When I harbored aspirations to be a filmmaker during my college days, I immodestly swore that when I won my eventual Oscar, I would not use my acceptance speech to thank the usual litany of agents, managers and hangers-on, but the artists and performers that inspired me to become an artist. Close to the top of that list, which included Stanley Kubrick, Isaac Hayes, and Steve McQueen among others, was Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose score for 'The Last Emperor' sort of shocked me into a more sophisticated awareness of the power of film music, and whose career provided a source of entertainment and influence as I explored both music and movies. For those unfamiliar with his work outside of 'Emperor' or his other mainstream efforts, Sakamoto has explored a virtual cacophony of musical subgenres and worked with an eclectic roster of collaborators throughout his more than 30-year career, and it was this fearlessness and passion that kept me interested in him, at least as much of the material that came out of it.
Sakamoto embarked on a rare North American tour earlier this year in support of his new double-album release 'Playing the Piano'/ 'Out of Noise,' and the final date was at Los Angeles' storied El Rey Theatre. Cinematical enjoyed the rare opportunity to sit down with Sakamoto on the day before his Los Angeles appearance to talk about the tour, his new album, and his career in general. In addition to talking about selecting songs for both the retrospective disc, 'Playing the Piano,' and for his latest series of live performances, Sakamoto offered a wealth of insights into the process of creating and collaborating on different kinds of music, and reflected on his eclectic and accomplished career as a film composer, pop musician, and avante-garde artist.
Cinematical: Was your new album 'Playing the Piano' meant to be a companion piece to your 1988 album 'Playing the Orchestra,' or was this a different sort of exercise for you?
Ryuichi Sakamoto: I think it's completely different. I have some tours and CDs where I have been also playing piano. And recently every time I tour, I always played the piano for my tour. The biggest reason is cost; I wish I could have someone like [my former collaborator] Fennesz because it would be more fun. Being on stage by myself is very stressful, because the music is created just by myself and if I stop then the music is stopped. So it's all this pressure, but inviting Fennesz from Vienna would cost too much. That's why.
Cinematical: When you were selecting past works to perform on the album and tour, how thoroughly did you go back into your repertoire? Was this envisioned as a pure retrospective or were you just picking favorites from your discography?
Sakamoto: Well, obviously I have to choose for the purpose of this particular tour, but I originally I just looked up the list of my songs. I can't count, but someone did, and I've heard there are like more than 900 songs. Now, as you probably know, some pieces would be very difficult to play on the piano. There were some pieces that were originally created very electronically, but in contrast, more of my film music was written on the piano, mostly. But then there are some exceptions, like 'Love is the Devil' is heavily electronic, so it would be very difficult to play on the piano. But 'Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,' 'The Last Emperor,' 'The Sheltering Sky,' all of those were written on the piano, so it's easy to play them because I just go back to the very beginning of the process of their creation.
But for instance, for this tour I had to choose some pieces that are easily played on the piano, by myself or two pianos - because we had two pianos. And for something like the music of 'Little Buddha,' I used mainly strings for the sustaining chords and harmonies that were at the very center of the music, so that would be very difficult to play on the piano. But for the pieces which have a very clear melody lines and harmonies, it's very easy.
Cinematical: Was there a natural impulse to challenge yourself to sort of reverse engineer the ones that were not immediately able to be translated to the piano?
Sakamoto: Right. "A Thousand Knives" is the title song of my very first solo album and it's completely synthesized, so it is the most rewritten or differently arranged as a piano duet. It's completely different process, rather than going back to the very beginning or the creation of say 'The Last Emperor.'
Cinematical: So for this tour that accompanies it, are you pretty much doing almost a performance of 'Playing the Piano,' or are you incorporating other compositions that may not be on the album?
Sakamoto: Well, basically this tour is very similar to the two tours I did last year. [What I do is] choose maybe 100 or maybe more pieces of music, and I have music for those pieces always with me on the piano - and I just perform them according to the atmosphere and feeling [of the crowd]. I choose them instinctively, so I don't have a set list for each night. But I perform pieces from the CD for the first part of the show and then maybe half of the repertoire may be different from other performances.
