Takashi Kokubo was born in 1956 in Tokyo and has spent his life dedicated to environmental compositions and sound design for various mediums. The experimental composer’s career began in 1980 with his first full-length release, Digital Bach. The project was a collaborative album with Kazutaka Tazakiand and featured a collection of electronic renditions of classic Bach pieces. Following this release, the composer worked alongside fellow experimental and electronic musicians Nobuyoshi Koshibe, Katsuhiro Tsubonou, and Kazuya Amikura. Many of these collaborative efforts were based on themes of space and fantasy and featured an array of keyboards, small percussion, electric guitars, and many synthesizers. A departure from this approach was seen with 1985’s Digital Soundology #1 Volk Von Bauhaus. Digital Soundology #1 Volk Von Bauhaus was Kokubo’s first solo effort and as the title implies the record is composed of entirely digital sounds. The notes on the backside on the record’s jacket read, “This recording used no keyboard players, no multitrack tape recording techniques, no analog sounds”. To achieve this the only equipment used by Kokubo included the Fairlight CMI, a PPG Wave 2.3, the Yamaha DX-7, and Yamaha CX-5.
Side A, titled “Aesthetics Between The Two Phrases,” opens with “Playing Among The Gods” and sounds as if it was recorded in space within a dense jungle. The track begins with soft distant bird-like chirps that are accompanied by looping steel sounding mallets. Growing with volume until fully established, the melodic motif continuously repeats for the duration of the song with the occasional variation. While composed with strictly digital sounds, “Playing Among The Gods” posses organic qualities that venture into the vein of classic fourth world music. This trend continues through rest of side A, with “Melancholy II” and “Before You Dream”. Both tracks are slower and much more meditative than “Playing Among The Gods,” with their airy atmospheric qualities. Similarities of electric chimes, bell-like synth settings, and structure that emphasize one main melodic idea characterize the two tracks.
The second half of Digital Soundology, or “Fluctuation,” is not only longer than side A but also dives deeper into the experimental field of composition and sound. The title “Fluctuation” is a proper fit for this half of the record, for three of the six tracks share the term, but also is also a great descriptor for many of the unpredictable and sudden changes each track has. “The Insane Time Keeper” for example, sharp and cold sounding glitches personify a broken alarm, repeating over low synths that are patched to sound like the echoing bells and pipes of grand clocks. Both “Fluctuation #1” and “Fluctuation #2” are similar in the textures chosen by Kokubo, containing sections of one sound before quickly jumping to a new glitch, scratch, or break. Overall, side B is much more dissonant and avant-garde like than side A. Each song is slow, free formed and improvised in many sections if not entirely.
Begging in the late 1980s, Kokubo’s began to focus more on the natural side of environments rather than ambient space settings that long had been the themes of many compositions. The first example of this shift to meditative and healing music concerned with nature was in 1987. Kokubo was commissioned to create an album that would be packaged with a Sanyo air conditioner. The 1987 album, Get At The Wave, is a collection of electro-acoustic instrumentation that is mixed with recordings of seagulls, tropical breeze, and gentle waves. Around this time period, the composer also began working with other mediums like video art and sound installations. Often, his compositions were incorporated into video art of natural scenery, hoping to achieve a sense of the environments themselves. However, many of his installations were also designed to be appicable in urban settings, like in 1997 when Kokubo was commissioned to create a sound environment installation for the Queen’s Square Yokohama shopping mall in the city of Yokohama. On top of studio albums and video/sound installations perhaps the biggest category of work to make up Kokubo’s catalog is the enormous amount of smaller sounds that serve as functional uses such as cellular ringtones, sound effects, light show sounds, sounds for tv, etc. Arguably, Kokubo has become most well known for his composition of the “Wei Wei Wei” sound. The sound, which was created to act as an emergency signal for incoming earthquakes, would be used on all mobile cell phones in Japan. Later, when the Tap and Pay system at checkout registers across Japan were introduced Kokubo composed the short bright electronic melody that would play once the card was accepted. These two sounds are of the countless examples of Kokubo’s compositions serving a role throughout the daily lives of many Japanese citizens. The everyday environment sounds that we hear in daily life, and that is often taken for granted, became a trademark of Kokubo’s long career. In recent years the composer has remained active and has a couple of albums from the past few years up on streaming services. His last full-length album, Forest Healing, was released in 2016, following up 2013’s Water Healing.
With a little bit more experimentation than melodically focused songs with structure, Digital Soundology is certainly a record worth sitting down with for any fan of the ethereal fourth world, meditative ambient, or adventurous space electronica. Overall, Digital Soundology #1 Volk Von Bauhaus is another shining example of experimental ambient music of 1980s Japan and is a wonderful trip to another digital world.
Listen to the full album on Soundcloud as well as below.