Remembering Ryuichi Sakamoto
Remembering Ryuichi Sakamoto 1952-2023
Have you ever said something stupid you wish you could take back because it may have changed the course of earthly events?
On April 1st, I was hanging out with my buddy Shane, and we talked about Yellow Magic Orchestra. We had been listening to them all day and lamenting the passing of Yukihiro Takahashi. I had been aware of Ryuichi Sakamoto's battle with cancer. In passing, I remarked that it seemed likely that Haruomi Hosono, the oldest of the group, would ironically end up outliving both Ryuichi and Yuki.
Well, I should have shut my big stupid mouth.
The next day, I opened my news app to see that Ryuichi had passed away. It's cold comfort to know that he had died a few days earlier, and the announcement was only made on April 2nd. I'm under no delusion that my careless remarks affected the situation. Still, it's a reminder to be careful with our words, if not only out of respect.
Two-thirds of the legendary group Yellow Magic Orchestra is no longer with us. I haven't gone a month so far without losing a formative influence. Obviously, these things had to happen at some point. Nevertheless, it's strange when you realize that the passing of one's heroes also means the world you grew up in is falling further back into the collective memory.
Ryuichi Sakamoto was a musical titan.
Few 20th-century musicians have made a splash in pop music and contemporary Western art music (read: classical). Ryuichi moved and created with quiet disregard for the designations that commerce sought to impose on the musical arts.
Apart from Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ryuichi had a fruitful solo career and became a world-renowned film composer. He took the map Debussy charted and managed to usher us to the melodic and harmonic heights that the French impressionist could only have imagined. By embracing technology to preserve humanity, Ryuichi Sakamoto stands among the pantheon of 20th-century masters.
The beautiful thing about Ryuichi and Yuki is that they left us so much music to learn from and enjoy. The YMO fan is never strapped for things to listen to and discover. To cover the entirety of Ryuichi's oeuvre would be a Herculean effort if not a vocation. I want to share some key moments that can glimpse his range of work.
Both Shane and I agree. The one regret we share about high school is that we didn't encounter Yellow Magic Orchestra. I knew plenty of people who were bona fide music geeks, and never once did anyone put this group on my radar. I was a huge Kraftwerk fan, so it should have been the easiest sell. I can only conclude that the failure of anyone who knew about this band to guide me to them was gross negligence.
The good thing about regrets is that we can save others from making the same mistakes. I, for one, will not be guilty of gross negligence. If you have never explored the world of Yellow Magic Orchestra or Ryuichi Sakamoto, let this be the clarion call that beckons you to enlist in the nation of fans that spans the globe. Allons-y!
"Suddenly a thousand knives, suddenly a thousand dazzling scythes of light, scythes set in flashes of lightning, enormous, made to cut down whole forests, start furiously splitting space open from top to bottom with gigantic strokes, miraculously swift strokes, which I am forced to accompany internally..."
When he wrote these words, French poet Henri Michaux hardly knew that he would be describing a seminal moment in electronic music history. The title of Sakamoto's break-out album, Thousand Knives, comes from Michaux's frenetic description of his mescaline experiences. The title, in context, conveys the feeling of its eponymous track.
I came for YMO, but I stayed for Sakamoto's Thousand Knives.
The song begins with lush foreboding pads and swells toward a syncopated melody in c-minor. The staccato articulation suggests the imagery of a thousand knives hurdling toward you. The sense of uplift is intoxicating when the song arrives at its "chorus" in Eb major. Sakamoto possessed a genius for evoking strong imagery with his melodies. In live performances, the group would customarily raise their left hand, and, on occasion, Ryuichi would wave a banner.
The performance below is from a live set played at LA's Greek Theatre. The show is a classic in the YMO canon and worth listening to in its entirety. Thousand Knives was a pivotal moment for me as a guitarist; Kazumi Watanabe's shred is strong in this performance, and he offers the canonical guitar performance in the LP version.