Cinematical: Do you see minimalism as constructing music from literally the most minimum amount of elements, or given the fact that you come from this classical background, is it about paring down the compositional elements that you are accustomed to using to their simplest or most efficient expression?
Sakamoto: I see minimalist music as the dead end of the music that we've been calling classical or written music. European music progressed in history from the Renaissance and baroque period and then it reached 20th century, and around 1970, there was minimalist music. That was kind of a dead end and even from that time, I thought that way - this is it, this is the very dead end for classical music. And of course, there are other still composers after that, like Steve Reich and Philip Glass and John Adams, composers and their main compositions were created after that. But to me they're all recycled from something else. I don't see any necessary reason for the existence of them. So I still believe that minimalism is the dead end of classical music. And I respect their art. But – and maybe personally, I have used kind of a minimalist style sometimes. And dead end means kind of the bridge for classical music and pop music. So from that period down, for rock musicians or pop musicians, minimalized music is much easier to go into, that world, so it's a good gateway or entrance into classical music.
Cinematical: Well it seems just by its very definition, it seems like it would be difficult to collaborate with somebody when you really are using so few sort of compositional elements. How difficult is it to find a comfortable balance creating something that eventually qualifies as what you think is a composition, where you know where to stop?
Sakamoto: It's between (laughs) – that's a good definition. I think it's really in between improvising and composing. Improvising is composing, but improvising is a performance, and composing is not performance. When you compose, you can stop that music or you can go back and flip upside down with it - you can change the timeline or you can have any freedom with the music. But for performance, you cannot [do that] – or maybe you can, but once you are on stage creating some sound for other people, it's hard to stop, or go back.
Cinematical: On 'Out of Noise,' one of the things that was of particular interest to you was using this underwater microphone. Notwithstanding the technology, are the techniques that you employ to create music today the same as when you first started?
Sakamoto: Well, yes. In the past I have used some sounds from field recordings, like recordings of city noise or sound of a taxi or birds singing or the wind, and put all that in the music. But the difference is for 'Out of Noise,' I put the sounds I recorded in the Arctic sea in the center of the music, and I was carefully listening to that for many days and imagining what kind of a sound would go along with this. So for this recording, let's say the sound of ice is always in the center, and this way of making music is maybe the first time I have done that - seriously putting non-musical sounds in the center of the music.
Cinematical: Do you think strategically about the combination of influences and creative elements that you incorporate into each new project or are you pretty much just following whatever inspiration strikes you at that particular time?
Sakamoto: Well, classical music or written music or whatever you call it is definitely my roots, so it's just too hard to take off from my roots; it's always there. And I am always drawn to that, so probably in the '70s, before I joined Yellow Magic Orchestra, I even tried to escape from the study I did of that vocabulary or language. At one point I was listening to only reggae for a year and tried to get rid of all classical music. But I couldn't; it's always there - so it's just naturally happening.
On the other hand, technically speaking, I discovered, I could write very cheesy pop music that was completely different from the aesthetic of classical music if I wished. But maybe I had that kind of wish when I was younger, in my 20's, but I don't have the same goals now that I had then. And also using modern technology is fun; I like gadgets (laughs), and it triggers like my childish excitement, so I was looking for something new - new apps and software and everything. And I think that's to my advantage over people like Beethoven or Mahler, because they didn't have that. Because if they were alive, maybe they would jump on this [technology], because I think that's a composer's nature. Most composers in history or alive, they always like new things new in culture. They have to jump on the new technologies, like [during their era] the pianoforte that emerged at that time.
Cinematical: In terms of your classical or film-centric compositions, do you have a formalized approach? Do you, say, employ a Wagnerian approach of composing with themes and leitmotifs, or do you just find melodies and then they work themselves into character or story details?
Sakamoto: I don't have anything like that, maybe we can call it a method or form or formalized way. Music, if it's for a film, the style of the music should be determined by the story and the place and things and all of that. So for instance, in the first conversation that I had with Bertolucci for 'The Last Emperor,' we were discussing what music should be because the story takes place in the first 20, 30 years of the 20th century in China, but it was also an Italian production, so he thought the music should have some influence of the expressionist era of the '10s and '20s. And a little Chinese music, but European music too. Of course the story takes place in that era, but this is a modern film and it should have both. So it's almost impossible to compose music that should be from the '20s and '80s, and Chinese and European. So I was having a hard time.
