Musician and composer Shohei Amimori graduated from the Department of Composition at the Tokyo University of the Arts. He then completed a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Music of the same university. He released two solo albums after 2016, and in recent years, he has become the righthand man for artists like Taeko Onuki and DAOKO in terms of musical arrangement. As such, he’s making a name for himself in pop music today.
In his previous album, Pata Music, Amimori deconstructed and reconstructed pop music. With his latest album, Ex.LIFE, released on January 22nd, he leaves his vocals and dizzying rhythms aside to focus on “honest” melodies on the piano. The result is a tranquil soundscape, vastly different from his earlier album. Before the pandemic started, he struggled to combat the difficulty of creating “pure” music. On Ex.LIFE, however, he lets go. He opens up to alternative ways of thinking brought forth by societal changes and allows his musical experience and expertise to take control.
While he still maintains his ethos on creating music on his own, the album has a diverse roster of guest appearances: Seiichi Nagai (guitar), Shuta Nishida (guitar), Tomohiko Gondo (euphonium), Kota Sakamoto (tuba), Yoshiki Masuda (mixing console facilitator), tamanaramen (spoken word), and Elena Tutatchikova (spoken word).
In short, Ex.LIFE isn’t an insular solo album, as there’s a broader social gaze running through it. The music itself might sound like it exists in a vacuum, but it’s closely tied to time and space. We sat down and spoke to the mastermind behind this unique piece of work.
“Honest” music born from changing times
—People say that the reception of music has changed over the year. How has it been for you?
Shohei Amimori (Amimori): I don’t mean to sound bigheaded, but I’m closer to the ideal image I have of what music should be. Of course, this is a financially trying time for us musicians, but it’s now easier to listen to and create music properly by yourself.
—In an interview about your previous album, Pata Music, it sounded like you had a judgmental outlook on how it’s not about the music itself anymore. Has that situation resolved itself?
Amimori: I believe so. Over the past ten years, there was an overabundance of music created with people’s relationships and their need to communicate as the priority; music was only secondary. Some say the 20th century was the era of mass media consumption. The 2000s was the era of online media consumption, and the 2010s was the era of social media consumption.
As a result of coronavirus, there’s been a rapid spread of numerous online communication tools, including this Zoom call we’re on for this interview. The issues surrounding this type of technology is being pushed to the foreground thanks to this phenomenon. I’m the type of person who approaches music from that sort of angle, so I’m not good at creating music with “communicating with others” as the incentive (laughs). With my previous album, I started by exploring such issues and solidified the concept before creating it.
—In that sense, it seems as though your newest album is more honest than your previous one.
Amimori: I agree. I learned to accept how I can’t separate myself from my influences and identity as a composer, both of which have been nurtured since I was a child. It’s like, the music that had been a part of me all along came out naturally.
—Ex.LIFE has minimalistic instrumental tracks and improvised tracks, and I got the impression it was easier to listen to than Pata Music.
Amimori: You’re exactly right. I built some songs from a particular idea, but this album is the most listenable one out of my whole discography.
—Speaking of ideas, I heard you constructed the seventh song, “Non-Auditory Composition,” in a “non-auditory” manner.
Amimori: Yes. When the instrument players, including myself, played improvisations directly into the mixer, the facilitator turned the monitor sound in our headphones on and off at random. I wanted to document how turning the sound of our instruments on and off affected our hearing and performance.
—Why did you attempt to carry out that method?
Amimori: The permeation of online communication tools during coronavirus played a big part. For instance, applications like Zoom forcefully equalize white noise created from each person’s surroundings. Meaning, technology is blatantly altering the way we hear sounds. The more we use these tools, the more we have to listen carefully to every single sound to distinguish them from one another. So, I came up with the hypothesis that our hearing sensitivity, or our capability to process sounds, would evolve to be better because of this change in our surroundings. And that led me to compose and improvise a song while the instrument players’ hearing was affected.
In pursuit of good melodies
—Conversely, many songs off the album have some beautiful, standout melodies.
Amimori: How I capture melodies is a crucial task whenever I create music. When I work for a client, they usually ask me to come up with something catchy. An addictive, catchy song is considered a “good” song, but personally, it’s annoying. I feel like both musicians and listeners of music are losing the ability to differentiate between good and bad melodies. If this keeps on continuing, music will merely be another consumable product. So I thought, “I should investigate what makes a good melody.”
—I see. What makes a good melody, then?
