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The Yoshimura revival: environmental music in the age of eco-anxiety

April 22, 2022

Alyssa Bommer

In 1980s Japan, during a time of rapid urbanization and technological advancement, a new genre of music sprouted from the era’s bustling, neon streets. Pioneered by Yokohama-born composer and historian Hiroshi Yoshimura, the artistic movement, known as “kankyo ongaku,” or “environment music,” began to spread across the nation.

Characterized by a spare electronic palette and carefully arranged synthesizers, the genre’s minimalism stood in contrast to the rampant consumerism of the time. As the fluorescent colors of arcade houses and anime films illuminated the country, Yoshimura rendered his work in earth tones. Although his music was in part a response to Japan’s financial boom and its cultural reverberations, his artistic motives extended beyond the scope of the economy. Drawing inspiration from American experimental artists such as Harry Partch and Brian Eno (who were themselves influenced by Japanese musical sensibilities), Yoshimura was concerned less with commercial appeal than atmospheric precision.

While most popular musicians calibrated their songs to the rhythms of time, Yoshimura focused instead on the quality of space. When listening to Yoshimura’s work, there is not a lyric or a hook in sight—only a landscape of sparse, roving melodies. Many of his songs call to mind the unassuming vitality of the natural world. In “Clouds,” notes meander across the octaves like flocks of grazing sheep. The simple, looping phrases of “GREEN” curve like earthworms through damp, spring soil.

While Yoshimura’s music tends to elicit ecological metaphors such as these, pastoral comfort is only one of the many feelings his work evokes. Given his preoccupation with the environment Yoshimura is often indexed as a New Age musician, but the label obscures the complexity of his creative pursuits. New Age music, which scored many of the Western spiritual movements of the late 20th century, aimed to promote a sense of universal harmony in the world; its emotional register was decidedly tranquil, loving, optimistic. Yoshimura, on the other hand, was not afraid of a little dissonance. His work occupied a kind of no-man’s-land between American genres—not quite upbeat enough for the ‘80s synth-pop, not quite serene enough for spa music. For this reason, his music never achieved mainstream attention in the United States. That is, until recently.

A few months after the launch of YouTube Music in 2015, the streaming website’s algorithm began recommending Yoshimura’s music at an exponential rate, garnering millions of views for several of his albums. This uptick coincided with a number of trends: the rise of lo-fi study music and the first glimmers of digicore. Although these musical currents may have contributed to Yoshimura’s resurgence, his newfound popularity arrived on the heels of another global phenomenon: the Paris Climate Accord.

The conference, which convened in 2015 in hopes of curtailing international CO2 emissions, marked a distinctive shift in mainstream society’s attitude toward its natural surroundings. As glaciers melted and wildfires multiplied, an ambient sense of dread began to permeate the lives of even those most sheltered from the effects of the climate crisis. According to a survey in the UK, approximately one in five children has nightmares about an impending environmental catastrophe. Two in five of children trust that adults can solve the problem. Indeed, the lush, flower-child visions of the New Age have wilted in light of recent scientific literature. Projections from climate scientists across the world paint an alarming portrait of the world to come, and the global initiatives to avoid its arrival can at times seem futile.

As new information about climate change comes forth, new emotions have emerged to accompany it. In 2017, the American Psychiatric Association added a new entry to their catalog: “eco-anxiety,” defined as the “chronic fear of environmental doom.” Researchers at the University of Western Australia point to increasing cases of “climate grief,” a sense of despair that arises upon contemplating the perishing planet. “Solastalgia,” a term coined by sustainability professor Glenn Abrecht, describes the sense of longing for the vanishing present, or as he puts it, “the homesickness you have when you are still at home.”

With all these novel feelings in the air, it makes sense that listeners have turned to Yoshimura’s environmental music in this time of ecological reckoning. Rather than pacify his audience with soothing harmonies, Yoshimura opts for a more expansive emotional range. There are moments of calm, but there are moments of possible calamity, too. The frantic arpeggios in “FEEL” convey a sense of urgency, hurrying to find a resolution that never quite comes. The gentle discord running throughout “Water Copy” suggests a faint, persistent apprehension, surrounded by constellations of wistful synths. But because of Yoshimura’s pared-down production style, the emotions are never obvious but subtly intoned. Instead of sweeping the audience into its own sentimental drift, Yoshimura’s music provides a kind of trellis for the listener, a structure in which to explore one’s own emotional impulses.

When Yoshimura’s landmark album “GREEN” was released in 1986, there were two versions. One of them was purely derived from Yoshimura’s synthesizer, while the other featured soundbites from the natural world, adorned with birdsong, rainfall and flowing rivers. The first was distributed in Japan, the second, in the U.S. Yoshimura preferred the former, but the American new-age label Sona Gaia, which purchased the rights to the record, had a different opinion. Perhaps fearing that the original would be too austere for American tastes, Sona Gaia issued an embellished copy. Only in the past decade has the early edition become available to American audiences thanks to the reissue from Light in the Attic Records. Although the original version lacks the pleasing textures of crashing waves and chirping crickets, there is something compelling about its spaciousness.

As we contemplate the existential threat of the climate crisis, Yoshimura’s work offers space to hold whatever feelings arise. Instead of letting our minds get overgrown with hope or fear, Yoshimura tends to the whole ecology of emotions—our happiness, our heartache, our sense of humility. Indeed, when I think of Hiroshi’s soundscape, humble is one of the first words that comes to mind. And I mean humble in the literal sense—from the Latin humus, meaning “ground, soil, earth.” In the face of so much uncertainty about our planet’s future, it’s only natural to seek refuge, whether it be in the heights of optimism or in the depths of despair. Hiroshi’s music calls us back to the ground, into the open arms of grass where, at least for now, the world is still green.


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