Japanese Artist: World Musician | Ryuichi Sakamoto
Despite the cult following for Yellow Magic Orchestra, collaborations with David Byrne on the Oscar-winning soundtrack to 'The Last Emperor', and a long-standing musical friendship with David Sylvian, the multi-faceted talents of Ryuichi Sakamoto are still not widely appreciated. Mark J. Prendergast attempts to rectify the situation...
Ryuichi Sakamoto is to Japan what Brian Eno, David Bowie, and David Sylvian would be to the western world if they were rolled into one distinct personality. In his native land Sakamoto, or 'Ryu' as he is better known to his friends, is a popular icon of what's best about a post-war culture eager to escape its past through identification with things foreign. A child prodigy, Sakamoto was born in Tokyo in 1952 of bourgeois parents, his father being a literary editor, his mother a fashion designer. At the age of 10 he was studying composition under a professor at the prestigious University Of Art. During the late 1960s, Sakamoto's education was supplemented by an exploration of the music of The Beatles, John Coltrane, Beethoven, and John Cage. He wrote music to poetry and involved himself in radical theatre, after the fashion of his favourite film directors Jean Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Having completed mandatory high school terms, Sakamoto re-entered the University Of Art to obtain a degree in composition, via the study of Ravel, Debussy, and Steve Reich. A Masters degree followed in the late Seventies which concentrated on ethnic and electronic sound. Soon a feted arranger and pianist, Sakamoto became a session musician, thus picking up valuable studio experience.
Though he had achieved much, it was the formation of the Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978 that would make him an international pop star. A techno-funk group with equal feet in the new wave and glam rock camps, YMO were distinguished by their witty approach to Kraftwerkian synth pop and an eclectic range of material, from pastiche 1920's Hollywood musicals to modernised oriental folk.
During YMO's five year existence, Sakamoto also explored the areas of writing, acting, and solo recording. The 1981 Left-Handed Dream LP on CBS was praised for its taste and integration of both formal and loose East/West styles. Surprisingly, it was the 1983 move of starring in and composing the soundtrack music for Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence which gave Sakamoto the necessary confidence to disband the Yellow Magic Orchestra and seek pastures new.
It was during this film that Sakamoto renewed his deepening friendship with David Sylvian, who he had first met in 1980, during the recording of the Japan LP Gentlemen Take Polaroids. The outcome, 'Forbidden Colours', was the best track on the Mr Lawrence set and pointed the way for Sakamoto's input into the Sylvian works Brilliant Trees, Steel Cathedrals, and Secrets Of The Beehive. In fact, his piano, string, and woodwind arrangements on the latter made that recording a memorable one.
Sakamoto is a man who sees no boundaries to anything. Cultures merge as electronic and acoustic instruments ring with equal authority through such solo albums as Illustrated Musical Encyclopaedia in 1984, and Neo Geo in 1987. Those years saw him range through television, theatre, film, and writing work with an incredible zeal. Bernardo Bertolucci's co-option of him to act and write music for The Last Emperor epic set the seal on a decade of achievement. Along with David Byrne (Talking Heads) and Cong Su, Sakamoto received an Oscar for the film music which, in his own opinion, is much better than Mr Lawrence, although only half as popular.
(Incidentally, 'Theme Variation 2' on the Last Emperor soundtrack is a Mahlerian version of Mr Lawrence, and a lot more sophisticated.)
Sakamoto recently released a new Virgin album called Beauty, recorded in four studios in Tokyo, four studios in New York and Los Angeles. His cast of players is one of the most impressive to grace an album for a long time, making it an international event in every way. Senegalese star and Peter Gabriel collaborator Youssou N'Dour injects the music with some fine desert swept vocalising. Indian violinist Shankar and Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos are also on hand to give Beauty the right world music feel. The most incredible names to appear on the sleeve notes, however, are those of Robert Wyatt, Brian Wilson, and Robbie Robertson. Wyatt had publicly announced his retirement from popular music years ago but, coaxed by Sakamoto, clocks in a fascinating version of the Rolling Stones' 'We Love You'. The idiosyncratic genius of ex-Beach Boy Wilson, under the guidance of Dr Eugene Landy, can be heard adding a characteristic harmony on the second track 'Calling From Tokyo', while Robertson's biting rock guitar can be detected on a Japanese version of an old English folk ballad! French, Arabic, English, even Spanish, lyrics and sources are all joined here, and yet the album remains pop — and a Japanese number one!
