With nods to minimalist artists like Ryuichi Sakamoto and Midori Takada, the score is deliberately designed to enhance the inconsequential beat of the everyday – here’s how
If we’re to play bingo, quarantine edition, you’ll likely check off baking some iffy banana bread, having more of a social life than you did pre-corona thanks to Zoom, and getting acquainted with the digital megalith that is Animal Crossing New Horizons. The zany reboot of Nintendo’s 2001 original simulation game about nothing other than a blissful world inhabited by anthropomorphic animals has fast become the game du jour. It has inspired a legion of dedicated followers, virtual art shows, high fashion bootleg attire, and even IRL political protests. What we haven’t overanalysed just yet though is its earworm of a soundtrack, the 24 hour jam that caters for every hour of day, bespoke aural moments for changing weather and seasons.
So far, New Horizons has sold over five million copies, making its soundtrack one of the most listened to pieces of music out there now. Players can spend an infinite amount of time carefully constructing their very own island utopia, and its whimsy soundtrack – peppered with chipper birdsong, crackling campfires, and lapping ocean tides – is built to reflect this. Composed by Nintendo’s Kazumi Totaka and Shinobu Nagata, the masterminds behind the music for the entire Animal Crossing series, as well as games like Luigi’s Mansion and Mario Kart (Totaka’s actually the voice behind Yoshi AKA Mario’s dinosaur sidekick), the music is a kitsch, jazzy romp that plods leisurely down your ear canals and loops from one track to another as naturally as the waves on the shore.
The music isn’t there to stand out, but rather enhance the inconsequential beat of the everyday. Often, the arrangements are an extension of the surrounding environment. On “5 AM”, one of the more ambient tracks in the selection, a simple piano melody loops graciously, a crisp refrain that – put to the brisk percussion of a single maraca – conjures perfectly the early stillness of the crack of dawn. Stretching its way out of morning’s slumber is “11 AM”, a slinky acoustic jam with groovy synths that potter up and down the scales like a mildly caffeinated islander on their way to catch some mean fish (go get ‘em!), while “3 PM” embodies the tropical mid-noon limbo with feather-light ukulele and parping trumpets. There’s sprinklings of cowbell and glockenspiel – inconsequential stuff, but then again, that’s the entire point.
It’s within this bucolic bliss that New Horizons reveals itself. It’s an escape, utopia-building for isolated millennials avoiding the harsh realities of the coronavirus pandemic, their suffocating flatshares or childhood bedrooms, and precarious employment. Digital monotony is soothing, where your biggest worry is how you might renovate your home with Japanese minimalist decor, plant flowers, go fishing, stargazing, or mingle with your fellow islanders (unsurprisingly, Animal Crossing has been cited as a touchstone for cottagecore, a cutesy TikTok trend dedicated to rustic mundanity).
“The music isn’t there to stand out, but rather enhance the inconsequential beat of the everyday. Often, the arrangements are an extension of the surrounding environment”
Much of the music evokes what Simon Reynolds has described as a “restorative sanctuary of sound”, referring to the cultural swing that’s taken place in recent years away from the digitally maximalist noises of EDM, towards the ambient and new age. In the last decade, we’ve seen its resurgence through legacy artists like Brian Eno and his string of compilations on Warp and Opal, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose widely-acclaimed 2018 album async came accompanied by a hugely successful edition of MODE festival, and a collaboration with German composer Alva Noto the following year – which again, resulted in sold-out shows at London’s Barbican. There’s a newfound interest in forgotten Japanese ambient masterpieces from the 80s like Hiroshi Yoshimura’s AIR in Resort and Music For Nine Postcards, Midori Takada’s Through The Looking Glass, and Satoshi Ashikawa’s Still Way. Not to mention the exalting of albums like Mort Garson’s Plantasia and Laraaji’s Celestial Vibrations – Laraaji played a series of devotional sound event at Grace Wales Bonner’s exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries last year.
Made typically from soft-focus sounds that shift slowly and subtly like the natural phenomena it strives to emulate, listening to ambient music is akin to self-care, a catharsis away from the fast pace we associate with modernity. Similarly, the songs of Animal Crossing move at a soporific pace – you can practically hear your heart slowing. Its chimy textures, the sounds of babbling brooks, and the clonk of occasional cowbells could easily be mistaken for that of Takada.
The Animal Crossing soundtrack also recalls kankyō ongaku, a strand of Japanese minimalism that emerged in the 80s to soundtrack the country’s economic boom, music built as audio decor for specific environments, like a Muji store or an advert for audio equipment. Ashikawa defines the sub-genre as “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”.
Given that Ninendo is a Japanese company, it wouldn’t be surprising if the hourly tracks on New Horizons were directly inspired by these sounds – Animal Crossing soundtrack co-creator Tokata is behind the menu music for the Wii system, a mellow bouncy bop that’s since become somewhat of a cultural touchstone, inspiring countless remixes and even a drag act or two. The interactive, hourly tracks on New Horizons are built to bolster a pre-existing environment, albeit a virtual one. It’s audio decor, where the emphasis is less the sound itself, but the emptiness surrounding it.
“Made typically from soft-focus sounds that shift slowly and subtly like the natural phenomena it strives to emulate, listening to ambient music is akin to self-care, a catharsis away from the fast pace we associate with modernity”
The result is a detailed network of tracks and variations, carefully built to anticipate every subtle shift in its environment. In this sense, it’s no different to the sort of score someone might make for say, a hotel or an art gallery. As well as time-specific tracks, the game syncs with your local seasons so that when winter arrives, so do the sounds of sleigh bells. When it’s raining, there’s the tinkering of glockenspiel, and with autumn comes the sound of crunching leaves.
While there’s a lot to be said about the success of the game itself (should we really be switching ourselves off from the outside world at a time when we should be socially conscious and switched-on?), it’s undeniable that the music plays a big part in what makes it so goddamn appealing. It’s in its very nature to be listened to passively – as someone who’s analysed every inch of its 24 hour score, I can assure you that any attempt at active listening is maddening. Still, it’s nevertheless a delightful, much-needed slice of sonic self-care.