My "In Praise of..." series is intended to shine the spotlight on artists who, in my opinion, continue to be under appreciated. While not necessarily in any particular order, I feel compelled to write about the artists that I feel A) the most personally geeked about and B) are most deserving of the added attention and appreciation. Today's floodlight shines on Japanese composer-keyboard artist Ryuichi Sakamoto.
My love for the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto really stems from the composer's genius use of space. Like Erik Satie and Samuel Barber, Ryuichi seems to have that rare gift for appreciating the power a note or a chord or a trill--or even an electronic sound--can have when allowed to breath, to exhale, to sustain and decay--or even to be edited, digitally "micro-toned." The delicacy of his play is augmented by 1) his gift for creating simple yet absolutely gorgeous melodies and 2) the emotionality of his music. It is this latter aspect that I would like to expand upon.
Watching Ryuichi perform is such an astonishing and uplifting experience. He is so engaged in his music, in the momentary connection to and with his instrument. The emotional (and spiritual?) flow from Ryuichi into his sound-producing extension-of-himself (usually a piano) comes fully, powerfully across to the listener in the sounds, moods, and textures created.
M. Sakamoto is truly a master of simple yet memorable, even haunting melodies--many of which he has re-worked, re-introduced, and/or re-recorded in a variety of styles and formats. "Forbidden Colours" (from the theme to his Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence soundtrack), "Amore," and the main them from his Academy Award-winning film soundtrack, The Last Emperor, are but a few examples. I enjoy all of Ryuichi Sakamoto's collaborations with David Sylvian (another hero of mine), as well as all of Ryuichi's solo albums, however, it is in his solo and small combo piano work that I find the most enjoyment--especially the live performances that we are blessed to have available to us in video format, for in these we see Ryuichi's emotion-based attachment and soul-commitment to the music, to the moment, to the incredible gift that music has for conveying beauty--for representing spiritual beauty in a form that humans can appreciate and which, at the same time, humans can benefit from (as a call/reminder back to Spirit).
A prime example of Ryuichi Sakamoto's genius, his legacy, his gift to mankind, is his 35-minute long 1995 'sonata' for solo grand piano entitled, "Music for Yohji Yamamoto, 1. Bridges" (a Japanese fashion designer). In this contemplative yet breathtaking work Ryuichi uses a lot of space to let his ideas, his message, unfold, flower and propagate. He also uses continuous flow of arpeggio to fill space, but if you listen carefully you can hear simple harmonics floating above and around the runs of 16th notes, and within and between these harmonics are the same spaces unfolding his message, flowering in their beauty, permeating the listener's being. His message is repeated, becomes hypnotic and mantric until you find yourself sucked into a void beyond time and space, a place of starkness and yet profound peace. Such a gift!
Ryuichi Sakamoto is a prolific composer. In the 70s and 80s, with Yellow Magic Orchestra (the Asian equivalent to Germany's Kraftwerk), Ryuichi was a techno-pop icon. As a pianist, accompanist, and synthesizer whiz, he has collaborated with artists literally from all over the world, from all genres of music. He has been a significant if intermittent collaborator with David Sylvian on six albums, has recorded several albums of solo piano, in acoustic trios, in avant-pop (with Arto Lindsay), the Brazilian bassa nova of Antonio Carlos Jobim (with bassist Jacques Morelenbaum), he has written an opera, a "post-techno" opus called Discord, and has composed, performed and/or contributed to the score of dozens of film soundtracks, including Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, The Last Emperor, Black Rain, The Sheltering Sky (for which he won a Golden Globe), A Handmaid's Tale, Little Buddha, Derrida, Japanese Story, Babel, Silk, Women Without Men, and The Revenant. And the man shows no sign of slowing down: In the past dozen years Ryuichi has contributed to 15 film soundtracks, released 12 'solo' studio albums, recorded and released six albums in collaboration with sound manipulator Alva Noto (Carsten Nicolai), and has been a contributing or collaborating artist on 12 other albums as well as travelling to perform on several concert tours and benefit concerts. (Ryuichi has long been a critic of nuclear power and, since the Fujimara earthquake disaster, is even more vocal in his opposition now--which is in and of itself a rare and unpopular stand to take in his conformity-ridden home country).
Ryuichi Sakamoto has been possessed with the courage and gifts to be able channel higher Truths, Beauty, and Love into Earthly form. For me, this is the essence of Ryuichi's contributions to music and art. He has given us gifts of such profound beauty that they area able to provide glimmers of hope and comfort for our often numb, beleaguered, and self-destructive species. Would that all musicians were so inclined, that all music were so endowed. Then the world would truly be a better place instead of the cess-pool it is.