Ryuichi Sakamoto: Naturally Born to Seek Diversity

Nenad Georgievski By

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Japanese composer and New York resident Ryuichi Sakamoto has had a career unlike anyone else. For more than 40 restless years, since the days of Yellow Magic Orchestra, he has been a musician that many other musicians have followed closely and probably no other popular musician has had a broader or a deeper catalog. To experience his music is to experience the world. He is an "outernational" and that has informed his borderless vision of music.

Diversity and curiosity are the traits always associated with his work and character. He first began learning composition at the age of 10 when he took private classes with professor Matsumoto who worked at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts. During the '60s he became interested in various kinds of music such as the music of the Beatles and composer John Cage. His interests also included poetry, radical theatre, and modern art. After he finished high school he returned to Tokyo University to take his degree in composition and around that time he drew inspiration from French Impressionists and Minimalism. In the '70s he was interested in Stockhausen and gained a Master's degree in composition, although he took classes of Electronic/Computer music and Ethnic/Musicology. Since then, his career branched out to various solo records, numerous collaborations, award-winning film scores and multimedia performances. The sheer quality and diversity of his output have put him in a league of his own. Being blessed with the ability to absorb the best of what the world has to offer along with his innate good taste have helped him to fuse all of that into his own musical Esperanto.

One of the areas where he excelled over the years is the music for films. In 1983, the soundtrack album for the Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence film was released where Sakamoto not only wrote, arranged and performed the whole score but he also acted in the film where he shared the bill with singer David Bowie. The film's title song "Forbidden Colors" was written with singer David Sylvian and was among the first of many collaborations on each other's albums over the years that yielded memorable music and songs. Another film that followed saw him both acting and writing the music for and that was Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Emperor. It was this soundtrack that brought him global recognition. Along with singer David Byrne and Cong Su who also worked on this soundtrack separately it was awarded with an Oscar. For many, including me, this epic film was also the first introduction to Sakamoto's music and Chinese culture and history. Very shortly after seeing the film in the late '80s (and maybe 6 months after the clashes at Tiananmen Square in Beijing as I recall) as a teenager I traveled to China with this music and moving pictures echoing in my mind. This was the first soundtrack out of three for films that Bertolucci directed at the time: Sheltering Sky, and Little Buddha being the other two. All of that has led to work with other acclaimed film directors over the years such as Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone, Pedro Almodovar, to name but a few, and recently with Alejandro González Iñárritu on the acclaimed The Revenant.

The Revenant movie denotes many things for Sakamoto. Firstly, it is the first work he did after he recovered from a battle with cancer and secondly it was another achievement of his collaborative work with German electronic artist Carsten Nicolai aka Alva Noto. This collaboration with Nicolai is one of the long-standing ones in his career and it has yielded several intriguing albums with the latest being Glass where they turned architect Philip Johnson's Glass House into an instrument and it became part of the performance.

Shortly after this album was released, Sakamoto had a performance along with multimedia artist Shiro Takatani in Paris titled as Display and via Skype we had a conversation about various moments of his career and the creative processes that have produced some of his releases and have inspired his diversity.

All About Jazz: Over the years, your recorded output saw an incredible range of diversity and cross-cultural activities. What inspired your curiosity for various kinds of music that come from different geographies and genres?

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Since I was very young I was listening to all kinds of music. I took piano lessons as a kid but I didn't listen to only classical music. I was listening to pop and rock music, and when I was in high school I began listening to jazz. I don't know why as I can't pinpoint the reason exactly why I turned this way. I was born like this and this is my nature. I enjoy all kinds of music and not only music but other branches like art. For me, it's impossible to live in one category. This is impossible. I love avant-garde art but I also like classical art. I'm talking about diversity more like a general matter. I was born like that and I remember when I was very little I wanted to be born in Hong Kong and not in Japan. As a child, I thought if I was born in Hong Kong I might speak both English and Chinese. Being only a Japanese speaker was not fair to me. But that was the thinking of a little kid that wanted to break through barriers. I wanted to be a person who could live anywhere on this planet. Now we are in Europe, tomorrow maybe I'll be in the Antarctic. I wanted to be a person who could move like that. Naturally, to me, there are no borders between countries or states. Probably the language sometimes serves as a border.

AAJ: How has living in New York for the past 25 years have influenced your worldview and your music?

RS: I've been living in New York for quite a while now, but as I said I was already naturally born to seek diversity. The reason I moved to New York was more for practical reasons. New York is the center of the world. Japan is very far away. It takes 13 or 14 hours of flight to go anywhere from there. That's one of the reasons and as you know, the pace of the city is very fast and that's practical. If you want to get new equipment or to hire musicians in the studio or engineers, everything is very quick. That's one of the reasons.

AAJ: It seems like many great artists have moved there over the years. What makes it so attractive?

