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RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: Classical & Pop Fusion

Interview | Artist By Paul Tingen
Published April 1998

RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: Classical & Pop Fusion

The classical and pop music worlds collide in the person of Ryuichi Sakamoto, with even his latest ambitious orchestral work due for remixing by a team of DJs. Paul Tingen explores the attraction of opposites...

The world of Ryuichi Sakamoto is characterised by stark contrasts and by contradictions — both apparent and real. He has an obsession with synthesizers and the latest music technology, and as a member of the Yellow Magic Orchestra he was one of the inventors of techno‑pop. Yet some of his greatest and most well‑known work has used the vehicle of that centuries‑old mainstay of Western classical music, the orchestra. While being one of Japan's greatest pop stars, he's also a revered orchestral film music writer. He often blends musical influences in idiosyncratic, contradictory ways: on his classic solo album Beauty (1990), for example, he incorporated influences from funk, rock, flamenco, African, Japanese traditional and classical, techno, R&B and dance musics, to create a collage of styles, rather than a seamless whole. Sakamoto is also one of the world's few music technology adepts who is happy to admit to actually liking the 'coldness' that comes from using sequencers and computers — something that may be related to the formality and emotional rigidity that's part of his Japanese heritage. Yet he speaks with great affection about film director Bernardo Bertolucci's forceful attempts to get him to write more emotional music. He has successfully appeared as an actor in several major feature films (including Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, The Last Emperor), yet he reportedly hates the sight of himself in movies.

It's easy to suspect that it is his very Japanese‑ness that lies at the root of many these contrasts and contradictions, for it often sits awkwardly with the Western music idioms in which he writes. And as his international profile has become more prominent, the contradictions and contrasts in his work have become more apparent. During the last few years, Sakamoto's activities have not only increased, they have also spread into more diverse areas: film scores during the '90s, including Pedro Almodovar's High Heels, Volker Schlondorff's The Handmaid's Tale, Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky (which earnt him a Golden Globe Award) and Little Buddha (which was nominated for a Grammy Award); the writing and performance of the music for the Opening Ceremony of the 1992 Paralympics; acting in Madonna's 'Rain' video; chamber music, including live piano performances with cellist Jacques Morelenbaum and violinists L Subramaniam and Everton Nelson; and a concert entitled Music Plays Images X Images Play Music, with Japanese visual artist Toshio Iwai, which was broadcast on the Internet and awarded the golden NICA in the Prix Ars Electronica competition of 1997.

Working with sequencers and samplers is a great way of writing for orchestra, but at the same time the modern process can make you lazier, especially from a rhythmic point of view.

This is not to mention live rock tours, productions for other artists (amongst them Aztec Camera's Dreamland), collaborations (for example, with David Sylvian on Hector Zazou's 1992 Sahara Blue, the launch of his own record label, the release of a new YMO album, Technodon (1993), and, not least, his solo albums — Beauty, at the start of the decade; the dance music‑influenced Heartbeat, about which he was last interviewed in SOS (July 1992); 1994's Sweet Revenge; 1996, a pastoral, breathtakingly beautiful reworking of many of his best‑known works for piano, violin and cello; and Smoochy (UK release in 1997), Sakamoto's excursion into the land of easy‑listening and Latin. And, as if to balance out the glibness and sweetness of much of Smoochy, there's now Discord, released in early March. Discord is probably his starkest, darkest, most emotional work ever. It's his symphonic meditation on the suffering in the world, and our inability to alleviate it.


RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: Classical & Pop FusionRYUICHI SAKAMOTO: Classical & Pop Fusion

Sakamoto himself has gone on record as saying that he's 'pretty much schizophrenic' (Premiere, August 1996). And every time I've spoken to him he returns to the topic of 'balance', his need to find an equilibrium between the disparate strands of his work.

This time I'm interviewing Sakamoto in one of the most unusual hotels I've ever set foot in. He seems to have a taste for the out‑of‑the ordinary, whether in music or in hotels, but this takes some beating. It's located in West London, and is so private that there's no signposting outside it. Inside, it's composed from rectangular shapes painted white, with interior design in an ultra‑sparse, minimalistic style somewhere between Zen and '60s chic. The corridors are laced with identical white panels as far as the eye can see, the only thing indicating that these panels are actually doors being a small button on each, with a tiny red light and a keyhole.

