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Ryuichi Sakamoto Interview: October 12, 2010

Ryuichi Sakamoto
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On Friday, October 1, 2010, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with celebrated Japanese composer, pianist, and environmental activist Ryuichi Sakamoto – whose debut Decca release combines two recent albums, Playing the Piano and Out of Noise. Mr. Sakamoto’s impressive musical career straddles numerous genres – from Techno-pop in the 1970s to Film Music (including such big hits as Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and The Last Emperor – for which he won an Oscar) in the 1980s to more purely classical works in recent years. In this captivating interview, Mr. Sakamoto discusses the background, technical, and aesthetic issues surrounding the two very different recent albums, as well as the environmental nature of his recent album and upcoming North American tour, his early musical training, his career evolution from Techno-pop to film music, and much more. Don’t miss the insights of this creative musical pioneer!

“The kind of cluster timbre or harmony I use may actually stem from a translation of Asian music by Debussy – when he heard the Javanese gamelan at the Paris Exhibition… I was born in Japan, and became influenced by Debussy’s music – so, it’s kind of like we were influencing each other through the centuries.”
– Ryuichi Sakamoto

Nolan Gasser: Last week marked the release on Decca of a two-album set featuring a pair of recordings that you had released on your own label, commmons, in 2009: Playing the Piano and Out of Noise; can you first tell us how this two-disc release on Decca came about?

Ryuichi Sakamoto: The idea originally came from Decca; as you know, they lean more towards classical music than towards the kind of music found in Out of Noise. They wanted a solo piano album, but we wanted to release Out of Noise; so Decca came up with the idea of putting them both out as a double CD – and I agreed. It was really good timing, since I had just recently thought that it would be good for me to reintroduce my more classical side; so maybe someone at Decca knew about this – he or she might be very smart [laughs].

NG: Yes, it’s a label with a lot of smart people; and clearly they’re aware of the growing audience that likes to inhabit the “zone between genres”; it’s a good time for this mix, I think – and this pairing makes for a wonderful combination.

RS: Thank you.

NG: Now, it’s been said that these two discs in a way summarize your creative output, most especially Playing the Piano, where you perform solo piano versions of some of your most beloved works – such as the themes from the films Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, The Last Emperor, and Sheltering Sky as well as some independent songs like Thousand Knives, that began more in the Techno-pop context. So, for you, what was the inspiration for this piano retrospective, and how did you go about making the selections – did you start with a huge list and whittle it down? That must have been a tough task.

RS: Well, I have to explain the birth of the first CD: it is actually a compilation of two albums I made in 2004 and 2005 – and simply called /04 and /05. I made them as piano solo albums that show the style I play on stage, with both new and older music from my career – that’s what I do; and I wanted to present this on CD. Decca liked them, and we made a compilation for Playing the Piano. Obviously, in creating those original two albums – yes, it was a long list of music, and it wasn’t easy to choose.

NG: Right, you have lots of “children”, and I’m sure it’s hard to pick favorites.

RS: Yes, a lot of children.

NG: Now, in hearing Playing the Piano, one is struck – though not surprisingly given your career – by the great diversity of styles found on the album: from an atmospheric quality reminiscent of Erik Satie in pieces like Amore and Bolerish [Disc 1, tracks 1, 12] to more jazz-infused works that suggest Bill Evans or Michel Legrand, like A Flower is Not a Flower [track 3], to works that reveal your love of Debussy and his modal approach, in your theme to Sheltering Sky [track 4] – and sometimes combining multiple styles in the same piece. I’m wondering – are these stylistic shifts entirely intentional, or do they stem from more of an improvised process?

RS: I’ve played most of these pieces on stage for decades, and each piece has taken on its own style, it’s own shape. And you’re right, there is a kind of variety from Satie to Debussy to a bit of Bill Evans; those names are actually my favorite composers and pianists, and all live in sort of the same musical family – including maybe Chopin and Jobim. So, for me it’s quite natural to play in these varied styles.

NG: Absolutely. This reminds me of a great album – I’m not sure if you know it – featuring Bill Evans playing adaptations of music by Chopin and others, with arrangements by Claus Ogerman.

RS: Yes – I love that album!

NG: There’s one very specific musical question I’m curious about: one of the tunes I especially enjoy is Reversing [track 10], and there’s one motive that is also found in “Promenade” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition [singing]: B-d-e-B-A; I’m wondering – is that just an accident or was that an intentional homage to Mussorgsky?

RS: Hmm… I have never thought about that… I can hear influences from Debussy and maybe Ravel, but I never thought of Mussorgsky… Of course, I respect him a lot, and know that Mussorgsky was a very important influence on Debussy….

NG: Well, it’s a great little motive – and was obviously a sort of a happy accident.

