Saturday, October 23, 2010
Ryuichi Sakamoto + YMO
Twenty-seven years ago Ryuichi Sakamoto made his not-quite-so-thrilling acting debut in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, opposite David Bowie, Tom Conti and Jack Thompson. He also composed the soundtrack.
We’re not here now to talk dramatics, since Sakamoto let his acting career slide. It’s the man’s music, including many more film scores, that has continued to flourish.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was actually the first movie for which I created music,” Sakamoto is quick to point out. “I’ve liked movies since I was a kid, but I never imagined I’d compose music for them.”
Well before techno and house music, there was Yellow Magic Orchestra - a Japanese trio subsequently cited in the same sentence as ‘70s peers Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire, Can, Throbbing Gristle and Tangerine Dream.
More recently they've been appearing on Japanese tellies to promote chocky treats Pocky, from local brand Ezaki Glico - first sold in 1966, the treat is a thin sliver of biscuit stick coated with chocolate, and you can check out the commercial here:
While these days YMO may be hawking popular snacks, three decades ago these above-mentioned bands improvised experiments with new-fangled synthesizers and analogue electronic gadgetry that eventually inspired a deluge of DJs, producers and bands across the globe to lay down the club sounds we now take for granted.
Sakamoto was a principle member of YMO, but it’s obvious he’s laid that legacy to rest rather than continue banking on yesterday’s glories.
“That’s in the past,” he confirms with a laugh.
“What can I say? There isn’t anything enlightening to add, except that my relationship’s still good with the other two members of YMO.”
After the wide-girth, experiential YMO years, conforming to a structured musical palette would be a difficult detour to take - something Sakamoto confirms.
“At the time I had no idea what I could refer to so I asked Jeremy Thomas, a British producer, and he recommended Citizen Kane. When I now contemplate Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, I’m not sure if the soundtrack succeeds as film music - but the director, Nagisa Oshima, encouraged me to produce it my own way without any inhibitions so it ended up rather like my solo music.”
Sakamoto subsequently scored three movies for Bernardo Bertolucci, starting in 1987 with The Last Emperor - for which he shared the Oscar with David Byrne and Cong Su - and winding up with Little Buddha (1993).
“When you create a soundtrack of course you care about emotion,” Sakamoto says, “but I’m equally intrigued with the actors and other elements within the movie - like the actor’s eyes, a slight movement of someone’s moustache; those things are vital to me. I want to paint the structure of the story through music even though this isn’t always required by a director.”
More recently Sakamoto composed the sound track for Women Without Men.
"It was awarded the Silver Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival," Sakamoto enthuses, quite obviously excited by the filmmakers.
“Shirin Neshat is an Iranian artist, originally involved in the visual arts, and this is the first fiction film she’s made - for which I did the music.”
Given Ryuichi Sakamoto’s long-term experience, it would be educational to understand how one annotates a line between the creation of a soundtrack and producing one’s own music for an audio release. The man’s response reveals that this lineation itself is blurred; it’s the people involved who make a difference.
“Both are my music, so there’s not so much dissimilarity,” Sakamoto muses.
“However, when it comes to doing a soundtrack there are clients, such as directors, and what they require is of principle concern. In that case it doesn’t matter how much I love the work I develop - if they don’t like it, that score goes straight into the trash. This is the major difference. Then we also have different taste and preferences and things may not always gel, so there is quite the added tension. By contrast, if it’s my own music I make the decisions and never have to deal with this kind of stress.”
The collaborative fusion of the two is key, however.
“Bringing them together is enriching because the odd demands of a film score force you to think outside your usual comfort zone, in order to meet the challenge; this is an essential experience for me as a musician.”
On the new release Playing the Piano Sakamoto combines twelve of his best known pieces, much of the content film music from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, The Sheltering Sky and The Last Emperor. It’s been rendered far simpler as the album title suggests - recorded from live performances in Japan by the man behind the music, utilizing just a piano.
The album even comes with a bonus disc, Out of Noise, which is Sakamoto’s first solo studio opus in five years. Comparing this with Playing the Piano is like comparing milk-based food products and soft, white, porous sedimentary rock; they’re that diverse.
Out of Noise is a complicated journey that’s at times sublime, ethereal and prescient; at others the mood is challenging and focused, like an icy exercise in yoga meditation.
While the ageing process causes other avant-garde musicians to lose touch - or to shift into safer parts of the mainstream - Sakamoto continues to bracket himself with current musical concepts, technology and ideology, and he’s embraced the digital age as much as he did its analogue predecessor 30 years ago.
Yet you have to backtrack further still to uncover Sakamoto’s favourite movie soundtrack.
Without a moment’s hesitation he selects Nino Rota’s score for Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954).
“That movie is fantastic and the music is superb,” he appraises.
Big thanks to Yoko for doing most of the work here, and to Filmink for organizing.