Cinematical: Have your film-related projects tended to follow the conventional route which is where they make a film and then you come in a score it? Because your music is so inextricably connected to the films that you do, and you have an ongoing partnership with people like Bertolucci and De Palma, among others.
Sakamoto: In most cases, I write music after [the films] are shot, so I can see some of the rough cut. Without seeing the footage, it's almost impossible for me. But also, it might be ideal for me to write, at least for a film, without seeing anything or just ideas - or in writing for the concept or the subject of the story. Or even music first and then they shoot afterwards, if it's possible. When I met David Lynch a long time ago, we talked about that, because almost 100% of films are made the other way - shooting first, and then music is always the last part of the process. So why don't we do the music first then shoot next, that might be interesting. But it is great for me because I don't have to deal with most of the complications of the [production] and all of that. Because it's very energy-consuming procedure.
Cinematical: Possibly (laughs). Are there any artists you listen to now, in any genre, who you feel like are really sort of stretching the boundaries of pop music or what seems to be possible in terms of composition?
Sakamoto: There is one ensemble from New York called Alarm Will Sound. I was blown away - I really love that album[they did of covers of Aphex Twin songs], so I've been following them. And I think they have some kind of relationship with Alarm Will Sound, but the band from Brooklyn, The Dirty Projectors. Alarm Will Sound and the Dirty Projectors toured together, I guess, this year or last year. I haven't met them, but I really like their brave innovations to break down the boundaries.
Cinematical: What sort of stuff are you working on after the tour? Do you have any film projects or other album projects that you are working on?
Sakamoto: Well, right after this tour finishes, I'll be home just for two days and then we'll leave for Japan for another tour for almost two months in Japan. This is the tour for the album I recently made with the singer Taeko Onuki, who I worked for from the end of the '70s and early '80s. I arranged for her maybe six or seven albums in that era. After a long time, we got together and made an album together this summer, and it's going to be out soon. So we're going to tour in Japan. And then after that I have to go to Cambodia with Alva Noto for a future project for us. We are sort of committed to make a new piece for a London Arts Center called the Rand House. That will be sometime in May, next year, so we have to create something before that. Why Cambodia? He has a new girlfriend who lives in Cambodia (laughs). She's American, but lives in Cambodia. It's going to be fun.
After that, I have to write film music for a Japanese film directed by [Takashi] Miike. I introduced to Miike by Jeremy Thomas, who is the producer of 'The Last Emperor.' And Miike is probably Jeremy's favorite director, so I feel a duty to do it (laughs). But I found Miike is maybe the most talented Japanese filmmaker working now – of this generation.
Cinematical: Even through all the different permutations of your career, do you in retrospect find structural or melodic throughlines that you feel like you return to time and again, whether it's a part of just like way in your subconscious or something that you just know is part of something that you like in music?
Sakamoto: Almost every year I do some kind of performance like this tour, so I kind of play my own pieces from old and from new always, so it's just a part of my duty. So I don't need to look back at my old music because I just always play it. But I can't be so objective about those pieces.
Cinematical: You talk about the duration of some of the love affairs, if you will, you've had with different genres. Are there any that you feel like you have explored pretty exhaustively, or maybe ones you haven't done in 10 or 15 years, but that you would maybe like to go back and continue to explore?
Sakamoto: Well, symphonic or maybe classical music, not necessarily it's infinite but chamber music, but it's something you have to write. But for something else, I have to dig more deeply. Maybe for example, electronica; I became interested in electronica maybe at the end of the '90s as an alternative [to what I was already doing] and it was a big surprise because I had no idea, but then all of a sudden there were so many young musicians which created music maybe a little bit like Stockhausen or those other composers I was familiar with. It was a great surprise, so I jumped on it and almost for the past 10 years I've been doing it - and I think now maybe that's enough (laughs).