Now, one technique that seems to run through so much of these pieces is what may be called “diatonic clusters” [that is, simultaneously played neighbor pitches of a major or minor scale]. These beautiful sonorities are very characteristic of your music; is this a technique that you have consciously developed over the years, and is there a particular source of inspiration for this – perhaps Debussy, or something else?

RS: The kind of timbre or harmony I use may actually stem from a translation of Asian music by Debussy – when he heard the Javanese gamelan at the Paris Exhibition [1889]; he was both shocked and fascinated. I was born in Japan, and became influenced by Debussy’s music – so, it’s kind of like we were influencing each other through the centuries, which I find very interesting.

NG: So, these clusters are in some ways an indigenous sound from your background – though influenced through the prism of Debussy, who himself came to this music as a “visitor” of sorts – that is an interesting cycle. Well, it’s a beautiful sound, and quite contemporary – there’s almost an American quality to it as well, which may partly explain its resonance here in America…

So let’s move on to the second part of the Decca release, the more experimental Out of Noise; these are all new works I assume…

RS: Yes.

NG: And as you’ve said, they explore the fine line you hear between music and noise – or sound that’s not music. That’s a very post-modern aesthetic question: what is music, and what is noise, when it’s informed by composition? So, now that this record is complete, what did the process teach you about this question, and about that distinction? Is there a particular sweet spot between the two that you’ve located?

RS: Actually, my answer is that there’s no border between them – both philosophically and also according to my experience. I’ve obviously recorded a lot of piano music, and piano sound decays into silence, or into noise – and each time I listen carefully to where the sound vanishes or disappears, and I cannot tell where it goes, because it’s going to into noise or becomes melded with noise. So, it’s a philosophical, but also a practical question – there’s no boundary, there’s no border, and you can’t draw a line between them.

NG: It’s almost like in quantum physics – where a photon [basic unit of light], for example, is both a wave and a particle, without a clear line between them.

RS: Yes, exactly. And that philosophy has been familiar to me since I started listening to the music of John Cage in the 1960’s; but before Out of Noise, I hadn’t weighed this question so heavily – so, it’s been my dream to accomplish something in this area for a long time.

NG: Did anything surprise you about this relationship between music and noise as you went through the process of creating the album?

RS: If anything, I think I’ve become more convinced about the title of this album: to me, Out of Noise means “music comes out of noise.”

NG: And indeed it does – physically; sound is just vibrations, and is noise until it’s manipulated in just the right way, and “heard” as music by someone.

RS: Exactly – the person who hears music out of noise is you; you create music out of noise in your head.

NG: Yes, that’s a very poignant point.

Now, as I hear the album – and it really makes for a great listening experience – there’s almost an arc as the disc progresses: the opening piece, Hibari [Disc 2, track 1], almost starts as if it’s a continuation of Playing the Piano ­– it’s very diatonic, but then we start to hear how it’s subjected to these micro-loops and phasing tricks, etc.; as the disc proceeds through In the Red [track 4] and Tama [track 5], it travels more toward this realm of “noise”, and by the time we’re at Firewater [track 7] or Ice [track 9], it’s certainly not music in a traditional sense; but then we come back toward music with To Stanford [track 11] and the brilliant, final composition, Composition 0919 [track 12]. Am I right to assume that this journey, or progression, was intentional – as a way to help define this progression between music and noise?

RS: Well, your analysis is perfect [laughs]! Yes, you explained it perfectly – this was my intention. When I had recorded maybe 75% or 80% of the pieces, I started thinking of the order for the CD; I naturally tried to create some kind of form – and it was exactly what you said.

NG: And it obviously must have been working on you on an unconscious level as you recorded the pieces.

RS: One little thing: the first track, Hibari and the last track, Composition 0919, make a kind of circle – they are both repetitive and diatonic, and recorded as solo piano; so, they are related.

NG: Yes, it makes for perfect symmetry.

RS: Exactly.

NG: Now, that last composition [Composition 0919] is truly brilliant – what you do with the panning [shifting the sound between the left and right channels], which creates such a unique listening experience. I haven’t analyzed it, but it also seems as if you created a very complex structure – in a way that’s almost visual, where it starts off very sparse and gets gradually filled up until it’s a complete wash of every single 16th note, and then begins to dissipate back to sparseness. It’s really quite creative – how did this idea come to you?

RS: Yes, you’re right – the original idea was very visual; I wish I could show you my score or my ProTools [digital music program] session file, because it’s very designed, very beautiful, and formalized.

NG: Well, it certainly succeeds, and is a great way to end the record.

One other song I was personally struck by is the second song, Hwit, which is performed by viol ensemble Fretwork, and which displays the influence of Medieval music. I’ve now read that you’ve long had an interest in early music – when did this interest develop?

