Japanese New Age Music
At 28 Seigen Ono is one of Japan's leading producer/engineers whose recording credits include working for David Sylvian, Robert Fripp, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Lounge Lizards. He is also the creator of some of the highest quality instrumental music yet to be classified under the New Age music banner. Mark Prendergast discovers what he and his music are all about.
Seigen Ono is one of Japan's foremost engineer/producers whose credits include work for David Sylvian, Robert Fripp, Lounge Lizards and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Mark Prendergast spoke to him regarding his highly acclaimed solo album, his work with Western musicians, and his involvement in Japan's 'New Age' music scene.
Avatar of textural minimalism and leading projectile in modern Japanese instrumental music, Seigen Ono has caused a furore in the British press following the release of his debut album, Seigen, earlier this year. The 28 year old, multi-talented, whizz-kid from Tokyo has found himself being boxed in to the current 'New Age' music phenomenon, and in some cases deified by journalists eager to come to grips with a popular music that is difficult to classify.
Seigen Ono gets more attention than most so-called 'New Age' composers because of his intriguing background. From 1978 to 1980 he was senior house engineer at Tokyo's Onkio Haus Studio, the most technically advanced studio in Japan. There he absorbed all the techniques of top quality recording whilst developing his highly individualistic approaches to music, based on the radical ideas of Brian Eno.
Going freelance he set up his own recording and publishing operation, immediately coming into the orbit of renowned Western musicians on the lookout for Japanese technicians who were in touch with innovatory approaches to modern music. In 1983, Seigen worked as engineer with David Sylvian and Robert Fripp. In 1985 he produced Bill Bruford and Patrick Moraz's Live In Tokyo album. Most recently the Lounge Lizards' Big Heart album benefited from Ono's production and engineering skills. Still, these examples are only tiny specks in Seigen's intense working schedule. He hops from Tokyo to London to produce a record, buys his clothes in Paris, flies on to New York to engineer another album, writes music in Tokyo, plays live with his favourite Japanese group Dip in the Pool, plus dozens of other activities.
Recently he was in London to work with Holger Hiller. Sitting comfortably in the offices of his London-based record label, Pan East, Seigen Ono chatters tirelessly about his life and work.
"I started when I was twenty. When I finished high school I played music with my friends - straight-ahead rock, jazz, African and all other kinds. We tried to get a record deal but I was not a good player. Still, recording techniques in Japan were always improving. I knocked on studio doors and tried to get a job even though I was not a trained technical engineer. I worked at Onkio Haus Studio as a tape operator cum sound engineer cum tea boy. It was quite a good place - 6 studios all synchronised, computers, video, 35mm film synchronisation facilities and all the professional requirements. I had a very hard time for two years but it made me. I was certain from this that I had a career in music. I spent a lot of time tuning instruments and practising on them. From there I went freelance as engineer/producer, and this has been my work for the last six years. Since childhood I have always been interested in the quality and sound of music."
Seigen Ono utilises the recording studio as an instrument in his own work. Vitally stimulated by the experimental methods of Brian Eno, Seigen treated all equipment with a disdain for instructions or following set patterns. His Stockhausen-like approach to his first solo album, recorded in 1983, was to improvise on a tape recorder and then rely on the intuition of other musicians to guide the results as they spontaneously appeared in the studio. The final product was a masterpiece of modern minimalism and a clear salute to the importance of Eno's radical ideas of recording. It is not surprising that Seigen Ono's favourite album of all time is David Bowie's Low - the record which broke Brian Eno's innovations directly into mainstream pop culture.
Seigen claims to have listened to Eno all the way through high school yet his work is too broad, too varied and too energetic to be pigeon-holed into the ambient Eno category. His solo album blends whirling orchestral strings with clipped acoustic guitars, rising piano bars, shifting space sounds and electronics in a music which neatly conveys what Western classical music sounds like in the mind of an Oriental. This music is more than ambient sound, more than mood music, more than just 'New Age' music. Its compositional dexterity radiates the impeccable taste of an artist who is capable of feeling the emotional power of all quality music.
"When I made Seigen, I wanted an unusual sound. After working for many years as a studio engineer I started talking to my friends about music, and then suddenly I began to play with them. I wrote memos for the scores of ideas I had and used a tape recorder. Some parts were composed together, and they formed a map for the others. I would set a key chord for my fellow musicians and they would build upon it. I provided some of the ideas and structures as well as playing some guitar and piano. I'm not a very good player so my friends helped out a lot. I did a lot of work on synths and sampling machines plus, of course, the studio console. I'm not just interested in so-called 'New Age' music, but in all music. I would like to perform my album live, but it would require an orchestra. The album is made around piano, guitar, and keyboards textured by synthesizers. I also used a tape-loop delay system and sequencer."