RS: To me, having all those people living and working on the same tiny island is very natural to me. These people have to be there. It's part of New York. There is another reason, the new American president came and he wanted to build big walls in order to send immigrants back to their countries. I was impressed with what the governor of the state of New York has said, including the mayor of New York City when they said they were against the US President's decision and that they welcome immigrants as they were immigrants in a way. They also said that among those immigrants there are women and children and disabled persons. That's what the governor and the mayor of NY have said, right after Trump was elected as a president. So, at that moment, I recognized the reason why I'm living in New York. This is it. This is the reason why I'm here. That's what I thought at that moment.

AAJ: Over the years you have worked with a number of intriguing and diverse collaborators. What qualities do you look for in a collaborator?

RS: There is no rule but the only rule is that I'm interested in them. But each person is very different. They have some kind of charm and talents. Those people have different skills and different talents or maybe different visions that I don't have. If they have the exact same talents, the exact same skills, the exact same visions that I have I will have to work with them. I'm always seeking something unfamiliar, something that I haven't heard before. That's a very basic rule for me and my activities, for music and other things too. I always want to learn things that I haven't known before.

AAJ: These collaborations have usually yielded music that was unlike like both parties' music. An example of that is the collaboration with German musician Carsten Nikolai (Alva Noto). Over the course of several years, this collaboration has produced several intriguing albums. How did this working relationship begin and what were the creative processes that drove these several records you have made together?

RS: I can't really recall precisely but probably it was artist Ryoji Ikeda who introduced me to Carsten sometime in 1999. His music was very shocking to me so naturally, I was led or I was charmed by the new thing i.e. the new kind of music by Carsten Nikolai. That was the initial moment that got us to talk. The first thing I asked Carsten to do was to remix ("Insensantez Remodel" by Alva Noto) some of the music that I made around that time in 2001 with the Brazilian musicians (Jacques and Paula Morelenbaum) when we did the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim. Brazilian music and Carsten Nikolai's music are totally different and are very opposite, but Carsten kindly said yes. He instantly agreed because he is a very open person but the Brazilians didn't know what was going on (laughing). It was very funny. And they really liked the result. That was the starting point. I thought we could do something new with my traditional classical or minimalist Satie-esque music and Carsten's very electronic stuff. That was what my instinct was telling me. So I started sending Carsten some of my piano materials like sound-bites on the piano. I kept sending him some ideas, piano ideas -piano sound-bites. And Carsten worked by himself working with my piano sound-bites and was sending some tracks back to me. The working method was very simple. I sent him my piano materials and he treated his sound and sent it back. And it's already a new kind of music. So we kept doing the same thing for several other albums and during those times sometimes we toured mainly in Europe (except for Macedonia -laughing). I'm quite happy with the outcome of our collaborations. Regarding The Revenant soundtrack I was already working on the Revenant soundtrack for many months. Maybe it was four months. Finally, I called him up to rescue me because I was under enormous stress. It was an emergent situation because of the amount of work left and only a month to finish the work. I just called Carsten for a rescue. So he came to L.A. and he began working with me and Mr. Inarrity. The real reason I called Carsten to help with the The Revenant soundtrack was because Mr. Inarrity already liked our collaboration work. So, he was using our collaboration and Carsten's music as temporary music. In the beginning, I was mimicking his sound, his music, but then I thought, this is awful. Just call him and bring him to do his thing instead of mimicking his music. It was pointless. I think the end result was very good.

AAJ: And for the Glass album you both turned a whole house into an instrument. WHat was that experience like?

RS: We were asked to perform inside the Glass House and I really like the building so Nikolai and I were talking and it was his idea that we should use the Glass House as a music instrument. I thought it was a great idea so let's put the contact mikes on the glass windows. Then I hit and scrub the glass and that produced interesting sounds. Of course, I put some effects on top of that. Before that performance at the Glass House, Carsten and I always played existing music from our albums. But at the Glass House somehow we improvised 100 %. There wasn't any pre- existing material at all. So he had his sound and some samples and I prepared my instruments and samples. And then we just started to play without any plans. We really loved the music. Just recently we improvised together again in Berlin for the Berlin Film Festival for half an hour. Of course, because it is improvisation each time it's very different. The two persons are the same but their music is very different from Glass already. So we kind of liked the idea of improvising together in the future.

AAJ: The longest working relationship that you have is with singer David Sylvian. You first began working with him when both bands Japan and Y.M.O. were still active. Since then you collaborated with Sylvian on several of his albums and he has guested on your records. The last time you worked was his recitation of poet Arseny Tarkovsky's poetry on your last studio record Please talk about the chemistry you share with David Sylvian after decades of being in each other's orbits.

RS: From the start, this relationship has been very intuitive. From the times when I met him or when I met the members of the band Japan, we felt like we are brothers. And not only regarding personalities but both bands were inspiring each other like brothers. Sometimes it was like relationships that brothers have—sometimes it was competitive and sometimes it was inspiring. All of this like real brothers. It's been like that. After some period David Sylvian and I didn't communicate with each other for maybe a few years and then, all of a sudden we became close again, like real brothers. If you have brothers and sisters you know what that's like. Today, actually, as we speak, we exchanged some emails and that was the first email communication in a year. There are periods when we communicate a lot and then we might be silent for some time. It's like family members.

