Ryuichi Sakamato – The portable metropolis

This article, created by Bob Doerschuk, appeared in the July ’90 issue of Keyboards magazine (US). We have scanned and OCR’d the article for you and also included the original pages. Please note that all (c) are with Keyboard magazine and the author. Also note that we have added a couple of images that were not originally included in the article, for illustration purposes.

The Portable Metropolis – Sakamoto brings his European heritage from Japan to New york 

By Robert L. Doerschuk   

East is east and West is West and where the hell is Ryuichi Sakamoto? Musically he is neither here nor there, or perhaps he’s on both ends of the World music spectrum accessible to all comprehensible to few. Born 38 years ago in Nakano he hasn’t spent much time in Japan in recent years. For a while he lived in London, now he has resettled with his family in New York, a city whose turbulent cultural textures fascinated and frightened him for years from afar. Trained in western classical music a graduate of Tokyo university of art with an advanced degree in composition Sakamoto was a stranger to his homeland’s musical traditions until after he had already begun building a name for himself as a member of the pioneering techno rock unit, Yellow Magic Orchestra. His solo-albums including his latest, Beauty, tantalize Occidental ears with lilting Eastern overtones. yet his words – urgent bursts of minimalist English cushioned by silences as thick as cigarette smoke in a Tokyo coffee bar-dispute the media’s perception of him as a Japanese artist.

Our inclination to critique Sakamoto through our own preconceptions only restricts our appreciation for his work. Perhaps Sakamoto’s enigmatic manner encourages onlookers to see him as just another inscrutable Oriental. That this stereotype exists at all, though, gives us more insight into the “harmless” racism in our society than into this artist’s character. Do we strive with equal conviction to create pigeonholes for heroes bred closer to home? Informed listeners may know that Oscar Peterson hails from Canada, but few would exhaust themselves scouring his solos for reflections of the Great White North. If a performer looks like us, or like people whose ethnicity we at least feel that we can understand, we may be more reluctant to bind them in the straitjacket of our own prejudice and more likely to assess their work in purely artistic terms.

Such thoughts are unavoidable when confronted with Beauty, an album that fully lives up to its name. It’s a complex beauty, at times even unsettling. Is it possible to listen to Sakamoto sing “Rose” over his own delicate piano accompaniment without dredging up images of fragile origami sculptures? Even with a textbook techno rhythm track, as on “You Do Me,” do we hear his arrangement differently than we would if it had been laid down by an English sequencer whiz? Sure, Eastern touches abound throughout Beauty, but they’re only part of a vivid international landscape: Gorgeous string textures breathlessly hover over a sanshin ostinato on “Chinsagu No Hana”; the superimposition of cultural references creates a deep feeling of tranquil apprehension. And on “Calling From Tokyo,” Nigerian vocalist Youssou N’Dour harmonizes with Beach Boy Brian Wilson against the thump of Indian tablas, the slap of reggae drummer Sly Dunbar, and the chant of an Okinawan trio. Yet if this was an N’Dour single, we might not be so quick to hear the resu Its as confirmation of the artist’s lineage.

Of course, there’s no point to denying the influence of Japanese culture on Sakamoto’s work.  But even as far back as the mid-’70s, his intention was often to lampoon rather than celebrate this influence. “We [YMO] were making fun of the cliched image of oriental music that some people have gotten through movies and TV.” Sakamoto explained in the may ‘88 issue of Pulse, “We were innocence commenting on this misunderstanding.” 

Today, Sakamoto probably finds this misunderstanding more annoying than amusing.

