Yoko Kanno's genre is "good music".
June 9, 2018 6:12 PM   Subscribe

"She has been described, in some musical circles, as the 'Master of the Mundane' but this is not intended as an insult. It is an attempt to convey her incredible ability to take the viewer (and indeed listener) out of their own world and place them comfortably into a world of her choosing. To make them feel like a bluesy space cowboy, an android moving to a digital beat or a jazz-angry teenager. All without them even noticing that she’s doing it." Yoko Kanno: The Greatest Composer You’ve Never Heard Of [Medium]

Interview with EX.org (2000) (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
EX: You have composed classic, jazz, techno, and J-Pop pieces. Which do you find the most satisfying [to compose]?

KY: Ah ... I hear everyone talk about how many genres [I work in] like classical, jazz and others, but personally, I don't divide music by genre when creating. I don't create by saying, "I must create a classical piece here," or "I must create a jazz piece here." (laughs) When I create music, I don't consider at all which genere [sic] I like best, but what the scene or the anime calls for, like a love [theme] or a mood. There isn't one genre I like more than the others. I find all of them satisfying and all inspire me in different ways.


EX: What are the good points of composing? For example, the opportunity to travel ...

KY: (laughs) The best point of composing really is meeting people and musicians all over the world and becoming friends through music instead of words. I've gone to America, France, Isreal [sic], and elsewhere. Although I was not able to speak at all at first, if there is a song ... (laugh) Besides meeting friends, I have the opportunity to record with and listen to orchestras from within it. I've learned other people's stories, told my own stories through song, and things we don't understand, we can understand together. I feel like I become friends with everyone at the first meeting. (laughs) I'm able to meet so many friends all around the world all the time. This is the best point.
Interview with Production I.G. for Ghost in the Shell (2006) (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
What was your intended musical approach to Stand Alone Complex?

I had this image of a formal and rigid "manly" world for the original comic. So I tried to think of ways to destroy that world. The theme I had in mind was, "be human." It represented the sentiment of "why don't we take it easy and be more like a human being?" - instead of being a workaholic salaried man working for his company. Or be it Tachikoma wishing to become human. I wanted to express these "tangible fuzziness," sort of. For the opening theme song called "inner universe," I had an image of digital bits and composed a score consisting of recurrent quick beats.


You compose based on your impressions of images from the anime?

Well, you see, I think music is closer to emotions. When I say that it precedes words, I mean closer to pure emotiveness. For example, I feel I compose music to express my feelings that arise from seeing the everyday world around me. Vague and raw feelings which are not clear enough to be put into words. To give you a more specific example, the primitive and unresolved feelings such as "This person interests me," "I don't like that person, but I can't ignore him/her," "I want to go, but I don't want to leave," or "It will be dangerous, but it will be fine." You know what I mean? I think I am fascinated with expressing feelings that can't be expressed well with words.


When a person renders a scene, generally, the outcome depends on the person's preference. Some people tend to lean toward negative views and others, positive. I prefer something that is a mixture of various perspectives or opinions and feelings. I am attracted to something that barely exists at the balance between things. If you push on with monotone or only use a certain pattern, perspective or point of view, people will get bored. The brain is not the only active factor in music creation. I sometimes wait for a coincidence to take place, use my body to create, or borrow someone else's brain, and at times, my emotion goes out of control. I would always like to blend in these cluttered qualities into my work.
Interview with Red Bull Music Academy Daily (November 17, 2014)
In anime, the Macross Plus project was the one that put you on the map. By incorporating tribal, techno, trance, and ambient elements you did something that was new and exciting. Can you tell us about the project?

When I was first approached about the project, I was immediately drawn to Sharon Apple as a character and a concept. Since she was a virtual idol who used music and singing as mind control weapons I was like, “OK, let’s brainwash some people!” I thought deeply about what kinds of music might be trending in the world during the time she inhabited it, and made music accordingly.

Music tends to trend in cycles, so I thought in the world of Macross Plus the trend would probably be two cycles ahead of the current trend. I kept what I thought would still be a part of music in that era, as well as adding bits from here and there when I started making the music. I also wanted to “brainwash” listeners, so I put a lot of reverb on the low ranges of the beat and looped sections which I thought would create an uneasy feeling. I also added reverb to sections, like in church music when the sound of an organ will make you feel like there was a light shining down from the sky making you acknowledge and subject to a divine presence.


So as an entity, “Yoko Kanno” exists as a denizen of many different works and artists throughout the world in a way.

