“I deliberately brought noise into the music and
challenged myself to create a world.”
After five years of silence, Oscar-winning composer and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto has released a double album, Playing the Piano/Out of Noise, in the U.S. Currently touring in the U.S. and Canada, Mr. Sakamoto takes a break to chat with Chopsticks NY about his new albums and his views toward music.
Playing the Piano is a solo piano album where you cover your own music. How did you feel when you revisited your past work?
Well, it was quite natural to me because playing my earlier songs on the piano is what I do when I go on solo tours. Also, approximately two-thirds of my songs were composed on piano. The music you are familiar with — let’s say The Last Emperor, which uses symphonic orchestration, or Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which layers many delicate sounds — were originally composed on piano. I would say the piano is close to the original sound during the creative process. So, recording the album was as if I returned to the point when I was creating the songs.
Can I say those sounds are the essence of your music?
Yes. Since I can play only one piano at a time, I remove decorative sounds and simplify sounds, and naturally only the essence remains. I enjoy playing in that way.
On the other hand, I heard you incorporated unique sounds into your music on Out of Noise, such as a sound you recorded in Greenland.
When I was making this album, I intentionally incorporated noise, which is not considered appropriate for music. Noise always surrounds us — in a room, we hear the noise of air conditioning, the noise of the TV, and the noise of cars outside. In nature, there are natural noises all the time as well. The American composer John Cage suggested that such noise is also an element of music. I have admired him since I was a teenager and his theories are naturally embedded in my mind, but I haven’t created an album based on his view. This time, I deliberately brought noise into the music and challenged myself to create a world.
Was it hard or easy to mix the natural noises with music?
More than half of the songs on this album include noises, such as part of the TV news or the sound of the Arctic Sea. I repeatedly listened to the noises, and when music came to my mind, I added instrumental sounds onto the noises as if the sounds are nestling with the noises. I waited until music faded into my mind. It can be said that the source of my inspiration is noise.
While working as a musician, you actively advocate on behalf of social and environmental issues as well. Do those activities have any influence on your music?
No, they don’t. I don’t really like to include messages to society in my music. In my opinion, music has to be completed as music. It may be because I am not a vocalist. If I were a vocalist, I might have to say something and what I address might have some message. However, I don’t have to sing, and I don’t need any words to deliver; therefore, even though I used a sound that I recorded in the Arctic Sea, it does not mean my music has a social statement about ecology. It’s just a sound that I liked and wanted to use. People might not notice that it is the sound of the Arctic Sea. It might be the sound of tap water in New York. So, I don’t have any intention of highlighting my personal views.
Do you mean you find inspiration everywhere, not only on trips to exotic areas but also in daily life?
That’s right. I always carry a recorder, even when living in New York as well as when I’m traveling, because I can’t predict when I will hear an interesting sound. When I go to unknown places, I come upon unknown sounds — languages are different, customs are different, birds and animals are different. So, I make it a rule to record them. It’s not like going out specifically to record them, but it’s more like catching sounds naturally coming to my mind.
Since you are active in many directions and your music is not categorized in one genre, it is hard to define who Ryuichi Sakamoto is. How would you describe yourself?
Hmm, I can’t describe it in a few words since my music covers almost all genres… The clerks in Tower Records, when it existed, often joked they had no idea on which shelf they should put Sakamoto’s CDs. In reality, my CDs were scattered in various corners, from the soundtrack section to new age, to pop and rock, et cetera. There was no consistency at all. From a business viewpoint, it’s a disadvantage, as I was often complained to about. [laughs] Anyway, Ryuichi Sakamoto is someone like that.
You once described the music of Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO)* as “Elderly Electronica.” Would you elaborate on this?
Musicians are usually young –– well, we were young, too –– but not so many older musicians remain active. In general, once musicians become successful in one style, they keep working in this style. This is not unique to musicians but true for painters as well. When they are young and unsuccessful, they are adventurous enough to try various styles; however once they succeed in business at some point, they have to maintain the style to survive. Otherwise, they are excluded from galleries. Picasso is an exception in modern art history. He is the only artist who tried various styles even after his success. I wouldn’t say we are geniuses like Picasso, but we are constantly changing our styles. We have completely different musical backgrounds, but we are so similar in the sense that we get bored doing one thing. Since we can’t stick to one thing, our style naturally has changed from one to another. In this sense, we are like unsuccessful young musicians. We are already around 60 years old, but we still like trying new things.
Now “visual-kei bands”** are popular, but I guess you guys were at the vanguard with your use of makeup.
Oh yes, way ahead.
Did you have a strong desire to start something original?
It was not like “let’s do things nobody has ever done.” We just did that naturally.
Would you recommend some destinations or things to do in Japan for Chopsticks NY readers who are planning to visit?
I think the best part of visiting Japan is the food. There are many good Japanese restaurants in New York, but they are somewhat different from what we eat in Japan. Everything is tasty in Japan, that’s for sure. I’m impressed every time I visit Japan.
Could you give us some examples of what you like to eat in Japan?
Unhealthy foods are tasty. Ramen, for example.
I heard you follow a macrobiotic diet.
I have absorbed the ideas of macrobiotics, but I do not strictly follow the diet. Of course, I do eat food if I think it’s tasty. The more unhealthy, the tastier, I think. So, when I feel like eating something unhealthy, I eat it without really holding back. Speaking of places to visit, I have come to like Kyoto as I have gotten older. There are many temples and historic landmarks, and traditions like the tea ceremony still remain there. That’s what we can’t really enjoy in Tokyo. There isn’t a big difference between Tokyo and Singapore, Malaysia, or even New York from a cultural standpoint. As I age, I have come to like places like Kyoto and things like onsen [hot springs].
You didn’t like Kyoto when you were young?
Not at all. Rather, I stayed away from anything uniquely Japanese when I was young.
Are sounds different in Kyoto?
Yes. Especially during the Gion Matsuri.*** It’s really weird and interesting.
——– Interview by Noriko Komura
*Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO): A legendary electro-pop group formed in 1978 with principal members Haruomi Hosono (bass), Yukihiro Takahashi (drums, vocals), and Ryuichi Sakamoto (keyboards). YMO pioneered the electro-pop genre, and its popularity went beyond Japan. They stopped working as a band in 1984 and reunited in 2007.
**Visual-kei band: a Japanese musical group that is characterized by the use of makeup, elaborate costumes, and hairstyles.
***Gion Matsuri: a traditional summer festival that takes place in Kyoto. Spanning the entire month of July, it includes massive parades.
Born in Tokyo. After graduating from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music with a BA and MA, Ryuichi Sakamoto began his career as a composer, producer, and arranger in the late 70s. His fame grew when Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) debuted and pioneered electro-pop and synth-rock styles. While working as a principal member of YMO, Sakamoto did solo projects and collaborated with various Japanese and international musicians in diverse genres. His name resounded through the world when he received an Oscar for his original music score for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, in which he also appeared as an actor. In addition to working in the music field, he has published numerous books and advocated for social and environmental issues.
Playing the Piano/Out of Noise is now available on iTunes and Amazon.