Here’s a review by us here at weeds (for “an associated writing project” as they say) of the excellent Japan Sound Portrait – Indication 1.1 (Bamboo USB Stick). Definitely go and have a look at Neil Cantwell and Nick Luscombe’s Japan Sound Portrait here.
Just before Christmas I received a gift from a friend at work: a credit card-sized bamboo USB stick containing just under an hour of sound emanating from or influenced by the island of Japan. It is a tactile article – one of only 100 produced – with simple red and black graphics cleanly executed on the surface of the polished light wood, while the USB device can be folded away into its bamboo casing, making it almost undetectable. What makes this artefact more interesting is that field recordings – audio recorded outside of a conventional recording studio – are used in the making of the sound collage.
This is the work of The Japan Sound Portrait who are creating a “crowd-sourced portrait of Japan in sound” in the run up to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. In a promotional tour of the country in 2015 the founders of the project, film producer Neil Cantwell and DJ Nick Luscombe, asked people throughout Japan to send them their favourite sounds to use in future recordings. I’m not sure who were asked or what the system of choosing the sounds were, but given the wide range of content it must have been a democratic one.
Indication 1.1 starts with what sounds like ceremonial bells or even a village clock, then segues into some chilled hip-hop beats which sample the chimes. It then builds as more layers are added – woodwind instruments of varying pitch, a metal gong of the sort that could be used to start a Sumo contest, unusual sounding chants – and ends with someone beat-boxing. This opening track gives a hint of the cultural and emotional breadth of the rest of the collage’s content.As the soundscape unravels, a variety of samples are seamlessly blended into the mix: audio which straddles ancient and modern Japan. These include: monks chanting, traditional instruments, and the sound of various household appliances. There are also short musical interludes which fade in and out alongside tracks of Japanese folk music, downtempo hip-hop and upbeat electronica.
There’s a sample from a Shinto (an ethnic religion that focuses on rituals to connect present day Japan and the past) tatemae or “roof-raising” ceremony to pray for safety while a building is under construction and to thank the craftspeople for their labour. Money and sweets are thrown from the dwelling to awaiting happy children.
The movement of the whole piece can change from one mood to another quite rapidly, which is not a bad thing: from the Get Carter-esque instrumental which uses a sample of a click of a telephone handset being replaced, to a double bass-led track with lush orchestral strings overlaid with the sound of seagulls and later on a more abstract sounding tune composed by Verity Lane played on a 17 string Bass Koto (Japanese Harp) which is strummed and plucked (and possibly its body and strings hit with a drumstick).
There are no track listings but an email from Japan Sound Portrait gave some pointers “…Laurent Fintoni, interwoven pieces from Shinekosei’s Juel Suite…” but not knowing all the artists mentioned, I can’t identify many of the individual parts. I do though recognise the “Sharp Ag-ion coat washing machine” at 35 minutes in and if I’m not mistaken it also appears sampled as a bassline earlier on. But where is the sound of the “UFO catcher” also mentioned in the Sound Portrait’s email?
One thing that strikes me with Indication 1.1 is that yes it is predominately an instrumental piece, yet with the use of the found sounds vocals are not needed nor are they missed. The more you are exposed to it, the more you discover what you might not have noticed on previous airings: traffic on a country road, a child laughing and the sound of a gaming machine spilling out its winnings. There’s also fun to be had trying to guess what the other sounds that you don’t recognise could actually be.
The packaging of Indication 1.1 is an attraction and also hearing that future releases from the project will include a music player in the form of a Japanese lunchbox and music files embedded onto clothing. But this isn’t a case of form over function, as the range of high-quality music/sound textures compiled testifies. All in all this is a great release, the downside being that I now have to find an equally interesting gift for my work-mate next Christmas and it may require some thought.