That’s why I’m always interested in which “me” my clients have brought a proposal for. I deal with many clients, some of whom know me through my film work, but don’t know of my anime work. Or vice versa. For example, I did music for the NHK television novel Gochisosan and there are people who think that is all I have done like, “Oh, Ms. Kanno I was not aware you did work for anime.” [laughs] Depending on which door a person came through to reach me determines how differently they view me and my music.
My personal favorite tracks (compiled into playlists for convenience: Nobunaga's Ambition - Cowboy Bebop, Escaflowne - Other):
Nobunaga's Ambition:
Beyond the Clouds
Aoi Hatou
Forgotten Hero
Battlefield of Light
Morning Bell
Distant Fields
Flowery Wind
Crescent Moon on the Lake
The Cloudy Road
Dangerous Castle
The Wicked Gods

Uncharted Waters:
Princess Chris

Creation (full film with Japanese narration here):
The Creation
Cain and Abel
Tale of the Flood
Tower of Babel

Macross Plus:
Information High
Idol Talk

Macross Frontier:
Interstellar Flight
Niji Iro Kuma Kuma
What Bout My Star
Tally Ho!

Napple Tale:
Slow Water
The Man in the Hole
Tanoshii Sansuu
Toy Train
Maru Hitsuji

Cowboy Bebop (a limited selection; if I were to list every good song in this soundtrack, I would have to link the entire thing):
Spokey Dokey
Cat Blues
Space Lion
Waltz for Zizi
Felt-Tip Pen
Don't Bother None
Want it All Back
You Make Me Cool
The Singing Sea
Chicken Bone
Ave Maria
Gotta Knock a Little Harder
The Real Folk Blues

Shadow of Doubt

Brain Powerd:
Blue Tone
Chemical Dance
Power of Light
Lost Memories

Turn A Gundam:
Theory of the World's Edge
Overnight Festival

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex:
Inner Universe

Wolf's Rain:
Rakuen ~ Secret Garden
Heaven's Not Enough

Darker than Black:
Psychic Contact
No. 23
Dive into the 9
Yahweh's Forest

Kids on the Slope:
Kids on the Slope
Chick's Diner
Apollon Blue

Terror in Resonance:
Dare ka, Umi wo

Commercials with Kanno's music
Dear Blue (Su-ki-da)
Circle Line (Honey and Clover live action film)
Because (Surely Someday)
Hana wa Saku
posted by J.K. Seazer (37 comments total) 97 users marked this as a favorite
One of my favorite artists of all time! I've heard almost every song in this post. Didn't think I'd see her show up here, so now I need to read all these articles! You did an amazing job with this post, J.K. Seazer.
posted by Freeze Peach at 6:19 PM on June 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think it's time to blow this scene. Get everybody and their stuff together. Ok. Three, two, one, let's jam.
posted by tobascodagama at 6:23 PM on June 9, 2018 [37 favorites]

oh I sure have heard of her.

sitting here getting weepy over this one from Oban Star Racers
posted by superelastic at 6:29 PM on June 9, 2018

I can't find an unadulterated version online, but Santi-U from the Macross Plus soundtrack blew my mind when I first came across it. It really is mind control music.
posted by phooky at 6:33 PM on June 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Don't miss Song To Fly (YT Playlist), her debut studio album. There are two others which are mostly collections of other released music.

An incomparable artist. One of the world's treasures.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:36 PM on June 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

You forgot Cats on Mars!!!
posted by saladin at 6:37 PM on June 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

I could listen to her stuff all day, and I have. When I play her compositions for people via YouTube videos, I sometimes worry they'll pigeonhole it because it has images from anime, when in fact, she's an amazing composer of jazz, funk, rock, J-pop, crossovers of all of those, etc. whose work stands on its own.
posted by limeonaire at 6:59 PM on June 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also: I'll forever be nostalgic for hanging out in the dark in college, dorm room lit by only colored strands of lights, listening to the Ghost in the Shell soundtrack. That's probably the most goth and cyberpunk I've ever felt.
posted by limeonaire at 7:03 PM on June 9, 2018 [13 favorites]

Has there been follow-up on the accusations of plagiarism? This was going around a few years ago and I don't know if there was ever a resolution. YK commands a significant chunk of my late teens/early 20s music and its been tough to listen to a lot of it since that went down.
posted by curious nu at 7:03 PM on June 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

Ugh how has ”Hamduche” from the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack not been linked yet. It’s incredibly hard to find any details on that track in particular, but my guess is that Yoko Kanno provided the harmonization behind Hassan Bohmide’s gorgeous singing. It’s perfect.
posted by invitapriore at 7:05 PM on June 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

