Experimental genius Ryuichi Sakamoto draws us into his musical orbit

There have been some major concerts in London this week.

Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters played two nights at the London Stadium and Taylor Swift brought her Reputation tour to Wembley.

But the hottest tickets in town were for two shows by a 66-year-old Japanese pianist who has devoted the past twenty years of his career to challenging, experimental works.

Sell out success

I was fortunate enough to attend both the sell-out gigs by Ryuichi Sakamoto and my admiration for him has increased thanks to his remarkably bold performances.

Sakamoto is a legendary figure in Japan, thanks to his pioneering work with the techno band Yellow Magic Orchestra in the 1970s and 1980s. He went on to write beautiful, stirring soundtracks to a number of successful films, including the Last Emperor.

He still makes soundtracks, although they are usually quite dissonant, such as his 2015 score for the French horror TV series, the Revenant.

En vogue, in mode

Sakamoto performed in London as part of a festival he curated called Mode, which presented a range of emerging and established experimental artists from Japan to perform with like-minded musicians from Europe, South America and the US. The highlight was a big show at the Barbican which featured a collaboration between Sakamoto and Alva Noto, a musician from Germany originally known as Carsten Nicolai. Sakamoto played a grand piano while his friend provided various electronic sound effects and created beats from synthesizers and drum machines.

For the first part of the concert, Sakamoto rarely touched the piano’s keyboard. Instead, he stood beside the instrument, dropping coins onto its strings or plucking them with a pair of chopsticks. At one point, he crumpled up a paper bag up for a few minutes while the audience sat mesmerised by the sound amplified through a huge speaker system, accompanied by some thrilling computer-generated visuals.

Towards the end of the show, Sakamoto did play a few chords on the piano and steered us towards melody. But there was no performance of any of the tunes he made famous with YMO or through his films.

Is it music?

The second Sakamoto show was even more experimental. It was held at an abandoned factory in East London and the opening acts were two British bands with a taste for noisy abstraction. Sakamoto collaborated on stage with David Toop, a person who says he “doesn’t like music” any more but prefers the “silence and the space between notes.”

Mr Toop also plays the paper bag and at one point the pair were loudly scrunching together. Toop also uses all kinds of other tools and instruments which produce fascinating, impressionistic sounds. To accompany him, Sakamoto spent most of the time toying with the insides of his piano and almost never touched its keys – although this time he also used a small toy piano and a red electric guitar, with which he produced some astonishing noises.

A new generation listens

It was striking to watch the audience for these shows – particularly the tiny gig in the warehouse. Many of them were young and can’t have been aware of Sakamoto’s music or reputation until fairly recently. There were a number of Japanese fans but also people from China, Taiwan and South Korea. I made friends with a visitor from Seattle who had come to London just for the festival. It was a hip, international crowd and I think everyone felt pleased to be part of something special.

What really struck me, particularly about the Barbican show, was that Ryuichi Sakamoto’s approach to music has coincided with a more mainstream appreciation of art which draws on modern classical, techno and soundtracks. This has helped fuel a rise in interest in composers such as Jon Hopkins, Nils Frahm and Max Richter.

Sakamoto’s Mode festival continues with a few more interesting events in London running until mid-July but he is not scheduled to play live again. However, if you’d like to share your enthusiasm for Japanese music, do message me or post your comments below.

 

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