Sunday 1 October 2017


Capitalism and consumerism is not usually synonymous with beautiful art. It is more that the product-shifting world that these terms evoke lack soul, existing only for the pursuit and accumulation of money, for pure expenditure. However at the heart of this process is humanity, and that is imbued naturally with existential concerns, the need to put meaning to the detachment of capital and how it is moved around.

Advertising lies somewhere between art and business. But who creates adverts? Who creates that imagery, the world in sight and sound that will describe a certain corporation, make it an attractive ally for the consumer, make it a thing to covet and seek out and own for the amelioration of everyday life? In the case of TV ads, as much as a feast for the eyes, they must be a treat for the ears, as music is more crucially the evoker of emotions: Worlds are summoned by music, simple products in everyday surroundings made otherworldly, sensuous, exquisite, by the placement within the right soundscape.

Japanese composer, saxophonist and producer Yasuaki Shimizu (清水靖晃) is the creator of a collection of such musical morsels, designed to entice and invoke nostalgia, designed as soundtracks to dreams you never had but now do. His 1987 release Music For Commercials – simply titled and with no pretence: each short track was conceived as just that – begins with an ascent to heaven. 'Tachikawa' is a gorgeous loop of breathy choral synth, regency cello sweeps, and twinkling piano; it's that regular string beat that gives it life and movement, and the more ethereal higher pitched and ambient sounds, and samples of birdsong, that give that marching kineticism a destination: the sublime. And that is the feeling of using a Tachikawa pen.

Each track on Music For Commercials is titled after the company for whose advert it was intended. The heavenly feeling effused by Shimizu's music continues with sweeping strings for purveyor of timepieces in 'Seiko 1', beating-heart strings and glittering swoops, an atmosphere that makes up much of the output on this album, originally unveiled to the world in 1987, the peak of Japan's economic bubble towards the end of the nation's postwar boom. Business thrived, the consumer consumed.

So alongside this heavenward leaning, there is a modern sense of pace to many of the tracks on this album. Many of the songs have this awe about them, starry-eyed, the embryonic big bang of the perfectly sculpted world of TV advertising—then there is a sound that embodies everything that follows, the cogs of the machine in motion.

'Ricoh 2' and follow-up track 'Laox' have this officious constructivist sound, staccato, bustling, a soundscape of the urban and the modern-day. 'Shiseido' and 'Seiko 5' follow in kind, with the latter eminently tumbling. It is success, or the road to it. These pieces are aspirational in their kineticism—movement equals life. Lack of it is surely stagnation, death. Even in 'Suntory', its percussive melodies not only paint this glittering heavenly picture – you can imagine whisky mid-slow-motion pour into a low glass of perfect rough cubes of ice so fresh they still exude frozen mist – but again, the nature of these noises is one of movement.

'Seiko 3' highlights this with synthesised orchestra hits. Similarly 'Sharp' continues with this atmosphere, this technique of quite regularly ticking beats mimicking the countdown of time, the pressure to spend as seconds fall away—or rather it is the sonic mirror of busy people in busy environments, where office workers talk and fax machines crunch printers zap and keyboards tap and traffic orderly trundles outside and millions of feet move to meetings; busy and surviving in the city. Human, though somehow barely human, voices make appearances: in 'Boutique Joy', and in 'Laox', where they are hypnotic, like a mantra behind the futuristic judder of the track, and operatic they soar in 'Knorr'.

In conjuring the excitement and regal stature of consumer culture – as well as a certain ethereality – this music as a whole recalls a different, more distant past; Edo-period Japan, a time of peace when a new middle class emerged and joined in the hedonistic lives of geisha, sumo wrestlers, samurai, prostitutes, known euphemistically as ukiyo (浮世) – the floating world, a world above that of the regular person and everyday cares. In woodblock prints called ukiyo-e (浮世絵), pictures of the floating world, scenes of this nature were easy to celebrate: they depicted something familiar and tangible yet heavenly and unattainable, as humans dressed in fine clothes engage in pasttimes and pleasures to which the commoner would have had no or limited access. The same can be said of this music made for commercials: it is the music of the neo-floating world, which has moved from brothel to boardroom, from bathhouse to brand names, from from one attractive plane of existence to another. Quite simply, both this Japanese demimonde and 1980s consumerism embody one overriding thing: progress.

But something happens in the Bridgestone tracks, five morsels that adhere to neither this heavenly quality, nor this urban idealism, but instead take all the experimentalism so far demonstrated to a new level. It begins with skittish descending saxophones, ominous cellos, and lamenting strains of what sound like kokyu but which are possibly alto saxophone in what is a cocktail of looping jazz and traditional Japanese music, a beautiful cacophony of woodwind. This is sequeled in 'Bridgestone 2', fuzzy saxophone wobbles alongside chanting vocals and occasional plinking synth. Water dripping in a cave, sweeping string sounds beset with long delay summon a distinct alien atmosphere, mystic and brooding. Reverb and delay on a melancholy clarinet melody. It ends with steam fair-like organs in a near-disturbing waltz, finishing in noisy cyclical chaos. Here is the real compositional flair of Shimizu, experiments with the mixing of organic and synthetic sounds, and in glorious repetition before repetition became a standard in instrumental music.