Sakamoto's room is done in the same minimalist, all‑white style. Cosy it's not, but it is certainly unique — a bit like Sakamoto himself. That's not to say that he's not extremely polite and forthcoming. But, at 46, the boyish charm, humble openness and model good‑looks he's presented on previous occasions have made way for fleshier features and a more reserved attitude. Maybe it's because we're meeting at the end of the second day of interviews and he's just plain tired, but there's a sense of taciturn authority, of the maestro, about Sakamoto.

His English may have improved since the last time we met, but Sakamoto remains as reluctant as ever to consider conceptual questions. His orchestral work 'Untitled 01', which fills the Discord CD, was apparently inspired by feelings that came to him when watching starving children in Africa on the news. "What can I do to help these people?" is one of the questions he asks, and it's answered in speech excerpts on the CD by the likes of Laurie Anderson and David Torn. Five years ago, when talking about his CD Heartbeat, Sakamoto explained his own and other people's interest in dance music in these terms: the bass drum reminds us of our mother's heartbeat when we were in the womb, the only totally safe place we've been. In a world full of fear and suffering, dance music supplies us with back‑to‑the‑womb solace. Now I ask Sakamoto whether human suffering and his desire to do something about it, which appear to be at the root of both Heartbeat and 'Untitled 01', are therefore a crucial source of inspiration to him. He responds: "I don't think that way about myself or my music. But yes, I must agree, your observations sound right."


RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: Classical & Pop FusionRYUICHI SAKAMOTO: Classical & Pop Fusion

He laughs apologetically, but doesn't enlarge on his comment. The same happens when I say that 'Untitled 01' appears to be not only his saddest and most emotional work to date, but also has the strongest unity of style of any of his solo work. Guitarist David Torn may be weaving in and out with atmospheric effects, DJ Spooky may scratch here and there, almost as inaudibly as Torn's guitar effects, and there are the many voices that are mixed into the fourth movement, but 'Untitled 01' is at heart an orchestral work, firmly rooted in the Western classical music tradition. It features Sakamoto's trademark, lush, lyrical, often pentatonic string‑writing, as used in his best‑known film music, such as Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.

When I compare the grand line and unity of style of 'Untitled 01' with the collage‑like bittiness of Beauty and much of his other film music, he laughs again and answers evasively: "Musicians and artists have to give interviews like this. To promote your art and music you have to give your words, so we need to talk... but it's not easy." When I retort that journalists have to ask questions like these, he laughs again, and for once he elaborates: "I believe that concepts like these, concepts like the philosophy of the music, the recipe with which it is made, only come after we get the music. In most of my cases it comes after the music is finished. When I write music I get a mood or an emotion or a feeling. I write and music leads me to some destination. So I don't know where I'm going until after I've finished the music. It's a very unpredictable process. Music has its own language and grammar. When I'm writing I feel like I'm riding a wave or something. I'm just surfing it to see where I end up. But with 'Untitled 01' it was different. This time when I started writing I had clear emotions for each movement. So I was trying to realise these emotions in music. That was a very different writing style."

'Untitled 01' is made up of four movements with the very descriptive titles Grief, Anger, Prayer and Salvation. Sakamoto agrees that Prayer and Salvation are not emotions, but they're "states of being, and I tried to capture that state of being. It's a big challenge. Like for the last piece of Bertolucci's Little Buddha I also had to write about an abstract state of being. In this case it was reincarnation, and I was struggling and suffering to do it. The themes of Prayer and Salvation came out of the feelings of sadness and frustration that I expressed in the first two movements, about the fact that people are starving in the world, and we are not able to help them. People are dying, and yet the political and economical and historical situations are too complicated and inert for us to do much about it. So I got really angry with myself. I asked myself what I could do, and since there's not a lot I can do on the practical level, all that's left for me is to pray. But it's not enough just to pray; I also had to think about actually saving those people, so the last movement is called Salvation. That's the journey of the piece." When asked to whom or what the prayer is directed, Sakamoto asserts that he's "not religious, but maybe spiritual. The Prayer is to anybody or anything you want to name."

