It’s tempting to think of us classical music lovers as old fogies constantly decrying the state of contemporary music – don’t be seduced into subscribing to this common misconception! More often than not I’ve found that classical listeners tend to have very varied tastes, especially since the label “classical” is after all one of the broadest there is in music, covering everything from Baroque to Romantic and more modern incarnations. And anyone that cares to look, can see that great music is still being written across many genres. So I’m psyched to finally be writing my first entry about one of my musical heroes that’s still alive today: the legendary Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. If you’re not familiar with him, there’s still a good chance you’ve come across his music – possibly from soundtracks to Iñárritu’s Babel and more recently The Revenant, or even its use (or misuse depending on how you look at it) in Trey Songz’s Can’t Be Friends. So while even a composer of Sakamoto’s caliber may not be a household name in the western world, he’s certainly not gone unnoticed, particularly in his native Japan where he has a large following. Admittedly though, we’re no longer in the days of Liszt, when composing a rad symphony could earn you bona fide rockstar status (although if Liszt were alive today, I have no doubt he’d be churning out hits with a thumping bass).
Bibo no Aozora (“The Beauty of the Blue Sky”) followed by Gustavo Santaolalla’s Endless Flight, from the Oscar-winning Babel soundtrack
Here’s my own solo piano rendition of Bibo which I recorded last year. It’s one of my favourite Sakamoto pieces, and I find it strangely uplifting despite its slightly sombre tone. I’ve always interpreted it as a meditation on the beauty of the world around us, so I put together a slideshow of spectacular skies and landscapes as visual accompaniment to showcase what I think the music is celebrating.
Can’t Be Friends by Trey Songz
Sakamoto is a musician of astonishing versatility; his compositions span the gamut of tonality, covering various genres, including electronic, ambient, fusion and experimental. He may not be a classical composer in the traditional sense of the word, but his music certainly has classical roots: he cites Debussy as his musical hero, once remarking “Asian music heavily influenced Debussy, and Debussy heavily influenced me. So, the music goes around the world and comes full circle.” It was actually as an electronic composer however that he first made his name. A piece in the Telegraph recounts the story of how this came to pass:
[Electronic music] came into his life through another turning point, which came unexpectedly when he entered Tokyo National University in 1970. He was there to study harmony and counterpoint and ethnomusicology, but while exploring the music faculty he came across an Aladdin’s cave behind an unmarked door.
“I found three huge electronic synthesizers. I spent hours and hours in that room, playing with sounds.” What did his harmony professors think about that? “I didn’t tell them, and they didn’t ask! I was moving away from classical music at that time, listening to lots of German electronic rock bands like Kraftwerk.”
Sakamoto’s explanation for moving away from classical: “Because I liked the Beatles too much! And the Rolling Stones, and also free jazz, people like John Coltrane. I loved the freedom of improvised music.” Even his electronic music however, shares something in common with Debussy; an insatiable aural curiosity, constantly embracing new sounds and styles. You only have to listen to his early works, when he first rose to fame in 1978 as part of the group Yellow Magic Orchestra, to get a sense of the breadth of his musical range. Check out the gloriously retro video for Rydeen, one of the hit songs of Yellow Magic Orchestra, who are credited as an important influence in the advent of techno music.
And also have a listen to the eponymous work of his first solo album Thousand Knives
Over the course of his career, Sakamoto has increasingly shifted towards writing acoustic music. He remarked in an interview “these days I find I play Bach more and more. To me there is something eternal in his music. Sometimes I am surprised at this, and I think I am becoming old!” My personal favourite album of his is 1996, a selection of his most popular compositions arranged for piano trio. He’s also written quite a few exceptional, and predominantly instrumental, film scores, for which he’s won numerous awards, including a Golden Globe for the 1990 film The Sheltering Sky starring John Malkovich, a BAFTA for Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence,
in which he also acted (alongside David Bowie and Takeshi Kitano), and an Oscar, Grammy and a Golden Globe for The Last Emperor. I’ve included a selection of his film music below:
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence
The Sheltering Sky
The Last Emperor
Following Sakamoto’s music over the last decade or so has gotten me the closest I’ll ever get to understanding the deranged inner workings of the mind of a hardcore Belieber. I myself have exhibited occasionally crazed behaviour in trying to get tickets to his shows, and even trying to meet him in person, most recently waiting in line for hours in the freezing cold outside a record store in New York for a signing. Many years ago when he was doing a concert at Cadogan Hall in London, I missed the boat on buying tickets and resorted to accosting total strangers at the venue to see if I could buy theirs at a premium. I offered a solitary concert-goer a multiple of what he paid, and I’ll never forget his response: “Wow… I could really, really use the money. But I’ve just been looking forward to this for too long.” Kudos to that guy for not accepting my offer. In the end, I managed to snag a ticket at the box office at the last minute, and it was definitely up there as one of the best live music experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve been lucky enough to catch him on two other occasions, in London at the Southbank Centre, and in New York at Le Poisson Rouge, each time completely unique experience, and consistently outstanding. He’s a superb pianist, always playing with total passion and commitment, showing that mastery of the instrument is more about sensitivity and restraint than mere virtuosity. There’s also an improvisational quality to his playing, no doubt inspired by his love of jazz, which ensures that no two performances of his are ever the same; his adapatations tend to go well beyond mere ornamentation, often markedly changing the overall effect of a work. The ambiance of his concerts is original as well – he typically performs in dim lighting and often with some sort of unobtrusive visual accompaniment (such as projected background images), which I think is a refreshing change to the unnecessary stuffiness all too often associated with classical concerts (I wrote an article about this in the Huffington Post which you can read here if you’re interested).
Classical music is not without its hits – Sakamoto’s Energy Flow was the first instrumental number one single in Japan’s Oricon charts history.
Sakamoto comes across in interviews and concerts as a very humble and soft-spoken man, which I think is reflected in his music. He’s a passionate activist, particularly vocal on the need to reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, which caused him to retreat from composition entirely for a brief period. His affection for his homeland is palpable, and deeply imprinted in his work, which frequently pays homage to Japanese culture and influences. Much like his music however, he’s very much a citizen of the world, and has voiced concern about the inward-looking mentality of Japan’s youth: “I am worried that young Japanese people are not very curious about the outside world – which is so different to the way we were in the Sixties and Seventies. All they want to listen to is Japanese pop. They haven’t even heard of Radiohead! I think there’s a big social and spiritual crisis in Japan, a turning inwards and becoming isolated, which we call hikikomori.”
As someone whose musical heroes are largely from a bygone era, I consider it a real privilege to be around in the time of great musicians like Sakamoto san. He’s battled through throat cancer recently, but after a hiatus looks to be on the mend and back to composing. Here’s wishing him all the best, and looking forward to listening to many more of his masterpieces in the years to come. In the mean time, have a listen to some more of his outstanding works:
A Flower is Not a Flower
Aoneko no Torso (“The Blue Cat’s Body”)
Bolerish – a work influenced by Ravel’s famous Boléro