To mark the release of Sakamoto’s 15th solo studio album 12—an intimate sound diary that invites us into his past two years battling cancer—we are republishing our interview with the prolific composer and artist from our Lindsay Issue No. 2 (2018) cover story. His reflections back then still resonate today, in a world that can sometimes feels simulatenously haunting and ethereal, full of light and dark—much like his new body of work.
Ryuichi Sakamoto is a musician whose influence is so broad-reaching there is a good chance you’ve encountered his work, even if you don’t realise it. Perhaps you’ve heard his sound echo through someone he’s influenced; perhaps he was the man behind the score of a film you’ve watched—a composition that’s stayed with you.
Born and educated in Japan and long based in New York, Ryuichi has spent the past forty-five years pushing musical boundaries; his musical catalogue is a amalgamation of his classical training, contemporary outlook and influences from across the world. Both his large-scale film scores (The Last Emperor, The Revenant) and more intimate solo projects (his most recent album was 2017’s Async) swirl with humanity and possibility, perhaps revealing something about the gentle, inquisitive man behind them.
Ryuichi first gained prominence as a member of pioneering Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) in the late 1970s, who became known for their optimistic and very danceable brand of electronic music. He branched into film composition in the 80s with his breakthrough score for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence , in which he also appeared as an actor alongside David Bowie. The theme (written with another iconic David—Sylvian this time) is an immediately recognisable cocktail of contemplative and dreamy elements that seems to lift you to another plane of existence.
When I recently met Ryuichi on one of his semi-regular trips to London, he didn’t have the alien aura you might expect of such an influential figure. From the moment he entered our interview room—a snug ‘vault’ at the upmarket hotel The Ned—the space felt calmer and warmer. We went on to converse casually over tea and coffee, like two regular people. He spoke thoughtfully of being open to new inspiration, and allowing ideas to bloom into compositions, and began to glow as he remincinced over the sleepless, hard-partying nights of 1980s New York.
Looking back through his résumé, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the volume and variety of creative projects—from YMO to working with Bernardo Bertolucci to his new musical collaborations—so I had intended to ask about his work ethic and professional focus. Instead, our conversation lingered on loftier concepts: how do you make something impactful out of thin air? How do you create a film score from a director’s single word?
It seems Ryuichi’s process is to simply let an idea or creative impulse wash over you, and not get tangled up overthinking your creative journey. After we parted ways, I had a moment of clarity as his pieces of poetic wisdom came together: be open to the unknown and art will follow.
“Around that time, in the mid-60s, the French Nouvelle Vague films came to Japan. I started watching the Godard films, Fellini, Pasolini.”
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that Western music like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were a big influence on you growing up, but your roots are also in classical music. Can you tell me about your journey from classical music to electronic music?
My background in music is so complicated. I started playing the piano at about three years old, and so I followed the usual path—I started taking piano lessons when I was six with other friends. Then I was taken to a competition when I was eleven. Around the same time I was listening to The Beatles and Rolling Stones. I was constantly listening to mainly classical classical music like Mozart, and rock. Then jazz entered in high school. My interest in other art forms got broader, [including] film. Around that time, in the mid-60s, the French Nouvelle Vague films came to Japan. I started watching the Godard films, Fellini, Pasolini.
It was a melting pot of different influences.
There was a very interesting underground movement in Japan—very edgy, nonconventional. Different genres and art forms accumulated in my interests. Then I entered a very academic music school in Tokyo—classical but also contemporary music with pop and rock. I studied ethnomusicology at university, so it was my big interest listening to all kinds of music from around the world—African, Asian, South American, European.
And so that informed your practice?
Some elements of each genre went into YMO. Early YMO was influenced by classical, obviously techno, but also R&B/soul.
It’s like a journey through world music…
“So I read a lot of contemporary art magazines and picked up Andy Warhol and Nam June Paik. They were active in the 60s, based in New York; New York was the city, the symbol of arts.”
It really interests me that you’ve been active in a range of artistic disciplines all at once. I’m wondering how you’ve focused creative energy into multiple areas.
Besides music I became interested in contemporary art when I was in high school. So I read a lot of contemporary art magazines and picked up Andy Warhol and Nam June Paik. They were active in the 60s, based in New York; New York was the city, the symbol of arts.