The naked emotionality of 'Untitled 01', or Discord, is unusual in Sakamoto's oeuvre. It appears to have taken him a lifetime to get to this point, and, quite possibly, to free himself of the restraints of a Japanese background that prevented him from expressing emotions as directly as this. Sakamoto was once a child prodigy who studied composition, aged 11, at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and eventually received a BA in composition and a masters degree centering around electronic and ethnic music. His personal outlook was shaped by the student radicalism of the '60s, which is why he still calls himself a "rebel" who likes "breaking the rules." In the '70s he did this through his interest in the avant‑garde classical music of Cage, Stockhausen and Boulez. But then he rebelled against this atonal, abstract and unemotional music, and founded YMO in 1978. The musical language was now tonal and therefore more approachable, but there was still a strong emotional constraint because of the 'cold', robotic rhythms.

Every time I get a new keyboard there's a new improvement, or a new way to generate the sound. It's hard to keep up.

Musical Power

RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: Classical & Pop Fusion

Twenty years later, Sakamoto has finally gone for the emotional jugular. He agrees that 'Untitled 01' is his most emotional work to date, expressing his fears about this in the same breath: "I believe that music can be very powerful, and a part of me is afraid that music can be used in the wrong way. When you look at human history, music was sometimes used for wrong things — Nazis used powerful, emotional music to manipulate people, leading them in a wrong direction. So I want to be very careful with the power of music. As an artist I've always been afraid of that aspect of music, and yet on the other hand it's also the beauty and attraction of music. So I have to be careful about achieving a good balance. I cannot drop the dangerous side of music, but I also have to get the right balance when I use it. Discord is very powerful, and I hope it will not lead people in the wrong direction. I want my music to be symbolic, metaphoric, without it having a straightforward message."

Oddly enough, the circumstances under which 'Untitled 01' was written were hardly conducive for the emergence of a work of this kind. Apparently, Sakamoto had boxed himself into a corner by pre‑booking an orchestral tour of Japan for January 1997. Orchestra rehearsals were scheduled for the beginning of January, but by late November 1996 he still didn't have any repertoire to play. It was under these tight circumstances that he got the idea for a symphonic piece about human suffering, and he wrote the whole piece in exactly one month, during December 1996: "I finished writing the very last note on the morning of the first rehearsal day. It was close! I didn't have much time for experimenting. Normally I experiment with different things, unknown techniques, and I'll use errors and accidents that happen when I'm writing. I sometimes do similar things to John Cage, putting patterns and ideas together randomly, without any musical consciousness. I may number some themes and then just throw some dice. You can get some weird, very unusual results, but it's not always a success. But this time I started with the words, and then wrote as straightforward and quickly as I could because of my deadline in January."

Writing took place in his home studio: "I have a Macintosh with [Opcode] Studio Vision software and 16 tracks of [Digidesign] Pro Tools at home. My master keyboard was the Korg Trinity, which I like very much. When writing 'Untitled 01' I worked almost excluvely on the Trinity, saving everything I played in Studio Vision. I improvised phrases and patterns and then it was a matter of going back and forth between the keyboard and the Mac, editing, changing, creating a shape and chord structure and so on. Once I'd developed a certain theme and decided that I was going to use it, I started improvising again, for a theme for a 'B' section. Maybe it wouldn't fit, in which case I discarded it and tried another idea. So I was composing the whole piece through from beginning to end. I wrote using the appropiate orchestral samples — strings, woodwinds, brass, piano, harp — and so ended up making a demo that sounded almost like a real orchestra."