His recent film work, including the Academy Award-winning soundtrack for The Last Emperor and the brooding score for the Handmaid’s tale, establish beyond doubt his command of the European orchestral tradition. No shakuhachis whine, no kotos plink, in The Handmaid’s Tale; instead, Sakamoto’s dark and disturbing music perfectly complements the film’s depiction of America’s latent fascism run wild. In these projects, the composer’s origins are not only irrelevant; they are a barrier whose presence dilutes the audience’s ability to appreciate the music on its own merits. Sakamoto’s story parallels that of countless Western performers. He began playing piano at age three. By the age of ten, when he began composing, he was already immersed in a whirlwind of musics, from John Coltrane to John Cage, Beethoven and Debussy to Antonio Carlos Jobim. During the early ’70s he expanded his range to include studies in electronic and ethnic music, acting stints with an experimental theatre company, pop session gigs in Tokyo, and involvement with Zen Ga Kren, the radical Japanese student movement known for its confrontational demonstrations and aggressive leftist ideology.

After earning his MFA from the University of Art in Tokyo, Sakamoto moved deeper into the pop world. In 1978, following completion of his first solo album, The Thousand knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto, he joined with keyboardist Yukhiro Takahashi to form Yellow Magic Orchestra. The remarkable career of this group, documented in Keyboards Aug. ’85 issue on music in Japan, spanned only five years. Yet its impact is still felt today. Before YMO, a handful of European groups, most notably Kraftwerk, chiselled the early outlines of technopop along rigid Teutonic lines. Sakamoto and his colleagues were among the first to demonstrate that no musical boundaries are insurmountable, a lesson that would lead eventually to the invigorating crossbreezes of world music.

Since then, Sakamoto has dedicated himself to breaking down more barriers. He has collaborated with Thomas Dolby, David Sylvian, and video avant-gardist Nam June Paik, acted in a number of films, composed music for dancer Malissa Fenley, and recruited such sidemen as jazz drummer Tony Williams, guitarist Adrian Belew, singer Iggy Pop, and P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins for his own albums. He even founded his own publishing company, whose products include a series of dialogs with pianist Yuji Takahashi, computer music composer lannis Xenakis, philosopher Shozo Ohmori, and other notables.

Somehow, in the midst of all this activity, made even more complicated by his move from London to New York, Sakamoto found time to put together a band for a short tour to promote Beauty earlier this year. We caught him at the Palace Theatre in L.A. one Monday night. Pale-faced blackclad fans jammed the floor, raising humidity readings and expectations until the curtain finally parted, 45 minutes behind schedule, to reveal a sleek and stylish Sakamoto planted behind a grand piano. Behind him, on risers, stood a gaggle of Occidental musicians; to one side, an arresting trio of Okinawan backup songstressesb eamed synchronized smiles. When the music began, it proved-no surprise here-confusing to much of the audience. Rather than the sort of kick-in-the-face rock to which most of the clientele seemed accustomed, it was a more cerebral mixture of styles, held together by Sakamoto’s polished piano style and old-world conducting cues. For all the mystique that surrounds him and draws curious listeners to hear him perform, Sakamoto seems more at home in the studio, or bent over a sheaf of score paper, than onstage. It takes a bit of work to appreciate what he does onstage, particularly if you’ve been trained to respond more to showbiz flash to musical subtlety.

So, we wondered the following afternoon while planted in an L.A. Hotel lobby, where the hell is Ryuichi Sakamoto? Turns out he was shopping-a favorite activity during stints in the more stylish cities. After arriving maybe half an hour past the hour of our appointment, he summoned us to his suite, apologized for his tardiness, asked our permission to smoke, then hunched forward to ponder our questions. It was only after leaving an hour later that we realized how much of what Sakamoto communicates falls between the words-in glances both furtive and direct, in the coiling and flexing of his body language, in knowing intimate laughter that says it all in person but doesn’t quite translate on paper. Where is Sakamoto? Partly in the following words, assembled in the hesitant yet expressive structures of second-hand English. Certainly not in our preconceptions, for as soon as we think we know who he is, his music takes us elsewhere.

You once said that your previous solo-album, Neo Geo, represented a move away from pure electronics toward a greater use of more organic instruments. Beauty seems to be a part of this same process.

Yes. I hope that this album, Beauty, can be seen as a sort of progress for Neo Geo. At the time of Neo Geo, I was interested in a kind of Asian world-Indonesia, Okinawa. But now my interests have expanded to Africa, to Spain, to higher levels.

