Ryuichi Sakamoto on Composing, Creativity, and Conscience

“The piano is the closest instrument in my life,” visionary Japanese composer and instrumentalist Ryuichi Sakamoto tells me during a recent visit to his Manhattan studio.
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“The piano is the closest instrument in my life,” visionary Japanese composer and instrumentalist Ryuichi Sakamoto tells me during a recent visit to his Manhattan studio. “I started playing piano when I was three, and I still do, even now. I compose on it, and often go back to it to perform orchestral music I have written. So the piano is always with me.”

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Sakamoto’s pianistic, electronic, and compositional work has been revered the world over for more than three decades. From his groundbreaking, synth-centric work in Yellow Magic Orchestra, to his soaring scores for films such as Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and The Last Emperor (the latter of which won the Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1987), Sakamoto’s work transcends boundaries of style and form—always seemingly effortlessly.

Your new double album Playing the Piano/Out of Noise seems to represent two very distinct sides of your musical personality. How did the pairing come about?

Well, the albums are different. The first one, Playing the Piano, is a piano album, and is a compilation of two albums I made in 2004 and 2005. The second one, Out of Noise, is my latest solo album, and it’s more electronic. They’re from different places, but the record label wanted to release them as one. And that’s okay. [Laughs.]

I was struck by the wide spectrum of apparent musical influences on Playing the Piano. There are nods to composers like Debussy, Astor Piazzolla, and Antonio Carlos Jobim on it. Who were your musical influences when you were coming up?

My influences are really wide. When I started playing the piano, I played Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. After Beethoven, I encountered Debussy when I was 12 or 13, and I was totally into it. Then, naturally, I followed with Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky—and then Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen, and so on. But around the same time, I encountered the music of the Beatles! So it was almost like parallel universes: pop and rock on one side, and classical music on the other. When I entered high school, I started listening to jazz, and when I went to university, I studied ethnic music. So it’s always been like that. It still is, even now.

In the liner notes of your new album, you say, “As people get older, normally their ears close to new sounds. My ears get more open as I get older—I hear something surprising every day.” Are you always listening to new music?

Yes, but new music doesn’t mean only recent music. It could be very old music. For example, when I grew up, we didn’t have many recordings of Renaissance or medieval music. So I never heard or listened to it. Now, there are countless recordings of that music, but it’s totally new to me. Other new sounds—like this guy. [Sakamoto reaches over and plays an RMI Electra-Piano.] I think this RMI is one of the earliest electronic pianos. I love my Roland EP-10 as well. I’m also excited about my new Yamaha Celeste and Kawai toy piano. So that’s probably my natural character. I’m always looking for something new, something I haven’t known. It’s always exciting.

You don’t just search for inspiration in instruments and recordings. On Out of Noise you look for it in natural, outdoor settings as well. . . .

Like on glaciers in the Arctic Sea. I heard a small water stream under the ice. So I broke through the ice and put a small hydro-microphone in the stream. That recording was probably the purest sound I ever heard.

Your innovative live show combines audio and video elements, and is based around two Yamaha Disklavier grand pianos. How are they connected and programmed?

I use two Yamaha pianos when I play live. I play into the second one first, so the computer has the data of my performance. And then I play the first one, so it’s like a virtual duet, but by myself.

You devote a great deal of energy towards environmental issues, from zero-carbon green touring to your activism against land mines. How did you get involved in these kinds of efforts?

Well, from the early 1990s, I started feeling scared about the chaotic path we’ve been on. I thought my children would be victimized by the activities of this generation, and as a father, I felt that it was my duty to make things better. So I started trying to change what I could, from changing the CD packaging I used to planning zero-emission tours, starting in 2001. Now, all my products and touring are carbon-offset.

If you were teaching a master class to young music students today, how would you tell them to find their own voice, and push the limits of their creativity?

Maybe I should tell myself to do the same thing! [Laughs.] It’s a very important and difficult question. I would tell them to open their ears. It sounds like something [avant garde composer] John Cage would say, but listen to something. Sometimes, listen to silence. Look at clouds—the movement of clouds is so musical. So instead of looking for things on the Internet, go outside and look up at the clouds.

Exclusive video tour of Sakamoto's home studio.

YouTube playlist.

Sakamoto's official website.