I've recently begun watching the Mark Cousins-narrated documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey. Something reiterated from the beginning is that what we think of as "classical" 1920's and 1930's American films are actually "romantic" - the gauzy oversaturation, the manufactured glitz, the hero celebration, the obsession with film as dreamy reverie. Directors who strayed too far from the large-scale manufacture of escapist fantasies were punished for it. Just think of Eric von Stroheim never being allowed to direct within the Hollywood machine again again after his downer adaptation of Frank Norris' McTeague. The "real" classical films - classical in the sense of being grounded in daily life as it's actually experienced, the realistic movement through time, the mature sense of balance and proportion - belong to early Japanese cinema.
I wonder if the same isn't true for ambient and minimalist electronic music. Most of that sort of music that I listen to is Anglo-American (Brian Eno, Harold Budd, Steve Reich, Philip Glass) or German (Cluster, Harmonia, Roedelius). Even the newer stuff that I listen to - Julianna Barwick, Grouper, Vermont, Gaussian Curve, Visible Cloaks - are American or European artists. But a fascinating article in this month's Brooklyn Rail (whose music section, edited by George Grella, is indispensable) by Sadie Rebecca Starnes about how a combination of internet sharing platforms and algorithmically automated playlists on YouTube have led to a (re)discovery of 70's and 80's Japanese electronic minimalist and New Age music, comes as something of a revelation to people like myself who have only dipped their toe in the Occidental version:
"Such cascading enthusiasm is symptomatic of our times. Like Facebook, YouTube’s algorithm naturally inflames subcultures—conspiracy theorists and vinyl enthusiasts alike. YouTube engineers claim their Deep Learning Algorithm, modeled after our brain’s neural network, is one of the “largest-scale and most sophisticated” recommendation systems. As the algorithm evolves, even more nuanced and intelligent connections between users’ search histories and tastes are formed, amplifying niche audiences—for better or worse.
The centerpiece of YouTube’s recent algorithmic influence is 1983’s Through the Looking Glass, the debut solo album of Mkwaju Ensemble’s Midori Takada. A treasured rarity within music circles for decades, this masterwork of bubble-era Japanese minimalism was largely inaccessible until 2013, when musician Maxwell August Croy uploaded it to the Root Strata blog. A few days later, Takada was featured in another RootMix by Doran, “Music Interiors,” a compilation of 1980s “Japanese new-age/ambient/minimalist music.” Like the Fourth World collection before it, listeners fleshed out the track list on YouTube. Blogger Jackamo Brown’s early upload of the album netted nearly 2 million plays before it was taken down in 2017, reincarnated as a vinyl reissue through Palto Flats and WRWTFWWRecords. Incredibly, this was the number one new release on Discogs’s mid-2017 report—a buxom statistic for the typically fringe genre."
YouTube's notoriously AI-hijacked algorithms actually functioning in way that benefits people is great to hear, of course, but what's more interesting to me is the music itself. I've only begun to delve into it, but my initial reaction is that this sounds a lot like newer American ambient work - The Dead Texan particularly - rather than the almost *too* glossy, muzak and fusion jazz-influenced sound which overtook Western electronic composition after the initial Eno/Cluster wave (I'm thinking of Vangelis and Yanni here in particular). In this sense, I'm wondering if Japanese ambient/minimalist electronic music is more the true inheritor of the original promise of the genre rather than its Western coevals. More sophisticated, mature, balanced, simple, and hewing closer to life as it's actually experienced day to day, I wonder if 80's Japanese electronic music doesn't play a similar role as Japanese cinema from the 20's - which was also eventually "rediscovered" by the West as seen in its influence on French New Wave and the New Hollywood films of the 70's.
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