Spanish guitar, flutes, bowed leaves, bass recorder, cardboard, kyeezee, electronics.
Hearing Cries From the Lake
Sound sources: David Toop
(Wire online, 7.4.23)
That left unsaid and at the centre of us, unspeakable silence. Turbulent thoughts but faltering words, a very specific form of silence, so I am listening to “Life, Life”, from Ryuichi Sakamoto’s async, his bargain, though not the final bargain, with death, David Sylvian reading from Arseny Tarkovsky, “wave follows wave to break on the shore, on each wave is a star, a person, a bird, dreams, reality, death, on wave after wave”, chords moving inexorably, blunted three notes up then down as if sleepwalking toward a slowly opening gate, and then the signature resolution of ghostly cloud trails and deep in long reverb those notes flowering into a piano theme played with characteristic certainty and sensitivity, and I find myself crying, unable to read the tiny print of the CD cover.
There was half-Tarkovsky embedded in async, “Solari” and “Stakra” and “Walker”, a hand outstretched to those great poems of living and light that we call films. “I had a strange dream last night,” Andrey Tarkovsky wrote in one of the diary entries collected in Instant Light, “I was looking up at the sky and it was very, very light and soft; and high, high above me it seemed to be slowly boiling, like light that had materialized like the fibres of a sunlit fabric, like silken living stitches in a piece of Japanese embroidery.” And there, succinct, a description of this music though Tarkovsky died many years before. And now I am confused by time, dealing with fragments. Scribbled on a old notebook, Metropolis, Chiswick High Road bus station, memory trigger of three days in 1990 spent in two high-end London studios – Abbey Road Studio One and Metropolis – eavesdropping as Sakamoto (watched over by Bernado Bertolucci and producer Jeremy Thomas) recorded string and brass sections with members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, then almost simultaneously, in a quiet fever writing new sections of his music for The Sheltering Sky, taking time out to express to me his exasperation with the process: “Bernardo changed everything. I’d composed and recorded the music in Tokyo, then brought it to London. But by the time I arrived, the film had been completely reedited. There were scenes I hadn’t seen. A different movie. I didn’t understand what I was doing there. Obviously I couldn’t complain – he had a right to change it – but my jaw was on the floor.”
This frustration was not accompanied by tantrums, the only evidence of checked emotions being a loose moment in which Sakamoto took to the piano to play Satie, a loud, distorted Gymnopédie No. 1. A photograph from Details magazine, in which my piece was published, shows him in profound concentration, pencil in right hand, cigarette in left, adapting the score. In the background a blurred figure waits. Always pressure, but equally he was unfailingly charming, soft spoken, curious about life, life, though he could be acerbic too. “People love oriental things but it’s still racism,” he said during that conversation at Metropolis. “They like it because it’s different.” Though gentle, there was a core of steel, indispensable for an artist of such prodigious output, surviving in multiple worlds, succeeding in white territory despite and because of Orientalism. A French critic, he told me, disliked his Beauty album because there wasn’t enough Japanese music in it. In 1992 I interviewed him for a Sunday Times Magazine piece on his 20-minute orchestral composition for the Barcelona Olympics opening ceremony. Why invite a Japanese musician to write music for the Spanish Olympics, he asked the producers. The reply: you are chic, you have good taste. I asked him, did you take that as a compliment? He shrugged, “I don’t know,” as if to say, what can you do?
All this comes flooding back because Ryuichi Sakamoto has died, long expected because he was public about his illness, overt in his confrontation with mortality, asnyc being perhaps the last record but then the haunting 12 appeared, along with public announcements, the 2017 film, Coda, and online concerts in which he openly discussed his failing energy, his continuing compulsion to create. Somehow this gaunt but dignified figure admitting that a 60 minute concert was no longer possible seemed in itself impossible. Just a few weeks ago I watched a Korean epic film from 2017, The Fortess, whose gloomy seige scenario was suddenly enlivened by reverberant sounds from inside a piano. Unexpected, given the context, but unmistakenly Sakamoto, these eerie knockings seemed to presage a gathering in of energy. For some reason, their minimalistic effect reminded me of seeing Ōshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence for the first time. The film itself was only half convincing but Sakamoto’s theme, unassuming as it seemed at the time, insinuated itself into memory with the stealth of a powerful, uplifting drug.
