named their 1981 album BGM (i.e. "background music") after it. "The lightweight, narrow emotionality of the music diffuses the potential threat of being in close proximity to so many strangers," Paul Roquet writes in his 2016 book, Ambient Media/Japanese Atmospheres Of Self. "The music in these impersonal situations contours the relations between people." Only released on cassette (though it can be found online), Hosono's take on BGM cagily inverts the ideas of lightweightness and a soundtrack for shopping. By turns woozy and childlike, atonal and warm, dreamy and queasy, it doesn’t really scream "buy!" but it does signal Hosono's growing interest in the possibilities of ambient music.
The Endless Talkin
Listen: Coincidental Music / Mercuric Dance / Paradise View
Yellow Magic Orchestra disbanded in 1984 and Hosono soon struck out to document his new mindset with a series of books, records and other media as Non-Standard and Monad. Deeply influenced by Eno's Obscure label, as well as the works of Michael Nyman and David Cunningham's pop project The Flying Lizards, in 1985 Hosono released four albums that echo and emulate Eno's own ambient series. Each album also reflects a different area of collaboration for Hosono. Mercuric Dance is a score for an ambient film by Arai Tadayoshi; Coincidental Music collects music made for commercials; The Endless Talking is music for an installation in Italy; and Paradise View a soundtrack for Goh Takamine's magic realist film of the same name.
Globule, a book Hosono produced to announce his new vision (as well as a play on "global"), stakes out a vision to take Eno's concept of ambient music and expand it to "a global level… to converse with and respond to a dispatch from the earth," mingling the rise of ambient music as well as that of "world music." Coincidental Music might be the least vital of the four, shiny miniatures made for everyone from probiotic dairy company Yakult to cosmetic giant Shiseido, but again Hosono finds a way to be comical within the worlds of commerce—the ten-minute epic "Memphis, Milano" is an effervescent mix of stiff drum machines, glitching voices and sprightly piano. The Endless Talking delivers Satie-esque miniatures, most in the three-minute range, simple yet twinkling, though pieces like "Trembling #1" veer into eerie terrain. Paradise View hews closest to the sampler-based structures of Philharmony. Its decidedly off-kilter, glassy tones mix with tribal chants and gamelan, and these shards of sound are rearranged by Hosono into fascinating mosaics.
Mercuric Dance is one of the unheralded ambient albums from the '80s, at times heavy and drifting, warm and embryonic, icy and oceanic. In its titles, it touches on environmental themes as well as spiritual ones. As Roquet notes, "These unhurried melodic lines take the form of a steady inhalation followed by an exhalation increasingly slow and deep," meaning a listen that slowly brings you towards an inward-gazing meditative state. Or as Hosono once explained: "Ambient is the musical form with the greatest reach… from the expanses of one's deeper interior. In making ambient music I came to the realization that it is definitely not an external environment, but rather the internal ambience."
Sex, Energy And Star
Hosono's synths, sequencers and samplers could do way more than just conjure ambient mindstates, as his Friends Of Earth project soon revealed. Hosono has always been infatuated with American music. "I think all the interesting American music has been born out of its diversity," he told me, citing the likes of Turkish immigrant Ahmet Ertegun making soul into a force at Atlantic and the Polish brothers behind blues label Chess. "One can say that American music was created by music-loving immigrants who were able to put their music to tape." He expressed a love of American funk and New Orleans soul by covering Dr. John and James Brown, utilizing the Godfather himself and Maceo Parker on the track. Elsewhere, Hosono also mashed up punk, rap and electro, with stunning results.
Omni Sight Seeing
This is perhaps the album that offers up the best summation of Hosono's many musical interests. As Thaemlitz writes: "This association between Japanese people, relocation, travel and international tourism was summarized by Hosono in the term 'Sightseeing Music.' For Hosono, the Japanese preoccupation with sightseeing serves as a metaphor for electronic musicians producing works in several genres, much like a tourist visiting different cultures." A variant on Jon Hassell's Fourth World music, there's a playfulness to Hosono's own sightseeing music, which means he can alight on ambient, swing jazz, Algerian raï, exotica and acid house, make it all cohere and still sound like himself. How else to explain an album that offers up an 808-propelled version of Duke Ellington's "Caravan," a hypnotic acid house classic in "Laugh-Gas" and the charming pop of "Pleocene"?
Medicine Compilation From The Quiet Lodge
"When it came to recording I was holing myself up alone in the studio and creating music as data," said Hosono about his years making electronic music. "It felt like I was floating in the middle of the sea, like a dolphin or a whale, and working with anyone but myself was rare." Hosono's output during the early '90s is baffling to say the least. There's downtempo remixes of "Laura Palmer's Theme" from Twin Peaks, and a curious ambient house/breakbeat collaborative album with Bill Laswell. And then there's this set, which found Hosono working with new age icon Laraaji. This might be the closest Hosono gets to new age music, but there are also instances of Fela Kuti's Afrobeat bubbling up (see "Aiwoiwaiaou"), acid house ("Medicine Mix") and more. Reaching out to Laraaji via email, he recalled the sessions: "Hosono was very quiet, we didn't have much interaction other than it was good spirited. The improvisation was intuitive and flowing... very trusting, telepathic. There was a quiet strength in his musical presence."
Love, Peace & Trance
Early in his career, Hosono earned the nickname "Hippy Harry" and while his hair might have been shorter than during his rock band days, that counterculture spirit remained with him well into the '90s. "The psychedelic consciousness revolution was something I admired," Hosono said to me. "The movement, through its music, had a big influence on me. I feel that the music was more effective at expressing the revolutionary changes happening at the time." 30 years on, Hosono was feeling like a hippy once again, envisioning world peace and maybe even seeing himself as Svengali/guru behind his version of a "girl group." Love, Peace & Trance featured the crystalline pipes of Mimori Yusa, Mishio Ogawa and dip in the pool's Miyako Koda. The album is a serene, angelic take on ambient house. Trance-inducing 808 patterns (sometimes swapped out with tabla), body-melting chords and Koda's airy vocals make tracks like "Mammal Mama" and "Hasu Kriya" some of Hosono's dreamiest productions.
In the mid-'90s, Hosono entered into a fruitful collaboration with another wide-eared bassist and groundbreaking producer adept at exploring all manners of electronic and world musics: Bill Laswell. Together they contributed to the ambient compilation Distill (featuring the likes of Pete Namlook, Paul Schutze, Mick Harris and Thomas Koner), the playful Interpieces Organization and teamed up again on N.D.E. This album expertly navigates the in-between spaces of techno, ambient, drone and world music, the duo tapping the hypnotic modal violin work of Arun Bagal, dance producer François K. and the adventurous saxophone of Yasuaki Shimizu (well before Shimizu's astonishing work as Mariah found new fans in the next century) to make a sumptuous electronic album that's now ripe for rediscovery.
Soon after N.D.E., Hosono's interest in electronic music began to wane. As he told me: "Ambient represented a musical and psychological reset for me and as the new millennium dawned and the 21st century began, that period of reset ended." Hosono has since delved into bluegrass, folk rock and blues. But he did hint that he might return to electronic explorations in the near future. "It's been over ten years since I've gotten back to playing with other people. And now, for my next album, I'll probably be holing myself up in the studio again." Who knows what new sounds may emerge?