AAJ: Do you think this relationship will yield some new music in the future?

RS: I have been waiting for his new music for a long time.

AAJ: To this day you've been performing the theme from the movie Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence in various constellations and for which Sylvian wrote the title song "Forbidden Colors." This composition has become your trademark, something that is always associated with you. What is your relationship like with the piece of music after all this time it was initially written in 1983?

RS: It might sound strange to you but to me that music is kind of mysterious because I don't remember the moment I wrote that music. It was very subconscious and in the next moment when I recognized the music was in front of my eyes. It was very blurry. That's kind of strange. Everywhere I go people want me to play that song after so many years after it was composed. I was tired of playing that song. I was tired of hearing people say "Please, play Merry Christmas." There was a certain period when I refused to play that song. Several years went by and then one day it occurred to me that this music is not so bad (laughing) and I started playing it again.

AAJ: Do you think the scenes of brutality of war in that film where you also act have inspired something very emotional?

RS: Years ago, when I was traveling to Africa, I brought a piano into the African savannah, the Kenyan savannah, and I played some music on the piano for the elephants. Those weren't elephants in a local zoo but elephants in the wild who were walking across the savannah. In the beginning, I was improvising on the piano and the elephants passed me by without noticing me. They just kept walking and then finally, I began playing "Mr. Christmas Mr. Lawrence." And then, the elephants stopped walking and began listening to me. I was joined by this elephant expert, an American female researcher who has been in Kenya for 35 years researching elephants and their ways of communicating and she said, wow, they are listening. She got really excited. That was a very important and emotional moment.

AAJ: So how did you start composing music for films? Was the Merry Christmas soundtrack the first experience of working on a film music for you?

RS: Yes, it was. One day, the director Nagisa Oshima came to my office and he asked me to act in his film. But before I said yes I asked him "Can I make music for your film"? He instantly said, "Yes, please." That meant I had to do the acting and the writing of the film music at the same time. Both activities were completely new experiences for me. I was not a trained actor at all. I hadn't written any film music at all prior to that moment. The two entirely new experiences came to me and I kind of instinctively asked him "Please, let me write the music for you." Most of the film directors are not like him. They wouldn't say yes instantly. I'm talking about film music and he knew that. But he said yes and gave me a 100 % freedom when it came to writing the music. And he used all of the music that I gave him. That's very rare but I didn't know that at the time. And then Mr. Oshima introduced me to Mr. Bertolucci. The relationship continued like a chain reaction. I consider myself lucky, very lucky.

AAJ: What was it like to be working on such an epic historical film such as the Last Emperor with the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci?

RS: Again, it might sound strange, but Bertolucci asked me to act first. At the time I didn't ask him if he would like me to write the music. I was invited to Beijing to act. So I was with them probably for 6 weeks in three cities in China and two weeks in Italy. Of course, it was a very special experience. All of this was happening well before Tiananmen Square and the entrance of capitalism there. The whole experience was like a time capsule for me. That period in China was like a time capsule and it was very different.

RS: And then, several months later, maybe 6 months after the shooting of the film, I received a call and it was the producer Jeremy Thomas who said: "Write music for the film, right away." So I asked, how much time do I have and he said: "You have a week." And I thought it's impossible to write the whole music in one week. Give me two weeks. I did everything in two weeks.

AAJ: What was the communication like between you and the director? Was it difficult to meet the director's expectations?

RS: It was difficult. We didn't have Internet so not even a fax machine. We had FedEx. It was impossible to send him a demo. He just gave me a command "Write this kind of music" or "this kind of music, this kind of music." I just followed him and I worked with my own images and ideas. I brought everything I wrote in London and I played my music for them. He was there. So we started recording with a real orchestra in London where we mixed it. In the end, he used only half of the music I wrote. He chose some of my music and some of David Byrne's music. David Byrne and I worked separately so I didn't know what David was doing. We didn't communicate. There wasn't any communication between us. Everything was dictated by Bertolucci. That was a totally different way of working than Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.

AAJ: When it comes to music for films do you also think about how the music will sound outside the context of the moving pictures it was initially made to support?

RS: In the beginning, I wanted my music to exist without the images. The music should exist, it should be alive even without the images or without the context of the film. That's what I wanted but right now I changed my mind and I want my music to be telling the story of the images in the film. My music should not dominate the film, to stand out from the images. It must be integrated inside the images in the film. That is what I want right now. I'm more like a cinema person than a music person.

AAJ: Where do you see the role of music in these dark and political times?

RS: I don't have a very strong answer for that. I'm still searching, thinking, trying and experimenting. One thing I have difficulties with -I don't want my music to be a propaganda tool. Music should be pure. But on the other hand, I understand music sometimes gives strength to people or encourages them or makes people feel more peaceful or calm. I understand that music has that kind of a strength. That's not the purpose of music. The purpose of music for me is just a state of pure, emotional and aesthetic art. I don't want to use my music as a political tool. That's a very difficult balance understanding the pure music and also the strength that music has for people and the politics. I want to be very careful about that balance.

Photo credit: Da Ping Luo

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