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Ryuichi Sakamoto is perhaps best known for his many film scores, including The Revenant, but the composer and keyboardist’s long career spans the synth pop of Yellow Magic Orchestra, pioneering electro-funk and subtly complex ambient music. “Making music for me is a chain reaction, always going towards something. Some ideas, a glimpse of something, a fragment of a memory that triggers more images. Your mother’s smell, a person from TV news. That kind of imaginative fantasy, that journey, is already very musical. So, I hope my music can trigger some kind of image series for the listener.” By Katherine Gillespie.

The key concepts of Ryuichi Sakamoto

Ryuichi Sakamoto
Credit: nns zakkubalan

On a September evening in 2016, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and his frequent collaborator, the German visual artist and musician Alva Noto, performed for a small audience gathered in the translucent confines of architect Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut. The ambient set stretched out over an hour, completely improvised. They had planned, by use of strategically placed microphones, to turn the building’s four glass walls into vibrating instruments. They had not planned for the weather.

“Right before we started performing, a heavy rainstorm started,” says Sakamoto, doing his best to re-create the scene for me as we sit in his favourite West Village cafe, where all the waiters know him by name. The sound of rain has long fascinated Sakamoto. He is in the habit of using a recording device to catalogue even the most mundane of winter downpours, listening back to the recordings to compare their sonic impact on his apartment’s rooftop and courtyard. “So, when we started the performance with the sounds of heavy rain hitting the glass walls,” he says, “it was very, very good … A good omen.”

At some point during Sakamoto and Noto’s performance the rain stopped and a vibrant sunset entered the house, unfiltered. “The landscape was so beautiful, full of changes around us,” Sakamoto says. He speaks softly with a hint of winking humour at the edges. “It was like sci-fi. Heavy storm, dark clouds, the sun comes out. Probably the best possible inspiration for us to play.”

The Glass House show marked the first time Sakamoto and Noto had freely improvised together. Its success has prompted them to take their show on the road. Unfortunately, the Melbourne Arts Centre, where the pair will appear as part of the international arts festival, has solid walls. Sakamoto’s more well-known compositions will feature, he says, alongside improvised material. “It’s not like a half and half,” he notes. “More integrated, merged. The sun comes out and we improvise. It’s going to be like that.”

 

Sakamoto began his career in the 1970s as keyboardist of the revered Japanese synth-pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra, then continued as a prolific solo artist and early progenitor of electro-funk, as well as the composer of iconic film scores including Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky and more recently Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant. He and Noto have been collaborating for 17 years, though it was Noto’s visual art that first caught Sakamoto’s eye. There is a complementarity to their different backgrounds. Sakamoto is classically trained. He claims that Noto, who composes music visually using the mathematically inspired principles of cymatics – which maps visible vibrations produced by sound – doesn’t know a single chord.

“I think he couldn’t find where C is on a piano. It’s a different mindset and totally fascinating,” says Sakamoto. “The result is very good, and his music is very unique.”

Collaboration comes naturally to Sakamoto. He has worked with Robin Scott, David Sylvian, Thomas Dolby, Iggy Pop and David Byrne. The night before our interview, he met with the teenage members of a Korean indie band whose music he had come across while watching a K-pop show on cable TV. “I don’t understand the language,” he tells me, “but I enjoy it.”

 

Born in Tokyo in 1952, seven years after the war ended, he came of age as the revolutionary spirit of ’60s America dovetailed with Japan’s own folk and rock music scene. He says some of his earliest memories are soundtracked by Western pop songs. “Since I was unconscious I loved music and saw music as the indication of changes in society,” he says. “The first music I heard was American music on the radio, and on the streets of downtown Tokyo.”

Childhood piano lessons led him to study classical music at university while experimenting in his own time with the more contemporary rock trends. As a fan of Herbie Hancock and Kraftwerk in the early 1970s, he developed an interest in synths, then regarded by many as a novelty. His talents made him an in-demand session musician, and eventually he was invited to form Yellow Magic Orchestra with founding members Yukihiro Takahashi and Haruomi Hosono.

Sakamoto claims he never wanted a rock star life. He shakes his head, horrified, when I ask whether he ever aspired to fame. His desire was to be anonymous, and he certainly lived that way for a good decade. But Yellow Magic Orchestra – later simply known as YMO – became incredibly popular in their home country and was one of the first Japanese groups to tour internationally. In 1979 they were performing on Soul Train and appearing on the same bills as London’s most in-demand new wave bands. “We were overseas to see the advent of the punk movement, and also the beginning of more different kinds of electronic music,” Sakamoto says. “It was a very interesting time.”

In Coda, a 2017 documentary about Sakamoto’s life and work, filmmaker Stephen Nomura Schible includes a scene from this time of Sakamoto, then in his mid 20s, marvelling at the ability of a computerised keyboard to play at a speed it would take him a decade of dutiful practice to master. It was an intensely creative period, when the future of electronic music was being unwittingly decided.

