There was a time before the advent of the ubiquitous pop song placement that television commercials relied on original music to underscore their products. Matching sound and vision to create a sense of need or want within the consumer is no easy feat – hence the overwhelming use of pop songs following Apple’s hit after hit advertising its iPod and subsequent technological advancements. But when they do match up, they create a seamless blend of the visual, aural and compulsive need to own that which we are being marketed.
Composer and saxophonist Yasuaki Shimizu set out to find the perfect balance between sound and vision with his 1987 release Music for Commercials, recently reissued by Crammed Discs. The collection of 24 short pieces for various Japanese products ranging from Seiko to Sharp to Honda seeks to encapsulate the essence of the product within a finite amount of time. “Being restricted to a time span of a minute or less made it ideal work for refining my intuitive powers,” Shimizu explained. By putting hard and fast parameters on his compositions in miniature forced Shimizu to shrink his creative vision down to its most heavily concentrated form.
Given Shimizu’s background as a saxophonist best known for his reworking of Bach for the instrument, experimental rock via his group Mariah and collaborations with jazz vocalist Helen Merrill and Ryuichi Sakamoto, one would think his strengths would lie in the ability to spread out musically and compositionally. Yet, with each piece here generally clocking in at just over 60 seconds, the purest essence of Shimizu’s compositional strengths are on full display. His futuristic mix of the organic with the electronic via saxophones and synthesizers on “Sharp” perfectly conveys the image the brand was looking to put forth as it marketed its television sets and other household electronics.
To be sure, many of the products being advertised were not the most visually compelling or even all that interesting from a consumer standpoint. When was the last time you gave any thought to car tires? Shimizu’s avant garde leanings on “Bridgestone 1,” here presented in a sort of cracked chamber group built around a repetitious descending line from a bass clarinet, would certainly have stuck with viewers long after airing. Indeed, the deceptive beauty in the piece is the contrapuntal juxtaposition between the bass clarinet, saxophone and sustained tones that wash over the moving figures. “Bridgestone 2″ takes things a step further and adds primitive, glitchy electronic sound wave manipulations to the mix, lending the track a somewhat unsettling feel. Conversely, “Bridgestone 3″ strips away any superfluous instrumentation in favor of a series of drones that crescendo and decrescendo within what sounds to be a subterranean world given the sounds of incessant electronic water dripping across the track.
His series of five “Bridgestone” pieces, making up the latter half of the collection, offer some of Shimizu’s best, most subtly gorgeous moments on Music for Commercials. “Bridgestone 4″ sounds less like an advertisement than a snippet from some longer minimalist composition built around a series of hypnotic sustained notes and soothing chordal shifts. Having re-sequenced the album so that each track flows into the next, these types of drastic stylistic (and volume) shifts can be somewhat jarring, but nevertheless make for consistently engaging listening.
“Seiko 4″ employs a Glassian repetitive figure simulating the inner workings of a clock, the time passing and moving metronomically ahead, while the nearly 10-minute “Ka-Cho-Fu-Getsu” allows Shimizu to truly stretch out and explore the creative possibilities within a given idea. Mixing traditional Japanese modes with western classical melodicism (not to mention commercialism, as evidenced by the cover image) and then-futuristic electronics and synthesizers proves just as affecting some 30 years on as it must have when originally released. It’s as though the preceding 22 tracks were Shimizu’s approach to music within a claustrophobic shell, “Ka-Cho-Fu-Getsu” allowing the ideas to run free and spread out across the track. Given its lack of adherence to any sort of stylistic uniformity and cinematic scope of ideas being cast together, it feels very much of a piece with the rest of the albums shorter pieces, itself sounding like one idea seamlessly flowing into the next.
Soothingly hypnotic and compositionally complex, Music for Commercials shows how beautiful the pairing of art and commerce could potentially be when done properly. With or without accompanying visuals, Music for Commercials is a memorable, rewarding listen and a fine exhibition of a truly unique talent.