In the 1950s and 1960s, several Japanese composers developed strong connections with American avant-garde scene. It is during these years that Toshi Ichiyanagi studied in the US with John Cage, participated in dada-inspired Fluxus movement and got involved with contemporary theater music. Although Ichiyanagi initially focused on composing chamber music and scores with Japanese traditional instruments, the interface with the messiah of indeterminacy fertilized his budding taste for experimentation.
Married to multimedia artist and fellow Flexus member Yoko Ono, Ichiyanagi experienced a creative breakthrough after his return to Japan. He soon ventured into vintage live electronics and physicalism – performances in which sounds were activated by musicians’ movements. Not all of these forays were entirely self-induced. Already in 1961, his path had crossed with improvising pioneers Group Ongaku, led by Shiomi Mizuno, Yasunao Tone and Takehisa Kosugi.
Yet contacts with US academic institutions continued. This was the period when an entire generation of youthful musicians shuttled between America and Japan: Takehisa Kosugi, Masahiko Satoh and Stomu Yamashita among others. In 1967, Ichiyanagi returned to New York to perfect his skills in electronic sound creation. He experimented with tape manipulation and ring modulators. As his sonic ventures coincided with the second wave of Japonism, his work attracted considerable attention in the West.
Upon return to Japan, Ichiyanagi plunged into the country’s nascent psychedelic scene, combining the inchoate acid rock with musique concrète. These experiments were unabashedly greedy; Ichiyanagi utilized a posse of theoretically incompatible sources – enka songs, kayookyoku popsike jingles, archival recordings, and indeterminate radio manipulation. The “Opera” dedicated to Tadanori Yokoo’s visual art stems from this fertile period of bold syncretism.
Drawing from Japanese modernism and Roy Liechtenstein’s brand of Pop Art, Tadanori Yokoo’s posters gained recognition for his proto-psychedelic mysticism. Although not directly portraying the music scene, Yokoo’s striking visuals were to Japan’s rediscovery of fully bloodied color contrasts what Hapshash and the Coloured Hat were to London’s LSD scene (in fact, his work for rock artists dates only from the 1970s). Since the mid-1960s, Yokoo had been obsessed with the traditional red sun ray motif, by then disgorged from Japanese symbolism and considered highly risqué internationally. It could be that Yokoo was influenced by Mishima’s nationalistic stance prior to the latter’s suicide in 1970.
The “Opera” was a multi-media affair, well ahead of its time. The importance attached to the visual side of the production was unprecedented – years before picture discs and multiple gatefold LPs became commonplace. The attention to detail in both the sonic and visual side of the undertaking was as meticulous as only Japanese traditional arts and crafts can be. This was also Ichiyanagi’s last large scale composition before his contributions to Expo’70 in Osaka.
The “Opera” is a monument of 20th century avant-garde. Ichiyanagi’s self-declared objective was to achieve multiplicity that is so characteristic of nature, rather than bequeath fruits of human concentration. If there was ever one such record in the history of rock avant-garde, “Opera” fulfills this task.
1.Aria ichi. Aria: 1 – Japanese Ballad
An aura of melancholy emanates from the opening “aria”, which is little more than a traditional Japanese ballad performed by a subdued female voice. This opening is highly misleading. Such intimate nostalgia will return on this record, but never again in this form…
2.Erektrikku chanto. Electric Chant.
Electric hiss, rather than chant, grows oppressive and passionately synthetic. The second, echoplexed tone disrupts prominence ordering and almost instantly affects the dynamic variety. With the accumulation of decibels, the electronic squall becomes strident, but when it recedes, the effect is spacious and planar. From this abiotic slurry there emerges a figurative, yet barely recognizable form – a marching brass band of a bygone era. Its chorus is patriotic, fanfaric, enraptured in its pre-war swagger. The tragic hindsight corrodes our unconscious as soon as the magic words emerge – “Tenno Heika” (the Emperor)… This documentary character of this chorus is treated with exemplary irreverence – snubbed by sadistic electro-glissandi… Yet the overall effect remains confusingly nostalgic…
3.Otoko no junjô. Man’s Pure Heart.
