For the next few episodes, Sound Contours rewinds to Japan’s kaleidoscopic 1990s and early 2000s.
In electronic music at the time, cutting edge meant creative algorithms and visual programming environments where new processes might result in beauty as soon they might produce noise. Nobukazu Takemura led the way: beyond granular synthesis, his output randomizers affected melody, his glitches (the sounds of ordered processes going awry) became pleasant listening, MIDI noise was incorporated into music, and the voices of robots — hidden like kodama in a personal computer — were friendly and cute, rather than isolating and threatening.
Meanwhile, in the realms of alternative and pop, creators like Keigo Oyamada aka Cornelius were navigating the landscape with a combination of influences: psych rock, jangle pop, Latin and Brazilian rhythms, touches of Serge Gainsbourg, and tropes out of cheesy ’60s exotica. References to past forms of cool were being reinterpreted by the late-capitalist hipsters of hyper-boutique Tokyo, specifically in Shibuya, hence the Shibuya-kei genre.
In nearby neighborhoods both literal and figurative, and on labels stylistically adjacent to one another, experimental rock from psych to noise to post would all abound via rock outfits like The Boredoms (and their many many side projects). Along with the work of noise godfather Merzbow (and those like him) and improvisers like vinyl destroyer Otomo Yoshihide, these were the outer bounds of the era.
Up first is the ultimate Childisc retrospective. A small label run by Takemura in Kyoto from 1994 to 2007, Childisc was subtly groundbreaking. Though he deserves his own episode, Takemura put out most of his best work on Childisc and honed a singular aesthetic there, curating the work of lesser known yet likeminded artists from around Japan and pairing it with his own. This aesthetic has been described as Cute Formalism by musician and writer Momus, who has also drawn extensive links to “twee” in the U.S. and other counterparts in Germany.
Before styles and movements like vaporwave would enter the experimental lexicon — before Max/MSP and Max for Live were mainstream instruments in the realms of techno, minimal, EDM and IDM — before artists like D/P/I and Oneohtrix Point Never would cut-up, process and drastically reshape sound, twisting our expectations of what we hear and how we visualize space and music — and before the new age of New Age — Takemura and his cohorts were laying the foundation. It was the start of 21st century music.
Childisc was about mystery and wonder — a pairing of experimentalism and whimsy, where cute or kawaii voices and melodies were peppered with challenging bursts of blips and bloops. Electronic noises were slyly recontextualized as atmospheric music or percussion instruments; trip-hop and breezy, Brazil-inflected beats were joined by cheap Casio keyboards played with childlike playfulness; and ambient landscapes comparable to Markus Popp aka Oval would skitter along without necessarily arriving at a horizon…
Lullatone – If I Had a Harp I Would Play it Every Day
Asao Kikuchi – What Must They Be Saying?
Yabemilk – Caprice Salad
Slowly Minute – Happy Birth & Sweet Blue
Nobukazu Takemura – Sign
Hyu – Hyper Function
Kiyoshi Izumi – Tengwar
Suppa Micro Pamchopp – A Secret Sense of Panic
Nobukazu Takemura – Cons
Aki Tsuyuko – A Happy Day
Child’s View – grill
Arrow Tour – Fever and Heater
Hirono Nishiyama – ひまわり
Arche Type – Ciao Ciao Bambina
Asao Kikuchi – Fireworks
Nobukazu Takemura – The Cradle of the Light
Slowly Minute – The Song of The Sun In Autumn’s Holiday
Kiyoshi Izumi – Zephyr
Koota Tanimura – Meet Me In The Next Living
Gutevolk – Mizuno Soko (Live Version)
Nobukazu Takemura – Conical Flask
Nobukazu Takemura – Chrysalis Part 2
Eiji Mitomi – Centaurea
Hyu – Egg Plane
Nobukazu Takemura – Mahou No Hiroba
Nobukazu Takemura – Lost Treasure (4th Version)
Kiyoshi Izumi – Graflicker
Slowly Minute – Whisper Magic (2003 Slowly Minute Mix)
Nobukazu Takemura – Anemometer
Eiji Mitomi – Rainbow
Sako – Sheep Negotiation