Ryuichi Sakamoto Survived Cancer and an Earthquake to Make the Most Personal Album of His Career
An exclusive interview with the veteran Japanese composer about his latest album 'async.'
Nestled in his basement studio in New York City's West Village, Ryuichi Sakamoto is surrounded by synthesizers of all shapes and sizes. The Japanese composer and pianist's collection of vintage keyboards exudes a lifelong affinity for electronics—one that has remained a constant among the veteran's ever-evolving sonic personalities.
Despite his restlessness, life moves a little slower for the soft-spoken former Yellow Magic Orchestra member these days. Since discovering a cancerous lump in his neck in 2014, Sakamoto has adopted a reverence for the vulnerability of life. While that oropharyngeal cancer is now in full remission, over Skype he speaks every word with thoughtful purpose—all the more aware today that "civilization is fragile."
As the musician allows for these introspective pauses, his speech bears a resemblance to the compositional style of his latest album, async—his first solo full-length since 2009's Playing the Piano. The 14 emotive and experimental tracks were equally inspired by Claude Debussy's crystalline minimalism and John Coltrane's late-period free jazz, but it's the album's spoken word passages that turn these influences into a more personal narrative that documents Sakamoto's lived experiences. async also incorporates foley and samples of eclectic instruments, including a piano that was "detuned by nature" after being submerged by a tsunami in Japan back in 2011.
After speaking with the composer, the inherent wisdom of Sakamoto's words makes it clear all the ways that he has thought deeply about his commitment to music. Read on for a discussion of how the tenuousness of existence informed the new album, and how his solo practice fits in with his long history of film composition.
THUMP: There was a big hiatus between async and the last album—can you tell me what happened in those eight years?
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Of course, I wasn't just lazy. I like to be lazy, but I wasn't. There were two big events that happened. One was the big earthquake and tsunami six years ago. Many accidents happened in Japan. I started some charity projects and those are still ongoing. That made me very busy, but I feel very good. The other thing is my disease. I had cancer three years ago.
Did either of those things influence the way that this album sounds?
The tsunami and earthquake and disease, they made me think about life and death. The huge tsunami destroyed part of our civilization, so we were warned about how our civilization is fragile and how the force of nature is great. Also, the much more intimate thing about the cancer... It made me think very deeply about life and death—naturally. Our body is part of nature. Our creations, they're not natural. We build things that aren't natural, but our bodies, they're part of that system.
Is there a track on async that's particularly personal for you?
They're all personal, but my big attachment is "fullmoon," which starts with the voice of Paul Bowles. Did you recognize his voice?
I didn't recognize it. Why does that one stand out to you?
He already passed away, but he was one of the greatest 20th century American novelists. [Bernardo] Bertolucci made a film based on the novel, The Sheltering Sky. The author himself was in the film at the beginning and the end. He himself narrated an excerpt of the novel at the very end. That's the voice I used for "fullmoon." The first time I heard that voice and watched the final scene, it struck me very much. I didn't know that I could make music for it. This time for this album I thought, why don't I ask Bertolucci if I can use that recording?
So I asked him and he said yes. So I got the recording, looped it many times, listened to it, and gradually I added different languages. The result is that we had the original English and ten different languages, all talking the same profession, same meaning, but ten different sounds. It's gorgeous, so beautiful to me.
What sort of music do you listen to on your own time?
First of all, I'm not following the trends, but my interests and curiosity vary daily. Today, it happens to be that I'm listening to William Basinski, but maybe not tomorrow. In general, I mostly listen to Bach.
How do you tackle scoring a film versus producing your own project? Your personal projects sound very different from the work you've done for the screen.
The process of making the music is almost the same, but the purposes are very different. The film music is for satisfying the producer, the director, maybe the audience, too. For making music for myself, I just need to be happy. I'm the producer, the director, and the listener. That's the big difference.
Where do you feel more comfortable?
That's difficult. It's a hard question, because technically and physically, film music is very hard. Stressful. There are many changes, many requests. Sometimes many irrational requests. Those are coming from the director, but still I have to satisfy him or her. In that sense, doing my own music, I can decide my schedule myself. Maybe not today, maybe tomorrow… Doing the multiple roles of director, producer, the audience, it's not an easy task.
What do you mean?
Each role has a very big responsibility. The producer has to grab the budget. The director decides casting, landscape—everything. The player must be very good. Each role is very different, but doing three roles at the same time is even harder.
Where did your love for music start?
When I was very small, I was three or four years old. Kids in kindergarten, we were not meant to play, but to touch the piano. That's how it started. I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it too much. After kindergarten, ten of my friends decided to go to a private piano teacher, so I was the last one of them. I just followed them. I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it. Then I encountered the synthesizer when I was 18 and entered university. That's how I got to know electronic music.
Did you study music in university?
Was that what moved you into composing for the screen?
Yes and no. When I started writing film music is much later than that, but maybe related. Without the knowledge of music, it would be very hard to write film music. There are so many films, and each one has a different historical background and everything. It could be about 19th century China, or another film about 17th century Italy, or another film about 15th century Scotland. The film composers are supposed to have the knowledge about those eras and their music. They're supposed to have techniques to write music like that.
In your mind, are there specific instruments that belong in specific eras?
It depends on the director. With The Revenant, it's set in the first half of 19th century in the West. The first thing that would come to mind generally is the guitar for a Western, but the director [Alejandro] Inarritu, we discussed the music. We totally agreed—no guitar. This is not a standard Western movie, so I shouldn't use guitar, nor the piano. 95% of the film is exterior scenes in the vast landscape. Piano symbolizes interiority. That clashes the situation with the symbolism of the piano. So we decided to use neither the piano or the guitar.
As a closing note, what's next for you?
Well, maybe I shouldn't wait another eight years. Eight years is meaningful—that's great—but I'll try to minimize that. I have some ideas much closer. Maybe an opera… Maybe. We started thinking, some of my friends and I. Some film music this year and maybe next year as well.
Corinne Przybyslawski is on Twitter.