A story of incompleteness begins with distant noises, sound of footsteps and archetypal girlish laughter. Up front, a man sings to gauche piano intonation. Despite encouragements, the singer appears troubled by the keys. All along, children’s voices are still audible, as if the piano were placed within a short distance of a gymnastics hall. Against such skeletal accompaniment, the singer’s quavering voice tries hard to continue: “the golden stars passing, shimmering…”. We are perplexed. Is it for real? Is it an offtake? Whenever we are beguiled into believing that the final version of the increasingly jarring song eventually materializes, it all collapses again. The two insidious characters burst into suppressed laughter… The singer stammers on the quasi-liturgical melody, stressing the syllabic quality of the nasal sound, à la japonaise. They complain about the piano when they realize the environing silence. “Everybody’s gone – nobody is watching, but should we continue when there is no one?” Finally, devoid of any background noise, the song is delivered in full.
Ichiyanagi once compared music to Japanese garden design – meticulous and painfully orderly, yet always interacting with indeterminate elements: moisture, light and wind. Were the children’s voices an unplanned accident? And more generally, how much of this “Opera” was captured, rather than pre-conceived?
This side ends with demented screams, contrasted with a woman’s frightened whisper. The fury of huffing and puffing is unnerving – as if someone was breaking through the barricades. She is sobbing in fear. Finally the ‘siege’ is over. A low-flying aircraft passes above Haneda airport…
4.Uchida Yûya to za furawaazu. The Flowers.
Next to Le Stelle di Mario Schiffano (1967), Citizens for Interplanetary Activity (1967) and Red Crayola’s “The Parable of Arable Land” (1967), this 27-minute long track qualifies as one of the earliest psychedelic freak out forms. It is performed by the Flowers, a predecessor of Flower Travellin’ Band – a solid hard rock act active in the early 1970s. The Flowers here were Susumu Oku on guitar, Katsuhiko Kobayashi on pedal steel guitar, Ken Hashimoto on bass, Joji Wada on drums Hideki Ishima on guitar and leader Yuya Uchida. The original plans to juxtapose the Flowers with a symphony orchestra were, fortunately, abandoned and Ichiyanagi gave them free hand. Amazingly, the NHK studio engineers (Shigeyuki Okuyama?) let the recording tape run at half-speed. The resulting shock wave of guitar-led dissonant turmoil was the official Big Bang for Japanese rock avant-garde.
It all starts with an oversize riff berthed in perennial slap-echo. Hashimoto’s bass bubbles with quasi-Turkic flips and a rapid-fire cymbal rattles (at double speed, as most of the band here). This intro is stately, premonitory, narcissistic and wrenching. The use of Hawaiian guitar is destabilizing, rather than purely decorative. In these introductory chords the band remains purely abstract, way ahead of its time. With its indolent, lateral moves, the bass makes the first pre-announcements of what is to come. The accents from the Hawaiian guitar become garbled. The cymbal and hi-hat work is highly tensile, taut and suspenseful. Finally, the scalding fuzz guitar invites the drums, but the acoustic piano calls off the alarm and allows for some meter-planning by the drummer. It lasts way longer than any drummer’s typical crowd-pleaser. The drumsticks hit, and hit, and hit and nothing much happens. This metronomic intro finally instantiates a French-style, tightly cropped wah-wah guitar (Mahjun, Komintern, Red Noise). The full spaceship is now taking off – Ishima’s highly pitched, combustible guitar blasts at speed of light, later copied by Kimio Mizutani on Hiro Yanagida’s second LP. The bass remains very loyal, despite the freedom bestowed by Kobayashi’s rhythmic mantle (his Hawaiian guitar etches accents at every second beat). There is nothing analytic in the instinctive interplay between the Hendrixy wah-fuzz, the piano and overload guitar injections. The cooperation is certainly enflaming, vicious, bristling, stentorian, but never stereotyped.
After a short lapse, the bass clutches on the colorful configurations planted by the Hawaiian guitar. Then the second guitar (Oku?) crossdresses as a mining jackleg drill. When it defects, the basic components are back – the bass, drums played with Nick Mason-ish mallets, a stately, hymn-building guitar, and ever-squirming Ishima with his scalpel-sharp axe incisions. Uchida’s vocal interjections further coarsen the mayhem of guitars in total overdrive. This manic superposition of grimy guitar walls leads to another climax, but piano arpeggios steer away (again) from any conclusion. The beat is determined by quasi-looped wah-wah, with the pungent lead guitar meandering pointlessly. Occasional voices make their holophrastic observations with the band in a supersonic flight, not unlike the electronic zooms crafted by maestro Ichiyanagi himself.
The cut is so sudden, that it leaves us half-deaf.
5.Uchida Yûya to za furawaazu. The Flowers.
