Another Blue World

Sadie Rebecca Starnes on serenitatem (2019)

Yoshio Ojima, Satsuki Shibano, Spencer Doran, and Ryan Carlile. Photo: Miyu Terasawa.

THE LATEST INSTALLMENT IN FRKWYS, RVNG Intl’s series of musical collaborations between different generations, serenitatem pairs Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile of Portland’s Visible Cloaks with two key figures of Japan’s late-century ambient movement, Satsuki Shibano and Yoshio Ojima. Following Doran’s curation of Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980–1990, out last February from Light in the Attic, serenitatem is not only a seamless collaboration between these two closely related duos but also a continued exploration of the varied influences that informed kankyō ongaku itself.

Developing amid the dense hypercapitalism of 1980s Tokyo, kankyō ongaku (“environmental” or “ambient” music) offered, in the words of practitioner Satoshi Ashikawa, “a more conscious attitude toward the sounds—other than music—that we listen to” in private and public space. Heirs to Tokyo’s Fluxus and environmental art movements, namely the Environmental Society (kankyō no kai), its artists and sound designers championed the capacious—be it in the rests of Erik Satie and John Cage or the Airports of Brian Eno. Supported by corporate Japan’s brief penchant for the avant-garde, kankyō ongaku was heard throughout the city’s museums and Mujis alike.

A pianist renowned for her interpretations of Satie, Shibano entered Tokyo’s experimental circles under the encouragement of minimalist maestro Midori Takada. Shibano’s debut album of 1984 was released as a part of Ashikawa’s “Wave Notation” series, the brief yet seminal collection of Japanese ambient music. She also worked with cardinal ambient musicians like Hiroshi Yoshimura, Motohiko Hamase, and Yoshio, the adventurous sound designer and producer who would become Shibano’s longtime collaborator. An early innovator in generative music software, Ojima is best known for 1988’s Une Collection Des Chaînons I and II: Music for Spiral, his masterpiece created especially for Tokyo’s iconic Spiral building. In 1991, he produced the exquisite Rendez-vous, Shibano’s interpretation of compositions by Pascal Comelade—the contemporary French musician, who, like Satie, “does not waste words.” An ethereal meeting of programming and prepared piano, Rendez-vous, like the following year’s Caresse and Music for Element, presaged current trends in electronic music. The album’s uncanny and angelic “Rayures Venitiennes,” for instance, eerily anticipates the sound world of Oneohtrix Point Never and, more directly, Visible Cloaks. 

While exploring kankyō ongaku, Doran invariably fell under the influence of Ojima and Shibano, “especially the kind of meta-experiments found on . . . Hands Some,” Ojima’s 1993 manifesto-cum-album on the future of music. This vision of a virtual utopia built by humans and computers, a no-place more synthetic than syncretic, is present on the Cloaks’ Reassemblage (2017)—a retrofuturist abstraction of Jon Hassell’s globe-embracing “fourth world” compositions. With serenitatem,we find the quartet meeting on such nameless ground, generating islands of filigreed texture, electronic birdsong, and enveloping warmth.

Though the beauty of serenitatem is immediate, its poetry is in the collaborators’ practice: “a game of exquisite corpse,” Doran points out, “playing out over the fiber optic internet cables underneath the Pacific.” Using Wotja—a contemporary version of the generative software pioneered by Ojima—the duos remotely exchanged aleatory compositions and piano improvisations before completing the album together in Tokyo’s SoundUno studio. Haunted by Satie, Yoshimura, and Cage, the first three tracks are titled “You” in French, Japanese, and English—an approach reminiscent of Satie’s Cubist treatment of a composition from different angles. Similarly, the four musicians shaped this triptych using what Doran calls “versioning”—a chance processing of music that, like Constance Lambert said of Satie’s three Gymnopédies, feels “as though we were moving slowly round a piece of sculpture and examining it from a different point of view.” Shibano’s piano, among the few “conventional” instruments on serenitatem, lends each piece its contours. Like skipping stones, her fingering skirts then pierces placid bodies of synth, finding the album’s bottom, while her lilting vocals—often too pristine to identify as human or machine—wholly transcend it.

The centerpiece of serenitatem is “Lapis Lazuli,” a track “very much inspired” by St. Giga, Ojima and Shibano’s unrivaled experiment in ambient satellite radio. From 1990 to 1994, St. Giga presented its subscribers with an uninterrupted stream of music, poetry, and field recordings synched with the tide cycle of Tokyo Bay. A similar oneiric, seaside atmosphere imbues “Lapis Lazuli,” wherein Shibano’s recitation of semiprecious gems—“onyx . . . topaz”—is positioned between exhalations of humid synth on glass. Water trickles into the latter half of the nine-minute song, which, above all, captures Doran’s poetic turn: “[It’s] the actual materiality that underpins beauty in representational art . . . the mined minerals that make up the laptops and synthesizer chips of electronic music, a link between the physical and the ideal.”

This elemental ambience, a suspension of pigment in ether, is serenitatem’s defining aesthetic. It’s captured in the noble air of “Stratum” and the generative minimalism of “You” and evoked by their revivals of fourteenth- and sixteenth-century compositions (a shared passion among the quartet), “S’amours ne fait par sa grace adoucir (Ballade 1)” and “Canzona per sonare no. 4.” Indeed, serenitatem easily turns epochs across keyboard and computer screen, and although of the kankyō ongaku lineage, the album moves us further from the environmental and closer to the virtual—a space less foreign than it once was, though well beyond city, century, or sea.