Perfect Sound Forever


by Julio Cann
(August 2013)

Sparse, minimalist textures set the scene- unnatural chirps and grainy electronic noises as unsettling and alien as the the surreal make-up on the face of the composer, who can be seen approaching from a distance. The colonel arrives at length, walking solemnly and rigid as ever. He salutes and signals the guards, who unquestioningly leave their posts at once, taking the eerie soundtrack out with them. Entering the makeshift cell from the prisoner's right, Colonel Yanoi slowly but deliberately advances toward him, never once losing sight of his head - the only visible part of the prisoner's body - floating immobile above the ground. Once positioned directly behind it, Yanoi takes a large knife out of his pocket with his immaculate white glove. As he kneels on his left leg carefully combing the prisoner's hair for the right patch to scalp, the music returns with an added string section, the dominant harmony telling us what we already know: this incursion is dangerous, forbidden. Standing back up, he slithers to face the barely-alive prisoner, looking down as if ashamed of himself, and takes a moment to pay him respect before quickly walking off the shot without looking back, the music finally resolving with movement, as if freed from the worry of getting caught in the act.

Years later, manager Roger Trilling would ask Ryuichi Sakamoto why there was such a contrast between the bizarre, dramatic character of the soundtrack accompanying his portrayal of Colonel Yanoi in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), and his outlandish and wildly exaggerated make-up. Sakamoto simply looked up at him and replied, “I have no idea," before bursting out in laughter.

Expertly straddling the gamut of genres from classical to electronic and from experimental to pop around the world and across generations, Ryuichi Sakamoto has indubitably emerged as one of the most versatile and prolific composers of the last half-century. Over the past five decades, Sakamoto has released more than seventy solo albums, not to mention countless collaborations, guest appearances, soundtracks, and remix albums, as well as producing for several artists on his record label, commmons. His eclectic body of work includes such diverse projects as Casa (2003), a reworking of Brazilian songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim standards recorded with the composer's original piano in his former home in Sao Paulo; Futurista (1986), a concept album based on the ideas of the 1930s Italian Futurist movement; a string of minimalist microsound albums with German sound artist and designer Alva Noto, and an Academy Award-winning score to Bernardo Bertolucci's orientalist masterpiece The Last Emperor.

Because Sakamoto's wide-ranging output provides a striking contrast of styles and approaches, sometimes even within the same album, it can be challenging to pinpoint a certain sound that could be called his signature voice in such broadly divergent tracks. How could the same mind produce the bitcrushed, percussive cacophony of “Coro" and then segue straight into the mellow activism over bossa nova chords of “War & Peace"? (Chasm, 2004) Identifying a common thread is a difficult task, and requires looking beyond stylistic tropes and commonplace techniques. But repeated listening to his catalog reveals a particular musical attitude that sets this curious figure apart from his contemporaries.

Born in 1952 to the family of a book publisher in Tokyo, Ryuichi Sakamoto was from the very beginning exposed to both Japanese and Western culture. Taking up the piano as a child, he soon started learning music in the classical method, and went on to earn a degree in Composition from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. The disconnect between the traditional European canon and post-war Japanese culture was not lost on the young composer. Always skeptical of orthodox avenues, Sakamoto never fully embraced his classical upbringing, and was equally sensitive to the folklore of his own country and others, as well as new electronic sounds such as krautrock, developing from the experimental avant-garde. This unwillingness to conform to a single aesthetic system led him to further study musicology, earning an MA focused on both electronic and ethnic music. Indeed, it appears that Sakamoto has always considered the Western musical establishment just another folk manifestation, albeit more developed and systematic than most. Far from the intellectual purism of orchestral circles, Sakamoto soon strayed into jazz, rock, and finally electronic music in the late 1970‘s with his seminal trio, Yellow Magic Orchestra.