So this must have been a more difficult album, because you had so many more pieces to put together in the musical puzzle.

More difficult, yes. More difficult and more fun. When did you start getting interested in Spanish and African music? Generally, I’ve been listening to all kinds of ethnic music all my life, including Spanish. But I wanted to go step by step from Okiruns on Atari ST computers.

Now I’ve gotten into African music, and Africa is really close to Spain.

Is pop music, as opposed to classical music, the best forum in which to combine diverse ethnic musical styles?

Hmm. Yes and no, because ordinary pop music is not interesting to me. That’s why many people are beginning to listen to socalled world music. And me too. But still, I am using the form of pop music. So, yes and no.

In your orchestral and film music, you seem to stick closely to the European traditions.

Because it’s easy to write in one single form, like the European orchestral style. It’s not easy to combine many different things Weare into a classical style.

Because of instrumentation? Because hard to integrate, say, a sitar into a Europear orchestration?

That’s one thing, yes. I think you’re right. because the style of pop music is more open. If it’s a classical style, you can’t bring in African elements. You can bring in Japanese or Chinese elements, which I did in The Last Emperor, with its Chinese influence and European orchestral style. But you cannot bring African influence into classical style. Well, actually, you could. I know one example, Steve Reich, who uses European instruments with non-European music systems.

So why is the European classical style more closed to outside influences?

Well, pop music has always been open to the Third World, the ethnic world. Pop music itself was originally African influence combined with American music. Sometimes pop music wasn’t using an American influence. Disco music, for instance, had many European influences: Euro-disco, same as Japanese [laughs]. Also, African elements are much more percussive. European instruments and their harmonic systems are difficult to play with that percussive sound.

Are you satisfied with your attempts to bring Western and Oriental ideas together?

No, because I think I use too many chord changes. The structure of my music is too Western to use for Asian influences, because it’s based on beats, chord changes, and harmonic structures. So that may be a problem. You could say that Brian Eno’s music is much more Asian than mine, because there are no strict beats, there’s much space, and he can bring in anything. European music is where my roots are. I must still learn about Asian music.

Are you interested in moving toward Eno’s direction?

The problem is that I love black music. I love beats. I would love to combine Asian music with beats. So it must be different from Eno’s music.

Your latest album seems to prove that you can accomplish this marriage of rhythm with cross-cultural references. On “Calling From Tokyo,” for example, you have an amazing combination of musicians-Brian Wilson, Sly Dunbar, Youssou N’Dour, Pandit Dimesh. Did you recruit these people because the song demanded that kind of cross-cultural blend? Or did you write the song because these artists were available to perform together?

It was not my purpose to bring different cultures together. But my picture of the song was the Amazon River, the jungle, and maybe a 14-year-old brown-skinned Brazilian girl. This was the picture [laughs].

Did you explain this picture to the musicians, to put them in the right mood?

No, I don’t give my directions to the musicians, because they have to have freedom to bring in their own skills and ideas and traditions. On this song, I laid down sequencers and drums first myself. Then I put Okinawan singers in. Finally, I put in the main vocals, sung by Brian.

“A Pile of Time” also mixes diverse musical traditions.

I wrote this music for a new computer game system; I can’t remember the name, but it’s something like P.C. Engine. It has CD ROM, so you can hear this exact same music in the game. 

How does the computer game idiom affect your compositional process?  

Well, I wrote this music as the theme, the interlude, and the end theme. It’s very close to making film music. Computer game music is usually related to what happens in the game. So it is very much like film music.

Ethnic influences and high technology also blend closely on “A Pile of Time.” Is there anything contradictory in putting these two elements together?

I’m not sure whether this is a good answer, but when I was using the [Sequential] Prophet-5, I invented a sound like the shakuhachi. I wanted to play the shakuhachi, but it’s really difficult. It takes three or four years to really learn it. So I gave up That’s why I was looking for a shakuhachi sound with the Prophet-and I got it. So I thought that the new technology is easier and more useful for me to express my feelings, instead of taking three or four years to learn an old instrument.