I remember reading long ago about how she did a private little tour of the American South for musical inspiration for "Cowboy Bebop". Maybe I've watched "Mystery Train" too many times, but that story seems to be begging to be made into a Jim Jarmusch movie.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 7:07 PM on June 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

I've had the privilege of seeing her and The Seatbelts perform live twice. I've had the rare opportunity of drumming for a local brass band that would get together every other week and play a solid two hour set of mostly her music from Cowboy Bebop. My god that was exhilarating and I was rather crushed when they disbanded. I cannot recommend highly enough that you seek out this opportunity for yourself.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 7:10 PM on June 9, 2018

Also “Rain” in particular was responsible for melting away a lot of my musical cynicism as I so badly wanted to find it incorrigibly cheesy for so long, and then finally just came around to the fact that whatever the circumstances of taste are, it’s a goddamn beautiful song.
posted by invitapriore at 7:10 PM on June 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

Adieu always gets me.
posted by jason_steakums at 7:13 PM on June 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

Kids on the Slope is a revelation, and Yoko's music has shaped my musical taste for a few decades now. So , so great.
posted by rosary at 7:48 PM on June 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

The first Yoko Kanno song I ever heard was this soaring piece for Stand Alone Complex called Cyberbird. It's fantastic. It's also basically a rip-off of Hooverphonic's "Battersea" from a few years prior. Also see Where Does This Ocean Go?, which feels like it owes a small debt to Bjork's "Hyperballad."

I know she's composed a ton of scores and soundtracks, but this always left a bad taste in my mouth. Especially because I still like "Cyberbird" to this day.
posted by chrominance at 7:48 PM on June 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

On listening to "Where Does This Ocean Go?" I'm all like "Ha! 'Small debt?'" Not knocking, it's a good song on its own merits, cheers for linking.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 8:06 PM on June 9, 2018

I've enjoyed some of Kanno's works but at the same time, she has been accused of plagiarism which is something that should be mentioned at least.

EDIT: I see chrominance did mention the similarities.
posted by gen at 8:23 PM on June 9, 2018

Call Me, Call Me is a favorite of mine from Cowboy Bebop’s soundtrack, I think.
posted by Caduceus at 8:25 PM on June 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

I used to love kanno but really soured on her after multiple instances of transparent plagiarism. These aren't accusations, she has really nakedly stolen songs and claimed authorship of them. If she was a western musician I can't help thinking this would be a bigger deal.

Such a shame.
posted by smoke at 10:17 PM on June 9, 2018

A truly fantastic post on one of the greatest living composers. Thank you.
posted by happyroach at 11:10 PM on June 9, 2018

For anyone who wasn't aware of the plagiarism, as I was until today, here's a small playlist for your perusal. See how many you can recognize!

1. published in 1996
2. published in 1997
3. published in 1993
4. published in 1996 (and the lyrics are basically from 1997)
5. published in 1987
6. published in 2000
7. published in 1967

http://yokokanno.ojaru.jp/ has a wider listing but there's a lotta false positives there IMO.
posted by pwnguin at 2:31 AM on June 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

If the main article wasn't so gushy about Kanno, it might have read better. In the first place, the premise that Kanno is the "Greatest Composer You've Never Heard Of" is just weird given her popularity/notoriety and how most composers are really, really anonymous outside a very small audience. Film/visual media composers pretty much dominate what little there is of a conversation about composing outside of popular music.

It's not that the weird framing is so bad in itself necessarily, the use of attention grabbing claims is almost a given for much internet writing, but it does then put the author in the position of minimizing or ignoring some of the issues he touches on in the piece, which people here have highlighted further in their comments.

As the OP quoted, Kanno's skill is in placing listeners immediately into the emotions/setting of the shows she works on, and the article points out how fluidly she works across genres and mimic particular sounds. That rings true from my experience with her music, which is by no means all of it, but that from the more well known shows.

My, inexpert, feeling was Kanno was a really gifted pastiche artist, able to identify and borrow from the emotionally significant themes and sounds people already "knew" and smoothly combine them into new package that trades on the familiarity of the emotional associations while providing just enough variety to sound unexpected and new. That is, after all, pretty much the heart of almost all pop culture; variations on familiar themes/tropes/images to moderately surprising ends. Anything too unfamiliar or too common will either confuse or bore the audience. Kanno is exceptionally gifted at finding that middle ground.

I don't really think of her as a great composer for that same reason. As, for me, that would require more risk and/or breaking of new ground, moving further away from the familiar. But doing that wouldn't make her better at what she does, just the opposite. Her ability to match listeners to emotions to images, or themes to tropes, is what makes her so gifted in her specific field where her music is so often tied to the needs of a show, acting as just one part of a larger whole. The borrowing, in that larger sense, is mitigated by being just one element of something more complex.

