Never have the orbits of classical music and electropop collided so elegantly as in the brain of Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose passions spill from his soul onto the keys of his electric Disklavier Yamaha (electric to enable him to play duets with himself on his compositions for two pianos). As a member of Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto was a pioneer of the electronic music movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but his enormous talent stretched far beyond those early synthpop days. A modern-day Renaissance Man, Sakamoto’s artistic styles range from the Kraftwerkian electronica of Yellow Magic Orchestra, to Debussy-inspired solo piano pieces, to massive orchestral works, to hauntingly beautiful soundtracks (including Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence; Little Buddha; and Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor).
In Sakamoto’s oeuvre there is something for everyone’s taste, but his solo piano pieces are the most deeply moving works of his canon. With the calm assurance of a Jedi Master, silver-haired Sakamoto conveys his depth and skill by utilizing simplicity, rather than complications. Instead of twisting melodies into over-wrought contortions, he leaves them whole, pure, largely unadorned, so that their beauty slowly expands in the soul and sprouts indelible roots. He understands that electrifying a listener’s spirit can be done delicately, exquisitely, and slowly. Listen to “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” and “Bibo No Aozora”; let them gently swirl down your basilar membranes to enthrall your essence with lush sound and emotion.
Sakamoto is also an environmental activist: he founded more-trees.org, and is currently pioneering “green tours” which offset massive carbon emissions by planting trees. His most current album, Out Of Noise, combines sounds of the natural world with startlingly new ways of coaxing sound from a piano. For example, the first piece of the concert I saw started with chirping crickets and gurgling water, over which Sakamoto layered the gently cacophonic reverberations he produced by strumming and plucking the piano strings themselves (instead of hitting the keys). With the lid completely off the piano, at first it seemed naked, with Sakamoto transgressing its private quarters like a boozy courtier lifting a woman’s petticoats. However, the reverence Sakamoto showed toward the bare strings turned the act into something much more intimate and moving – a humble encounter, rather than a violation. In this way, Sakamoto demonstrated humans’ varying relationship to nature, showing that it can be healing and gracious instead of careless.
Sakamoto has collaborated with Fennesz (listen to “Haru”) and Alva Noto (“Berlin” made me finally understand Debussy’s quote, “Music is the space between the notes”), among many others. Listen to his music and know that you’re being transported more deeply into your soul by the able hands of a true master.