Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Son of the Stars

Spotlights 13.04.2023

Begun a few weeks ago during the composer's lifetime, this portrait concludes at the time of his death at age 71 on March 28. Rather than a classic hagiographic obituary, this is a musical evocation in the form of a tribute, an illumination (and a pear too). 

We understand that we have just lost an iconic musician when all our social networks, newspapers and friends (musicians or producers) interrupt their communication habits to share a video, a personal anecdote or a favorite album of the deceased. We rush to our (computer) keyboard to express our sadness. And what better way for an artist than to publish his own musical exploits in the music of the recently deceased or jackpot, a photo in his company to convince himself of a "I exist!" or to specify: "I knew him before you!" This shamelessness past, the daily flow returns and new music replaces the old. It is the time of the musical introspection which begins. 

It may take some time to realize the importance of Ryuichi Sakamoto in the music world. Famous all over the world, his fame remained nevertheless below some of his legendary music. He never entered the star system that was opening its arms to him. His open ears to all kinds of music led him to collaborate with a multitude of musicians from different worlds(Robert Wyatt, David Toop, Christian Fennesz, Alva Noto, David Sylvian etc.).

But who really was this elegant Japanese musician whose art was balanced between the avant-garde and pop music, skilfully drawing a bridge between an ambient sentimental minimalism and a constantly renewed musical requirement.

A pioneer
To each his own. There are those who only like his film scores (in the original versions of course) and others who only prefer his synth-pop experiments with his Yellow Magic Orchestra ensemble , some swear by his avant-garde electronic music tinged with ambient. But all are united in admiring his talent as an outstanding melodist influenced, one reads (almost all the time - journalists copy each other) by Debussy. The impact that Debussy's music had in Japan is unimaginable and it still exists (let's think of Toru Takemitsu or Isao Tomita). Debussy's music is almost sacred in this country fascinated by French music (an island is named Cortoshima in honor of Alfred Cortot). We know to what extent non-European music and Japanese prints were able to captivate Debussy (but also Ravel and Satie). However, it is easy for the media to claim that Ryuichi Sakamoto is the heir of Claude Debussy because of his origin: an interest in gamelan, bells, the pentatonic mode and the piano is not enough to be the heir of Debussy - Sakamoto himself denied it. Listening to his latest album is proof of this. To consider Sakamoto as a simple heir of Debussy is reductive, even false: he is above all an original and innovative pioneer in his time - that is their common point.
Because, as a reminder, Sakamoto was one of the first Japanese masters of Moog, Buchla or ARP synthesizers: it is moreover with the album Thousand Knives, released in 1978 and composed on synthesizers, that he is noticed by the musicians. The references to the French composer are very few in his abundant discography - except for this successful version, sampled and looped ad libitum of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

Absolutely applied music
In Giuseppe Tornatore's film Ennio , released in 2021, which traces the life of Italian composer Ennio Morricone, a striking antiphon by the musician appeals to us throughout the film: Morricone lived his whole life with a sense of shame towards his master Goffredo Petrassi - the champion of Italian avant-garde music - because he had taken the easy way out as a film composer and successful arranger of crowd-pleasing tunes. Morricone coined two expressions to describe his two facets: there was applied music (meaning the soundtracks, known and admired by all) and absolute music "free of all constraints and totally dependent on the composer's will."
In Ryuichi Sakamoto's case, there seems to have never been any difference between his film music, his "absolute" music and his electronic rock-pop compositions. They are one and the same. His film scores are of course the best known to the general public and hide works and albums that were much more important to him. In 2009, he said these terrible words: "I just turned 57 and I understand that I have not changed the world, that I have not left any piece that has changed the history of music, I am an insufficient person, I have no talent. I hate to think that "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" is the only important and world-renowned song. Let's pay tribute to him with another of his soundtracks from the 2006 film Babel by director Alejandro González Iñárritu (originally on Smoochy, a rock album from 1997).

