One of the landmark figures of Japanese electronic pop and the winner of Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy Awards, Ryuichi Sakamoto has influenced legions of musicians. As a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra in the 1970s, Sakamoto (with bassist Haruomi Hosono and drummer Yukihiro Takahashi) recorded albums that topped charts the world over, setting him on a course of experimentation that eventually resulted in award-winning soundtracks as well as collaborations with David Bowie, David Byrne and Caetano Veloso. Sakamoto has scored films for Oliver Stone (Wild Palms), Pedro Almodóvar (High Heels) and Brian De Palma (Snake Eyes) and collaborated further with writers such as William S. Burroughs and William Gibson. If this doesn't make you tired just considering the workload, Sakamoto has recorded or been a part of some 47 albums since 1978.
Sakamoto's first album in seven years, Chasm (KAB, 2005) sounds like the work of a 20-something trained in various musical disciplines, ranging from pure noise to serene ambient waves to a mash-up of Brazilian, rap and pop styles. Recorded on an Apple Mac G4 running Digidesign Pro Tools and MOTU Digital Performer with Steinberg Cubase VST and Cycling '74 Pluggo, Chasm includes guest appearances by Arto Lindsay, David Sylvian and various Thai monks, as well as YMO's Hosono and Takahashi (now known as Sketch Show). Heavily affected by 9/11 and the Iraq war that followed, Sakamoto admits that Chasm occasionally sounds like an album at odds with itself.
“Chasm is an angry record, maybe,” Sakamoto says. “I was really furious when the Americans invaded Iraq. Then, after that, I lost any hope for the U.S., especially when Bush was chosen twice by the majority of the American people. There is no hope. There is a huge chasm in this world.”
The chasm was indeed smaller in the late '70s when Sakamoto, a trained jazz pianist, began his professional career. After studying electronic music at Tokyo's University of Art, Sakamoto joined with bassist Hosono and drummer Takahashi to form YMO, quickly claiming the mantle as the Japanese Kraftwerk for their innovative use of synths, sequencers and drum machines within an accessible pop format. “In the beginning, the Prophet-5 was the main synth, and, later, the Yamaha DX-7 was added, the Roland TR-808, too,” Sakamoto recalls. “We used the Roland MC-8 first, then MC-4, as well.”
YMO's albums include Solid State Survivor (Alfa, 1979), BGM (Alfa, 1981) and Technodelic (Alfa, 1981), the latter a Sakamoto favorite. After Service (Alfa, 1984) was the last album until YMO's re-union effort, Technodon (EMI), appeared in 1993. After the group's initial breakup, Sakamoto combined his influences — he cites Claude Debussy, John Cage and Steve Reich among them — in music that defied categorization. He performed the atmospheric score to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (London/Milan, 1983) entirely on synthesizer. For 1985's Miraiha Yaro (School-Midi), Sakamoto mixed pop melodies with noisy, aggressive synth arrangements.
More soundtracks followed, culminating in the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor (Virgin, 1987), a sweeping symphonic piece in which Sakamoto expressed his diverse influences in decidedly European terms. That same year, Sakamoto recorded Neo Geo (CBS Sony/Epic), a colossal experiment featuring drumming legends Tony Williams and Sly Dunbar, bassists Bootsy Collins and Bill Laswell, and Iggy Pop. Along with the superstar riffing, the album relied on Sakamoto's mix of Japanese folk with funk and rock.
Although Sakamoto's experimentation has not always been successful (though he claims that he cannot identify any outright failures), his constant willingness, perhaps need, to push himself beyond conventional forms makes him an interesting figure. Some Sakamoto albums sound like plastic synth noodling; others — such as 1991's The Sheltering Sky (Virgin), featuring the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra — are epic affairs.
After The Sheltering Sky, most of Sakamoto's work was only available as Japanese imports, which makes Chasm a welcome event. After such a long and eventful career, Sakamoto is surprisingly casual about his success. “I don't care about success,” he says. “I don't know what success is. With Chasm, I feel exhilarated. I feel that I've created something personally very important to me.
“The distinctive thing about Chasm, is that I tried to not use MIDI, and, instead, I directly manipulated audio files,” Sakamoto continues. “I've always dreamt about making music that was not bound by metric structure, and I think I've achieved this somewhat with Chasm. On the sound front, I [used] many types of filters. The combinations of source material and filtering present many possibilities, so I kept at it until I'd get to the sound that gave me a ‘that's it!’ feeling. Maybe the process was different for Chasm because I really concentrated on bringing together all of the acoustic, electronic, classical and nonclassical elements.”