Cultural Tourism: Japan
About a year ago, I came to the realisation that almost all the music I owned was either British or American. As a self-styled music expert, I figured this was a weakness, so I set out to rectify it with a bit of cultural tourism. I decided to start with Japan, and found a suitable album: Tony Scott – Music for Zen Meditation. Here is my review of this classic record…
Tony Scott was an American jazz clarinettist, who worked with some of the musical greats of the 1950s, including Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. In 1959, he went travelling in the Far East, eventually ending up in Japan. Here, he became interested in the traditional music of the country and met musicians Shinichi Yuize and Hozan Yamamoto. Together, they recorded the instrumental album Music for Zen Meditation, in 1964.
If you can find this album in record shops, it’ll be in the Jazz section. There’s a certain amount of logic to that, given Scott’s background, and the fact that the music was mostly improvised. However, this is certainly not jazz. This is traditional-sounding Japanese music, with Scott’s clarinet being used to mimic the sound of a Japanese wind instrument. As you would expect with an album aimed at meditation, it’s slow, contemplative stuff. One of the tracks is after the jump…
For most of the album, the other two performers take turns at playing alongside Scott. Yuize plays the koto (a traditional stringed instrument), and Yamamoto plays the flute-like shakuhachi. For my money, the combination of clarinet and shakuhachi works best, as the plucking of the koto can sound quite harsh. Scott is a fine clarinettist, even with improvisations, and doesn’t lapse into Western sounding melodies.
The production of the album is strong, and the stereo mixing works well. I generally dislike stereo albums from the 1960s, because they often have instruments separated out onto different channels, which can often lessen the impact of the music. It works well here though, as assigning one instrument to each channel helps give the recording a feeling of open space.
The first five tunes have evocative titles, such as “A Quivering Leaf, Ask the Winds” and “To Drift Like Clouds”. The final four tracks have titles which refer to the stages of meditation, with the final track being titled “Satori (Elightenment)”. I’m afraid I didn’t reach a state of Enlightenment whilst listening to this album, but then I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t know how to meditate. This is, however, a great piece of relaxing music, which is perfect to have in the background whilst working, or as you drift off to sleep.
The name of the album and its individual songs might make this seem like something of a camp curio, but it was actually hugely influential. It’s considered to be the first “New Age” record. It’s also a pioneering example of “World Music”. Prior to this album, if you wanted music with a flavour of other countries, there was only ersatz experiments by jazz musicians and the fantastical genre known as “Exotica”. Exotica was a deliberately over-the-top portrayal of music from far off lands. See the video below far an example, and please note the sexist album covers and fake wild animal noises.
Although Tony Scott was an American, playing a Western instrument, Music for Zen Meditation gave a much more authentic representation of music from the other side of the world and helped broaden the palette of Western musicians, for better or for worse.
I began writing this post some time ago, but didn’t feel like completing it after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. I was furious when the usual idiot voices began to ring out (on Twitter, naturally) making jokes and snide comments about the tragedy. To these people, I can only quote the Buddhist mantra that is used as the tile of the album’s opening track: “Is all not one?”