RS: When I was a student, there weren’t too many recordings of music of the Medieval, Renaissance, or early Baroque periods – you know, music all started with Bach. But recently, all of a sudden, there are countless recordings of this music; so I feel like I’m a kid, and am excited to just keep listening. I discovered this ensemble, Fretwork, and they’re so good; I quickly became a fan.

NG: Yes, they are wonderful, and this piece they perform is a beautiful passacaglia.

The Out of Noise project is also striking in that it arose in conjunction with some of your environmental work – for which you’ve become quite well known – through a trip to Greenland with the Cape Farewell Project, and your growing concern with climate change, etc. You even recorded various sounds of nature when you were there – the sound of water under a glacier, and things like that. This must have been a very rich experience.

RS: Yes, it was quite an experience. I didn’t know exactly what to expect in Greenland, but just in case, I brought a hydro-microphone – I didn’t know if it was usable or not. Then, I had a chance to record the sound of water in the Arctic Sea – several times, actually; and then once, when we landed on a glacier, all of the sudden I heard the sound of a water stream, but it was just ice all around. After a few minutes, we found a very tiny water stream underneath the ice, so we broke the ice and put the microphone into the stream; I think that sound is the purest I have ever heard in my life! So those three works – Disko, Ice, and Glacier [tracks 8-10] – are simply sound recordings I did in the Arctic Sea: Disko is the sound of the dogsleds on Disko island; Ice is the sound of small pieces of ice flowing on the surface of the Arctic Sea; and Glacier is the sound of a water stream under a glacier. With Ice, there was a natural building-up of sound; I didn’t manipulate the crescendo, I just used it as it was – it was incredible and very musical.

NG: It’s almost as if you had a co-creator, with Nature.

RS: Exactly – it was a joint-recording session [laughs].

NG: Well, if nothing else could illuminate this question about music versus noise, these pieces certainly do.

Now, related to the environmental travel you made for this new Decca release is your upcoming North American tour that starts next month [October 17-November 5], which is being hailed as a model of a “green” tour – and is something for which you’ve been recognized and awarded [e.g., the U.N.’s Eco Award, 2009]. How are things going in this regard?

RS: I’ve done this since 2001, but back then I released only 10% of the electricity I used with renewable energy sources. Then in 2005, I finally got up to 100% usage by renewable energy sources; it was a 100% eco-tour. For that, I mixed using renewable energy with “off-setting” – which means you need to “pay back”, by planting trees [via Sakamoto’s “moreTrees” initiative]. It costs more, but I simply want do as much as I can.

NG: Are there certain corporate partners that have come in to help you with this?

RS: Actually, the tour I did last year in Europe was supported by Audi, the car company; they are helping again with this upcoming North American tour.

NG: I know they’re pushing their hybrid and electric cars, so that’s terrific. Congratulations on these efforts, and I’m sure it’ll be a wonderful tour.

RS: Thank you.

NG: I’d love now to back up a little bit, and discuss some of your early years. You studied composition at the Tokyo National University Fine Art, and focused especially on electronic music; you clearly had an interest in pop and rock music – especially British rock, but also a great interest in the French Impressionists, especially Debussy. What was your involvement as a student with this more “traditional” side of classical music – did you perform a lot of piano recitals and compose things like string quartets and short orchestral pieces?

RS: We students were supposed to be finished with studying the styles of the Impressionists before we entered University, so we studied music from Bach to Debussy before we entered, and then took an exam once we got in. So, I was free to study almost anything – though within the limitations of the classes that were available. Unfortunately, there weren’t many contemporary composers at the University at the time, so I studied by myself: I went to see a lot of concerts – especially the new American music at this time, the late 1960s: Steve Reich, Terry Riley, etc.

NG: Right, the Minimalist School…

RS: Yes. One good thing about my University was that there was a very good ethno-musicologist – Professor Koizumi Fumio; I didn’t miss any of his classes, and he was a big influence on me. During my third year, I almost changed my major from composition to ethno-musicology – I thought it was very romantic to travel and do field work in Africa or Asia for six months, and to live among the people and do research…

NG: And in fact, since then you have found ways of being an ethno-musicologist of sorts, through your life as a composer [e.g., through Sakamoto’s many collaborations with musicians from Brazil, West Africa, etc.]…

RS: Yes, and the work that ethno-musicologists do is very interesting to me; like exploring the similarities between distant places like Japan and Bali – and exploring why this is the case; those questions are very fascinating to me…

NG: It’s like the surprising similarities we find in the spoken languages of distant regions – tied to the movement of peoples, and so forth…

Now, in the 1960’s, there was indeed the young minimalist movement in America, but there was also a very strong “academic” trend: of Serialism [12-tone music] and other complex or intellectual approaches – with composers like Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt, and John Cage; and likewise taken up by your compatriot To-ru Takemitsu, who adopted a very “modern” aesthetic. Was this a style you listened to, or dabbled in, much?

