Stopping time with Hiroshi Yoshimura

What does it mean to let time slip away? How do I unlearn all the ways that this feels so wrong?

By Miguel de Laveaga


I recently asked my mom to send me the family Wii we got when I was 11 years old. I wanted to have my friends in New York over to play these old games from the mid-2000s. Opening up the home menu, hearing the soft ambient background music, getting into competitive games of bowling and tennis and Mario Kart, it all comes rushing back: we’re competitors, getting off the couch one after the other to swing around remotes and nunchucks. A certain tranquility sets in. We’re practicing a ritual that we’ve lost since childhood. I think of the line in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life: “They all (...) sought comfort, something that was theirs alone, something to hold off the terrifying largeness, the impossibility, of the world, of the relentlessness of its minutes, its hours, its days.” Like playing Wii games with my friends, Hiroshi Yoshimura’s music has connected me to that sense of belonging: when everything and nothing made sense, but we played anyway.

Music for Nine Postcards became a staple for me in late 2018, after I discovered the song “Clouds” through an algorithmic gift from Spotify. It was at least a year before I looked deep enough to discover that the album had not come out in 2017, when it was uploaded to Spotify, but was actually released in 1982. It comes from Hiroshi Yoshimura, a pioneer of Japanese environmental music. Many have discovered Yoshimura thanks to internet algorithms, principally via YouTube. This is where these albums were initially given new life through rogue uploads by fans obsessed with Yoshimura’s sound. Eventually, Postcards and his more recent album Green were rereleased and are now accessible like never before. His work was only really popular within Japan in the 1980’s, never spreading overseas. But his music is resonating with listeners now, and a lot of it comes down to similar societal phenomena to when Yoshimura and his peers were crafting the music in Japan.

The late 70’s and 80’s were a time of immense growth for the Japanese economy. This economic boom directly impacted the making of Yoshimura’s work—his 1986 album Soundscape 1: Surround was commissioned by the Misawa Corporation to be given out with their modern Japanese prefab homes. The piece pulls you out of the inevitable urbanity and rigidity of that period of growth and toward the natural, a ritual return to water. Postcards was made with the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in mind, after Yoshimura spent time appreciating the architecture of the space, its interaction with the courtyard and gardens. Each track corresponds with an element or perspective, like “View From My Window,” where you can really feel the warmth of the keyboard. It’s simple, broad music, but it fills spaces that one may not consider worth filling, emotions worth feeling, validations you didn’t know you needed.

The museum, opened in 1978 and closed just last year, was founded by Rokuro Haro, known as one of the “five men of the Japanese business world.” It was built as a private residence, was occupied by the U.S. military during the second World War, and ultimately hosted Haro’s overwhelming art collection. This period of growth for Japan represented prosperity to the outside world, as Japan made a name for itself as a 20th century economic superpower. But with rapid growth comes extreme inequality and inflation; this was the beginning of a struggle for many working class citizens who didn’t have the same expendable income as the wealthy.

We are once again moving at an unprecedented speed economically. The earth is spinning faster than it ever has. It’s hard to go a day without recognizing something that is more expensive than the last time you bought it. Just like Japan in the 80’s, it feels like we are growing our own bubble that’s going to burst here in the States. Maybe it’s being in my 20’s, maybe it’s the chaos of living in New York City, maybe it’s just this stage of capitalism that we’re in.

There is real calm in Yoshimura’s work. An absence of lyrics, sure, but something more tangible, sensorial. It’s deeply relieving, filling just the right amount of space to fit whatever else is going on. As Satoshi Ashikawa, fellow pioneer of environmental sound, says, “This music could be said to be an object or sound scenery to be listened to casually. Not being music which excites or leads the listener into another world, it should drift like smoke and become part of the environment surrounding the listener’s activity.” Carrying this music through seasons, tumult, out of adolescence and into adulthood, across momentary success and pervasive failure, I’m able to remember how I felt when I first experienced it.

The way the internet draws people and themes and interests together is a sort of utopia. Youtube and Spotify algorithms are now inevitably a part of the music landscape. I’m learning to lean into these algorithms when they serve me well and trying to balance an ego-driven resistance. I discovered this sound through letting the system play out, and returning to that can be a rewarding experience, as much as I want to be intentional with my listening. Listen to one Yoshimura album on Youtube, and the platform will continue giving you other works that still don’t exist on streaming platforms, like Wet Land, a more recent favorite, or Air in Resort, which features a soft, impressionist keyboard that reminds me of Philip Glass’s lighter moments mixed with sounds of running water and chirping birds. Scrolling YouTube comments is great as a barometer for feeling; hearing other perspectives has grounded me in what a special experience it is to be with a Yoshimura record each and every listen.

There’s a certain consistency to the music. I am placed firmly in my space. Lying down, sitting up, doing the dishes, or simply moving aimlessly about my living room. I think of the black and white analog clock above the door of my 8th grade classroom and how I would watch the seconds tick away, trying so hard to control that clock, playing games with the seconds and counting down the minutes until we were out for the day. Now time stops while I listen to this music. My god, how relieving to not have to live every single second of every single day! Yoshimura’s music feels like a cheat code, space stagnating for moments at a time. Each track places you right back where you were when it started. Impermanent, yet we remain.

There’s a video of Yoshimura, the only one to be found on the internet, that really encapsulates this ability of putting the rest of everything on pause. It evokes that same energy his music can provide:

It’s from the 1986 Hinoemata Performance Festival, which has taken place for over a century in the same village in Japan. In it, Yoshimura is 45 years old, surrounded by his family, at the peak of his musical career. Running around the field with black trash bags, he fills them with air until they float around, and children run after to bounce them around. It’s so simple and really cute. He blurs this line between artist and family member, performance and lived experience, and creates something to strive for. He’s playing. Like his music, it’s meant to be a part of our daily lives, integrated and impactful across needs and desires. It’s the only imagery we have of him, and like his music, it’s really easy to nostalgize this moment in the park. Of course his days weren’t all like this. But like his legacy, it’s a reminder that presence in nature, whatever it looks like, is a blessing.

What does it mean to let time slip away? How do I unlearn all the ways that this feels so wrong? I am watching a clip export from Premiere, and there are 16 minutes left. There is much I could do with this time. I can write down my thoughts, as I am doing now. If I were at home and not at the office, I’d surely find some things to do, like washing a couple dishes in the sink, swiffering the floors. What does it look like to not try to make the most of time? Last night, I sat on a park bench for close to an hour, watching the sky go from hues of pink and light blue, deep blue to dark, barely colored and cloudy. I listened to Hiroshi Yoshimura’s Green mixed with yells of little girls chasing after one another, murmurs between a couple sitting on the grass, clinking of Coronas of a group of friends having a barbecue. I wandered through blocks of my neighborhood, the environmental ambient music carrying me in a loop, until I eventually made my way toward my apartment. I think of the games I’d play alone as a kid, of the Nerf hoop in the hallway that saw so many buzzer beaters. I was by myself in that space, yet I had enough energy to mimic an NBA Arena. Being alone has always looked like finding ways to fill my time. Listening to Yoshimura, and letting my mind wander in the fields of the music, I gravitate to these moments of self fulfillment, and open myself to new activities.