Ryuichi Sakamoto interview

Piano man

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Ryuichi Sakamoto interview

His collaboration with David Byrne on the score to The Last Emperor scored them an Oscar, but as Neil Cooper discovers, the pianist and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto is happiest keeping things minimal, but always experimental

It may be a quarter of a century since Ryuichi Sakamoto scored the soundtrack to Nagisa Oshima’s Japanese prisoner of war flick, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, but it remains the Tokyo-born electronic music pioneer’s best known work. This is partly, one suspects, to do with the film’s pop cultural iconography. David Bowie, about to embark on his commercial Let’s Dance phase, starred, while Sakamoto’s title theme was released in a vocal version with Japan’s David Sylvian.

By that time Sakamoto had already produced six solo albums in tandem with his tenure in Yellow Magic Orchestra, the synth-pop trio whose oriental-influenced state-of-art production values went pan-global. A multitude of soundtracks followed, including an Oscar winning collaboration with Talking Head David Byrne on Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, while Sakamoto’s stand-alone work spans almost forty albums.

All this is a far cry from the 57 year-old composer’s solo date at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall to coincide with the release of two very different collections. As the title suggests, Playing The Piano is an acoustic work, paring some of Sakamoto’s back catalogue (including ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’) down to Satie-esque sketches. The equally evocatively named Out Of Noise may open in similarly impressionistic fashion, but broadens its palette with string-led chamber pieces and austere electronica akin to laptop-based artists such as Fennesz and Alva Noto’s Carsten Nicolai. Despite his initial resistance to this new wave of composers, both have been recent Sakamoto collaborators.

‘To me it’s a new dawn of music,’ says a softly-spoken, unerringly polite Sakamoto about the pair. ‘They were from a major trend of the 90s, which was boring to me. I didn’t like it. We’d already done 80s techno with YMO, but our traditions were different, and we were much more analogue. Then I discovered these talented musicians from a younger generation who could use technology much easier than we did. So I’ve been catching up, but they use it better.’

Technology is a prime concern to Sakamoto, who has proved a quietly vocal supporter of internet file sharing.

‘Music,’ he says, ‘has become something different from the past, when it was one hundred per cent live. Throughout the twentieth century it was recorded, and the medium adjusted. Having the internet has made music more live again. It’s like in the nineteenth century, when a village had many songs, everyone knew who wrote them and nobody wanted copyright. Somehow the internet has made music more tribal. People don’t buy CDs so much anymore because it’s easy to download everything. So, while the record industry is declining, the music is heard a lot more than before.’

Live, Sakamoto will utilise two pianos to play what he calls ‘virtual duets’ of works from both albums.

‘I wanted to make something very experimental,’ he says of the Morton Feldman inspired Out of Noise. ‘Something quiet. Something more like black and white music. There is colour there, but it’s maybe more minimalistic. Not just in musical style, but in its sense of expression. In other words, less is more. Not many notes, but lots of space.’

Revisiting works such as ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ in such a fashion keeps Sakamoto’s canon fresh.

‘It doesn’t feel like going back,’ he says, ‘because I constantly play these pieces. They’re part of my life.’

Ryuichi Sakamoto – Playing The Piano, Queens Hall, Edinburgh, Wed 2 Dec, 7pm. Playing The Piano and Out of Noise are both available on Decca Records.

Ryuichi Sakamoto

Oscar and Grammy award-winning producer, composer and pianist perhaps best known for his soundtracks to 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence' and 'The Last Emperor'.

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