Nate Crater II

Once forgotten by history, Hiroshi Yoshimura’s Green was one of those fabled albums resurrected by a YouTube rip and some luck within the algorithm. Since then, it’s been a bit of a revival stage for the now-deceased minimalist ambient composer, with the recent re-release of his debut and an appearance on a popular Japanese-ambient compilation. The album was initially pressed onto vinyl in 1986, and his exposure in recent years inflated the price of the LP to over $1300 CAD today. It’s now been reissued by independent powerhouse Light in the Attic Records. So what exactly had people paying so much to get a copy of this record? Well, in order to fully understand this album, it’s important to understand how it was made.

In 1967, American composer, Stanford University academic and founder of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, John Chowning made a mathematical breakthrough in sound design. In short, he discovered that by modulating the frequency of one periodic wave by the amplitude of another, he could create harmonic complexities across the frequency spectrum and produce an incredibly vast array of sounds. This was aptly called “frequency modulation synthesis” (known amongst synth-enthusiasts as “FM”). Amongst the most revolutionary parts of his invention was the ability to synthesize percussive instruments, like marimbas and glockenspiels. Stanford secured a patent in 1975 and soon granted its exclusive license to instrument-makers Yahama. 

It paid off. By 1983, Yamaha had implemented the technology into its product line with a keyboard called the DX-7 and FM synthesis soon became one of the biggest money makers in the university’s history. The DX-7 was a 16 voice, six operator digital synthesizer that was notoriously difficult to program (a synth with no knobs… fun, right?), but that didn’t stop it from becoming one of the best selling synths of all time. As one of the first commercially successful digitals, it had a dramatic impact on the corny timbres of the 80s. However, despite those kitsch sounds, certain musicians saw the beauty of its glassy tones and imbued them with heart and feeling. One of these very artists was Hiroshi Yoshimura.

Yoshimura was a Japanese composer who explored ambient, electronic, and minimalistic music from the early 80s onward. Originally released in 1986, Green was recorded on the DX-7 and two other Yamaha FM synths. From the first track, your ears are washed over by the digital cool and minimalist nature of it all. For example, the opening track, ‘CREEK’ is mostly composed of a marimba patch. However, the slight phase of the synth gives it an air of spaciousness while the harmonics ebb and flow, brightening and dampening the sound. The pace of the sequencing recalls the experimental minimalism of Philip Glass and Steven Reich. Elsewhere, ‘SLEEP’ gives us a taste of the synth’s truest subtleties: that airy, pure, vibrato-induced sound that dominates a lot of the record. In hearing these songs, it’s clear how much life Yoshimura breathes into FM synthesis, and how unique his take on the genre is. Aside from Visible Cloaks or Huerco S, there aren't many that have successfully come close to this sound. 

Though ambient in nature, this music is far removed from the slow evolving voices in Eno’s ambient catalogue or the acid experiments of early Aphex Twin. It has its own unique personality - a schema which serves to heighten the ambience of the music. His arrangements and sound design are pristine but subtle; it compliments the room, but never dominates it. Yoshimura rarely employs more than three synthesizers at one time. He often eschews chords for the simplicity of a single note, and the patches being played never compete for sonic space. Together, this gives his songs a vast sense of room to breathe; a tranquility we could all use more of. 

The juxtaposition of digital sound with loose timing on ‘FEET’ is another authentic way Yoshimura brings the DX-7 to life. But the highlight of the album can be found in the titular ‘GREEN’, where Yoshimura employs a beautifully realistic patch which shifts from sounding like the strikes of a Rhodes to the plucks of a lute. The expressiveness of the performance is incredibly evocative, while the melody floats in a haze of nostalgia and calm, ultimately creating a palpable serenity.

Previously, non-original copies of the album had included field recordings of nature sounds. However, I’m glad the reissue stuck with the original mix, leaving the music’s reflection of nature to speak for itself. This album can invoke the essence of the living world despite it’s patent digitalism; a feat that speaks to the melody and arrangements employed here. The remaster also balances the DX-7’s subtle tones and crystalline timbres. It’ll sound fantastic on a hi-fi system, so look out for physical copies due out in June.

Green was a product of its time, almost exclusively being made on the DX-7. I’m sure nowadays it’s much easier to make a whole album on one softsynth, but in 1986, Yoshimura was likely just working within limitations, using the most high tech modules available. However, the way Yoshimura contrasts its digital edge with gentle arrangements and melodies is a testament to his tastefulness. The innate simplicity, the pure FM synths, and the space for it all to breathe all help underscore Green’s naturality. Though only gaining recognition recently, Green is a refined contribution to ambient music at large.

Hiroshi Yoshimura