Different to every other track is the intriguing 'Ka-Cho-Fu-Getsu'. At nearly 10 minutes long, this one takes up nearly half the album's runtime, giving it an obvious prominent place amongst its neighbours. The penultimate track's title (written in Japanese as 花鳥風月) literally means flower-bird-wind-moon but figuratively refers to the beauty of nature. It's unclear whether this refers to an actual television advert or whether it is purely conceptual, but either way this is symphonic piece, calling to mind a mini Fantasia, the structure and its contents going through the waking of the natural world, its inhabitants activities, a volta that adds gravity and drama before the tracks paradisiacal finale.

A burst of woodwind flourishes and angular synth, moving into ambient softness, trilling strings, a gentle early morning magic to it. Abruptly it changes into something stranger, low synth vox burble beneath delayed fluttering strings and a collage of scuttling percussion. Then at 2:40 we move in the direction of tropicalia, luscious splashing percussion and exotic jungly marimba sounds as well as more flighty synth ambience, with the chirruping of some unknown animal giggling and flitting. 3:29: ascending and descending cartoon xylophone cartoonish, Stravinsky-esque strings that stab discordant and bright—still that soft ambience hanging as a backdrop.

4:03: a sweep of glittering chimes, a mesmerising pulse of woodwinds and strings, a slow glinting plucked melody, a vast sound, like pointed pines bristling across a folded paper landscape of hills, rising, whooshing ghostly sounds, brooding cello, scattered scampering handclap sounds, more desperate skirls of violin, this sudden adverse change in weather evident from 6:07, a cracking regular drum, high pitch chords flash like warning lights, still that howling wind, the sudden swirling sweeps of harp dreamlike. 7:14: the clouds dissipate, sun lances down, warm waves begin to ebb and flow along a plaintive melody and jingling bells, more harps, then soaring dipping and diving flutes like birds rejoicing after a storm. Ending on a perfect slice of pastoral, it seems all is well with this plane of existence, far from the commercial world of cities, a slice of Shimizu's unfettered creativity.

It's fitting that the final track on Music For Commercials was destined for department store Seibu. After the strident avant-garde Bridgestone tracks and the agrarian idyll of 'Ka-Cho-Fu-Getsu', we return impulsively and ultimately to spending. With booming timpani and regal orchestration providing a triumphal march, the bass vocal croons out victoriously, announcing the not just a product but the palaces that house them: shopping malls. Much like a royal's homecoming hundreds of years ago would be announced with fanfares and processions, so too is Shimizu's 1980s treatment of malls, places of worship and pleasure and power—for those with the purse to permit it.

An interesting genre of music of recent times, vaporwave, harks back to these tracks. With relish it pores over malls of yesteryear, simultaneously championing and pastiching material-based capitalism, by utilising often slowed-down music of these times – the upbeat magic of funk and soul, sometimes of Japanese origin, as well as instrumental lounge and muzak: the original soundtracks to both centres of hedonism, the nightclub, as well as the music of department store PA systems. It is not empty nostalgia, but like exotica and lounge that preceded it the music is a conjurer of other times and places, scene-setting mood-making sounds. Or like classical music, which has been the soundtrack to everything from ballet and Romantic poetry, to seasons and emotions.

So Music For Commercials stands in a unique position, sort of like a time travel paradox. Shimizu's music follows this vaporwave aesthetic, of course: his compositions summon elsewheres for the listener's imagination, as this silver age-era TV commercial music quite heavily does. But directly via Oneohtrix Point Never, who has specifically cited this album as an influence, and who is himself credited with the embryonic stages of vaporwave, Shimizu's collection of advert-destined tracks has trickled through the years into the psyche of experimental musicmakers that followed. It is proto-vaporwave.

And like Socrates' theory of forms, which states that there is somewhere in the ether a perfect form of every single thing, Music For Commercials is the original and omnipresent vaporwave, its highest form, created exactly for that which today's vaporwave conceptualises, and everything that follows is essentially a lower form, an idol carved in the shape of the Yasuaki Shimizu's musical mind. He brought a divergent beauty to the sounds of soulless capitalism, made art where real art had no place, created a future hallowed ground of music out of the ideals and aspirations that the floating world of adverts compel us to pursue.

  • 🔔 Music For Commercials is available to purchase digitally as well as on CD and vinyl from Bandcamp. It arrives courtesy of Belgian label CRAMMED and is a reissue from their MADE TO MEASURE composer series; 2017 marks the 30 year anniversary of this release.
  • 🔔 Images:
    1. Music For Commercials artwork, 2017
    2. Poster for Seiko Hybrid SP, 1980s
    3. Poster for Crest by Suntory featuring Akira Kurosawa, 1990
    4. Hokusai's 藤に鶺鴒 Wisteria and wagtail from an untitled series known as "Small Flowers", c1834
    5. Photograph of Shibuya's "Scramble Crossing" by Avard Woolaver, 1987

Yasuaki Shimizu Internet Presence ☟

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