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Friday, April 3, 2009
Busting boundaries with a pioneer of magical music
YMO's superstar Ryuichi Sakamoto waxes modest on his stellar musical career
By ALEX HOBAN
Special to The Japan Times
Hearing Ryuichi Sakamoto talk softly about his 30 years in music, which have elevated him to the status of an officially designated National Treasure, is to witness a perfect exercise in Japanese modesty.
"I haven't achieved anything," he says as he reclines on a sofa in the backstage bowels of Kochi Prefecture's awkwardly named Cul-Port Plaza down in Shikoku. "This is how I feel.
"Maybe someday in the future I will do something . . . but I'm not satisfied with what I have done so far."
Hold on a moment, let's just remind ourselves of a few things here.
As one third of Yellow Magic Orchestra, in the late 1970s and early '80s, Sakamoto helped spark the Western chart-topping New Wave synth revolution that still reverberates through every electro-influenced track from the likes of LCD Soundsystem and Daft Punk to Perfume.
Viewed as Kraftwerk's Asian counterparts, YMO brought Japanese music out of its insularity into a world of success not experienced by any Japanese native since singer Kyu Sakamoto in the '50s. Since YMO went their separate ways in 1984, Sakamoto has flourished as a solo musician.
He has released film scores including "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" (1984), in which he starred opposite David Bowie, and "The Last Emperor" (1987), for which he received an Academy Award. In addition, his own albums — including "XYZ" — have hit the spot worldwide.
Just in case you have any more doubt about the reverential regard with which Sakamoto's creative output is treated, Japanese fans can even buy a hyperactive compilation of commercial or advert "tracks" he has penned during his career. With 50 of these on one disc, the selection includes a selection of 2-second Internet Explorer bleeps and trills that were commissioned by Microsoft but never used. Surely if people will pay for this trivia, he's doing something right?
Indeed, his current tour, Ryuichi Sakamoto Playing the Piano, is evidence of just that, as he sits on stage at a grand 88-key chordophone performing well-known piano arrangements from his back-catalog alongside excerpts from his new, avant-garde album "Out of Noise," released last month.
"After recording this album, I went to London to record some music by a band called The Fretwork," he begins. "I was only there for two days. After a day of recording I was chatting with the members of the group in the pub. We were talking about vinyl records. Listening to a vinyl record, you hear music come out of noise.
"The relationship between sound and noise — silence and noise — is something I have been thinking about since I was a teenager, when I first encountered John Cage in the '60s. I was influenced by Cage's philosophy a lot, and I've been thinking about noise a lot since then. I was talking about John Cage with the band and this phrase "out of noise" came from my mouth."
The link between Cage (1912-92) and Sakamoto is clear. As a musician at the forefront of the postwar avant-garde in the United States, Cage's nontraditional use of musical instruments — which extended to him not using them at all (his 1952 composition 4'33" consists of no notes whatsoever) — makes clear his interest in the ambient sounds of the environment of which we are part.
Now, taking this forward, at Sakamoto's recent show in Kochi, he urged the audience to spend an entire song taking pictures with their cell phones. Consequently, the effect of a couple of thousand phone shutters bleeping cacophonously added to the sonic dynamics of the performance in a manner that Cage would surely have approved of.
As Sakamoto explains, "My basic concept is that it is hard to divide sound from noise. When you are listening to a vinyl record, you are hearing noise and music at the same time, but your brain's cognition splits it into two. You hear one, but you are listening to both; your brain divides one thing into two. I want to say there is no border between music and noise."
Not just a innovator on the stage and in the studio, Sakamoto has always been at the forefront of the latest developments in music distribution too. On this tour, every performance will be recorded, mastered and released on iTunes within 24 hours of the show ending. Some may see this as an innovation for Sakamoto, but for him, it is something he's been thinking about for more than a decade already.
"We did a very similar thing 12 years ago when I was touring in 1997 — we were burning CD-Rs during the show and then right afterward I would give them out. At that time though, it was only 10 CDs per show, as the technology was very limited! But essentially it was the same idea.
"Although now it is much easier to do, to me this isn't something new. However, people have been getting very excited about it — particularly the people at Apple!"
As the global music industry continues to be gripped by the uncertainty of business models changing and music's monetary value dwindling thanks to downloading, Sakamoto muses on the pros and cons of this change — and envisions a return to a more innocent time.
"Musicians often get very frustrated. . . . After we finish making music, there is a long gap between us finishing the work and when the listeners can hear it. Now the gap is getting shorter and shorter.
"For the last 100 years, only a few organizations have dominated the music world, and they have ripped off both music fans and music creators, because they have had a distribution monopoly. But this is a very exceptional circumstance that only existed in the last century. It started at the end of the 19th century. If we look at human history it is a very exceptional point."
Warming to his theme, Sakamoto explains further that "in the old days, people shared music. They didn't care who made it; the song would be owned by the village and anyone could sing it, change the words, or whatever. That is how humans treated music until the late 19th century.
"Now, with the Internet, we are going back to a tribal-era attitude toward music. This is my hope: I think we should return to this tribal, shared understanding of music."
Of course, for all his romanticizing, Sakamoto still acknowledges a big problem with this return. "As a musician by profession, the value of music is getting to almost zero — so how can I make a living?! I'll have to find a new job . . . "
If the music business did go broke, and Sakamoto had to give it up for good, at least he'd have his other big project to keep him busy.
As the founder of the More Trees organization, he is fronting a nationwide initiative to replenish Japanese forests that have been depleted by bad forestry management, with the aim of helping to offset the country's excessive carbon-dioxide emissions. He has even planted a handful of his own More Trees forests — the first of which is in the Shimanto region of Kochi Prefecture where The Japan Times met him.
"Humans are emitting more and more carbon dioxide but losing more and more trees around the world, and the two vectors must be reconciled," he says. "Less carbon dioxide; more trees: It is very simple!"
In his view, a major problem is that although many people have been made aware of climate change, few yet know how they can combat it on an individual basis.
"The globe is so huge, there is no way we can make sense of it all. We think of the environment in these huge global terms and it is too far away from us and our lives. So, that makes us think there is nothing we can do about global crises.
"But you still eat every day, you inhale air every second and drink water. That is the environment, all within you, and you are a part of it. There is no separation between you and the environment; it is always changing and you are changing with it. It was this understanding that made me want to start this More Trees project."
From changing the shape of music to changing the shape of the world, Sakamoto is a truly inspirational individual — his modesty about his achievements making him even more so. Get this man on the phone to Bono to offer a lesson in how to change the world through art and activism, while always remaining humble . . .
The Ryuichi Sakamoto Playing the Piano tour of Japan continues through the end of April. For details, visit www.sitesakamoto.com