Are there no essential differences between old folk instrument and modern synths?

To me, no, because I never use a real instrument or a synthesizer or a computer. It’s all orchestration to me; I’m always orchestrating. Whether using a real orchestra, or a computer, or real instruments, it’s the same to me.

Let’s say you’re creating an electronic piece. Would you design different kinds of sounds than you would use if you were blending electronics with traditional acoustic instruments?

The difference is not between real instruments and computers. The difference is sounds. When I listen to a certain sound-let’s say a pizzicato sound on my koto-my brain immediately works to think of certain music for this sound. I’ve listened to certain pizzicato music before, so I have memories about the sound and, say, the fugue. Another example is like when I’m playing a sax sound with something-let’s say an [E-mu] Emulator. Automatically, I feel that I am a sax player, and, phrases from my hands are like phrases played on a real sax.

Even though you use the same technique when playing sax or pizzicato lines on a keyboard, it’s a different kind of mental process.

Yeah. In my mind, when I play sax sounds, I’m a sax player. When I play pizzicato sounds, I’m a violinist.

At the end of A Pile of Time’ was the cello sound played on a keyboard?

[Disappointed:] Ah, yes.

The last song on Beauty, Chinsa Guno Hana’ has some very beautiful string textures. Those must have been real strings. 

[Beaming:] No. I won [laughs]. The string sound was played by me on Kurzweil and Prophet.

The articulation, though, was very orchestral. So this is an example of your thinking as a string player would think.

Yes. Obviously, when I play string sounds, I’m like a conductor, because I can’t play solo violin. That’s a very complex sound.

Has sampling increased your interest in using orchestral textures within pop frameworks?

Yes. I couldn’t use my classical training, which I had when I was a kid, in making ordinary pop or tech no-pop. But I feel much freer about that now than before.

Are there any real strings on Beauty?

I used real strings on “Romance” and “Asadoya Yunta” for reasons of articulation, dynamics, and richness of sound.

And for timbral contrast with the electronic parts of the arrangement?


Have your attempts to emulate the characteristics of other instruments while playing samples made it more difficult to revert to pure classical technique when playing piano?

To have many different experiences, to play different instruments, makes it easier to play the piano. You have much wider imagination.

So when you go through the discipline of learning to phrase like a saxophonist this places a new kind of articulation at your disposal?

It makes me even more sensitive for playing the piano.

Do you still play classical piano pieces at all?

Sometimes [embarrassed laughter].

How is going back to repertoire you played as a child different, now that you’ve been through so many other musical projects?

Well, I can enjoy much more now than I did then. Before, when I was a kid, it was training. Now, it’s music. I feel that I’m playing music. Much different [laughs].

Going back to Beauty, “Romance” is written around the theme from Stephen Foster’s “I Dream of Jeannie. 11 Was this sort of a joke?

When I did “Romance,” I didn’t know that almost all American people know that song. So it’s not a joke, but psychic [laughs]. My picture for this song was the Vietnam war and LSD.

Another cut, “Amore,” is especially interesting because the music and lyrics are so simple, yet there’s a very serious undercurrent to the questions asked: “Good morning, good evening, where are you? Good morning, good morning, who are you?”

I meant that “you” is love, because  amore” means love. It means, ‘Where is true love?” He is looking for true love, calling and calling. You’re right; the meaning of the song is quite deep. But on the surface, the sound is very cheerful. I like [it] that way.

The piano was very prominent, yet its sound is considerably softened, on “Rose Music.”

For “Rose,” the piano sound is kind of muffled, depressed. I put the piano on after I finished the whole track. The piano and my vocal were the last things. While I played the piano, I was thinking about Antonio Carlos Jobim, because his style is really private, and his vocal and piano styles fit together so well.

What other instruments were on that cut?

I don’t remember all the instruments, but we had Roland S-550, Korg Ml, a Prophet.

You once said that you had stopped using the Prophet-5 for music, relying on it only to lay down a click track.

