Thursday, March 2, 2023

Ryuichi Sakamoto releases "12": Mar 31 | "Ryuichi Sakamoto on Life, Nature and Time" | The New York Times



Like many of the composers and electronic musicians of his generation Ryuichi Sakamoto began his creative journey studying composition and the works of his predecessors at university. As explored in the sublime assembly of Japanese interior music on, "Kankyo Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990", the accompanying essay by Spencer Doran sites that ambient and electronic music in Japan started, much as it did elsewhere, with Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Marcel Duchamp, Morton Feldman, John Cage and their 20th century contemporaries being taught in university courses attended by these then-young electronic pioneers. By bridging modernist and postmodern modes of composition with the then-concurrent forays into "musical furnishings" supplied by Brian Eno, their ideas about background, modes of attention, functionality, and the abstracting of authorship came to the fore. These were to then intersect with the timing of notable advances in technology. In the hands of this generation of electronic pioneers, hardware manufactured for the consumer market was to meet culture-specific notions of environment and sound. The arrival in the west of this assembly of "Lullabies for Air Conditioners: The Corporate Bliss of Japanese Ambient", as Simon Reynolds points out, couldn't be more perfectly timed. Just in recent years, labels like Palto Flats, WRWTFWW, and Doran's own Empire of Signs have unearthed rare and much sought-after gems, "Telling the Musical History of Japan's Electronic Ambient Era". Concurrent with this era, Ryuichi Sakamoto's own trajectory would see him begin with a burgeoning avant-garde body of work, as chronicled in the first of the Commmons label's anthology series, "Year Book 1971-1979". The following years would see an ascent into instant stardom as Sakamoto was joined by the immense talents of Yukihiro Takahashi and Haruomi Hosono, to form the influential futurist electro-pop outfit, Yellow Magic Orchestra. During this time his ceaseless creativity continued to be poured into numerous solo albums and a developing body of film soundtracks, as anthologized on, "Year Book 1980-1984".

It was during this time that Sakamoto's signature sound was first heard by international audiences accompanying films like Nagisa Ōshima's "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence", where the composer had his acting debut starring alongside David Bowie. As well as in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 period drama "The Last Emperor", and the groundbreaking independent anime, "The Wings of Honnêamise". It was also during this period in which the composer became a polymath of composition; writing pop tunes, hushed chamber music and jazz, electronic explorations, and his own instantly recognizable voice on the solo piano. By the end of the 1990s, Sakamoto's "Classical and Pop Fusion", came full circle with "1996" a set of chamber music renditions of selections from his discography, the symphonic "Discord" album and its minimalist reflection, "BTTB", an acronym that stood for Back to the Basics. Following these releases, Sakamoto's long-awaited multimedia opera, "LIFE" was performed in 1999, marking the end of the 20th century with one of the most complex and bold projects of his career. Its creation enlisted a cast of over 100 contributors and was the first of the fruitful collaborations with Shiro Takatani, the artistic director of Kyoto's avant-garde theatre troupe, Dumb Type. It would be this sensibility that the composer would mark a trajectory into the 21st century, and along the way, align with some of the most innovative electronic music of the new era. This set of compatriots, collaborators, and sonic adventurers were releasing albums through underground channels like the UK's long-running Touch imprint, Germany's Mego, and the print, video and multimedia house, Raster-Noton. The most fruitful of these meetings would be the albums realized with electronic and experimental guitarist, Christian Fennesz, and a series of sublime piano and electronics albums with digital ultra-minimalist composer, Carsten Nicolai.



The ensuing years have been both prolific, and profoundly trying. In 2014, at age 62, Sakamoto announced that he was diagnosed with pharyngeal cancer, and would be cancelling all future engagements and focusing on recovery and treatment for the foreseeable future. After a protracted time of reduced activity and treatment, "With Cancer in the Past, Ryuichi Sakamoto Returns to His Calling". At the time also offering a series of very personal interviews on life, art and the creative will to engage with nature and existence itself, such as "Ryuichi Sakamoto on Life, Nature and ‘Time’", for The New York Times. Returning to his art, the composer produced one of the more significant collaborative works of his career for the Alejandro G. Iñárritu film, "The Revenant" alongside regular collaborator Carsten Nicolai and Bryce Dessner. Its development mapped by Create Digital Music in their "Sakamoto and Alva Noto again Create Electronics, Scoring Masterpiece", and interviews offered by the two artists. Numerous soundtracks to prestige streaming television and film followed, amassing a quantity which have exceeded his recent album input. The significance and volume of the composer's work for cinema can't be overstated, with recent entries like, “Mubi Notebook Soundtrack Mix: Universal Meditations - The Film Music of Ryuichi Sakamoto”, and interview with The Criterion Collection, "Sonic Memories: A Conversation with Ryuichi Sakamoto", to coincide with the Criterion Channel's "Scores by Sakamoto" showcase. It was around this time that director Stephen Nomura Schible assembled a documentary about the life and work of Sakamoto, entitled "Coda". The documentary followed the composer as he recovers from cancer, resumes creating music and the assembly of his newest album since the diagnosis, "async", all the while re-engaging with political activism through protests around nuclear power, following the Fukushima Daiichi Disaster.

A series of active years followed, as the composer engaged with life, produced new work, even offered the venerable New York restaurant Kajitsu, a soundtrack to accompany the experience, "Annoyed by Restaurant Playlists, a Master Musician Made His Own". In interviews like those offered at the time, "Themes and Variations: An Interview with Ryuichi Sakamoto" for GQ, and "Electronic Pioneer Ryuichi Sakamoto: 'My Great Regret is Not Reconnecting with David Bowie'", for The Guardian, Ryuichi Sakamoto had by all appearances, fully returned from the very edge of life to its social and cultural epicenter. But then in 2021, came the tragic news of a rectal cancer diagnosis. In response, Sakamoto issued another statement making it clear that he intended to continue to make art throughout treatment, "Still, I will continue to work as much as I can during treatment … From now on, I will be living alongside cancer. But, I am hoping to make music for a little while longer”. Currently in stage IV treatment, his outlook has become more pragmatic, in December 2022, "Ryuichi Sakamoto Kept the Music Going with a 'Profound' Concert", yet this latest event came tinged with the acknowledgement that it may be his last public performance. Throughout this time, Sakamoto chronicled his experiences of living with cancer in a monthly column for the literary journal Shincho, titled “How Many More Times Will I See the Full Moon?”, in reference to Paul Bowles’ novel, “The Sheltering Sky”. Over the course of which, he not only produced another collaborative piece as an audiovisual installation by Dumb Type, for the Japanese pavilion at last year's Venice Biennale, but completed his newest studio album "12", for his Commmons label and Milan Records domestically. Released almost concurrently, Milan published their "Tribute to Ryuichi Sakamoto: To the Moon and Back", coinciding with a series of reflections and acknowledgements from a global body of artists hosted by NPR, “As Ryuichi Sakamoto Returns with '12,' Fellow Artists Recall His Impact”. Defying his diagnosis, Ryuichi Sakamoto continues to grace us with his existence and music, “Since I have made it this far in life, I hope to be able to make music until my last moment, like Bach and Debussy, whom I adore,” he wrote in June, when his Shincho column debuted.