His cosmopolitan musical curiosity transcended borders and touched the souls of many individuals worldwide by proving that music doesn’t have limits and quality is like a diamond: rare in the sense of purity, lasting forever and shining bright even in the darkest places.
Ryuichi Sakamoto was born in 1952, “the same year as John Cage composed “4’33”. The Japanese musician, composer and actor created his first piano composition at the age of ten. Later on, he studied at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he graduated with a BA in composition and a Master’s degree with a focus orient on electronic and ethnic music. As a teenager, he liked the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but his abiding passion was New York’s underground avant-garde art scene (Joseph Beuys, Fluxus, Andy Warhol). Sakamoto began his career in the mid-1970s, working as a composer, arranger and producer with some of Japan’s most popular rock, jazz and classical artists. He released his first solo album in 1978 but came to fame as a member of the Japanese synth-rock outfit Yellow Magic Orchestra with co-founders Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi.
Through his collaboration with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, he explored the phasma of ambient, hip-hop, electro and techno sounds. Sakamoto’s kaleidoscopic discography, includes twelve solo records, multiple collaborations including Davids Bowie and Byrne, award-winning soundtracks, silver-screen appearances, and groundbreaking accomplishments.
The influences of John Cage are detectable in his career pathway as forms of inspiration. “I always try to [keep] my ears very open, to listen not only to musical sounds, but sound and noise. And maybe hopefully I can catch some kind of musical element in those sounds. I do that all the time, for a long time. Maybe I started doing that when I was a high school student when I commuted. I took a train, 20 minutes, every morning. It was packed, like the very famous Japanese trains. You can’t move. So the only thing I could do is just listen to the sounds inside the train. And I found that there were a lot of sounds, not just of the train but [rubs hands together] people’s clothes, maybe the ceiling might be a little bit making some noise. Obviously, when the train goes to a curve, it creates a nice very high noise. So I started counting and I found more than 10 different sounds, so I started enjoying hearing these sounds. Of course, my main inspiration was John Cage.”
As a film-score composer, Sakamoto won an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Grammy, and 2 Golden Globe Awards. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) marked his debut as both an actor and a film-score composer. Its main theme was adapted into the single Forbidden Colours which became a global hit. His most notable work as a film composer was The Last Emperor (1987), after which he continued earning awards composing for films such as The Sheltering Sky (1990), Little Buddha (1993), and The Revenant (2015). On occasion, Sakamoto has also worked as a scenario writer/music composer on anime and video games such as Seven Samurai 20XX and the life simulation game L.O.L: Lack Of Love. Fascinated by the way that movies and video games change and transform time, Sakamoto adapted his worldview as a harmonious composition, as everything around him had a musical dimension. He often spoke of working in sound as an exercise in “sculpting time.”
Sakamoto was intensely interested in how music transcends space, borders, and nationality and that’s why he was able to adapt his work as a chameleon across cultures, gender norms and musical stereotypes. It seems that with each project he effortlessly broke new ground, removing borders and challenging the idea of authenticity. In 1988 he said, “I don’t think I’m Japanese. I prefer to be a stranger—I like that attitude.” He called his approach to musical diversity “Neo Geo” foregrounded by the eponymous 1987 record produced with Iggy Pop and Bootsy Collins. As a New York resident for over 30 years, he mentioned: “Anything can be music. Even big cities like New York, or Tokyo, each city has a different sound. It’s full of sound. Right in the center of Paris, I heard the sound of water, so I recorded it. So beautiful.” He continued: “Music is like a city. It is exceedingly artificial, in other words. Nature in its immensity, a tsunami, for example, will instantly destroy it.” Often he compared music to a city, and life to a body of water.
Both in Japan and worldwide, Sakamoto has also been a strong voice for activism, using his impact to increase social awareness around ecological issues such as the dangers of nuclear power and deforestation. Consistently, his environmental sensitivity is illustrated as a function of his art.
His wisdom and originality were consequences of a remarkable inner balance and self-acceptance: As Guardian mentions: Ryuichi Sakamoto was an avant-gardist who became a groundbreaking pop star. Those two adjectives are not aligned easily. However, Mr. Sakamoto combined two opposite worlds and made his messages, aesthetic, and knowledge digestible by using music as a universal terminology and rejecting the belief that being cutting-edge experimentalists/artists didn’t preclude them from writing fantastic pop songs.
With music, the listener creates memorable events in signs that express in sound the experience of living together in the creating vitality of ‘the present moment’. The talented Mr. Ryuichi Sakamoto had a clairvoyant perception and a rare understanding of how music interacts with the rules of time, thus his work owns a one-way ticket for eternity.
“I was aware of that theme of mortality in my music since around 2009. The decaying and the disappearance of the piano sound is very much symbolic of life and mortality. It’s not sad. I just meditate about it.” Ryuichi Sakamoto
Ryuichi Sakamoto / The Sounds of Silence
Artist: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Words: Iro Bournazou / @irwb