"The album is made around piano, guitar, and keyboards textured by synthesizers. I also used a tape-loop delay system and sequencer."
The rave reviews which greeted Seigen's debut LP are understandable considering the present heightened consumer interest in, and record company marketing of, quality instrumental music to relieve tension in an over-pressurised, urban environment. For a long time now electronic, jazz, rock and avant-garde music has been moving towards a form of minimal sound which complements and soothes the living conditions of the everyday world. The wave of enthusiasm which has affected the American market over the past few years has resulted in any contemplative music being dubbed 'New Age', and thus categorised. Seigen Ono has come to prominence here in the West because of his reputation among Western musicians, and through the enterprising work of his record label, Pan East, which is currently marketing new Japanese instrumental music all over the world. Seigen Ono's label boss, John Pearson, loathes the use of the term 'New Age', and contends that the reason Pan East was set up was because serious composers in Japan were having a hard time getting their work onto vinyl.
Another point worth considering about Seigen Ono's career is that he has worked with musicians whose pedigree placed them in the innovatory rock tradition. In 1983, he worked as engineer with Robert Fripp and King Crimson for the Three Of A Perfect Pair live in Japan set. He also worked with David Sylvian, an artist who has always produced contemplative music, on singles projects. In 1984 Seigen engineered Ryuichi Sakamoto's Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and, as you all probably know, David Sylvian has since produced a vocal version of that work.
In truth, Seigen is very much a part of the innovatory clique of musicians who have always aimed at perfecting a modern music which is appropriate to our time.
"Three years ago I worked for Robert Fripp. He chose me. He uses a very special type of guitar. I like him, he is easy to work with. I just let him do what he wanted. He has personality. I need personality in order to work well. Musicians have to convey this in their music for me to enjoy it. David Sylvian was very slow and deliberate in his approach to his work. He has a lovely melodic personality."
Since the Second World War, Japan has fast been absorbing Western culture. Its popular music culture reflects this characteristic. There, 75% of popular music is made up of teen-idol bands manufactured by record companies in the same way as Tin Pan Alley in the States used to be. The remainder is made up of heavy rock, moderate rock and the serious composers. Seigen's work makes up a tiny fragment of Japan's contemporary music scene, yet it is the vital spark that will make Japan an important contributor to the future of music as a whole.
"It is not surprising that Seigen Ono's favourite album of all time is David Bowie's Low - the record which broke Brian Eno's innovations directly into mainstream pop culture."
"Japan has been developing its music a lot over the last twenty years. When the Beatles started, a lot of Japanese groups copied them. Japanese contemporary music, records and video are just like Western forms. My generation is not interested in copying or being Western. After World War Two, Japan spent 40 years copying from the West. The music business has just developed recently. Japanese record companies have not been in business long, they have little experience, but they are getting better. I grew up under the influence of the Western music scene. I was Asian when I started out, but then became heavily influenced by the West. Now I've found myself again through the current music."
The music of Seigen pours out at you, swathing the imagination with the aural visions of autumn leaves falling from the trees, raindrops breaking the surface of a lake, shifting scenes of world culture in a delicate balance of acoustic instruments, subtle electricity and crystal clear sounds. How important is modern instrumentation and technology in his work?
"Very important. For two or three years now many new instruments and recording devices have appeared each week. I never use manuals, I just push a button and play around. I learned to use the studio and its equipment by accident. For me the only way to learn was to make mistakes. For example, take a simple tape machine; if I read the manual I can use it for, say, 90% of its ability. If I find out by trial and error, I can use it for, say, 120% of its potential! I just use samplers, Emulators and Fairlights, to see what they can do as instruments. Yet you need a lot of instruments and electronic equipment to produce real, high quality music. You need to know how both work - the recording console has become another instrument. The more you know, the better it is. Every piece of equipment is an instrument. Over the last ten years, musical equipment has veered towards the electronic. The typical engineer in the past only knew how to be an engineer. Now, being a musician and an engineer are very closely linked. Compression and EQ are very delicate parts of recording, which one must know. Twenty years ago recording was like a band rehearsal, but now it is multitrack. One has to know."
As he talks to me, Seigen Ono is in the middle of a busy schedule. Just after an all-night recording session with Holger Hiller, he is due to fly to Tokyo to engineer an album for the German/New York avant-garde group, Last Exit. After that, he will fly to New York to work with the Lounge Lizards again, then back to play some concerts with his group Dip in the Pool (a Japanese new wave group which has benefited from Ono's production, arrangement and stimulus). Finally he plans to return to London for more work with Holger Hiller. Seigen, like most producers and engineers, favours certain working conditions.