That doesn't mean Kanno is or isn't stealing, on that I'm agnostic as it is both not something I'm expert enough in and because the very nature of popular culture relies on borrowing, where the lines are or should be is not something I'm personally keen to assess given how fraught the questions involved are and how little I have at stake. I just wish the author of the essay had been a little less laudatory and more circumspect about his claims given he identified the outlines of the issues in his article just didn't follow through.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:44 AM on June 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think this is a wonderful post and Kanno is a wonderful composer. The GITS:SAC soundtrack is some of my favorite music and I am always looking for stuff that sounds similar.

Can anyone please recommend a good site for buying Japanese music? I already had a list of stuff I wanted and couldn't get my hands on, and this FPP has really added to it.
posted by heatvision at 5:05 AM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

> Can anyone please recommend a good site for buying Japanese music?

CDJapan is a popular place. Amazon Japan also now has an English interface and you can buy directly from there- you need to make a new login (Amazon.com login won't work) but that's another good way to get Japanese music.
posted by gen at 6:22 AM on June 10, 2018

For anyone who wasn't aware of the plagiarism

Some of those are almost certain; some others have awfully tight timelines to really be plausible. In particular it was only 10 months between the release of Sugababes' "Overload" and Ask DNA; also, how can "Cosmic Dare" be a ripoff of "Overload" when it's also widely regarded as a ripoff of Björk's "Human Behavior"? (I guess the "gifted pastiche artist" assessment above explains that)
posted by jackbishop at 7:12 AM on June 10, 2018

Also: I'll forever be nostalgic for hanging out in the dark in college, dorm room lit by only colored strands of lights, listening to the Ghost in the Shell soundtrack. That's probably the most goth and cyberpunk I've ever felt.

SAC or the original film? I don't think the latter is Kanno but it is one of the best scores ever.
posted by atoxyl at 11:17 AM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

i'd never heard of the plagiarism accusations before but WOW does "Idol Talk" sound like a mangled backwards version of NIN's "Head Like A Hole"
posted by ver at 11:50 AM on June 10, 2018

My favorite of hers, from Cowboy Bebop, is Green Bird. That scene is stunningly emotional, and so much of it comes from the song.
posted by MythMaker at 1:05 PM on June 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

Anything too unfamiliar or too common will either confuse or bore the audience. Kanno is exceptionally gifted at finding that middle ground.

I don't really think of her as a great composer for that same reason. As, for me, that would require more risk and/or breaking of new ground, moving further away from the familiar.

I appreciate that you added the qualifier “for me,” but I think this still fails to sufficiently acknowledge the culturally-mediated underpinnings of what such a conception of a “great composer” is. It’s a pretty modernist conception in its insistence that the great composer be one who is characterized by their ability to explore novel means of expression, and I’d argue that there is much more to the art and its means than just that tendency. I don’t know that I’d call her a great composer myself, but I certainly wouldn’t dismiss the possibility on the basis of her not exploring new avenues of musical expression.
posted by invitapriore at 8:46 PM on June 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

That's a fair point, invitapriore, I admit that, for ease of discussion, I leaned heavily on "new" in perhaps counterintuitive ways since trying to define "greatness" in any art would require a lot of unpacking. There just isn't an easy way, that I know of, to sum those ideas up in a few sentences, so I threw some additional weight on "new" as balanced against what I was saying on Kanno, hoping to get the gist of the point across. New, in the sense I meant it, was intended to cover not just new avenues of musical expression, but a broader sense of "strange" that places more demand on the listener. Kanno may be a great at her craft, but that is, again, something different than being a great composer in a deeper sense. By my way of thinking, listening to her music requires little from me for its reliance on already established emotional/thematic connections. It works for the shows and provides pleasure, but that isn't enough to be "great". It isn't just the use of borrowed themes, but how they are deployed to put the listener/viewer into familiar mindsets rather than pushing towards something "new" and challenging.

But, as I say, all those terms rely on a set of assumptions that give them a different sense of meaning than they could carry in more conventional use, so there is no easy way to define it without further unpacking. In any case, there's nothing wrong with being good at what one does. Not everything has to be "great". As much as anything, I object to the tendency to hyperbole that so much web writing is prone to. It lacks a sense of history in its overuse and helps create a sense that everything someone might like without effort is as meaningful as that which requires some work on the part of the listener/viewer. It's dumbing down the arts to the realm of competing fandoms. But that's also an argument for another time and place.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:25 PM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I feel like Kano gets held up a lot as this "See? Anime is art!!" thing by well-meaning nerdboys. It's got to the point where every time this happens my mind goes back to the Simpsons episode with the Lollapalooza type festival where Cypress Hill plays with a live orchestra they ordered up while stoned, and Marge starts dancing with an over-earnest "Now this I can get into!"

