News Of The World
Ryuichi Sakamoto was a founder of the YMO before becoming one of David Sylvian's favoured partners. Now, fresh from a Japanese and a series of film scores he tells Tim Goodyer about his latest LP.
A leading light of Japanese pop music, Ryuichi Sakamoto is also a master of high technology, founder member of the seminal Yellow Magic Orchestra, and acolyte of the world's diverse musical cultures.
Just a week before a low-key gig in London's West End that will mark the release of his seventh solo album, Ryuichi Sakamoto grants a rare series of interviews to the UK press. The performance is to take place at an exclusive West End art gallery and involve Sakamoto's long-time friend and musical partner David Sylvian along with his wife, French singer Ingrid Chavez. The album, entitled Heartbeat, features both Sylvian and Chavez (on 'Tainai Kaiki II - Returning to the Womb' and 'Cloud #9') as part of a string of varied and prestigious musicians - Senegalese vocalist Youssou N'Dour, avant-garde jazz saxophonist John Lurie, American harmonica player Magic Dick, Deee Lite's Super DJ Dimitri and Jungle DJ Towa Towa to name a few. Similarly, it's style swings wildly between moody introspection, ethnic and dance music. Anyone familiar with Sakamoto's previous release, Beauty, will recognise the format.
The concert is short comprising just three pieces, two of which are performed by Sakamoto alone on a Yamaha MIDI Grand piano. The piano is linked via MIDI to a Korg T2 and Yamaha SY99. Additionally there is a DAT backing tape carrying parts of the music and vocal harmonies. The venue is badly suited to live music and the sound crew have problems with the balance and feedback during the sound check - to the concern of Sakamoto's press people. Their worries prove unfounded however, as the gallery fills to capacity and the additional bodies make it more workable. Better still, the music scores highly with the wide range of people in attendance - an indication of the largely unacknowledged popularity of the artist.
Ryuichi Sakamoto has a long and distinguished history in popular music of one kind or another. In '78 he founded the bizarre Yellow Magic Orchestra, in the '80s he worked extensively with David Sylvian's Japan, in '83 he composed music for and starred opposite David Bowie in Nagisa Oshima's film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and in '86 performed the same duties in Berbardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. More recently, he's been involved in Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky, Pedro Almodovar's High Heels, Peter Kosminsky's Wuthering Heights and Kevin Godley's One World One Voice project. He has also just completed a tour of Japan and has composed a piece for the opening of the Barcelona Summer Olympics ('El Mediterranean'). And this is just a sample of his work. The Sakamoto I spoke with a week earlier is quietly-spoken yet responsive. In the interests of our conversation he works his passable English to the full to discuss his music, his philosophy and his equipment. Yet the conversation is cautious: at times I am uncertain of exactly how well he understands my questions; at others, he is uncertain how well I understand his answers.
Leaving aside the subtleties of music and culture, we begin by establishing Sakamoto's current equipment line-up. It transpires that he uses three racks which he takes almost everywhere with him. These contain the nucleus of the hardware. On top of these, he favours a Macintosh IIfx running Mark of the Unicorn and Opcode sequencing software in conjunction with Opcode's Studio 5 synchroniser/MIDI patchbay.
"I'm using Performer and also, sometimes, Vision", he explains. "For hard-disk recording I'm using Studio Vision because Digital Performer isn't working so well yet. It's going to be better but it just came out - I've got the 1.01 version, so it's too young."
He's also using a Roland JD800, Korg T2 and Yamaha SY77 and SY99 - a nice selection of electronics, if you can afford it. But then, all the above keyboards come from Sakamoto's homeland, where they often become available before they reach Western shores. They're also free of the import taxes levelled on them by Western governments. It sounds like a cosy arrangement from here; Sakamoto, however, isn't so sure.
"I always find that engineers and musicians outside of Japan use the equipment more deeply", he observes. "They approach it on a deeper level. New equipment is always around in Japan - they can always get the new stuff first but they don't use it deeply. I don't know why but perhaps it's because the new equipment always keeps coming."
That Japan is one of the world's leading consumer societies isn't in doubt. There are even stories of Westerners living in Japan being able to furnish their homes from the mountains of Japanese cast offs. When you consider the role currently played by Japan in the development and production of hi-tech music equipment, however, it's disturbing to recognise how small is the contribution of their musicians to the world music market.
"That's true", Sakamoto concedes, "I never thought of it like that."
