The resume of Ryuichi Sakamoto (1952, Tokyo) never ceases to amaze. The Japanese composer lives and works alternating between Tokyo and New York. Throughout his career, he has worked with a wide range of artists from around the world - his work transcends national boundaries and genre distinctions. Some may know him from his upbeat synthesizer sound with the Japanese pop formation Yellow Magic Orchestra in the 1970s. Others know him from his understated minimalist piano playing and the compositions he wrote for films like The Last Emperor (1987) and The Revenant (2015), or as an actor alongside a young David Bowie in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), for which he also composed the soundtrack.
From Debussy to Kraftwerk
Arts and culture played an important role throughout Sakamoto’s childhood. His father was an editor for various famous Japanese writers, and he grew up surrounded by books. He attended one of Japan’s most liberal schools with an emphasis on music and the arts. He started playing piano at the age of three, with Claude Debussy being one of his major influences from an early age. Sakamoto says the French composer opened the door to all 20th Century music. Moreover, Sakamoto characterises his music as neither decidedly ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’: ‘Asian music heavily influenced Debussy, and Debussy heavily influenced me. So the music goes around the world and comes full circle’, he says in an interview with The Guardian. But it didn’t stop there. Sakamoto also enjoyed listening to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, free jazz such as John Coltrane’s, and the German electro band Kraftwerk.
Yellow Magic Orchestra
By the time Sakamoto started his Composition and Ethnomusicology studies at the University of Tokyo in the 1970s, his interests had already moved far beyond Western European classical music. After discovering them at university, he became fascinated with synthesizers and began experimenting with various music styles, genres, and technologies early on. He was playing in jazz bands at the time, and together with Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi, he formed the Japanese synthesizer formation Yellow Magic Orchestra, which aimed to 'subvert Western ideas of the exotic'. Sakamoto was the schooled composer and ‘brains’ of the three and was nicknamed 'the professor'. Their electronic experiments in the 1970s were a precursor to the house music set to emerge during the 1980s. The song Behind The Mask (1978) became a worldwide hit and was later covered by both Eric Clapton as Michael Jackson.
Collaborating is second nature to Sakamoto, who doesn’t necessarily want to be in the spotlight himself. He regularly lends his talents to other people’s art projects. Besides film director Bernardo Bertolucci – for whom he composed the soundtracks for The Last Emperor (1987), The Sheltering Sky (1990), and Little Buddha (1994) – Sakamoto has composed over thirty film scores, ranging from Pedro Almodovar’s High Heels (1991) to Oliver Stone’s Wild Palms (1993), and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015). In addition to this, the composer has worked with musicians like David Sylvian, Iggy Pop, and David Byrne, as well as visual artists such as the South Korean video artist Nam June Paik and the Japanese ‘fog sculptor’ Fujiko Nakaya. He has recently collaborated with sound artists Alva Noto, Christian Fennesz, Christopher Willits, and Taylor Deupree. His recent album async inspired remixes under the title async remodels by several big names in the electronic music scene such as OPN, Arca, Johann Johannson, and Yves Tumor.
Sakamoto switches between different cultures, genres, and media with ease. In the documentary CODA (Stephen Nomura Schible, 2017), he explains what he finds so exciting and challenging about composing for film: ‘I fulfill someone else’s vision, but the restraints can also be a source of inspiration’.
