I would imagine that of the few of you following this blog intently, most will have been looking forward to this entry more than any other. There is a serious fascination in the Western world when it comes to Japan, to the point where it borders on fetishism – we even have specific derogatory terms for people who are obsessed with anything and everything Japanese. Music may not quite command the same fanbase that anime does, or computer games do, but you still don’t need to look very far to find an excited fan of Dir en Grey, or Mad Capsule Markets, or Nobuo Uematsu.
Japan’s national character suffered a little when Western music crossed the Pacific and took over, which is a real shame; the nation’s folk and classical forms are documented as well as in any country in the world. Clearly nothing I can type into such a short space will sum all of that up, so we’ll focus on just one such form; gagaku, which is perhaps best understood as an equivalent of sorts to European chamber music, traditionally played by small-ish ensembles for the rich and royal in private performaces. It went on to be a big influence on avant-garde Western classical music, informing the drones, the microtonality, the primitivism, and even the electronic textures that permeates the works of composers as famous as LaMonte Young, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Krzysztof Penderecki.
The influence of traditional Japanese music on the Western avant-garde has been recriprocated and mirrored by Japan’s own avant scene, which is one of the most fertile in the world and is home to some of the very biggest names on the cutting egde, from Yoko Ono to Ground Zero to Merzbow. The scene is so big that many of the most internationally-adored names in Japanese music nod to it (Sigh, Boris, Kashiwa Diasuke, and Boredoms are all classic examples that should be familiar to most of the users here). Finding an entry point into this vast landscape is tough, but I’d put forward the name of Ryoji Ikeda to any interested party – his music may be constructed entirely from clicks, white noise, sine waves, and found sounds, but he coalesces them into something with such a powerful, flexible rhythm that it almost qualifies as dance music.
For all of this, though, the West has been embraced perhaps a little too eagerly by the Japanese mainstream – there’s certainly an interesting comparison to be made when it comes to which out of America or Japan is more interested in the other on a cultural level. On the level of base observation, though, it’s hard not to recoil in horror at some of the biggest Japanese acts, most of whom hold up a mirror to the absolute worst of American music and just amplify it, and manage to sound 10 years out of date, too. Hair metal, happy hardcore, trashy teen pop, nu-metal, pop-punk, boy bands – it’s all there, and it’s mostly excruciating. They have, however, managed to sculpt a seriously classy underground hip-hop scene, which has found itself some extra attention recently as a result of the tragic death of Nujabes. Regular followers of this blog will already know how much I adore this man’s music, so when presented with the option of posting more or subbing him out for DJ Krush or Lyrics Born or Deckstream…well, what do you think I went for?