Amimori: A melody that gently activates the listener; if it makes you want to chase after it, then that’s a good melody. In other words, something that makes you feel the passage of time. I think that’s more universal than “catchy” ones, strictly defined by a rigid formula.
—For Music Magazine’s March issue of last year, titled “Musicians pick their lifelong favorite album,” you wrote a column on how you add textures that tell a story onto space-time and how you admire music that’s autonomous from outside factors. What you mentioned just now is similar to what you wrote about, in the sense that excellent melodies have a close relationship to time while remaining autonomous.
Amimori: True. I think I subconsciously incorporate both elements into my music. For example, in the twelfth track, “Aphorican Lullaby,” the main melody and background noise, made of field recordings, are merged at first. Gradually, they branch off, and each musical component emerges as a standalone sound. I created that song intending to make the listener want to follow the melody with their own will.
—Because your music provokes the listener to be active, I feel like it differs from typical ambient music in the narrow sense of the word.
—But that doesn’t mean your music sounds like it came out of nowhere. For instance, some elements are reminiscent of particular genres like Gamelan, funk, and neo-classical.
Amimori: I had moments where I thought, “This sounds like x, y, z.” But most of that came about naturally, informed by my childhood to now. You know how there was “Iyashikei” (soothing, relaxing music)? Like, compilations with lyrical piano solos, spacious world music, and what not?
—Ah, right. Like image and feel.
Amimori: Yeah. Admitting this is awkward, but I’m now more forthcoming about musical influences like that (laughs). That’s why some musical elements sound like x, y, or z. I think this is especially apparent in music with negative space and cinematic quality. I also think it’s inevitable that the songs reflect the things I learned at the Tokyo University of the Arts. When I was looking back at the musical score I had made upon arranging Taeko Onuki’s orchestra concert, I realized I was trying to emulate Toru Takemitsu in some parts (laughs).
The sophistication and sociability of pop music
—Starting from Taeko Onuki, since your previous release, you’ve collaborated with numerous musicians. Have you gotten any inspiration from your experience with such people?
Amimori: A lot. I’ve gotten deeply inspired by my conversations with Onuki-san. We have a very similar vision of the music we want to make. The same goes for the universality of particular melodies and the sophistication of pop music. As long as it has refinement, it can be pedestrian.
—”Pedestrian” isn’t the same as “tasteless”?
Amimori: So, even if you have a cheesy, on-the-nose song in the style of Leonard Bernstein, as long as there’s a refined quality to it, then it would have a universal appeal. However, this isn’t the case for pop music calculated from a marketing aspect, as the goal is to get the listener hooked. Onuki-san said, “Ultimately, if the intro and counter-melody are perfect, then you can make a great pop song.” I believe simple, straightforward songs could still have a degree of sophistication if you take a close look at such factors.
—Aside from music, you create installations, sound art, videos, and other multidisciplinary pieces. Why do you continue to get involved in pop music on top of that?
Amimori: Whenever I’m making music or working on art-related things, I can’t help but wonder, “What does it mean for this piece of work to exist in society?” In that sense, pop music is an integral part of society, which is why I can’t stay away from it.
—You mean pop music isn’t fundamentally insular because it exists as a part of society, including the audience?
Amimori: Yes. I have so much respect for the philosopher and critic Hiroki Azuma-san. What he’s doing with Genron (a publishing startup company) isn’t about keeping philosophy an elite thing. He tries to open the discourse up to the public instead. I’m influenced by his ethos too.
—To create something that’s going to be out in the world, even if you did it alone, is a social activity from the very start, then?
Amimori: Yes. From a micro angle, in music, the volume of sine waves ultimately defines everything, from the tone to the texture. All in all, that’s one form of numerical theory. Now, if you broaden the horizons and shift the focus to society at large, you’ll see that the accumulation and continuation of tiny numerical elements make up society. In this manner, as a quantitative existence, music can’t be divorced from society itself.
—What an intriguing thought. People assume the more you examine music in a reductive fashion, the more anti-social it becomes. But in reality, it’s connected to society.
Amimori: Yeah, that sort of thinking has shaped my understanding of music. For the cover art for Ex.LIFE, I used a text that expresses that abstractly.
—Could you talk about what you want to do next?
Amimori: To be honest, I think I’m alright with not making a solo album for a while (laughs). Recently, I’ve developed an interest in the concept of ephemerality. I get stimulated whenever I come across sculptures and installations. I’d like to figure out what ephemerality in music means to me and build from there.