RS: Yes, I naturally became a big fan of Takemitsu and some other young composers at that time, like Yu-ji Takahashi – who was a student of Xenakis. So, those trends were very familiar to me. I met Mr. Takemitsu a few times through the decades; the first time I met him I was 19 or 20 – he was such a nice man.

NG: And did you compose works in this more progressive, experimental classical realm?

RS: Yes, in the beginning I composed some music in the “Paris Conservatoire-style” of Messiaen, Boulez, and Dutilleux; then I become more interested in music by Xenakis, and I started using the computer and electronics in writing music while I was still at the University.

NG: Clearly, this interest in electronics stuck with you – and though you had very eclectic tastes as a young musician, you became enamored with pop and rock music, and your career began in the world of Techno-pop, or Synth-pop, in the late 1970s, with the very influential group, Yellow Magic Orchestra. This entire genre was really quite new at the time – there were a few earlier pioneers, like Germany’s Kraftwerk, disco’s Giorgio Moroder, and English “art rockers” like Robert Fripp and Brian Eno; you were a session musician at the time, and so how did you get connected with this musical world?

RS: My interest began mostly with German groups – even from Kraftwerk’s first album [self-titled, 1970], which wasn’t very popular – and a lot more experimental than Tangerine Dream [another German experimental rock group] at the time. I was also a big fan of German groups like Can, Neu!, and Faust – these were the most advanced groups in this genre, but were not very popular in Japan.

NG: Yes, I was going to ask how you came to find this music in the first place – if you heard them in clubs, for example?

RS: Not really in clubs, but there were a number of record shops; I was always hunting around, everyday, without any friends who also knew this kind of music – so I was a bit lonely. To make some money, I started doing some recording sessions, and that way I met two guys [Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi] who became part of Yellow Magic Orchestra. I introduced them to German rock, and they immediately liked it – and this was the inspiration to forming Yellow Magic Orchestra.

NG: I imagine the success of Yellow Magic Orchestra was a bit of a surprise to you, since your first session was originally intended to be a “one-off” recording. Were you completely stunned at the success you gained, or did you sense that you were tapping into a Zeitgeist of sorts – that this was the right time, and that Japan was ready for this fusion of electronics and dance music?

RS: Well, the sudden fame was definitely a big surprise to me; before that, I was a young kid who wanted to be anonymous rather than in front of a large audience. So it took almost a year to just accept this new environment, because it was such a sudden thing. I’d be walking on the streets of Tokyo, and there would be pointing and whispering my name – it was really troubling at first.

NG: Though, I’m sure it had its good qualities too – in the opportunities it gave you.

RS: Sure, the sudden fame brought some good things – we did some international tours, and through that I got to know a lot of great musicians: like the members of the [English rock] bands Japan, Psychic TV, and Ultravox…

NG: This then fed into your already eclectic bag of musical interests; but there must have been challenges too – especially given the desire of record companies to keep successful bands doing the same things over and over again. One thing that helped you to push forward in your career was your move into film composing – especially with your big hits in the 1980s [Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) and The Last Emperor (1987)]. How did you make this move into film scoring?

RS: This too was a lucky accident: in 1982, the director Nagisa Ôshima asked me to act in a film [Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, with David Bowie]; I then asked him if I could also write the music, and he immediately said, “Yes.” It was really lucky – I had no experience, either in acting or writing film music; but still he said “yes.”

NG: Yes, that was lucky; but it also took great courage on your part – and you must have sensed that he might say “yes”, and that you were ready for the task.

RS: Yes, I knew I could do it; since I was a kid, I really loved film music– so it was a dream come true.

NG: One last question: in recent years, you’ve also experimented with more purely classical forms – in works like Discord (1998, for orchestra) and your opera Life (1999). Do you have plans for other large-scale classical works in the future?

RS: Yes, I’m thinking about it. As you’ve said, in the 1970s I became interested in German rock; in the 1980s I was doing Techno-pop and then film music… Nowadays, I’m more drawn to classical music again – specifically to music I avoided when I was a teenager, like Bruckner and Mahler; I’ve started listening to their symphonies, and they’re like new discoveries to me. So, it might be possible for me to write something symphonic in the near future.

NG: Well, now being aligned with Decca – and with the success of this record, I’m sure you two could come up with some great ideas; and we’ll look forward to those post-Mahlerian symphonies! Best of luck with the upcoming tour; and congratulations again on the new album.

RS: Thank you very much.

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