This early foray into the genre that would come to be called 'electropop' is key to understanding the aesthetic that Sakamoto would develop throughout his solo career. Borrowing equally from Kraftwerk's fringe experiments mixing cutting-edge rock with homemade synthesizers and digital instruments as well as from proto-geek bandleader arrangers such as Juan García Esquivel and Delia Derbyshire and exotica giant Martin Denny, YMO invented a new sound that was all at once radically eccentric, immensely popular, and undeniably Japanese. Working completely within the Japanese mainstream market, Yellow Magic Orchestra introduced their audience to the future sound of pop - or at least J-pop - with their quirky bubblegum melodies, layers of square-wave harmonies, and elaborate stage production incorporating laser lighting and outlandish costumes. While Kraftwerk referenced Nazi imagery and the wardrobe of Connery-era James Bond villains, YMO were closer to a goofy anime rendition of Inspector Gadget. Subverting the anarchist tendencies of German noise rock and shamelessly turning them into a commercial commodity was only possible to three young foreigners with no cultural baggage and no obligation to rebel against or even respond to existing conventions or the latest trends. Their unique position allowed them to bypass genre hierarchies and take elements out of context, creating an embodiment of Sakamoto's philosophy that all traditions stand on equal footing, and that the avant-garde is only a make-up kit away from kitsch.

Beyond Yellow Magic Orchestra's blinding success, which made Ryuichi Sakamoto a household name in Japan and which echoed - albeit more quietly – with Western audiences, the composer has come to be widely respected as a consistently experimental, challenging musician, mainly through his orchestral film scores, his multi-media projects incorporating music, video, spoken-word, performance and social activism, and his irregular flings with the art world, including collaborations with Yoko Ono and installation artist Shiro Takatani. This constant reinvention and penchant for realising such ambitious projects, as well as his association with leading artists in so many different fields has surely earned him a place among the pantheon of critically-acclaimed, “serious" contemporary composers. His audience has expanded and morphed from giggling Japanese girls to middle-aged highbrow musos, and his live shows have relocated from stadiums to university concert halls. This ethos is reflected in his working process, in which a lot of his projects are conceived and developed as concept albums, with Sakamoto immersing himself in a certain culture for months, doing careful research, planning and visualizing the final product, and then finally entering the recording studio. Also in this vein, Sakamoto has always pioneered the use of new musical technologies, from synthesizers and samplers in the 1970's to instruments such as the Monome and Tenori-on today. His association with technology has been a central theme of his work, including references to transhumanist Persian philosopher FM-2030 and with special attention to the relationship between human progress and environmental risk, such as in “Oberheim's Aria," his portrayal of the scientist's ethical conflict from his 1999 opera, LIFE.

This attitude apparently places Sakamoto within the avant-garde, modernist tradition of pushing boundaries and working in developing new media, exploring every region of the aesthetic landscape. Although he doesn't always work in the orchestral world, his approach to conceptualizing each project as a series of explorations within a unifying theme as well as his affinity for experimentation are certainly in line with the work of artists such as John Cage. At the very least, it places him squarely in the group of art rockers attempting to take these influences into the mainstream, such as his frequent collaborator David Sylvian. But Sakamoto has never considered himself a particularly ambitious musician, often disparaging his abilities as a piano player and avoiding intellectual discussion of his ideas in favor of a more intuitive approach. Sakamoto prefers to think of himself as having a direct relationship to culture, viewing his artistic output as nothing more than a cultural product. Again, this is a mark of the composer's understanding of any musical activity as a manifestation of folk art. As far as he is concerned, all music is ethnic music and subject to anthropological analysis, if any. Rather than writing essays proposing models for the future of music theory, as Cage and his contemporaries used to do, Sakamoto prefers to travel around the world making field recordings, many used in albums such as 1987‘s Neo Geo, a record mixing synthpop backing tracks with traditional Okinawan chants that has been one of the composer's most commercially successful efforts. Perhaps by importing new musical elements in terms of their social meaning rather than their sonic properties, Sakamoto is taking a postmodernist point of view. But more likely, he would reject both of these interpretations and offer a direct, experiential account of the music.

Sakamoto's rejection of intellectualized aesthetics, together with his willingness to undermine the putative meaning of his work with humor and nonsense, reveals a disposition closely connected to Zen Buddhism, an ancient Japanese tradition based on the discipline of self-realization as opposed to theoretical knowledge and one of the recurring themes of Sakamoto's work. Rather than adhering to an explicit philosophy or established framework, the student is encouraged to pay attention and observe the effect of external circumstances, and even thought itself, on the mind. Often Zen teachers will employ koans, short humorous stories meant to short-circuit the brain's logic and stop the stream of analytical discourse very much the way Sakamoto uses comedic elements to undercut the seeming pretensions of the work. The emphasis is on practical mindfulness centered on the present moment, rather than as a means to the attainment of some goal; it tolerates and values impermanence, appreciating passing thoughts without clinging to them. Following this principle, Sakamoto can not only seamlessly pass through a plethora of genres in a single work, but can also renounce the contextual ambitions of each one and, having voided their message, find new content in their juxtaposition.