Nam June Paik—he was a founder of video art—studied music; he came from music, though somehow he started video art. Though video art has sound, images and music, so it kind of makes sense.
And I guess it makes sense that you moved on to film scoring, because it incorporates the visual and the sonic.
So when I was a high school student, I always dreamt to meet this Asian, very avant-garde artist Nam June Paik. When I was thirty-two, thirty-three, I finally met him in Tokyo. He was from Korea but he studied in Tokyo. He spoke Korean, Japanese, English, German… A very contemporary guy. I wanted to become like him. He was the artist who crossed over between different art forms.
“It’s a long journey to me, like climbing a mountain for forty-five years. Writing music for The Last Emperor was a very hard part of a mountain. It seems that it is a process of climbing up.”
I was listening to your score for The Last Emperor on a flight recently, and your music in that film has a quality to it that seemed to fit with flying and travel. Do you think your music that you put out into the world is a document of you searching for something?
It’s a long journey to me, like climbing a mountain for forty-five years. Writing music for The Last Emperor was a very hard part of a mountain. It seems that it is a process of climbing up.
So every score or song or artwork is part of that mountain. It’s all accumulating to something bigger?
Or maybe it’s a journey to see inside myself.
In a recent Guardian article, you said that you wished that you’d worked more with David Bowie. Do you feel like he was also on that journey up the mountain? Do you feel like it was all leading up to his last two albums? Or do you think it was another stage?
It wasn’t the last step. It was just another step. Then suddenly, unfortunately, his time was out. Many people believe his last album was a will, that it was designed by himself. His vocal sound, it sounded full of energy and hope… Very positive. I’m sure he wanted to go from that point to another. It’s not, “Okay, I’ll design my final album” or “I will design my own life.”
What was your approach to creating something so elemental like The Revenant? How do you respond to something that sounds so wild, open and unknown from the confines of a studio?
It was a big challenge—creatively and physically. Physically, because it was six months after I had very severe treatment for cancer and I had not recovered yet at the time I started working. Creatively [it was] a big challenge because what the director Iñárritu wanted was to have many layers of sounds. Not simply music. Music can be complicated, but writing music on paper probably is easier.
It sounds like you were almost sound designing.
It’s not only sound design. It was using layers of sound emotionally. He wanted to portray the emotional flow of the film, without conventional music but with physical sounds—sounds of water, natural noise. What I was doing was manipulating those sounds as music.
So you almost saw rhythms in things, naturally occurring melodies within that landscape or that scene?
If I wrote the conventional film music, there would be the sounds of animals, raindrops, wind; sound effects and music, in contrast. But he wanted everything together. So my music sounded like sound effects—connected, integrated.
Like a stream that runs through the film.
It wasn’t [Iñárritu’s] direction, but I wanted to portray the great existence of nature in the film. That’s the major role in the film. Of course there’s a human drama, but nature is broad and the humans are tiny in the huge hand of nature. The director got me to write for the emotional drama, but at the same time, I wanted to portray nature with music.
“It’s not only sound design. It was using layers of sound emotionally. He wanted to portray the emotional flow of the film, without conventional music but with physical sounds—sounds of water, natural noise.”
It reminds me of David Lynch. His sonic landscape is always very integrated with music and sound. When collaborating with directors, is there a particular process you work through together? Do you go through the script or do you just get a sense of atmosphere when you first start writing the score?
Every film director is different. With [Bernardo Bertolucci], he always gave me the ultimate concept. For the third film I wrote for Bertolucci, Little Buddha – which is a biographical story of Buddha – the first thing he gave me was “Ryuichi, write me the theme of incarnation.”
That’s a huge topic. What do you do with that? Do you get a big piece of paper out and start brainstorming?
[Laughs and nods]
Although Japan is considered a Buddhist country, I was not so knowledgeable about Buddhism, so I said “Okay, I need to know what incarnation is”—in the real Buddhist sense. So I read some books. In my own way I had some sense of incarnation, so I started imagining some sounds.
So it was like a wellspring of inspiration just from understanding that term.
Yes. I started translating that knowledge into audio. The first thing that came to my mind was ‘river’; incarnation is a river of life. So what is river music? It’s flowing, it’s a stream, it’s repetitive. So that’s how I proceeded.