YMO would continue to iterate on this composition, and the variety of interpretations they produced is astounding. It's worth spending time with a few different versions to understand how beautifully crafted this piece is.
As a teenager, I was obsessed with John Cage and Philip Glass.
Cage's prepared piano and Glass' minimalism struck a chord with me because they offered new ways of considering Western art music. In my senior year, I wrote a report on Indonesian gamelan music and its influence on the prepared piano pieces. The most striking similarity was the capacity to induce an almost hypnagogic state in the listener.
The first time I heard Taiso, I recognized something familiar yet presented in a completely new way. The chordal piano ostinati brought me back to the wonder I felt first encountering John Cage's sonatas for prepared piano. Sakamoto's interpretation of the concepts of minimalism (particularly Steve Reich) brought to bear on pop music yielded something entirely fresh yet familiar.
This is one of my favorite tracks to put on in the car or when I'm trying to focus. It's like a B-12 shot for the brain.
A Day In the Park
A Day in the Park is the music version of a perfect morning.
I first heard this song while listening to a shuffle through Sakamoto's significant releases. I remember driving down Columbia Blvd in 2015. The C pedal tone played by the string sample was like a break in the clouds on a typical rainy day in Portland. I pulled my car over to the side of the road just to let the song finish.
This song is a selection from Ryuichi's 1996 album, Smoochy. It's a high watermark in the history of sophisti-pop that probably wouldn't immediately be classed as such. While the album has a distinctly Brazilian vibe, this track sounds more like Ghost Town DJ's My Boo than it does Jobim's Desafinado.
Do yourself a favor and set this one up as an alarm clock one Sunday morning; you can thank me later.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
That Ryuichi Sakamoto's name is not as widespread as Danny Elfman's is nothing short of criminal.
1983's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (or Furyo) features Sakamoto alongside David Bowie on the silver screen. In addition to playing a vital role in the film, Ryuichi composed its score. Its main theme has continued to be a fan favorite. The original arrangement of the score was for synthesizer and is incredibly epic upon viewing; however, the arrangement for piano and orchestra has captured the imagination of audiences worldwide.
The piece opens with a melancholy piano figure played in the upper octaves. Over 6 minutes, it crescendoes to a dynamic climax capturing the anguish and futility of war.
If you haven't seen it, track this movie down on Criterion Channel. The last 3 minutes of the movie will shake the way you hear this music forever.
The Last Emperor
I first encountered this film when I was about 7.
My dad sat me down to watch this movie because he remembered the score as David Byrne's work. It mainly was Sakamoto's work with Byrne and Cong Su. This technically was my first brush with Sakamoto, and it may explain my attraction to the work of Debussy.
Ryuichi's love of Claude Debussy was no secret, and he conjures moments of Debussy's La Mer in this piece. The string section is displayed in all its majesty, and the use of the harp summons impressionistic images of a China that exists only in memory. Traditional tonalities clash with modern harmonic progressions to call to mind China's imperial history while signaling the advent of modernity and communism.
The fact that I saw this movie when I did actually astounds me. I can't imagine I had any clue what was happening as it unfolded, but revisiting it some 28 years later has been an enlightening experience.
Below is a performance from 1988 featuring the classical Chinese instruments: pipa, guzheng, and erhu.
Ryuichi Sakamoto wrote music that posited a vision of the future.
He imagined a future in which our differences would not stand in the way of acknowledging each other as human beings. Beneath the slick production and synthesis, technical virtuosity, and spectacle was a man who hoped we could one day learn to treat each other with compassion. His empathy allowed him to imbue the spirit of humanity into his works. His music recognizes the pathos, suffering, and hopeful optimism that is part and parcel of the human condition.
His death is a tragedy, but we are all lucky to have his work to learn from.
Rest In Peace, Mr. Sakamoto.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention my friend Matthew's wonderful Ryuichi Sakamoto Mix. I linked it in the article about Yukihiro Takahashi, but obviously it seems even more important to link to now. He's a great musical resource, so be sure to check out his other mixes.