Troubled Technology

RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: Classical & Pop Fusion

Apparently, the need to make almost real‑sounding demos of Sakamoto's orchestral compositions arose from the fact that Bertolucci couldn't imagine what things would sound like from a piano‑only demo. Nevertheless, Sakamoto comments that he also made orchestral mock‑ups in the pre‑sampling days using "piles of synthesizers. But what is very handy today is not only having the samples, but also the capacity to print out all parts from the sequencer. I did this at the end of my writing process, and then made final additions and changes on the actual manuscript. I think working with sequencers and samplers is a great way of writing for orchestra, but at the same time the modern process can make you lazier, especially from a rhythmic point of view. Sequencers tend to be based around 4/4 meters and 8‑bar units. Even 5/4 is difficult to do. And if you think of someone like Stravinsky, who, especially in his ballet music, used irregular meters and structures all the time, that would have been very, very hard to do with sequencers."

It's the first time I've ever heard Sakamoto argue that modern music technology has any shortcomings and dangers. Five years ago he stated that he saw "no danger in music technology at all. It simply makes the whole of my writing and recording process easier." But this time, although professing his love for digital recording (he also owns an Akai DR16, providing, together with Pro Tools, a total of 32 digital tracks, plus two Yamaha 02R desks, giving him a home studio that's "100% in the digital domain") the Japanese maestro administers praise and blame in equal measure: "There's a difference between the keyboards from different nations. I don't usually get a very rich, warm bottom end from Japanese keyboards. They are very bright, but also kind of thin and plastic‑sounding. German synthesizers are good for bell and metallic sounds, more harsh sounds. But I get most of my bottom end from analogue American synths like the Moog and so on. I have a large collection of analogue synths, like the ARP 2600 and Odyssey, and various Moogs, and I like their sound. I also have an 8‑bit Fairlight Series II that gives a great grainy, grating sound." [Scratches fingernails on the table and laughs].

"Most Japanese companies, like Korg and Yamaha, send me their newest keyboards, so I start with checking out their preset sounds. But every one of these new keyboards has maybe only five useful presets. That's not great, cost/performance‑wise. It can take me hours to listen to all the presets of one keyboard, and then to find only five that are any good is simply bad. I do normally program my own sounds, but learning how to program a new keyboard is complex and time‑consuming. Every time I get a new keyboard there's a new improvement, or a new way to generate the sound. It's hard to keep up. I can't even remember the names of all these new ways to generate sounds. So in the end I keep maybe only 10 modern keyboards in my studio, and the rest I send back, or store in my cellar. A new keyboard that I do like a lot is the Korg Z1. It has just replaced my Trinity as my master keyboard. And now Yamaha will be putting out a new keyboard called the EX5, which contains both new and old ways of generating sounds, which you can layer. So you can get a great variety of sounds, and that's really fantastic."

Easy‑Listening Muzak?

RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: Classical & Pop Fusion

With the contributions of David Torn and DJ Spooky being essentially cosmetic, 'Untitled 01' is at heart a rather traditional symphonic work. However, Sakamoto wouldn't be who he is if he wasn't transgressing some boundaries: the 'Anger' movement of 'Untitled 01' is apparently being re‑mixed by several DJs from the Ninja Tune label. With 'Untitled 01' being released on Sony Classical, it's the first time that a project will exist in one form on a major classical label and in another form on an independent remix label. Moreover, Sakamoto is also pioneering developments on the Internet. His live performance, 'Music Plays Images X Images Play Music', with visual artist Toshio Iwai in 1996, was broadcast live on the Internet, including the MIDI data coming from Sakamoto's piano. A MIDI piano was also remote‑controlled by users of the Internet. And on January 23rd 1996 and February 11th 1997 live performances of 'Untitled 01' were also broadcast via the Internet. The former performance was part of his Japanese tour, while the latter took place at the World Financial Centre's Winter Garden Centre in New York.

There's a difference between the keyboards from different nations.

