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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.