He pauses to consider the proposition. "OK", he says with a laugh, "equipment comes from Japan but music doesn't. They're not aware of that."
Another emerging development of the Japanese music scene is the attention being focussed on old analogue synths. MIDI retrofitted Prophet 5s and Minimoogs command a good price in the land of the rising yen.
"All those old synthesisers are coming back in Japan", Sakamoto confirms. "It's been happening over the last one year, two years or so. It started when we got bored of FM synthesisers. We got tired of FM sounds so we were looking for more natural sounds. Then PCM became popular but beyond that, we're still looking for more analogue sounds. There's a revival of old technology - the DX7 is almost an antique and it's kind of hip to use it."
Moving on to Sakamoto's working methods, his computer comes to the fore. For the Wuthering Heights score, the music was composed in Performer and then transferred to Coda's Finale scorewriter in order to be printed out for the orchestra to follow. For less formal projects, he concentrates on recording "sketches" in Performer.
"In Japan there's a revival of old technology - it started when we got bored of FM synthesisers - the DX7 is almost an antique and it's kind of hip to use it."
"I often just sit at the keyboard and play but everything I play I save into Performer", he reveals.
"Sometimes I just leave those sketches for a while and sometimes, after I've played something, I edit them and make them into a song. When I started writing Heartbeat it was all done with sketches of just two or four bars. Then I found new lines like a bass line or voice playing a counter melody - I sample my own voice. It's a kind of spontaneous way of writing.
"Sometimes I play around with the sounds - when I was writing I was hearing, let's say, a piano sound, then afterwards I will play back with a drum sound. Sometimes I also play just with beats and different drumsets."
What then of the Akai S1000 and Roland S770 samplers which grace Sakamoto's racks of equipment? During the '80s he was one of the fortunate few who were able to make use of the Fairlight CMI - now it seems that advancing technology has made it largely redundant.
"These days sampling machines have improved so much that I almost control all the instruments myself", he says, "but there are still some instruments I can't imitate completely. For example, I worked with a musician called Magic Dick, a harmonica player from the J Geils Band. I have got some good harmonica samples and the T2's harmonica is pretty good, but his breathing and timing are still different from what I can do with technology.
"Obviously all the people I collaborate with have different musical backgrounds from mine and they all have what I call noises - sounds that are not notes. These are things like breath noise, a slide on a guitar or harmonica, even a chair noise is part of the 'presence' of a performer. I could do it with a sampler but it takes time. Timing is also an important thing, differences in timing are very personal.
"In my case I haven't to study how to play each instrument. When I hear the way a particular instrument sounds I copy its playing. I can't play guitars but I know what a guitar is, so when I hear a guitar sound I automatically play it like a guitar. It's not only the physical conditions, it changes the way I phrase and my articulation. It changes me automatically. When I hear string sounds the phrases and articulation start working straight away."
Sakamoto's samplers are also applied to the modern vogue of sampling other artists' work - 'Rap the World' features a sample of Hendrix' 'Third Stone From The Sun' (which also provided the guitar riff for Cozy Powell's '70s hit 'Dance With The Devil') while 'Tainai Kaiki II' draw's on 'Mureau' - the work of one of Sakamoto's early influences: John Cage.
It was Cage and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane who helped push Sakamoto's early musical studies out of the mainstream. Having majored in music composition at Tokyo's University of Art, he released his first solo long player, Thousand Knives in 1978 - the same year he formed the Yellow Magic Orchestra with Yukihiro Takahashi and Haruomi Hosono.
"We wanted to make music that was like Kraftwerk's 'iron' beats..." responds Sakamoto when challenged to explain their manifesto. "Simply, we wanted to be a Japanese Kraftwerk. It was also kind of a black joke about the Japanese, so we were using the Western view of the 'typical' Japanese image. We wanted to laugh at both Westerners and the Japanese; both sides of the cliche. So we were using typical images: cameras, bowing, even switching name cards. We even wore Chinese suits in red - which don't actually exist in China. Red is the colour of communism but they don't exist in China; the design was just the Chinese peoples' suit."
The music of the YMO was typified by their 1980 instrumental, 'Computer Game (Theme From Invaders)', a weirdly successful attempt to fuse noises of the then-popular Space Invaders arcade game with pop music which charted at No. 17 in the UK. The other side of the YMO was the technology that made it all possible. One of the images they presented to their public was that of inscrutable Japanese working feverishly at the walls of machines that helped them make music.