The cut was necessary. In the 1960s, few vinyl record grooves extended beyond 25 minutes. We are, therefore, back with the Flowers and their totalistic skullduggery. Several cowbell clinks later the bass will again host the melodic development. The band turns into a 12-handed percussion machine. There is tapping, patting and clacking of anything with everything – spoons, sticks, pens. The wah-wah guitar descends into obscurity, ever less distinct, in a long goodbye. There will be one more return of the wild guitar drill sound, enveloped in acoustic piano, indifferent coughing and electronic twitch.
These 27 minutes of absolute bedlam remain a grand classic of psychedelic avant-garde rock. The legendary rock freak-out re-appeared later under the title “I’m Dead”, in reference to Tadanori Yokoo’s famous painting reproduced on the back of the gatefold LP sleeve.
6.Nyûuyôku no uta. Song of New York.
A Chinese-sounding intonation introduces a poem recited in Edo-jidai Japanese. But then, a very contemporary dialogue ensues. An actor impersonates two roles – in a tantalizing exchange facing human destiny:
“ (…) will I recover?
– sure you will.
– But mother died of the same disease…
– No. You are in good shape. You are still young.
– Will I get better?
– Sure you will.
– But why does a human need to die? I want to live. Even 1000 years. Even 10’000 years. (…)”
Even without the sinuous violin legato, I find this existentialist dialogue chilling, desperate in its message of protest.
A short monogatari follows, couched in vernacular shamisen chords. This is soon replaced by a frivolous dance as if calqued from some absurdist, drunken matsuri. A crowded festival should be the right place to obliterate from memory that Kierkegaardian dialogue…
7.Kayo myuzhikare. Kayo Musicale
This absolutely hilarious medley of radio snippets, commercials, random commentaries, and not so random musique concrète reappraisals is one of the highlights of the “Opera”. Although no sub-sections are indicated on the original, there are several distinctive parts here.
It begins with a nonsensical, goofy and farcical jingle halfway between popsike bubble bee sounds and advertising clips from “Tonmontagen”, collected by Peter Roehr barely two years earlier.
Next comes what is audibly an excerpt from a film (I do not have the CD version of the “Opera”, where the exact sources are probably made explicit). An adult scolds an initially recalcitrant, but ultimately pliant young woman for accepting something from a stranger. The scene develops close to the beach, as we infer from the dialogue and from the sound of waves lapping against the shore.
And then the notorious jingle: “chokoreeto – chokoreeto“ – a well known 1960s Group Sounds-era commercial, still remembered in Japan today. Its cheesy organ colluding with piano, drum and bass were probably the product of Kyotoite band Tigers, led by androgynous Julie Sawada. As illustrated on the diagram above, such juxtaposition of extremes – saccharine inanity next to brazen stress induction – leaves the listener emotionally drained. Evidently, coexistence in diversity was Ichiyanagi’s recipe for unity.
This is followed by the halting regularity of church bells – slow, but double-time, ineluctable like cloudy skies. When a stratum of subterranean bass blends in to compete with the increasingly inarticulate bell sequence, the section begins to recall Current 93, rather than Don Wherry’s church bell recordings.
In the next section, we hear harpsichord in J.S.Bach’s repertoire, but deconstructed, scrubbed, overlaid, looped, echoed. The sound quality shifts, suggesting unsuccessful tuning to a radio station. Church bells then return, morose, somber and poorly additive. The bass figure swells, oblivious to these European accents.
For all his admittedly aleatoric proceedings, Ichiyanagi is also an accidental emotionalist. In this last section of “Kayo Musicale”, he welcomes the listener with a smudged, sweeping drapery of electronic whirr. Then we hear explosions; they are too close and too crisp to be merely (familiar) thunderstorms. These explosions are manmade. And the whirr, as we slowly and reluctantly begin to understand, is the sound of bombers turning Tokyo into a fireball of charred civilian bodies. This realism is unbearable.
The animality of xenocide is universal. I do not recommend this record to anyone for whom war is a personal memory, rather than sofa entertainment.
8.Uta 1969. Love Blinded Ballad (Enka 1969).
The concluding side of “Opera” makes the transitions, co-occurrences, juxtapositions and articulations even denser than the sequential conveyor belt of inputs lumped together but permitted to breathe each with its own material.
In the first section, we hear a Chinese-tinged melody, a mandolin, bluegrass, archival announcements, patriotic songs, marching fanfares, speeches, choruses, classical violin, Chinese erhu, and military songs. All this appears and reappears intermixing in curvilinear fashion with neutering glissandos. As a review of Japan’s tragic history 80 years ago it is at least as powerful as Georg Katzer’s testimony to 1930’s Germany.