Piano my friend
A constant in his abundant and hybrid musical universe: the acoustic piano. He began his musical studies with it (it is said that he could play the famous virtuoso Étude La Campanella by Paganini/Liszt at full speed) and ended his life by entrusting it with his last notes. All his life he was the interpreter of his own music and only recently stopped touring the world, alone at the piano, playing the hits from his albums and film scores.
His fine playing, with clear and singing lines, is that of a pianist in love with his instrument. Unlike many of today's film composers, Sakamoto was more than capable of playing the music he composed and preferred to perform it himself.
The more the years go by, the more he abandons electronics (without ever abandoning it completely) in favor of acoustics; the natural sound of the grand piano but also of strings (sublime theme of The Revenant). The simplicity of his themes, precisely, their childlike purity, often links him to the minimalists, but at the end of the day, when listening seriously to his music, one perceives harmonies and melodic impulses that have more to do with a Satie (or even a Fauré of the last period) and the repetition proper to a Glass or Reich is relatively absent.
He is also an undisputed master of ambient, this music propelled by Brian Eno but invented long before by Erik Satie with his Musique d'ameublement: a music that may not be listened to attentively, that accompanies our daily life without disturbing it but which, when we stretch our ears, conceals a thousand and one riches. In 2017 this piano lover coordinates a tribute to Glenn Gould in Tokyo by taking up his few beautiful themes and especially andata, one of his most beautiful pieces for piano which is not without reminding the stripping of Despair pleasant of Satie. 

12: The Will and the Synthesis
In 2014, doctors diagnosed him with throat cancer. He retires for a while and takes the time to heal and fight to come back in 2015 with the music of Iñárritu's The Revenant - quite a symbol. Life resumed its course, magnificent albums flourished(Async in 2017) but unfortunately in 2021, he announced that he was once again suffering from cancer and since June 2022, he knew he was doomed, irremediably.
His last album 12 released in digital version in January 2023 and in physical form on March 31, three days after his death, is a musical testament that brings together an aesthetic synthesis of what makes Sakamoto's "touch". These 12 pieces composed alone at the keyboard and computer between New York and Tokyo are a diary of his fight against cancer and certainly one of his most beautiful records. Soberly he comes back to his fundamentals: piano and electronics. But there is no procrastination here: "After returning "home" to my new temporary home after a major surgery, I found myself looking for my synthesizer. I had no intention of composing anything; I just wanted to be inundated with sounds. I will probably continue to keep this kind of "journal."

Each piece bears the name of the day it was created - between improvisation and composition. We find there his famous cottony sound layers that only he has the secret of, overhung by a few notes of acoustic piano that play an original and evocative melody. In ambient mode, we discover in the sixth piece (20220207) an explicit and insistent quotation of the Dies Irae, this apocalyptic medieval liturgical hymn so often used by composers to suggest death (Liszt, Mel Bonis, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Pierre Henry, Louis Andriessen, Wendy Carlos etc.). The Sarabande (20220302), in the eighth piece (the only one with a name) reminds us of Erik Satie and his Three Sarabands but also at several obvious moments the famous Handel Sarabande used in the deadly duel at the end of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon - echoing his own duel against cancer. Several pieces also evoke the Catalan composer Federico Mompou with his Paisajes (in 20211130) and his Música callada (in 20220123) where Mompou's theme is taken up and echoed throughout the piece.
How can we not see this as a terrible wink when we know that música callada literally means: music that is silent. This almost posthumous album is all along punctuated by Sakamoto's breathing, the noise of the hammers and the mechanics of the piano, punctuated and concluded by some small Tibetan bells and dorje - as if to complete a religious ceremony or to celebrate the beginning of a new life. 

François Mardirossian

Our Ryuichi Sakamoto playlist :

Photos © Zakkubalan
Photos © Jeannette Montgomery Barron
Photos © Wing Shya


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