"I don't want to see the world lose its treasures like traditional cultures - that's part of the reason I've been using traditional musics in my own music."
"That was the time disco music was booming. Also, future music was around and Roland's MC8 - the first music computer - had come out and the three of us all liked Kraftwerk - actually, I started using the MC8 before YMO did, on my first solo album. The engineer and I found a way of using the metronome click in the music. Also there was the timing: the MC8 used 48 ticks for a quarter beat, so a triplet is 16 and eight ticks. But sometimes I divided an eighth note into 13 and 11 ticks so that it would give a timing swing."
But the pioneering technological outlook of the YMO wasn't without its drawbacks - a phenomenal amount of equipment was required to perform what, today, would be regarded as relatively simple tasks.
"The heaviness of the equipment was a problem", agrees Sakamoto. "We were always carrying a big Moog 'wall' - a System 3C. It has the flashing lights on the sequencer - we didn't use it as a sequencer, just for the lights. Also the sequencer didn't memorise the music when you powered down, so we were using two MC8s on stage - while we were using one, we had a programmer who was putting programs for the next song into the other."
The situation will be all too familiar to anyone who has experienced yesterday's synth systems. But the improvements in technology invite the question: could the YMO have anything more to say through it?
"The YMO lasted for four, five years but it could have lasted longer", Sakamoto says thoughtfully. "It's possible we might get back together even if it's only for a short time - for a festival, perhaps, or an album. A lot has changed: equipment, music, personalities..." Whatever the future holds, it's clear to me that it's not the first time he has considered the question.
The issue of personalities is one that also arises with the contributors to Sakamoto's solo albums. On one hand there's the "spiritual" approach adopted by Sylvian, at the other there's the radical attitude of the producer Bill Laswell.
"The people I work with are not just chosen for my musical development. For instance, Sylvian and I are like brothers. Even at a time when we don't communicate, I can still feel what he feels. In each case it's different. Bill Laswell inspires me because of his unique ideas and his relationship with all kinds of musicians, not his personality. In Sylvian's case, what he's searching for - his spiritual journey - is like mine."
A strange observation, given the Japanese reputation for spiritual awareness and the contrasting British ignorance. It seems that the two nations' cultures have been juxtaposed through the two musicians.
"Musically that's true also", comments the Japanese, "because the band Japan was much more oriental than the YMO at the time.
"We don't have any real traditional Japanese influence in the country", he continues, "You can't hear any traditional Japanese music in Japan, you just hear Westernised Japanese pop or Eastern music. All the real traditions were destroyed more than a hundred years ago when the Americans opened the country to the rest of the world - the Americans didn't destroy them, the Japanese did. But the same thing is happening all over the world; Africa has such wonderful and different cultures but they're being destroyed - they're all listening to Michael Jackson. It's destroying their own culture.
"Obviously, I didn't know the old days myself; when I became conscious of myself I was already Americanised. I still don't have a real knowledge of Japan's traditional music. You said that I bring Japanese influences to Western music - I do and I don't. That's not real traditional Japanese music you hear. It's Okinawan music and it's different from traditional Japanese. Okinawa is a series of Japanese islands which have their own language, music and dance cultures. I have used Okinawan music but it's not really Japanese. I know that most Western people can't tell the difference so I knew they would misunderstand - and that's ok. We cannot tell the difference between the music from Bali and the music from Chad but they have their own cultural histories. Similarly, the older generation of Japanese people probably can't tell the difference between English and French. It's like that."
Given Sakamoto's use of ethnic music from around the world, it seems peculiar that he should have neglected the music of his home.
I'm interested in Japanese traditional music and it's something I am interested in learning about in the future", he explains. "But it's part of my interest in world ethnic music. In general I want to keep away from having a nationality. I've been trying - it's an old expression but I'd rather be a citizen of the world. Obviously the world is becoming smaller and we can share all the different cultures. Certainly we use the same systems of computers so we kind of use the same language. I think it's silly if I push my own nationality too much and I think that, in the future, it will be silly for any of us to have a nationality.
"But on the other hand, I don't want to see the world lose its treasures like traditional cultures - that's part of the reason I've been using traditional musics in my own music.
"It's also because I like all different styles of music. I listen to something by Wagner, then something by Soul II Soul, then David Byrne. In the pop area I can't use all my musical skills. On the other hand, pop music has been kind of expanded, it's become musically wider, but it's still limited and that's why I use a wider musical vocabulary. I'm trying to help expand pop music."
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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