Despite this open eschewing of artistic significance, at least as it is usually conceived, Sakamoto remains committed to the role of art as a social and political vehicle, and often embeds in his works a large and completely sincere aspect of activism. From his participation in the student movement of 1968, which predates his days with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto has been critical of authoritarian establishments, perhaps mirroring his disdain for aesthetic hierarchies. Unlike arena rockers who preach to their audiences about the environment before flying home in their private jets, Sakamoto has consistently lived the policies he supports, and in 2009 staged the first carbon-neutral international tour. Despite his lifelong working relationship with the latest electronic instruments and his fondness for new gadgets, Sakamoto does not feel at home with the geek lifestyle's dependence on our current economic system. He remains skeptical about the possible effects of technology on human society, and is currently engaged in the Stop Rokkasho initiative's renewed protest against nuclear energy sparked by the ongoing crisis in his home country. He has also campaigned against intellectual property laws, especially as related to the field of music, supporting Creative Commons as an alternative to current copyright licenses. His contempt for the music industry is no secret, and he has been known to say that “the Internet is music's revenge against the music industry." To this end, he has created his own independent record label with an alternative business model, commmons, in which invites artists to become business partners and share in all aspects of the revenue for their projects. commmons has also served as a platform for Sakamoto to collaborate with and champion younger musicians from Japan, such as Shibuya-kei pop star Cornelius and noise post-rock veterans Boredoms. Sakamoto curates the roster and actively participates in the production of many of his label's releases.

This commitment to the social dimension of music creation is in keeping with Sakamoto's artistic direction, and has contributed more to his creative vision than any current of aesthetics. It is a reflection of Sakamoto's grounding in concrete experience, and it is through this tangible relationship to the role of the artist in our culture that he has developed such a close rapport with his audience. Unlike self-important rock stars who disown their early work once it becomes too widely accepted, Sakamoto is happy to pander to his audience and play old favorites in new configurations. In fact, his Playing the Piano tour consisted mostly of solo piano renditions of material from his back catalog. The composer admits that one of his dreams is to play in a very small room to an audience of only four or five people. A lofty goal for someone who was selling out Japan's biggest venues at the start of his career.

Perhaps Sakamoto's genre-jumping, experimental impulses and his versatile role as a musician, actor and visual artist come from a deep understanding of the impermanent nature of ideas, or maybe they come from an inborn rejection of overarching hierarchical structures. More likely, the man in the military uniform wearing blush and eyeliner is simply curious enough to get his hands dirty. Colonel Yanoi may indeed be as serious and uptight as the bizarre music suggests as he crosses that dangerous checkpoint. Ryuichi Sakamoto, however, is clearly in it for the laughs.


Research for this essay was taken from a range of YouTube videos, magazine articles, interviews and conversations including:

Kai “Oswald" Seidler. Behind the Matrix: A Ryuichi Sakamoto Discography. Accessed 5/3/2011.

“Paul". Ryuichi Sakamoto Fan site. Accessed 5/3/2011. See especially: Interviews section.

Wikipedia: Ryuichi Sakamoto. From Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 5/3/2011. See also: articles for individual albums.

Sakamoto, Ryuichi et al. siteSakamoto. Official Ryuichi Sakamoto website. Accessed 5/3/2011.

Sakamoto, Ryuichi. @ryuichisakamoto Twitter feed. Accessed 5/3/2011.

Sakamoto, Ryuichi et al. Ryuichi Sakamoto YouTube channel. Accessed 5/3/2011. See also: related videos.

Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media. Ryuichi Sakamoto + Shiro Takatani: LIFE - fluid, invisible, inaudible... Press release, 2007. Accessed 5/3/2011.

Gilchrist, Todd. Exclusive: Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto On Life Beyond ‘The Last Emperor'. Cinematical blog on moviefone, Nov 26th 2010. Accessed 5/3/2011.

Oshima, Nagisa. Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. Universal Pictures, 1983.

Schnipper, Matthew. Interview: Ryuichi Sakamoto. In The Fader Magazine online, Oct 12 2010. Accessed 5/3/2011.

Special thanks to Robert Christgau for editing and arranging for this article. And thanks to Roger Trilling, former manager and close friend of Ryuichi Sakamoto, to whom I owe particular gratitude and was nice enough to do a personal interview.

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