A man who knows the score

CATCHING UP WITH . . . RYUICHI SAKAMOTO

Ryuichi Sakamoto got his start as a pop star, but the Grammy Award-winning musician found his true calling as a soundtrack composer for movies.

January 17, 1999|By J.D. CONSIDINE | J.D. CONSIDINE,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

What does reincarnation sound like? A difficult question, to be sure, but it was one Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto had to answer.

It was 1993, and he was composing the score to the Bernardo Bertolucci film, "Little Buddha." Bertolucci had a sequence at the end of the film in which he tried to convey the cyclic nature of human existence. So he wanted Sakamoto to whip up some music that would convey the idea of reincarnation to the viewers.

Sakamoto found the task more than slightly daunting.

"It was very abstract," he says. "It's hard to understand the concept of reincarnation [as it is], and harder still to express the concept or philosophy by music."

Sakamoto was no cinematic novice. Not only had he written music for more than half a dozen films by that point, but he had worked with Bertolucci before, on the 1987 film "The Last Emperor." Sakamoto (who also acted in the film) earned both an Oscar and a Grammy for the score.

Still, evoking the sound of early 20th century China is easy compared with conveying a concept as abstract as reincarnation. There are many albums available of Chinese music, after all, but nobody has ever recorded a reincarnation.

So what did he do? "Well, partially, I used sort of the influence of Gregorian chant," Sakamoto says during a phone interview. "It's sort of my secret. I didn't even know that the melody was similar to Gregorian chant when I got the idea. But soon after, I recognized it was very similar."

It was an ingenious solution. Even though there is nothing Buddhist about Gregorian chant, the fact that listeners associate that sort of music with timeless spirituality did the trick, and evoked the ineffable. Jokes Sakamoto, "My instinct caught the relationship between Christianity and Buddhism."

That sort of instinct has made Sakamoto, 47, a successful soundtrack composer. In addition to the two Bertolucci films, he has scored "The Handmaid's Tale," "The Sheltering Sky," Pedro Almodovar's "High Heels," Peter Kosminsky's "Wuthering Heights," Brian DePalma's "Snake Eyes" and "Love Is The Devil: Study For A Portrait Of Francis Bacon" (which just opened at the Charles). A collection of his film music, titled "Cinemage," is due in May from Sony Classics.

But Sakamoto didn't start out writing soundtracks. He initially made his name as a rock star, fronting the Japanese trio Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Formed in 1978, YMO turned the notion of the rock power trio on its head, using Sakamoto's keyboards instead of guitars and openly embracing the robotic regularity of computer music. Leavening its overtly electronic sound with puckish wit, YMO paved the way for the synth-pop boom of the '80s, and enjoyed worldwide success. Its 1980 single, "Computer Game (Theme from 'The Invader')," was a minor hit in the U.S, and went Top 20 in Britain.

However famous YMO became elsewhere, the band was always bigger in Japan. YMO, says MTV Japan correspondent Mami Shirakawa, "made a new trend among Japanese youth," popularizing the concept of techno-cool, and having a major impact on fashion, thanks to the group's distinctive haircuts and attire.

Sakamoto, in particular, was hailed as a pop culture visionary. So even when YMO disbanded in 1982, Sakamoto remained a significant presence on the Japanese scene. He played opposite David Bowie in Nagisa Oshima's film "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" -- Sakamoto also wrote his first movie score for that film -- and enjoyed considerable success as a solo artist, working with such stars as Thomas Dolby, Robin Scott and Iggy Pop.

Even now, Sakamoto's albums and singles still grace the Japanese Top 20, and despite the fact that he lives eight months of the year in New York, his face remains so familiar in Japan that he often does television commercials (he was the focus of an Audi campaign last year).

Moreover, he's been remarkably pro-lific in recent months. Last year, he had three albums released in the U.S. -- a symphonic recording called "Discord," and the soundtracks to both "Snake Eyes" and "Love Is the Devil" -- and three more in Japan, including the solo piano album "BTTB."

All that work hasn't thinned Sakamoto's inspiration. If anything, his work has grown more diverse over the years. Not only does his pop work draw on everything from samba and soul to reggae and drum 'n' bass, but he has also written everything from avant-garde electronic music to lush, romantic orchestral scores.

"It's sort of my problem, doing many [styles] at the same time," he says. "i'What is Sakamoto's main thing?' People might be confused. But everything is from my inside."

In fact, there's so much music inside Sakamoto that, lately, he has found himself avoiding the stereo. "I don't listen to other people's CDs so much," he says. "First of all, I don't have much time to listen to those CDs, because I'm busy working on my own projects. [But] I don't have a strong desire to listen to other people's music. I don't know why.

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