Merry Christmas, Mr. Sakamoto: How the async composer conquered 2017

Yesterday we revealed Ryuchi Sakamoto as winner of our album of the year. His astounding async was just one of many achievements from a busy 2017 for the Yellow Magic Orchestra hero, however. With a little help from the man himself, Claire Lobenfeld explores a prolific 12 months for the composer, who was featured on the soundtrack of one of the year’s best-loved films and recorded a new collaborative album with Alva Noto, out in February.

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s async was inspired by disaster. “[Japan] had the big earthquake, tsunami, and the nuclear plant accidents in 2011. I had cancer in 2014. Both forced me to re-recognize the presence and the strength of nature,” he tells FACT over email. “I wanted to focus on the sounds of things. Things which are all part of nature.”

Part of what makes Sakamoto an icon, both as a pop star in the pioneering and heavily influential synth-pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra and as an idiosyncratic composer, is that often his music sounds in tune with nature, just perhaps not in the way we so often see it. His music often reminds us that some things are just exceptional and challenge the way we perceive the world around us. async “approaches life’s big questions,” as John Twells wrote for our albums of the year list. “Not questions of society, but questions of humanity that transcend global borders and illusory party lines.” On async, he achieves this without words or vocals – which makes it fitting that his response to questions sent via email for this feature are endearingly, almost comically short and sweet (“i like Vladislav Delay, Demdike Stare…etc.” is his answer when we try to delve into his current listening habits).

The same philosophy that flows through async is also found in the Sakamoto music used in Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s critically-acclaimed film Call Me By Your Name, widely tipped for success at next year’s Oscars. The soundtrack features a piano-led renditions of ‘Germination’ from the soundtrack for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence which he starred in alongside David Bowie in 1983 and ‘M.A.Y. in the Backyard’ from his 1984 album Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia. The film takes place in the ‘80s and in it the piano is an anchor: its protagonist Elio uses it for both comfort and flirtation, so the juxtaposition of 1980s pop with neoclassical make them one in the same.

Just as the film tinkers with the male gaze – the camera enjoys the pleasure of a man, instead of a woman, through the love and desire of another man – the soundtrack revises what is pop music: here, Sakamoto and avant classical composer John Adams are placed comfortably next to ‘Lady Lady Lady’ by Giorgio Moroder & Joe Esposito and ‘Love My Way’ by the Psychedelic Furs. Sakamoto is the scion of the movie’s musical world, whether intentional or not.

It’s no wonder, then, that Guadagnino is a director Sakamoto says he hopes to compose original music for in the future. Same goes for Korean directors Ki-duk Kim and the legendary Chan-wook Park of Oldboy fame, as well as Taiwanese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou and Chinese directors Chuan Lu and Zhangke Jia. In the meantime, Sakamoto’s offered his work to up-and-comers. Earlier this year, he launched an international short film contest where one winner would be able to license a new piece of his music; their short film would be included, with two other winners, on a Blu-ray edition of async, as well.

Sakamoto has always been a willing and flexible collaborator this way, whether with his group Yellow Magic Orchestra, as an actor in Madonna’s 1993 video for ‘Rain’, or composing the score for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant with Alva Noto, with whom he’s recently collaborated with again, for upcoming album Glass. Also arriving in February alongside Glass is async remodels, a remix compilation featuring a list of starry names from the world of electronic exploration. It features contributions from Arca, Oneohtrix Point Never and Yves Tumor, as well as Novo and other film and television score composers like Jóhann Jóhannsson and S U R V I V E members Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein.

Alongside these producers, Sakamoto says he also likes Vladislav Delay and Demdike Stare and “quite impressed with the new Björk album, too.” Utopia, Björk’s lithe, starry-eyed spiritual successor to Vespertine, boasted quite a bit of natural and constructed birdsong. Field recording populated a lot of our favorite music in 2017. It’s also something that Sakamoto says he’s continually drawn to. “I’ve done field recording for a quite long time wherever I go, and I am,” he says. “Naturally I’ve done many recordings in the backyard of my home. I love listening to the sound of the rain, so I record every time it rains.”

This creative ethos is also political. Sakamoto believes “civilization is fragile”. “The obvious example is the 2011 tsunami which destroyed a vast area of towns and cities, which in a few hours affected hundreds of thousand of people,” he says. “The government’s plan to protect the land is to rebuild bigger seawalls, but I feel it’s wrong. We need to think and seek some kind of new civilization which will coexist with nature.” async, like everything else Sakamoto did in 2017, carries this sentiment wordlessly throughout.

Claire Lobenfeld is FACT’s news editor.

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