Sakamoto explains: "For the most part the Internet broadcasts are just regular broadcasts like you'd get them on TV, with visuals and music. But that's not really using the Internet to its best advantage. The best part of the Internet is the possibility for two‑way conversation, for interactions between individuals. We've been developing interactive technologies to use together with the regular broadcast. One is the 'f' key 'remote clap'. People sitting in front of their PC can hit the 'f' key to show their appreciation, and that signal will go to the server and then to the concert hall where it lights up a large 'f' logo on stage. So players and concert audiences can see the reaction of the Internet audience. And, with a 20‑second delay, Internet audiences can see their own reaction on stage as well. Another interactive thing is the remote piano. There's a graphic representation of a piano plus a grid on the web site, and you can highlight keys or squares on the grid to create melodies. I choose the eight notes that people can play, and we worked out a situation where 10 people at any one time have access to the MIDI piano on stage for 100ms at a time. What about the problems with bandwidth? Well, obviously there were many times where we had to sacrifice audio quality and picture resolution. But in the last three years data‑streaming technologies have developed dramatically. With two ISDN lines at 128,000 bps you can have CD‑quality audio and video‑quality resolution. Otherwise we gave people a choice of 128, 56 and 28K quality, and we compressed the data accordingly."

There are just two final loose ends I'd like to tie up, two more noteworthy contradictions in Sakamoto's work for which I request explanations. The first is the fact that he has gone on record as saying that performing music on stage is not a creative act. It's an odd assertion for someone steeped in the classical music tradition, and Sakamoto apparently even has gone as far as extending it to jazz performance. That he has an unusual view of live performance is clear from a concert he gave in London as part of his Sweet Revenge tour (1994), when a 5‑piece backing band seemed to have little more to do than fill a few minor gaps left in the dominant backing tape. During a break between songs, a woman shouted: "Ryuichi, we want you live!", leaving the man visibly flustered. When queried about his attitude towards live playing and the London incident, he answers: "I think my case has been a little bit overstated. What I mean to say is that live performances differ from creating music. In my performances I'm concerned with repeating what I've created in the past. So performance is just re‑creating for me. Having said that, you can't just play your audience a CD. They want some kind of live energy, I understand that. But for the Sweet Revenge tour, and also the Smoochy tour, the drum samples were really important for me, so I sacrificed the energy of life performance and used backing tapes." And he got a predictably frustrated reaction from some members of his audience.

The mention of Smoochy brings the final contradiction into focus. There's hardly a bigger contrast possible than between Sakamoto's last two solo releases: 'Untitled 01'/Discord is dark, emotional, overpowering. Smoochy is, in part, an interesting Japanese version of Brazilian music and late‑night jazz, but in part also descends into easy listening and even muzak. Sakamoto shifts uneasily in his seat when 'easy‑listening' and 'late‑night jazz' are mentioned: "Both albums are aspects of myself. With Smoochy I just wanted to make a pop album. I'm a big fan of Brazilian music and I've always banned myself from using Brazilian influences, because I knew people would accuse me of making easy‑listening. Jobim is one of my favorite composers, but to use his influence is dangerous — his music is very smooth jazz. This is the first time I've allowed myself to use Brazilian influences, and I still believe in it."

Given his slightly defensive reaction, perhaps there were more reserved reactions to Smoochy, and this begs the question of whether Sakamoto is in danger of spreading himself too thin. Maybe he's in danger of becoming a jack of all trades, and a master of some.

Or is that a contradiction in terms?

Live Recording

RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: Classical & Pop Fusion

In line with Sakamoto's love for digital sound, 'Untitled 01' was recorded digitally, on a Sony 3348 48‑track recorder, plus two Alesis ADAT recorders. Oddly enough, it was the ADAT recordings that made it onto the CD: "We recorded all nine Japanese live shows, with a microphone for each pair of musicians. That's almost 50 microphones, and that's the reason why you can hear hiss at the beginning of the first movement. We recorded everything to the 3348, and at the same time did 14‑track live submixes to the two ADATs. When we compared the sound quality of the 3348 and ADAT recordings we found that the ADATs sounded better. So we loaded the best performances from the ADATs into Pro Tools, and then edited them in there. Finally we mixed them, with the O2R desks, to DAT. Both David Torn and DJ Spooky were mixed quite far in the background, because they were only playing atmospheric things; they didn't play things that were part of the score. I played piano throughout. In sections of 'Prayer' I played inside the piano, directly on the strings. Incidentally, the percussion in 'Anger' was all played live; there were no sequences used during the live recordings."

RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: Classical & Pop Fusion