"All studios are basically the same, but still there is a minimum type of equipment which I use. My favourites are a Neve desk - not the new one, but the old one which has a big EQ - it's great because it has big dials and knobs, and is very dependable; an SSL computerised mixing desk; a Studer A80 half-inch stereo tape machine and Agfa PEM468 tapes. For speaker monitors I use Debid 7000 from Bisonic, a two-way system. I've got four pairs dotted all over the globe in my favourite studios. They're really good for monitoring. I also like the Fairlight III computer music instrument. I love video and I like working with it. I also design and draught my own equipment which my friends build. I have my own customised consoles which I drew up myself. I like simple ideas, but high quality."
"For a long time now electronic, jazz, rock and avant-garde music has been moving towards a form of minimal sound which complements and soothes the living conditions of the everyday world."
Of the four albums of Japanese music available through Pan East records, Seigen Ono is involved in three of them.
He engineered Ichiko Hashimoto's debut album of improvised piano and vocal fugues. A classically trained pianist, Ichiko quickly succumbed to the work of Miles Davis, and after a stint of jazz sessions joined the Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1980. Her first solo album echoes the work of Erik Satie and conforms to Seigen's personal philosophy of quality in musical expression.
Seigen produced and played tapes/charango on Masahide Sakuma's first solo record, Lisa. Sakuma had learned and perfected many forms of music before he formed The Plastics in 1978, an outfit which specialised in systems, computer and experimental music combined with ancient and traditional instrumentation. Lisa, in many ways, is the most diverse of the new Japanese instrumental music. Viola da gamba, recorders, guitars, keyboards and electronic devices pepper a thorough selection of material ranging from simple hypnotic passages, reminiscent of Eno's Another Green World, to Irish traditional airs. A humorous version of the Third Man theme is also thrown in for good measure, with surprising overdub conversation included in French.
Ono's choice of collaborators is impeccable, reflecting his own pride in producing a form of music which is not only better than anything else currently being produced in Japan, but out-rates a lot of the insipid 'New Age' fare being pumped out in the West at present.
"I need space. I need slow music, but I also need loud, heavy music. People say that 'New Age' music is calm and quiet, but for me it also has to involve straight ahead rock plus the avant-garde. There are many studio musicians in Japan who play beautifully with no mistakes. But they have no personality. A good computer sequencer can give you that, but I require personality."
One modern music group which does have personality is Dip in the Pool. Principally a duo of session musician Tatsuji Kimura and fashion model Miyako Koda, their work is arranged and assisted by Seigen Ono and Masahide Sakuma. Ono performs with them and was the chief catalyst in their writing a selection of material that could be marketed. Their first British release, Silence, on the Rough Trade label admirably consolidates Seigen Ono's influence on modern music - a collection of tone songs, the album blends the hypnotic effect of Kimura's synthesizers with Koda's fairy-like vocals. It is certainly fresh-sounding and Japanese enough to make it exotic to the Western palate.
'Dip in the Pool has quality for me. If I have a talent, it's to find a good sound for the artists. When they gave me a tape to listen to, they were not typical musicians. They did not perform live. They were not interested in being in a band, but in good compositions and arrangements. They had good songs but they needed work. Slowly it developed. They would always bring me lots of parts on tape; all sorts of things, and I would give them my ideas, suggest ways of building melodies, like adding a bridge and a better ending. They would work on it and then bring it back for further suggestions and advice. Now they understand everything, it was a good experience for them. The singer Miyako, whilst being a famous model also studied at university. She's fluent in English, French and Japanese."
Seigen Ono is well aware of the similarity of big city life everywhere, and a requirement for that life to be eased by the availability of a contemplative and reflective antidote. The recent upsurge in 'New Age' music attempts to cash in on these noble commitments by, for the most part, marketing mush to an unsuspecting public. Seigen Ono and his compatriots are putting the boot in and outdoing their Western competitors, with music that is outstanding enough to be labelled as 'brilliant'.
Whatever the fads, Seigen Ono has arrived at the age of 28 as a major force in contemporary music. He is currently working on his second solo album, which will be a significant 1987 release. Seigen's talent lies in creating music which can blend in with a natural order while being simultaneously innovative and, in doing so, adding something new to the body of work which, in truth, makes up the entire history of both Western and Eastern music.
"I'm not interested in labelling music Western or Eastern. Life in New York, Paris, London and Tokyo is basically the same. I was born in Kakogawa, a small city in Western Japan, which is a seven hour train journey from Tokyo. For me New York is closer! I would like to stay in Tokyo for six months of the year and spend the other six months away. My plans are to go to as many places as possible and work with as many different people as I can in a friendly and trusting way."
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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