All about Yoko Kanno (some thoughts and favorite songs)

Huge Ass Disclaimer: One thing I don’t talk much too much on this blog is music. I love music. I mean, I still play music myself. I play trumpet in a community band every Monday night, I am playing trumpet for all three Easter services at my church, and I try to practice for at least forty five minutes three times a week. In a lot of ways, music plays as big of a role in my life as anime. I started watching anime about the same time that I started learning to play an instrument, so it has an instant connection for me. I’ve also played in quite a few school ensembles as well in high school and in college so I’ve been around the block a few times. I’m not telling you all of this to brag, but to tell you that I love music and I might have some idea of what I am talking about.  I am talking why I love Yoko Kanno’s work, so I needed some sort of basis or starting off point for this post. Don’t take me or my opinion as some sort of major authority because this is still, all in all, my opinion. I don’t have one of those fancy music performance or music composition degrees to back up what I’m saying, I just play music for fun and because it fulfills me in the same way that anime does. That’s it, that’s all. Now onto the post.

I don’t listen to music as often as I used to, but when I have time I always lean toward different sorts of soundtracks. What kind you may ask? Well, Movie soundtracks, anime soundtracks, and even some video game soundtracks. These days, more often than not, I find myself listening to more anime soundtracks than anything else. I have so many anime I just want to live through by their soundtracks because I am either: working on homework, figuring out how to write a blog post, or just being lazy and browsing nonsensical things on the internet. Out of all the soundtracks that I listen to, Yoko Kanno’s soundtracks fill my list of favorites more than anything else. That is not saying that there aren’t other amazing artists and composers out there, but there is just something special about how Yoko Kanno approaches music that makes it appeal more to me. I’m going to try my best to explain why.

The first thing I noticed about Yoko Kanno’s work is how simplistic her music is. I don’t mean in the sense of having simplistic rhythms and beats, but in the number of voices each soundtrack uses at the same time. A better word for it would be restrained. Yoko Kanno never tries to fill every single musical corner with every single voice she can muster at the same time; she uses just enough diversity in sound to get the audience to feel what is going on. (Voice is a word that I am using that covers both instrumentation and singing.) In fact, from what I’ve heard from her work, she uses a maximum number of three voices at a time. Her work is completely efficient and emotional effective. What Yoko does works because it doesn’t over take everything that is happening on screen as well. Music is only one part of what makes a scene epic. There is also how the voice actors portray their parts and how a scene is directed. Yoko Kanno has a large understanding of this.  Her use of all sorts of instrumentation and styles never diminishes this concept.

Yoko Kanno uses a wide variety of instruments and voices in her music. She barely ever repeat. For example, she uses Jazz band for one (Cowboy Bebop), a symphony for another (Escaflowne), computer and synthesizers for a couple (Macross Plus and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), and who knows what else.  Even with their similar instrumentation and environments, Macross Plus and Stand Alone Complex don’t even sound similar. Experimentation with instruments comes with experimentation with different styles. That must be why she worked with Shinichiro Watanabe so much, because many of his anime are music focused and require a variety of styles. My main point here is that Yoko Kanno isn’t like Yuki Kajiura, Hiroyuki Sawano, and even Joe Hisaishi. While each of them makes amazing work, they each use the same instrumentation and styles all the time. Yoko Kanno has messed around with jazz music, rock music, music from Iceland, techno, standard fantasy epic stuff, and probably so much more.

By experimenting with different styles and instrumentation, Yoko Kanno has given every single anime she has worked on their own individual voice. That means that it is impossible to replace one sound track with another, which is one of my major complaints about the other composers that I mentioned. With Yuki Kaijura, you can interchange the soundtracks of Sword Art Online, Fate/Zero, and Madoka Magica and barely tell any difference. She always uses the same instrumentation and uses similar themes. I wonder if she is even trying sometimes. I can say the same about Hiroyuki Sawano with Attack on Titan’s, Kill la Kill’s, and Aldanoah Zero’s soundtracks. Same for Joe Hisaishi with his work with Studio Ghibli films. Are all of those bad in anyway? No, not at all. At the same time, they don’t add much to their series because they don’t have their own particular voices.

Yoko Kanno uses different sorts of techno music for both Macross Plus and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, experiments with different styles in Cowboy Bebop, uses some standard fantasy instrumentation and singing in Vision of Escaflowne, borrows some themes and instrumentation of Icelandic music for Zankyou on Terror, and so many other examples that I can’t think of right now. Yoko Kanno is amazing because she gives every soundtrack she has worked on her all. She is my favorite anime soundtrack composer for all of these reasons.

This post was inspired by me watching Vision of Escaflowne. I wanted to watch this anime for so long and I am glad that I have finally gotten around to it. I post a lot of my reactions to it on twitter and I’m happy that I have conversed with some of you about it. You know who you are. Take a bow. A “review” of it will appear on my blog by the end of the Month.

Some favorite Yoko Kanno Songs:

Moon – Turn A Gundam

For one thing, Yokko Kanno is singing in this one. Her stage name is Gabriela Robin and this just shows that she has an incredible voice. I should also mention that this is a very subtle and nuanced piece, yet it holds so much power. I like how when the singing becomes more intense, a snare drum enters the scene with just enough presence to add more emphasis to what is going on. Such a touching piece.

Tank – Cowboy Bebop

Yes, Yoko Kanno wrote this. Honestly, how can you expect me to write about Yoko Kanno without even mentioning this song. While it is just another big band piece, it wouldn’t be Cowboy Bebop without this song. The energy, the coolness, and all that is Cowboy Bebop is expressed in this song. It is also an absolutely fantastic jazz piece and it made me extremely happy when I heard it at a Jazz club a few years ago.

Memory of Fanelia – Visions of Escaflowne

This is a wonderfully beautiful and sad piece. The longing for what used to be for our characterss can easily be felt here. Especially with the extra inspiration of Celtic music thrown in to give the listener more of a medival sort of vibe, which is perfect for this series.

A Sai en – Macross Plus

This is the only Acapella (without instruments) piece on this list and it’s also incredibly short and it doesn’t need any extra instruments to get to the listener. The dissonance between the singers really brings in the hypnotic tone that is necessary for Macross Plus. (If you have watched the movie or ova series, you know why). It’s dissonant enough to draw you in and then captivate you with a beautiful harmony at the end. It’s just so wonderful.

Okay, I’m done with mentioning some of her work for now. I can probably go on and keep mentioning her great work for days, so this is where I stop. Thank you all for reading this and hopefully you didn’t get bored by it. I had a lot of fun writing this post.

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