Who we might have been (in a parallel life) shadows us as we age. For Sakamoto, perhaps an obscure electronic music composer, an ethnomusicologist releasing field recordings on Nonesuch and Ocora between delivering conference papers, an anonymous session musician known only to those who could read Japanese and studied studio call sheets. His view of himself was perpetually in flux. In spring 1990, the first time I met him, I asked him to comment on a piece by Yukari Hirai – Surreal Music Beyond Sound – published in The Face in 1987. Sakamoto had spoken about the potentiality of sound sampling as a hyper-real experience: a bullet turns into a plane turns into a chicken. In 1986 he had published a book, Il Futurismo 2009, in collaboration with musicologist Shuhei Hosokawa, a compact celebration of new bodies, velocity, machines, noise. Given the technocratic outer image of Yellow Magic Orchestra, this presentation of himself as a futuristic being was inescapable yet by 1990 his mind moved in other directions. “At the time I was much more interested in machines, computers,” he told me. “Something like science fiction situation. I was a big fan of Philip K. Dick at the time, you know, being in the capsule and listening to 16th century English arias and airs on the moon. A hyper-real, holographic situation with sound and space and visuals. That kind of image was fascinating to me, but now I’m much more interested in this planet, not the moon.” He had become interested in human playing through this circuitous route of the sampler: “I discovered something new about the piano.”
The significance of this return to the piano became increasingly apparent as his career moved from youthful pop star to chameleonic mature artist; the piano became an instrument at the centre of personal freedom, rather than an archaic evolutionary stage leading to the synthesiser. After we performed together in London in 2018, I messaged him with a suggestion for the title of our record, Gardens of Shadow and Light. “Oh I like it very much,” he replied. “It reflects Debussy and Zen.” The Asian-influenced Debussy of Jardins sous la pluie, Reflets dans l’eau, Et la lune descend sur la temple qui fût, Cloches à travers les feuilles and Pagodes were sacred texts to him (“part of my body,” he said), as prophetically experimental as Monet or Proust, but also a vehicle for expressing melancholy, beauty, elegance and sadness. Debussy flickered in my title but I was also recalling Kyoto kare-sansui dry gardens like Kodatei, Daisen-in and Ryoan-ji, and Toru Takemitsu, whose music drew on the sensation of being and moving within Japanese gardens. Sakamoto once told me a story of protesting against Takemitsu. He was a student, objecting in young rebel fashion to what he perceived as traces of nationalism in Takemitsu’s Japonisme. Takemitsu was gracious in response and so the protest was disarmed.
In fact Takemitsu offers a way of understanding Sakamoto’s fluidity, crossing domains marked out by conflicting attitudes to status, money, process, ancestry and reach. As one of the post-war composers who struggled against nationalism’s toxic legacy, Takemitsu struggled to overcome his own aversion to distinctly Japanese instruments, composing works for both the ‘elevated’ rituals of the concert hall, the avant-garde rebellion of the electronic music studio and the ‘cheap’ entertainment of cinema. There were others – listen to electronic music composer Mayazumi Toshiro’s uncompromising score for Mizoguchi’s Akasen Chitai, for example, with its wild Hawaiian guitar, electronics and modernist choral voices. Without these predecessors, the path from electro-pop to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and all that followed would have been only sketchily mapped.
If I think of some of the settings in which I saw him play – the Beauty tour in 1990 with Youssou N’Dour and Okinawan singers Kazumi Tamaki and Misako Koja, an intimate record company showcase with Ingrid Chavez and David Sylvian, a virtuosic concert with Paula and Jaques Morelenbaum, followed by an informal session with Talvin Singh added to the trio, a YMO concert, the duo with Alva Noto, an installation performance with artist Yuko Mohri at Camden Arts Centre – their scope is vast. This was not something he took lightly. It was a political choice, moving toward the activism of his later years. By the 1990s, as the Japanese economic boom was coming to an end, he explicitely rejected its aspirations. “I don’t want to express myself as the image of Japan,” he told me, “big power, big money, technologies.” Then in a different conversation he spoke against the arbitrary division of the globe into east and west. “Where is the edge?” he asked. “My music is much more melting. All the different things are layered at the same time. It represents a sense of Utopia.” And now? Utopia, what can we say, other than its enclosed certainty is unattainable, but music is never really about certainty, only possibility, and in possibility there is a way to live, a positivity that Ryuichi Sakamoto never abandoned, even when dying.