Now here’s someone’s backstory I can’t even begin to try to tackle. To be brief: pioneering Japanese composer and musician/violinist Joe Hisaishi might best be known for his timeless work soundtracking the vast majority of Studio Ghibli’s films and all of Hayao Miyazaki’s oeuvre. We all can fall in love with his music from Princess Monokoke, but only recently has his own work outside of this scenic realm been subject to rediscovery and appraisement. Either with the electro-percussion group Mkwaju Ensemble or as a solo artist, it’s this other work that has a fascinating thing to offer anyone who manages to stumble into it. For all of the great discoveries we’ve made so far, one of his finest works 吉祥天女 Kichijoutennyo has been out of print for far too long. Let’s go back a tiny bit before we dive into it…
Spearheading and performing under the Mkwaju Ensemble with other fascinating musicians like Midori Takada and Hideki Matsuke (aka F/S-favorite: Logic System-himself), Joe Hisaishi (real name Mamoru Fujisawa) actually began his path into our musical world by making songs that spoke most of all to his greatest, life-long influences: the folk music of Japan and the minimalist music of Terry Riley. Turning away from his earliest musical focus, the musique concrete of Stockhausen, it was the music of Terry Riley which showed him that there was this other way to create modern, experimental music that could also speak to any audience. It was in Mkwaju’s first two releases that he was able to practice and bring to fruition his idea of highly personal minimal music. Mixing all sorts of percussive ideas from African sources and premodern Asian spheres through keyboard dervishes, Mkwaju’s sound still holds sonics that we’re barely able to scratch the surface on.
An early fan of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s electronic work, it was Joe who tried to syphon its ideas and sonics into the early quasi-ambient, electro-acoustic minimalist work of that ensemble. When his work in Mkwaju introduced him to his greatest benefactor, Hayao, two years later, it was his soundtrack to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind that saw him remake/remodel those same, great gifts to fit a different style and medium. Decidedly more orchestral, Joe’s music became more innocent and uplifting. Those same arpeggiating melodies that were mysterious in Mkwaju gained a different kind/type of mystery in Studio Ghibli. What began in Nausicaä would set the tone for what would rightfully make him the John Williams of Japan through scores of other soundtrack commissions. But what became of the experimental musician?
Joe Hisaishi’s work in Curved Music answers one part of the puzzle. Curved Music, especially “The Winter Requiem”, shows how he could fold those early Japanese folk and minimalist influences into the concise world of Pop music. Hearing Joe’s gorgeous violin playing glide over some of the most wonderfully produced slice of electro-pop balladry from any era points to how much Joe can easily translate his heartfelt trademark into any style. Beautiful, intricate, elegiac, and inviting, Curved Music is a perfect stepping stone into this world for those who only know him for his work with Hayao.
For the few who only know of Joe because of his work with Mkwaju, what’s there left for you? For that you have to go back four years later, a year after his first Ghibli score. This is what I consider anyone’s best entry point to discovering how far Joe can take his experimental side. Part of a series of records inspired by mangas, the Animage Series presented Joe the opportunity to compose music for a Shojo manga, Kisshō Tennyo, that could let him explore a side that had been a bit subsumed by his orchestral work. Joe’s soundtrack 吉祥天女 (Kichijoutennyo), does its best at showing how his core musical ideas can explode just as invitingly and open heartedly in another direction, far from his more known sources.
Taking a darker tone more suited to match the storyline of this manga. (You wouldn’t expect a bright set of music soundtracking a comic whose subject is a woman who, I think, can summon an ancient demon inside her to seduce, curse, and get her out of trouble!) Joe this time forgoes all classical/acoustic instruments. In Kichijoutennyo, Joe attempts to wring out of the Fairlight sampler, all sorts of 80s FM synthesizers, and a LINNDRUM drum machine, all sorts of moodiness more fitting a gritty Michael Mann movie set within Tokyo, than a magical trip to the forest outside of it.
The album begins with his clearest nod to the cyclical music of Terry Riley. Rarely heard this way in his other music, Joe’s “Tenshi Legend” shows him matching stunning synth arpeggio line over, over stunning synth arpeggio line, with bell-like FM percussion. As the album continues, the second track finds him taking the percussive African elements of Mkwaju into the realm of minimal funk and gnarly beat-driven music. If anyone wondered if Joe can get heavy, when he’s almost skating the line of Miami electro bass and second-wave Berlin School music with “Sayoko Kano”, here you get the perfect answer to such a question.
Tracks three and seven, finds Joe in pop mode, with something approximating Rockit by Herbie Hancock or his own lesser Curved Music tracks. When Joe is in that mode, this album does have tracks like “Koyoko and Ryo” that remain cool slices of early 80s electro-balladry that can outlive the presence of these two other more dated tracks. Now, for the rest, I’ll leave the rest of these tracks for you to discover. These other tracks are where the meat of the album lie. How so?
I’ll share with you my favorite track, a subterfuge of cavernous, minimal funk: “魔性の女 (Femme Fatale)” that holds the genus of what makes the other so special. “Femme Fatale” feels intelligent –music with intricate arrangements like that must be– but it’s the presence of those vaporous, doppler-like bass lines and drum hits that really lead the body elsewhere where the mind can’t quite follow as closely. A bit grimy, very earthly, and quite moving, its songs like these that make this album one of Joe’s most direct and arresting.
Anyway, enough of my yapping, I promised not much backstory! So, again, this is another kind of fascinating Joe Hisaishi thing that you must hear. It’s not often you’ll hear Joe perfectly capture quite a mood in quite a way…
What comes next after minimalist and contemporary classical music?
“That’s what I think about most,” Hisaishi says. “Many people think that classical music all started with Bach and Handel. But in prehistoric times there were simple melodies, then polyphony, then harmony, then chamber further down the line. Just like many other things, music also goes in cycles. Now we’re smack in the middle of a transition period, and post-classical music in recent years can get too chaotic — anything is OK — and music loses its energy.”
If anyone in Japan is equipped to tackle this musical matter, though, it is Hisaishi.
“I feel like some recently released music has started to lack in logic, and lose its quality,” he says adding that he wants to create music that “strictly adheres” to music theory. “But I don’t know where it will lead from here.”