Meeting Ryuichi Sakamoto in an East London rehearsal studio was a pleasant experience, and not one adrift with pop star angst or paranoia. On a huge stage, New York guitarist Arto Lindsay peeled off cutting solo after cutting solo as technicians and pretty Japanese women tinkled with every conceivable type of synthesizer and electronic device. I'm greeted almost immediately by David Sylvian's girlfriend, Yuka Fujii, who wastes no time in directing Sakamoto to my corner. Lots of embraces and pleasantries take me aback as I'm overwhelmed by Japanese hospitality and decorum.
Dressed in casual brown suit, Sakamoto's youthful appearance belies his 38 years. In good humour we retire to a back room and get down to the nitty-gritty of discussing his musical taste and methods.
When you formed the Yellow Magic Orchestra, you had for many years been a serious classical musician. Why the radical change to pop music in 1978?
"Before YMO was formed I was fascinated by contemporary classical music for years. But then I realised the field for serious music was still very, very small in Japan — maybe 10,000 listeners at most. Also, I felt that many of these composers did not really care about their audience while pop or rock musicians seemed to have a real connection with their people. And this was the biggest reason for the shift. The album that influenced my decision to move into pop music was Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, which came out in 1973 and helped me to recognise the importance of the groove in music. Before I heard this, I didn't see the importance of rhythm and beat in music, because my head was full of western art music."
After a string of successful albums, the decision to disband YMO in 1983 must have been hard. Were you happy with what the band achieved in terms of mixing dance, visuals, and music?
"Well, 50/50. The band always had a problem, because I was so independent. I wanted to make my own music, which I began to do, but there also crept in an ideological conflict between myself and the leader, Haruomi Hosono. He became interested in religions and mysticism, and wanted the band to become a cult band in terms of the occult, and I hated it all. I wanted the group to be musically adventurous, and so we fought every day. At the end of the five years I had had enough. That was the reason I worked on many different projects outside YMO, and how I met people like Seigen Ono and David Sylvian."
Talking of Sylvian, it was a record by Sakamoto's wife, Akiko Yano, that gave him the idea for the synthesized vocal lines on the Japan record 'Tin Drum'. Sylvian has said that Sakamoto is the most accomplished musician he has ever worked with, and that their meeting just opened up the possibilities of what writing and recording could be like. Of course, the respect is mutual, even though Sylvian is in his own way quite mystical.
"Well, the quality is different. To me, David is always a good artist, a good musician, and has always got his ears open. I could see a reason for David's candid openness to all kinds of belief system. Of our collaborations, Secrets Of The Beehive is still fresh in my memory, so I still remember how good that was. My strongest memory, though, is of many years ago when we met on the Japan LP Gentlemen Take Polaroids, and I was even writing with him then. My other strong memory is the double 12" Bamboo Houses/Bamboo Music, because that was the beginning of our solo lives away from our respective groups."
What I loved about the 1987 'Secrets Of The Beehive' was your treated piano, synthesizer, and various acoustic/electronic arrangements. What are your favourite instrumentations?
"For me, there's really no difference between synthetic and real strings, there's just orchestration — that is the way of painting music. I'm comfortable with both acoustic and electronic settings. In that way I see no difference between an artist's recording and that for a film. Film music has sometimes got vocal parts, but if you think of, say, David's Steel Cathedrals, that has no words. I like using some vocals on film projects like 'Forbidden Colours' on the Mr Lawrence soundtrack, while someone like Mark Isham seldom uses lyrics in his film music."
'Illustrated Musical Encyclopaedia' and 'Neo Geo' are perhaps the most well known of your solo albums in the West. The first was described as a great ambient record, while the second was more vocal. Your new album, 'Beauty', is certainly the most eclectic and in many ways your best. Would you agree?
"Yes. At the time of Musical Encyclopaedia I recorded about 40 pieces of music, and in the end utilised 12 or thereabouts. They were in many styles and the LP was a collection of my musical tastes. After that I wanted to hone things down a bit, and with Neo Geo formed an ensemble to showcase a refined view of pop. This is something I'm still trying to do.
"I recorded Beauty mostly in New York, which to me is like the centre of the world. It's so easy to get a musician quickly if you are working there. One day in the studio, for instance, I found I needed an African guitarist. So I called Verna Gillis, who's an ethnic music co-ordinator, a great researcher, who brought an African guitar player into the studio the very next day! I was able to get a Korean koto player and even a Chinese musician more or less on request. All of the album was done in New York City, except Brian Wilson's and Robert Wyatt's parts. Because Robert is still a communist, he could not enter America, so I had to send a tape to him where he lives, in the country outside London, and he put down his vocal that way."
How did you get to hear Robert's incredible voice in Japan?
