He appreciates “good
noise,” is concerned about climate change, isn’t quite sold on Hawaii, and has
worked with everyone from David Byrne to The Dalai Lama.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
Since 1978, Japan’s Ryuichi Sakamoto has been an innovator
in electro-pop circles with Yellow Magic Orchestra, a world fusion artist whose
sonic vision (“neo geo”) has meant seamlessly combining all forms of Eastern
and Western melody and rhythm, a sought-after film composer whose collaborative
score with David Byrne for 1987’s The
Last Emperor won an Academy Award, and a musical partner to the diverse
likes of William S. Burroughs and The Dalai Lama to say nothing of his teamings
with David Sylvian, Adrian Belew and Iggy Pop. Sakamoto has also crafted operas
and made bossa nova and classical recordings.
Currently and willingly he finds himself in the position of
re-introducing himself to American audiences with a 2 CD package – his “self-covers”
album, Playing the Piano and the
self-explanatory Out of Noise, itself
dedicated to ideals laid down by John Cage. During each 2010 tour date,
Sakamoto comes equipped with two Yamaha concert grand pianos – one played by
Sakamoto himself, and the other pre-programmed to play a second part composed
by him. Essentially, he’s playing duets with himself. Sakamoto is also part of
Criterion BluRay’s vividly colorful re-release of Nakisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – the very
first film Sakamoto scored and starred in. (Read our review here.)
Plus, from the sight of him at a recent tour stop in Philadelphia, he’s a
damned snappy dresser.
BLURT: On the Noise half of this new album your
most recent version of electronic music borrows some of the field recording
ideas form your Neo Geo period but
find itself less cluttered. What is that about?
RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: I wanted to follow the philosophy of John Cage – that there’s
no boundary between sound and noise. I have never been able to accomplish that
before as an artist. I’ve used noise a lot in the past. I think with this, I
have, I hope, truly focused on deconstructing that boundary.
I know Debussy and Satie are inspirations. You
did an aptly-titled album in 1998 called Discord that you made your introduction to classical music. Do you think from that
point on, to say nothing of your backgrounds in pop, do you think classical
audiences look at you with a jaundiced eye? Do you think you bring something to
classical music that hasn’t been there before?
The classical background of mine is
always there. Sometimes it’s more obvious than others. I feel strange saying
this about myself but I have many aspects to my sound – many faces or sides if
you will. I think my love of techno, world music, bossa nova, whatever – it all
comes out. This is all me. Certain audiences claim me for their own – some from
electro pop, some just soundtracks, There are people who know me for opera. But
even the music of Yellow Magic Orchestra, which was what, some 30 years ago,
you can hear elements of symphonic music.
Why re-introduce yourself with a self covers
record? Or is it that you were just looking to strip your more familiar work to
Maybe it’s been in the past ten years
but every time I play, it’s me and piano and fewer and fewer collaborators. As
I strip down my shows, I strip down the music perhaps. The style I play is very
(simple or) single minded. I’m really am just a composer who plays piano.
I don’t know – you do a pretty nice job.
Thank you (laughs)
Can we talk about Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence for a moment. Not just because the
film has just been re-released but because so many of its musical themes –
literally and figuratively, its minor and major chords – have lasted through
your work. Plus you perform its theme song on Playing the Piano and in concert. Why was that music – is that
music – so ever-lasting? What is its lingering resonance?
I really have no
idea. It’s a mystery, always a mystery to me. I can’t imagine why that theme –
beyond even that of The Last Emperor – is so well received. It’s impressive to
see though – even from the first few notes on, a few second in how it grabs
people’s hearts. I want to know (laughs).
What do you remember most about its filming?
The biggest difference between this and
any other film I’ve been in or made music for was that this was the very first
film music I ever wrote as well as being my first acting experience I would
have. Two firsts in such a monumental project – that’s something you know. My
memories of shooting and pre-shooting with Mr. Oshima are very fond ones.
Oliver Stone, Bertilucci, Brian DePalma,
Aldomovar – you’ve done them all. Why? What do you think you do that no one
else could have done – a sense of invocation perhaps?
I think I may have
done something to offend other film soundtrack composers, possibly because I am
a musician and composer first. Only sometimes I work a film composer. I make
this music as my own music first. I don’t write according to the film.
Do you feel as if classical audiences in
particular look at you with a jaundiced eye – they’re such purists.
What’s your take on Bill Evans? The more I
hear you play just piano I hear him in your work?
Since I was a teen
I’ve been a big fan of Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock. Evans is much more
romantic. Since the first time I heard him, I thought there was evidence of
Ravel is his playing.
You do “Riot in Lagos” and “A Thousand Knives” some of your
oldest electronic pop tracks on the new album. I know that you write mostly on
piano and these were so synthonic. Were they harder to break down?
Yes, you’re right. I
do compose on piano and yes these were a harder to strip down. Piano gives me
more ideas. It was much more difficult to rearrange these.
How have you liked working with Christian
Fennesz? You’ve done duet records with him in past and he contributes to the Noise album.
Definitely we share a
heart when it comes to this music. His music is so much noisier (laughs) and louder than mine, but his
standards of music are very good. Very high. Since the first moment we met we
understand each others nature very well.
I understand that you developed your own label
– Commons – and that you’ve released records by Tortoise and BOREDOMS.
Christian is noisy. BOREDOMS is more so.
Much more than
Christian, yes (laughs). I’m enjoying
BOREDOMS. I’ve known them for some time. I’m always been open to any genre –
except country and western and Hawaiian music.
That’s pretty unfair to Hawaii.
(laughs) I love the state. I just don’t like their resulting music.
There is good and bad music everywhere. There is good noise and bad noise.
BOREDOMS is good noise.
You traveled to Greenland
for inspiration on Noise did you not?
I have long had
climate concerns and issues and wanted to go to the Arctic Sea.
It’s not but I finally got an invitation; me and scientists together. I didn’t
want to go and be frozen but once I did and I was there I didn’t want to come
back. I left my soul on the glaciers. Obviously it was a huge impact on the
You’ve been making music in so many forms and
formats for so long. Are you comfortable in your skin as an artist?
I think that I am not
an artist…yet. I am a musician- sometimes a composer, sometimes a player.
Artists are different. Artists break the boundaries. They show new ways of
thinking. I want to be an artist.
Well, sir, I think you’ve managed to at least
bend a few things in your time.
[Photo Credit: Rama]