Sakamoto hears music's sounds, not its styles

Performance: The popular Japanese pianist is moving toward acoustic music because he is not sure he can rely on electricity.

March 23, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK -- Ryuichi Sakamoto is not an easy man to categorize, and he seems to like it that way.

As he sees it, he's just following his instincts as a musician, paying attention to the sounds and ideas that most interest him -- regardless of source or style.

So instead of talking about "BTTB," the solo piano album he will tour to promote (he plays the 9: 30 Club in Washington tomorrow), or "Cinemage," the brand new collection of his soundtrack work, or even "Life," the opera he was commissioned to write by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbun, Sakamoto wants to talk about hip-hop.

"I like hip-hop," he says, over a plate of pasta in a small Italian bistro. With his graying hair and dark, conservative clothes, the 48-year-old musician doesn't look much like a hip-hop fan, but then again, he doesn't have quite the same interest in the music as the B-Boys uptown.

"To me, hip-hop is all about texture," he says. "Many kids, without any consciousness, are into a kind of lo-fi sound -- probably because they want to get more texture. And I share the same hunger."

That's part of the reason why, on his "BTTB" tour, Sakamoto will spend time on the turntables as well as the piano, demonstrating his skills as both a DJ and a composer. But his hip-hop-fueled fascination with texture has simultaneously led him in another direction, one that finds him increasingly fascinated by acoustic instruments.

"I'm very concerned about environment issues," he says. "And I'm convinced we could lose electricity entirely in the near future. I mean, I hope we won't. But we could.

"As a musician, I want to make music without any technology or electricity. I want to make music with my hands." Hence the all-acoustic piano album "BTTB," whose title stands for "Back to the Beginning."

A household name in Japan, Sakamoto is one of the best-known Japanese musicians in the world. He made his name back in the late '70s as the leader of Yellow Magic Orchestra, a Japanese synth band whose sound and sensibility anticipated the electropop boom of the early '80s. Not only was YMO big in Japan, but the group also garnered a reputation in Europe and the Americas as well, cracking the U.S. charts in 1980 with the single "Computer Game."

Over the years, he has recorded with all manner of musicians, including proto-punk Iggy Pop, former Beach Boy Brian Wilson, the Band leader Robbie Robertson and Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour. He has scored numerous movies (including "The Last Emperor," for which he won an Oscar) and appeared in several as well, most notably 1985's "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence." He can also be seen playing the director in the video for Madonna's "Rain."

For years, Sakamoto has been seen as the epitome of modern, creative Japanese music. In that sense, the idea that he would turn his back on electronic music is almost shocking.

But Sakamoto's most recent Japanese hit, "Energy Flow," involves no electronics at all. A starkly beautiful piano solo, it seems of a different species entirely when compared to the overstuffed ballads, teen dance pop, and R&B that dominates the Japanese pop market. Yet "Energy Flow" topped the pop charts there last year.

"I was really surprised and shocked that my instrumental track got to No. 1," he says. "It's unbelievable. But nobody knows the reason." It probably helped that the tune was used as background music for a TV commercial -- a common practice with pop singles in Japan. But as Sakamoto points out, that in itself is not enough to make a record a chart-topper.

"I mean, many singles are played on TV, in dramas and commercials. So it's not the biggest reason for that."

Still, that unexpected success has helped Sakamoto feel better about the Japanese pop market. Not so much because listeners are buying his recordings, but because the Japanese audience seems to be increasingly interested in music that doesn't play to the most predictable tastes.

"I don't follow the Japanese pop market continuously, but the last couple of years, it has been changing," he says. He cites Dragon Ash -- a group that fuses hip-hop and rock into a uniquely Japanese sound -- as an example.

"The first time I listened to Dragon Ash, I immediately liked what I heard, but I never thought it would be a hit," he says. "I thought it wouldn't sound `pop' to regular Japanese people." But Dragon Ash was hugely popular in Japan last year, thanks to such hits as "Let Yourself Go, Let Myself Go."

"Maybe [Japanese people's] ears are changing," muses Sakamoto.

If so, that would explain why Sakamoto's latest Japanese album, the soundtrack to Nagisa Oshima's film "Gohatto," was such a success over there. "This is film music, so I've written a theme, which is repeatedly played throughout the film," he says. "But I also used a lot of unusual sounds."

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