Tomoki Kanda – Landscape Of Smaller’s Music (full LP)
Released on Crue-L Records, 2000, Japan
(The following text is more or less a translation of the article I wrote for Musique Journal)
It is very likely that you already came across Brian Eno’s definition of ambient music; it has probably been as parsimoniously quoted as Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” quote. And I’m about to quote it too, as it defines perfectly the music of Tomoki Kanda : “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting”.
Except that Landscape of Smaller’s Music is NOT an ambient record. I know that with a name like that, it may look like the kind of refined and sophisticated Japanese records that have been massively reissued for the past 5 years; and, to be honest, a couple of songs from Tomoki Kanda’s album could be featured on a Lights In The Attic compilation in the vein of Kankyō Ongaku : Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980 – 1990.
But these are red herrings that distract us from Landscape of Smaller’s Music true ambitions. If we take a closer look at the record, it will look more like a pocket Sergent Pepper’s than a Gympnopédie for personal computer, especially when one thinks of it as a concept album, full of self-citations and references to American or British pop culture. The British influence is especially significant on a song like String Driven Thing whose violins not only evokes the Beatles, but also the Penguin Café Orchestra and all those arcadian pop and post-punk songs that labels like Cherry Red used to release in the 1980’s.
Landscape of Smaller’s Music definitely comes straight from a certain space and time: a studio in Shibuya where tons of disco house and Shibuya-kei pop songs are being recorded in the late 1990’s – early 2000’s. And it’s actually quite easy to figure it out only by listing all the sources of inspiration one can hear on this LP. But the weight of all these influences doesn’t make it sound outdated. On the contrary, all these influences are blended harmonically by Tomoki Kanda in such a humble and honest way that the result is quite refreshing compare to many songs in which musicians play with genres in an all too calculating way – you know, all those self-labeled “genre-defying” records we often read about these days. The freshness of Landscape of Smaller’s Music has presumably a lot to do with the freedom that Kanda seemed to enjoy when he recorded this LP. I believe Crue-L records gave to one of their most talented craftsmen total freedom to record a limited and personal LP – as long as he kept on producing music for their highest selling artists, like Shibuya kei rising star Kahimi Karie.
Sometimes I wonder whether Landscape of Smaller’s Music was designed to be shared with a potential listener or not. It definitely is the work of a producer, and it sometimes tends to sound like a very coherent and virtuosic library music LP. However, if some of the songs could perfectly soundtrack your shopping routine in a 7-Eleven, most of the time, the record lacks the functional and inoffensive patina that one finds in muzak. Most of the time, the music is more abrasive than it seems. Take Golden Weed for instance, there’s something quite psychedelic in the way the harmonics intertwine, somehow reminding of the contained and playful psychedelic sound of, say, the Stone Roses, or some other Madchester act.
Of course, Landscape of Smaller’s Music is much more than a mere echo of British pop culture – western critics tend to see Japanese music as a distortion of Western pop culture whenever it doesn’t meet their expectations for refinement and minimalism in a Muji kind of way. It’s a very idiosyncratic record that probably takes its cue from Tomoki Kanda’s memories of hot summer nights. At least, that’s where a song like Small Music is taking me back : to my teenage years, when, as dusk was falling on a late August day, I would picture myself walking down the streets of a Japanese town that only existed in Dreamcast video games. As a matter of fact, the first time I heard a song by Tomoki Kanda, it was in an indie Japanese video game, and that probably explains why it’s reminding me of summer evenings spent playing Animal Crossing on Nintendo DS.
Even if you did not spend your childhood playing colourful video games, the record will stimulate feelings that have to do with nostalgia, because once you get deeper into Landscape of Smaller’s Music, you realize that nostalgia is at the core of Kanda’s music. It’s quite blatant on a song like Marden Hill that echoes Eden Ahbez’s Island. Actually, I think the comparison with Eden’s Island might apply to whole album, as well. Just like Nature Boy’s infamous masterpiece, Landscape of Smaller’s Music is a secret garden that we’re only invited to explore with the greatest discretion.