“At that time, we would talk about the possibility of putting sensors into our brains to control the music without hands,” he says. “It was the era of the first Blade Runner, and we were fans of Philip K. Dick, of course. So those kinds of ideas and fantasies came easily.”

YMO’s synth-infused tracks such as “Firecracker” and “Computer Game” laid some of the groundwork for the house and techno music we know today, and Sakamoto’s later solo hit “Riot in Lagos” is revered as an early example of electro-funk. Yet the idea of being considered influential sits uncomfortably with Sakamoto, who can’t help but recall just how isolated and out of touch many Japanese musicians felt in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The Japan I grew up in was always following the technology and trends from the West,” he says. “We eagerly watched what was happening, what was coming. So, talking about being influential does sound a bit strange.”

He recalls how YMO’s Hosono, one of Japan’s most notable bass guitarists, developed his unique style of playing – “no pick, just one or two fingers” – by studying a cover of a record by Motown bassist James Jamerson that was printed in a music magazine. Pop culture so often translates across borders and language in such pleasingly warped and inspired ways.

Despite his ambivalence to fame, he didn’t shy away from performance after YMO’s success. In 1983, veteran director Nagisa Oshima headhunted him to act in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which co-stars David Bowie as a British soldier captured by Japanese forces in World War II. Sakamoto, who plays the prison camp’s captain, agreed to the role on the condition he could compose the film’s theme. It has become one of cinema’s most iconic – a gently heartbreaking and unabashedly sentimental piece of electronica, perfectly suited to the film’s atmosphere.

Sakamoto describes the offer to appear in Mr. Lawrence as “the biggest and most important moment of my life”. However, his reverence for the experience seemingly has nothing to do with his famous co-star. Of Bowie he has little to say – only that their sole musical collaboration was an impromptu on-set jam session staged with “very cheap drumsticks and an acoustic guitar” that drew a large crowd of cast and crew. “He is a strange musician, and it was a strange performance,” Sakamoto says with a shrug.

Scoring Mr. Lawrence led to further cinematic projects. Clearly, he derives great pleasure from merging his own creative vision with that of film auteurs such as Bernardo Bertolucci and Iñárritu. “[It’s] the same person [who] does the music for films and the solo music,” he says. “But obviously the purpose is different … I have to withdraw my ego, whereas for my solo work it’s just me naturally being myself. For films you have to devote yourself to someone else’s vision.”

Although he’s worked on films for decades now – alongside the occasional anime project – he still finds it hard to define a good film score. “There’s no standard, there’s no grammar, really. If there’s a method or a good approach to making music for film, it’s that you should just love the film. Respect the film. Respect the director. Respect the images.”

This sounds like a stock answer anyone making music for movies might give. Sakamoto seems serious, though: he recently turned down a project to score a film from a director he greatly respected, after realising he didn’t feel any respect for the material. “I’d already said yes and signed on, but I couldn’t love it. So, I quit. And of course, the director, he was calling, almost crying, saying, ‘Please!’ It was so emotional. But I couldn’t.”

I ask him what it was about this film that made him think twice. He takes a moment to think. “It was cruel,” he says, quietly, after a pause. “Yes, it was cruel.”

 

For Sakamoto, music is a sincere and candid thing. In the lead-up to the recording of his 2017 album, async, recovering from oropharyngeal cancer, he became obsessed with a piano that was damaged by the 2011 Japanese tsunami. It was the idea of a wooden instrument tortured by both nature and human hand. These days piano is his primary instrument.

“Before I encountered that tsunami piano, the piano had always felt like an extension of my body, myself. But after, I started thinking about its assembly, its materials – the pieces of nature, and the humans who had forced them together in this artificial way. I had to think to rethink my foundation, and that opened up my musical imagination.” The resulting ambient album is textured and resonant with piano keys and white noise. It sounds like the process of healing.

A master of atmosphere, in his film scores as much as his solo work, it makes sense directors who respect the ability of sound to elevate the emotional pitch of any given scene are drawn to Sakamoto. “What I do with films is I hope my music will be melted in, not standing out,” he says. “Just a natural part of the whole film.”

He thinks in this same cinematic way even when he’s tinkering at the grand piano – undamaged – that sits in his New York apartment. Or when he’s performing on stage. The process is intuitive and emotional, the music layered in ways that are difficult to comprehend but easy to enjoy.

“Making music for me is a chain reaction, always going towards something. Some ideas, a glimpse of something, a fragment of a memory that triggers more images. Your mother’s smell, a person from TV news. That kind of imaginative fantasy, that journey, is already very musical. So, I hope my music can trigger some kind of image series for the listener.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 13, 2018 as "Key concepts". Subscribe here.

Katherine Gillespie
is a New York-based journalist and critic.