From the public space, we then step into the private sphere. It is like walking away from Tokyo’s main thoroughfares into back alleys singularly resilient to the centuries of modernization, earthquakes, typhoons and bombings. Early Showa-era songs compete here for auralscape with the sounds of a noisy market. An insistent hawker tries to attract customers, distracting us from the leading ballad. All of these elements are equally alluring and play an equal – and equally disorienting – role. Their ebbing and flowing is, however, highly frustrating for their siren-like beauty beckons, only to push us away.
Another of those marching songs romps through with accordion and trumpets. Some fragments sound distinctly archival, others seem modern. Orchestral tuning, operatic female voices, several choruses, comical elements – all bring back memories of the calamitous 1930s and 1940s, but the resurgent dynamic is too explosive to detect specifics.
Frogs croak and waterfowl cackles amidst fluttering rivulets. Echoes of patriotic choruses are eerily distant, pushed into the fading memory and only unearthed by misfits squatting around isolated bonfires. Sepulchral crows crow. Japan has long understood. Will China ever do?
Within each of these subsections, the various layers seem to advance independently of each other. If this is musique concrète, then we are light years ahead of “Variations pour la porte et le soupir”. Light years, not four years.
9.Uta 1969. Spite Song (Onka 1969)
Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” is being subjected to discordant squeaking. As it turns out – this is again the AM radio tuning, in and out of the romantic cliché… At its most climactic, the hissing and burring is becoming indigestible. The drama is augmented by the ear-bending chaos and distortion of the higher notes… A siren – bomb alert!
10.Takakura Ken, Tadanori Yokoo wo utau. Ken Takakura sings on Tadanori Yokoo.
In 1969, Ken Takakura was still virtually unknown outside Japan but had already attracted cult following among the shufu for his roles in multiple yakuza movies. In this closing moment of the “Opera”, Takakura sings a traditional bossa nova uta, arranged by Masao Yagi, with lyrics by Juro Tô and Kazuro Mizugi. The choice of Takakura – portrayed on the fourth side of the double LP – was not accidental. Tadanori Yokoo had been employed to provide commercial posters for several of Takakura’s gangster movies. The actor’s dry, virile style contrasts with Yagi’s sweet guitar, ‘chicken’ organ and an overtly polite 1960s vibe. Not surprisingly, the idyllic pastels are trampled by the schizophrenic gloom of the verses:
“the dream burns in deep red,
I am watching myself
I will make this name dance through the world”
I usually do not dwell on the visual side of musical products. Since the advent of CDs, cover art has been not only miniaturized, it has been marginalized. The mp3 phenomenon has now made music simply intangible, a step too far in my opinion.
It was all different in the late 1960s. After a decade of sterile LP cover productions in pop, jazz and contemporary music, the kaleidoscopic rendition of hallucinogenic illusions indelibly stamped the visual canon aimed at enhancing the appeal of adventurous, innovative music. As last year’s exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum testified in its celebration of 40 years since ‘the summer of love’, some of these artifacts have how grown to become the classics of 20th century visual art. Tadanori Yokoo’s posters and Ichiyanagi’s “Opera” LP belong to this shortlist. Without permission, I reproduce here the palpable beauty of this historical object.
Ichiyanagi is a highly prolific composer and the list below is by no means exhaustive. In addition to the sessions described here, I particularly recommend the lengthy “Improvisation” from September 1975 – an achievement on a par with the intense documents of Takehisa Kosugi’s Taj Mahal Travellers and Michael Ranta’s Wired.
Toshi ICHIYANAGI: “Music for Tinguely” (1963, 1967, 1969)
Toshi ICHIYANAGI: “Opera Yokoo Tadanori wo utau” 2LP (1968-69)
Toshi ICHIYANAGI / Maki ISHII: “Music for Living Process / Cho-etsu” (1973)
Toshi ICHIYANAGI-Michael RANTA-Takehisa KOSUGI: “Improvisation Sep 75” (1975)
Toshi ICHIYANAGI: “Cosmos” (1984)
Ichiyanagi’s early compositions from 1967-1969 can also be found on compilations “Extended Voices” and “Oto no hajimari wo motomete – Shigeru Sato Work”. On this last CD, the composition entitled “Tokyo 1969” seems to have been recorded soon after the “Opera” sessions. It exemplifies a very similar collage style and is a perfect companion to the classic album.
Flowers’ contribution on sides B and C was later made available on a separate LP which also featured a number of their (inferior) cover tracks from LP “Challenge”:
FLOWER TRAVELLIN’ BAND: “From Pussies to Death in 10’000 Years of Freak Out!” (1968)