"I knew him from The Soft Machine, but the main thing was the single 'At Last I'm Free', which was a very big thing for me. I'll just never forget that voice. So I wrote a letter to him and said: 'The reason I need you Robert is to cover 'We Love You', a song about peoples' love you know, and I want the saddest voice in the world to sing it, and that's your voice.' So he agreed."
"I enjoyed using Bear Tracks, Right Tracks, and The Power Station in New York. I had recorded the basic backing tracks in Tokyo, digitally, and used the New York complexes to remix and mould the ideas.
"In Los Angeles I worked with Brian Wilson. The idea of working with the person who had created 'Good Vibrations' was fabulous, but I'd also heard rumours that he was a vegetable, that he had serious problems with his mind as well as his physical well being. In part it was true, and the work was very, very hard. You can't imagine how difficult the work was! But Brian can still sing, and to get him into the music was the objective, which we accomplished. He can sing so well but doesn't appreciate his own talent. His doctor is always with him and always giving him pills; at every take it was time for a different pill, but in the end the track was worth it. I was pretty happy."
There seems to be an enormous amount of layering on the album. Funk seeps through soul via Africa, Morocco, The Far East, Arabia, heavy rock guitars, and a thousand other nuances. New York thrash metal collides with Indian classical music courtesy of the presence of percussionist Pandit Dinesh and violinist Shankar. Youssou N'Dour is truly a star of the devotional singing, so much a part of his Senegalese roots, and when this meets Japanese choral music one can't help but prick up the ears. A global village of sound and at every turn a new delight.
Among all the criss-crossing of continents and cultures, there are oases of oriental quiet — like the poetic piano piece 'A Rose' and the exquisite 'Diabaram' (pronounced Jabarum) with Youssou and Shankar.
"We did many experiments in the studio with the great engineer Jason Corsaro. Most things were improvisations by the guest musicians, which were then synchronised between a 48-track and a 24-track, or even two 48-tracks together. This came about because I was of the opinion that we must record everything which happens in the studio. The record button had to be hit every time, because nobody knows what incredible things might happen. Mixing, for me, is the same as conducting — it is the point where music can be made or killed, a crucial stage. Many people destroy music through bad mixing, so one has to be very careful. It took us from March 1989 to the end of that year to record Beauty, and during that time I also did the Handmaid's Tale, a totally new film soundtrack LP, from start to final mix.
The Japanese seem to be incredibly good at making beautiful things — particularly instrumental music. As an author, you must also be very interested in literature. Is there a connection between the finesse of Japanese creative design and the kind of music you create?
"Oh marvellous, you noticed. During the course of the recording, myself and Arto Lindsay, who is kind of my co-producer, read many English translations of Haiku books and Zen poem books, because they are simple and simple things have many meanings. I gave Arto the direction for Beauty, in that the music should speak for itself and the lyrics should be very abstract and romantic. That is the key concept for Beauty, and the Haiku taught us many ways to achieve it."
So would you agree that there is something in the Japanese psyche that points to certain minimal chord progressions and musical devices being characteristic of your sound?
"Well no, not really. Its teacher or mother would be Brian Eno. That idea is not necessarily Japanese, it's universal. Look at Holger Czukay's music and other people like him. Who can say who is responsible? It's a universal phenomenon, not necessarily Japanese."
Are you happy with today's proliferation of synthesizers and computers in music? Eno contended recently in an American film about his music ('Imaginary Landscapes') that nowadays there are too many choices, therefore the fewer the better. Do you agree?
"I love synthesizers, I think it's good. We have a lot of choices now, something we didn't have before. We can also utilise the old instruments. I still use Prophets, because no other synthesizer sounds like that. I'm happy to use all the old stuff as well as Apple computers and Fairlights. I often use the computer for sequencing and the Fairlight for long sampling. I make up sounds using the Korg M1 or T series, or even Yamaha's new SY series, which are much easier than the DX range to use."
Do you have your own studio in Tokyo?
"Though I still live there, I mostly work in the States. I don't have a studio there because everything is so expensive, particularly land and the high taxes. It's almost impossible to have your own studio and keep it running well — a very problematic exercise."
Time presses on and Sakamoto has to get back on stage and perform his rehearsal duties. He has just returned from America, and before that a Japanese tour. Seven European countries and the rest of the world beckon. As a parting shot he comments: "One thing I'd like to say is that a lot of Japanese musicians who sell one million copies of an album customise their music to the market, so that in reality pop means money in Japan. I don't listen to this music but I do read a lot of the new philosophies that have come from the scientific revolution of the 1980s. A kind of Futurism has sprung up in Japan, because of the new ideas that have come from the radical scientific viewpoints which followed the new physics!"
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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