Pro/File: Making Waves

Ryuichi Sakamoto and Christopher Willits team up on Ocean Fire.

Neat categories have never been a hallmark of Ryuichi Sakamoto's music. From bubblegum pop ditties to avant-garde classical fugues, the Japanese-born pianist and composer has pretty much done it all since going solo in 1984 after playing with the internationally renowned synth-rock trio Yellow Magic Orchestra. His most recent work stems loosely from his “chain music” experiment — an ongoing “chain letter” of built-up compositions involving nearly 30 different producers to date.

Ocean Fire

Recently Sakamoto recruited San Francisco Bay Area guitarist and producer Christopher Willits to record Ocean Fire (12k, 2008), a many-layered sonic canvas of improvised ambience based on a 4-hour session that took place at Sakamoto's New York studio in early 2007. “I always have lots of audio files in my [Apple MacBook] laptop for writing,” Sakamoto says. “Some are field recordings — like noises from the street — some are from synthesizers, and some are acoustic or electric piano sounds. I just picked up some of these, and Christopher and I started playing.”

For both musicians, Cycling '74's Max/MSP programming software was a vital creative tool. “When I improvise like this,” Sakamoto says, “I usually use Max/MSP. I've been developing VST plug-ins and patches with a friend of mine for performance and improvising, so I can play lots of audio files randomly. I can also change the pitch or reverse it — things like that — and change three or four plug-ins at a time if I want.”

Willits took a similar approach but also relied on Ableton Live 6 as a host for his custom-made Max/MSP plug-ins. Using a MIDI foot controller, he manipulated multiple electric guitar loops and created what amounts to an orchestra of processed sound. Eventually he edited and mixed the results of the Ocean Fire session in Digidesign Pro Tools, maintaining a light touch when it came to EQ and additional processing.

“This whole project was really a trip,” Willits raves. “When we first got together, I was just floating along with the prerecorded, processed piano sounds that Sakamoto was tweaking live, and before we knew it, both of our eyes were closed and we were diving deep into this whole soundscape. Sometimes things would happen and we'd look at each other like, ‘Was that you or was that me?’ That's when you feel everything totally merging.”

Beginning with the contemplative sustained chords of “Toward Water,” the sense of a liquid convergence between two artists is palpable. As Sakamoto's organlike riff moves through frequency modulations of varying intensity, Willits initiates a series of rhythmic pulses by indexing small pieces of guitar samples, creating the feeling of a slow, deliberate descent into the depths. On later cuts — specifically the ominous, echo-laden “Chi-Yu” — both the piano and guitar become unrecognizable, disappearing under layers of processing, only to be recast as gleaming weapons of the future in the feedback-driven closer “Ocean Sky Remains.”

As Sakamoto tells it, Ocean Fire was the inevitable title for a project that reflects the concerns he and Willits share about climate change. “The heat of the oceans, because of global warming and the loss of the ice caps, is a big part of what inspired it,” he says. Of course, isn't the oceanic theme reinforced by the overall sound of the album? “That's true, yes,” Sakamoto agrees. “It's sometimes deep, sometimes shallow. You never know where the current will take you.”


Home bases: New York, San Francisco, Tokyo

Key software: Cycling '74 Max/MSP

Sequencers of choice: Ableton Live 6, Digidesign Pro Tools HD

Web sites:,

Additional Resources

Ryuichi Sakamoto's site

Christopher Willits's site

The 12k label site