Yeah, but I don’t use click anymore, because I’m using Performer with Macintosh, and it has click. So I have to use Prophet for music again [laughs]. My favorite Prophet sound is kind of like voice, a little bit noisy [makes buzzing sound].

You’re frequently associated with the world music movement. Exciting as the crosscultural experiments attempted in this style may be, do you feel that there may be a downside to world music, in that it may knock down so many barriers that, in the end, pure ethnic traditions eventually disappear?

To me, pt,Jrec ultures are already being lost. That’s why world music happened. The meaning of world music is that we are losing pure cultures.

So your music may help rescue these cultures?

I hope so. I have a picture, which is that we will have to move to a big space station in the next hundred years. We will have to bring Earth culture with us-not space station culture, but culture of this world. We will have to choose which ones we will bring. So yes, it’s a rescue.

Are you speaking literally or metaphorically?


Wouldn’t there be a problem in that the decisions about which cultures to save may be based, as so many cultural decisions are today, on commercialism?

The problem is, who will choose? We–people–have to choose, not media or govenments.

This means saying goodbye to some traditions.


Maybe European classical music would be the first to go?

Maybe Japanese people will keep European tradition alive [laughs]. It’s a joke, but  I think it’s true.

The classical side to your work is clearest on your film scores. Strangely. most of the films you have scored for Western distribution, including Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and The Handmaid’s Tale, reflect certain common plot elements: very serious, almost nightmarish themes, and a perspective based on a sense of history.

I’m always interested in time. Even very short time means history. I’m doing music, so I must be interested in time. My ideas and imagination and pictures are always based on some type of time. Sometimes it’s history, sometimes it’s a system of time. But always, I’m asking: What is time?

You always make powerful use of silence in your soundtracks. In The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, when Robert Duval first has sex with the handmaiden, there’s absolutely no music. The music starts only after he has finished raping her.

Of course, sometimes silence is much stronger than music. It depends on the balance. When you’re watching TV, you hear music all the time. So my idea is that some commercial music could be silence, like with 4’33” Uohn Cage’s piece for unplayed piano]. Just silence.

In America, many people still approach your music with a preconception of you as a Japanese artist-an interesting distinction, since relatively few listeners still think of Vangelis primarily as a “Greek synthesist,” for example. Does this create a problem for you in getting your work across to Western audiences?

This is a problem. Most or al I of the people I meet say to me, “You’re doing Japanese music.” But I’ve never thought that, because my background is very Western. I learned about Asian music the same way Steve Reich learned. It still seems quite difficult to think that way. I hope this will change. I hope that someday I will just be called a composer, because I’m not interested in Japan. I’m just interested in my work, so I don’t take responsibility for the country I come from. I’m not a businessman-I’m an artist.


Ryuichi Sakamoto was previously featured in our Aug. ’85 special issue on keyboard music in Japan. Many of the other artists mentioned in this month’s interview with Sakamoto have been covered in Keyboard as well: John Cage, Sept. ’82, Jan. ’87; Thomas Dolby, Aug. ’83, Aug. ’86, May ’88; Brian Eno, July ’81, Jan. ’87, Apr. ’88, June ’89; Kraftwerk, May ’82; Brian Wilson, July ’77. 


Solo Albums: 8-2 Unit, Island (out of print}. Beauty, Virgin. Left-Handed Dream, Epic (out of print}. Neo Geo, Epic. With Yellow Magic Orchestra: BGM, A&M (out of print}. Solid State Survivor, Alfa (U.K.-out of print). XOO Multiples, A&M (out of print}. Yellow Magic Orchestra, Horizon (out of print). Soundtracks: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, MCA. The Last Emperor, Virgin. With Other Artists: Album (w. Public Image Ltd.}, Elektra. Brilliant Trees (w. David Sylvian}, Virgin (out of print). Gentlemen Take Polaroids (w. Japan}, Virgin (out of print}. Hope in a Darkened Heart (w. Virginia Astley}, Geffen. Secrets of the Beehive (w. David Sylvian}, Virgin.