Inside Talk: Ryuichi Sakamoto | Electronic Eclecticism


Ryuichi Sakamoto, who has recorded numerous solo albums and scored many films, came to prominence as a member of the Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Photo: Karzunali Tajima

Now an iconic presence in electronic and experimental music, composer and keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto first made his reputation in the Japanese synth-pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra. He has gone on to record numerous solo albums, as well as collaborative projects with such artists as David Sylvian, Christopher Willits, and many others. Sakamoto is also a prolific film composer, whose credits include Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and The Last Emperor. He is currently based in New York City, where he works from his home studio.

Has music technology changed the way you compose?
We started using the very simple computer since the late ''70s, early ''80s, and it was very limited, of course. But the basic method had been there through the ''90s, maybe, until the end of the ''90s. Then Apple''s Macintosh got better and better—we could use it in the studios and on stage. So that was a big change to me.

The big change being the advent of digital audio?
Yes—Pro Tools and everything. Before that, of course, I was using the Macintosh since the ''80s, but just [for] very basic composing, not really performing with it yet. But probably since 2000, I''ve been using the Macintosh fully for working on music—any occasions except recording with the orchestra.

What DAW do you like to work in?
I''ve been using Pro Tools and [MOTU] Digital Performer. Since the very first Macintosh I got, in ''86 or ''87, I was always using Performer. Nowadays, I use Digital Performer—the MIDI part of the program. Obviously, I can [also] manipulate audio files as objects, just changing the timbres and pitches and everything. It''s almost like drawing or painting, or it''s kind of getting close to that. I like that.

What''s your workflow like, typically, when you''re writing a piece of music? Do you start with the piano and go from there?
Maybe 50 percent I use the piano. I just improvise on the piano and record everything I do. Then I go back to the computer and find nice moments and assemble those.

I''ve noticed you''ve done a lot of collaborative albums. Does working with someone tap into a different side of you compositionally?
Certainly when I collaborate with someone who has a different talent and skill than I do, that stimulates me and makes me better. So I''m kind of always hungry for finding new talent. I don''t care if they''re old or young, but I''m always looking for some occasions, chances, to work with unknown people because they would give me something I don''t have, which is good. If I''m limited with the bother of being just myself, I wouldn''t expand toward something unknown.

Tell me about the new album that just came out on Decca.
It''s a double-CD album, and the first CD is called Playing the Piano and the second CD is called Out of Noise. And they''re from different places. Playing the Piano is sort of a compilation of albums I made in 2004 and 2005. Out of Noise, the second CD, was made last year. It''s my new solo album. And the idea of assembling those two CDs was from Decca, so I compromised [laughs]. So the music [on each disc] is totally different. The Playing the Piano side is sort of self-covers of music I wrote in the past.