Jumping forward to your most recent album Async (2017), a contributing artist’s name popped out to me – Oneohtrix Point Never, who scored last year’s Good Time (2017). He is working in film and across other mediums. As art forms arguably intermingle more than ever before, do you think the way people interact with music is changing? Are people approaching music differently?
Well that’s what I’ve been doing! It seems natural to me to see artists like him, who have started writing their own film scores and music. There’s no border for me between films, installations, art… It’s the way I work.
I’m interested in where you’re going next, creatively, and what keeps you in New York?
You reminded me of the early days of New York, after I moved to New York in the early 90s. I was heavily influenced by the trends of New York at that time. Early 90s was house music. Some years later I was influenced by hip-hop. I got some hip-hop musician friends. But now, many years later, I’m not getting influenced by things going on in New York music. I am heavily influenced by the social situation in the U.S. With the president… you know.
A lot going on… Emotionally.
In terms of genres in music influencing you, not so much?
The city of New York has been changing drastically. New York in the 80s was called the ‘sleepless city’. Everybody took drugs and had no sleep, and danced until the morning. It’s not like that anymore.
What is it like now?
To me, New York has become a city of contemporary art and money business, married. Somehow, money people love modern art and don’t care about music. For many people, they like tangible things: uniqueness, oneness. It’s ironic to me because money is not tangible—it’s numbers. So they seek to obtain materials. New York is, in a funny way, the place I can get a quiet, private life, and I can focus on my work. And still, we can get good food.
“Time is very abstract. In a way it’s a physical contract, but we really don’t know what it is. We are in time, we live in time, but we don’t know what it is. Everything is set in time but we don’t know where time comes from and where it goes. And music always exists in time. It’s an art form in time. ”
What is your next project?
Apart from my own album and music, I’ve been working on several soundtracks. Right now I’m writing some things for Asian films. My next thing is to write a non-opera.
Can you tell me what a ‘non-opera’ would involve?
I made my first opera in 1999. Almost twenty years later I’m collaborating with the same visual artist, Shiro Takatani, who worked on my 1999 opera. We were talking about making a new one. Obviously this is not a conventional opera. The main theme is time. Time is very abstract. In a way it’s a physical contract, but we really don’t know what it is. We are in time, we live in time, but we don’t know what it is. Everything is set in time but we don’t know where time comes from and where it goes.
And music always exists in time. It’s an art form in time.
This interview was originally published in Lindsay Issue No. 2. If you’d like to own one of the few remaining copies, we’re offering free shipping worldwide.
This issue was released at the time of the documentary CODA, an intimate insight into the man’s life and personality, his musical evolution and anti-nuclear activism in Japan.
All photographs were taken prior to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s 2018 Async performance at The Barbican, London.
In Issue No. 1 we meet Australian fashion icon Jenny Kee, translator from Italian Ann Goldstein and French-Cuban music duo Ibeyi. We learn about Ramadan, the Aboriginal ball game Marngrook, the Kiribati dance, the art of pickling, and the importance of home. And we see what it’s like to dress up in Myanmar, live in Cuernavaca, make ceramics from different soil, and walk the streets of Florence.
In Issue No. 2 we meet New York-based Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson, and Croatian painter Stipe Nobilo. We discover how the French protect their language and the way women—all around the world—have used textiles as their political voice. We listen to lovers rock, prepare a boisterous Korean barbecue, venture to go to Feria de Jerez and eat our way around Hong Kong.
In Issue No. 4 we meet Nigerian-born artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, Indigenous Australian Elders Uncle Bob Smith and Aunty Caroline Bradshaw, and Palestinian-American chef and artist Amanny Ahmad. We peer inside the Parisian ateliers Lesage and Lemarié, muse over the iconic lines of European chair design and celebrate the colourful woodblock prints of Japanese artist Awazu Kiyoshi. And we venture along Morocco’s Honey Highway, get lost in the markets of Oaxaca and discover the favours of Ghana.
In Issue No. 5 we travel to the mountains with Etel Adnan, along coastlines wherever waves roll in, and then all over the world through the photographic archive of Lindsay James Stanger. We celebrate hair braiding in South Africa, Salasacan weaving techniques in Ecuador, Vedic jewellery traditions and the new sound of Ukraine. We meet artist Cassi Namoda, choreographer Yang Liping and lace-maker Mark Klauber. And we visit a bakery in Tel Aviv, discover the joys of making arak, and spend a summer stretching mozzarella in Italy.