I mean, the orchestral mix of rock/hiphop stuff is one of the cheapest dad-rap hooks in the book, and I feel like Kano's appearance in cartoon soundtracks makes her one of these "I'll listen to her, but no further" false avenues out of formula and marketing for some of these guys.

Jarvis Crocker once said that we no longer use music to explore our identities any more: it's just a mood candle we light behind our lives. I'm okay with our use of music changing again, but I wonder if "soundtrack" is really the best place to keep it.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 5:06 AM on June 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Jarvis Crocker once said that we no longer use music to explore our identities any more: it's just a mood candle we light behind our lives. I'm okay with our use of music changing again, but I wonder if "soundtrack" is really the best place to keep it.

I struggle with this dichotomy a lot. On the one hand, I am the most deeply attached to music that exceeds idiom and context in the service of revealing the creator’s mindset in novel, surprising, and transcendent ways. On the other hand, I feel compelled to acknowledge that music is and has been a primarily functional medium in human culture. In so many ways its purpose has been to induce a shared emotional context between participants in some public gathering, and so maybe its function as a “mood candle” is not some aberrant application, but rather the most consistent possible use given its historical context as an avenue of human behavior.

Mostly I think that, as with so many other things, capitalism has tainted music in its public function. It’s become a medium of emotional manipulation in storefronts, and restaurants, and malls, and so either intuitively or not we’ve become conditioned to recoil against that coercive function. It’s a shame, really, that such a powerful mechanism for social cohesion has been turned against us. I’d love to see it reclaimed for better purposes.
posted by invitapriore at 9:12 PM on June 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm curious what people think musical plagiarism amounts to. It can't just be "non-coincidental resemblance", can it?

Like, it is obvious that YK has sometimes set out to copy the arrangement ideas / mood of a song by someone else. As has been pointed out, "Cyberbird" is obviously doing this with "Battersea." It also has different melodies and harmonies and a more dynamic long-range structure. It's better, in my opinion. Anyway, you certainly couldn't just slot "Battersea" into the soundtrack cues where "Cyberbird" is used. It is not "the same thing."

In other cases, where she's not quite copying, she is drawing some inspiration. The instrumental lead-in to "Bali Ha'I" from South Pacific seems to have been a source for "Voices," and the bridge melody from the latter ("We can fly / We have wings") is close to the verse melody from the former. But this is not a ripoff, it's more like an homage or a musical reference. The Macross Plus soundtrack also includes some very good Aaron Copland pastiche, which I love. (I remember spending a while trying to figure out which Copland piece the "National Anthem of Macross" melody came from, before realizing where I heard it.)

That Japanese website says "Dance of Curse" is "O Fortuna." It's not that close, to my ear. But find me a soundtrack composer who has not tried to copy "O Fortuna"!

If you want to say, "Yoko Kanno is not a complete original whose music represents a total break with all prior history," I agree! But I don't see that that makes her a "plagiarist," whose music is so compromised that some of you can't listen to it anymore.

If she personally invented all of the stylistic devices she uses? Yeah, that would be more impressive -- impossibly impressive, because she works in hundreds of styles.

I guess YK's syncretism could make all the "genius" rhetoric around her feel a bit overblown. But I gotta say -- there's a whole lotta other composers out there, trying to mine the hell out of every source they can find. They just don't come out with the same consistent gold that she does. Here as elsewhere, "ideas" are just a little bit cheap. What you do with them matters more.
posted by grobstein at 12:21 PM on June 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

Jarvis Crocker once said that we no longer use music to explore our identities any more: it's just a mood candle we light behind our lives. I'm okay with our use of music changing again, but I wonder if "soundtrack" is really the best place to keep it.

Soundtrack? Are you joking? What do you think opera is? The great opera pieces that people wear tuxedos to go see now, were the soundtracks to the same sort of popular entertainments you disdain. Complete with rabid fans who occasionally threw riots. Are you saying Carmen and La Traviata are worthless? That there is no deeper meaning to O Solo Mio or Carmina Burana?

Seriously people should at least have some knowledge of music history before making generalized pronouncements.
posted by happyroach at 9:12 PM on June 16, 2018

I'm really not sure what it is you think I was claiming, happyroach. From here it kind of looks like you're just having fun punching scarecrows?
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 6:33 AM on June 18, 2018

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