Besides these myriad collaborations, Sakamoto has continued to make his own work, which is possibly even more experimental and offbeat. His second solo album, B-2 Unit from 1980, shows him to be far ahead of his time. The song Riot in Lagos in particular, is considered a precursor to electro and techno music that emerged later and subsequently also inspired hip hop artists. Sakamoto sees and hears connections between different genres, and with his great interest in electronic music, jazz, and classical music, he continually seeks out new possibilities. This inquisitive attitude also allows him to connect with other interesting artists to collaborate on his own projects while reaching a wide and exceedingly diverse audience. In 1992, he wrote the music for the Barcelona Olympics’ opening ceremony, which was seen by a billion people throughout the world. Prominent figures like Pina Bausch, Bernardo Bertolucci, Salman Rushdie, and the Dalai Lama collaborated on his multimedia opera LIFE (1999) in collaboration with Shiro Takatani. In 2001-2003, he released two CDs as a tribute to the Brazilian bossa nova composer Antonio Carlos Jobím. Under the group name Morelenbaum2/Sakamoto, he made Casa and A Day in New York (2003) together with cellist Jacques and singer Paula Morelenbaum. These were hailed as the ‘Top Jazz Records of the Year’ in the New York Times and London Times. His musical scope - from classical music to jazz, pop, techno, and ambient - seems limitless.
Canary in the coal mine
Besides being multi-talented, Sakamoto is also concerned with social issues. In CODA, he says: ‘I began to be concerned about environmental problems around 1992. Artists and musicians are attuned to such issues in an early stage, like canaries in a coal mine. (...) these concerns began to find their way into my work’. He investigated the ‘hopeless asymmetry’ in the world for his album Chasm (2004): the divides between the north and south, rich and poor. He also visited Fukushima and the disaster zone after the tsunami and nuclear accident in 2011, started charitable organisations, and organised the annual music event NO NUKES to protestnuclear energy, which many well-known Japanese artists took part in.
In 2014, a throat cancer diagnosis forced Sakamoto to take a break. But the disease also motivated him to create new work and to turn his ideas into music. Soon after his treatment, he composed the score for the Academy Award-winning film The Revenant together with the German sound and visual artist Alva Noto. Besides music, the two wove lots of nature sounds into the mix. Sakamoto has a significant history working with Alva Noto; they have recorded five albums together between 2002 and 2011. In 2006, they played their album Insen (2005) live at the Holland Festival.
Listen without judging
Sakamoto increasingly incorporates sounds that at first might not seem immediately musical into his own music, as can be heard on the album async (2017). Inspired among others by the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, and composer John Cage, who once said ‘sounds should be allowed to be themselves’. Sakamoto records ambient sounds in nature and the streets, and treats these like music: ‘All sounds are inevitable. All street noise is there for a reason. People claim the freedom to decide what sounds are good or bad. Everyone should listen to sounds without judging’. In this manner, he challenges the idea that music should be synchronous and stick to strict organizational principles. It gives more room for suggestion and experimentation: ‘It’s human nature to synchronise (...) But I wish to make music that doesn’t synchronise. As if speaking in a language that doesn’t exist’.
Despite this drive to constantly innovate, Sakamoto finds himself taking an increasing interest in Japanese traditions later in life. Though he grew up in Japan, its traditional culture (which came to be associated with its fascist past during the post-war period) played little part in his upbringing. He says he began to rediscover this cultural heritage in his fifties. In a special for the Japan Times, he says: ‘Living in Japan, I only noticed the country’s bad aspects (...) I didn’t really love Japan, but when I emigrated I was able to appreciate its good side more...’ He also finds elements in Japanese Noh theatre that match his own ideas about time and synchronicity to a surprising extent. He takes inspiration from it in his latest work, TIME, an opera once again in collaboration with Shiro Takatani.
Unlike the pop sounds that launched him onto the world stage, Sakamoto increasingly focuses on wordless music that echoes his reaction to global issues like 21st Century consumerism during his later career. Accolades for Sakamoto’s work include an Academy Award, two Golden Globes, a Grammy, the Order of the Cavaleiro Admissão from the Brazilian government, and the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government. He nevertheless remains modest, as is apparent from one of his latest projects: incomplete. A series of music videos released on YouTube that Sakamoto made in collaboration with various fellow artists - from the German Alva Noto, to the Iraqi-British Khyam Allami – in response to the Covid19 pandemic. He shared the videos for free, stating: ‘In these times when things are not “normal”, I wanted to document the sensations I’ve been feeling. I invited a few of my musician friends to do this with me. I wanted to share the results with you all’.