Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (Theatrical Release: July 6, 2018)
On the year’s first honest spring day, I watched an old Honey Locust cleave the roof of a parked car in the West Village, just next to the home of famed composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. The tree’s upturned roots—still damp—were crowned with freshly planted pansies. It bowed beautifully into the sunlight.
“Did you see that?” Sakamoto asked excitedly, eyes dancing under his iconic shock of white hair. I nodded, more surprised to find myself in the maestro’s private studio—a labyrinth of black and white keys framed between a softly lit garden and his upright piano, the latter minimally armed with sheet music: Cage. Charmingly boyish for a world-class composer, I found Sakamoto easy to laugh, thoughtful and generous as we discussed the bizarre episode outside, as well as his filmic influences, activism and async—his first solo album in eight years. An admirer since my Tokyo days, I was elated to meet him just before the Tribeca premiere of Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017)—a compelling documentary on the musician’s life and work.
Directed by Stephen Nomura Schible, Coda profiles Sakamoto with a characteristic balance of elegant reserve and poetic impulse. Over five eventful years, the film quietly drifts between the political and the personal—from Sakamoto’s extensive work in Fukushima to a sudden diagnosis of throat cancer. His earnest determination is inspiring throughout, as is his tireless curiosity; we often find the composer silent, head atilt, listening as fixedly to New York rainfall as the waters of a melting glacier or a zonal beach. In turn, Coda’s stillness hones us as both listeners and viewers. Watching Sakamoto playfully experiment in the studio, it’s easy to swoon under the sweep of a singing bowl, the luscious pull of violin bow across cymbal, the tender dissonance of his tsunami piano—waterlined and witness.
A few days after our meeting, I saw Mr. Sakamoto perform at National Sawdust. Standing before a prepared piano, he divined its innards with the sharp percussion of chimes and shells, found paper, and patient space. The music swelled, floating sudden images of uprooted trees, detuned pianos, islands, energy, entropy—man-made and natural, east and west. As he conjured static from prismatic cellophane, light fragmenting between his hands, I thought of poet Arseny Tarkovsky, as quoted on async: “Cities and seas, iridescent, intensified.”
We discuss zones, seas, and the prophetic Tarkovsky family below.
Sadie Rebecca Starnes (Rail): You’re a very private person, yet Coda is such an intimate film—so how did Mr. Schible convince you to do this?
Ryuichi Sakamoto: It was some time in 2012, a year after the big earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and I didn’t have any intention to be filmed for my popularity or anything. I normally don’t want to show my privacy to the public. Although sometimes, you know, I have to because of my job. [Laughs]
Rail: Yes, you’ve been in the press for so long, for forty years now.
Sakamoto: But I thought it was a good thing to document this very unique moment in Japanese society, after the earthquake. That was the very first time in forty years that regular, ordinary Japanese people were speaking out on the streets of Japan.
Rail: It’s very unusual.
Sakamoto: Very, very unusual. I thought Japan was becoming a true democratic country, so this must be documented through my activities—Mr. Schible should catch the moment of it, the moment of change in Japan.
Rail: Do you think that’s been sustained, that sense of protest?
Sakamoto: The momentum went away very quickly from the summer of that year, but he still kept shooting all my activities, not only social activities but musical activities also. Then, without any aim, he went on. When I became sick, he was wondering if he could shoot this very serious moment of my life, so it was I who pushed him to do it—I just wanted to make this film a good one, that’s it.
Rail: In the beginning of the film you’re playing in in an evacuation center in Rikuzentakata, Iwate. It seems very cold.
Sakamoto: Yes, very cold.
Rail: That town was devastated—it was eighty percent destroyed [by the 2011 tsunami] . . . I'm curious how that experience has influenced async.
Sakamoto: Definitely, definitely. You know some people would misunderstand, and I know ethically it’s not right, but I thought when I looked at the mountains of debris in Rikuzentakata, it's like the art of Anselm Kiefer, the German artist. Kiefer tries to make something like that, but of course, no single human can make it. But the force of nature can make art like that. It’s so harmful—maybe art sometimes should be harmful. Art should be dangerous like that. Looking at that debris made me think about human civilization—nature and art, music—a lot. And still, I’m thinking about that.
Rail: It’s extremely complicated.
Sakamoto: Because, yes, I don’t have any answer to that question but definitely it's just awesome, the force of nature.
Rail: It’s the sublime. There’s not really words to express the power.
Sakamoto: Probably the art has had a tendency for a long time—for two thousand years, maybe more—to reach to the level of the force of god. I mean, we’ve got Greek art, Greek sculptures, architecture touching that level. Probably art should still have that desire. That’s why Kiefer’s art is pretty symbolic—that he is trying to make his debris.
Rail: Yes, he’s depicting trauma and horror also. Do you see the tsunami piano in the same light—this awesome power that’s also beautiful?
Sakamoto: It’s a bit different aspect about the tsunami piano. To be short, I concluded that that piano is tuned by nature, not by humans. So looking back to the normal pianos, humans forcefully tried to tune in a very artificial way, and also to build in a very artificial form of the piano with a lot of force. To make the grand piano curve they force the wood in that frame for six months.
Rail: That’s incredible.
Sakamoto: So as time goes by, the tuning gets worse, gets out of tune, because the things of nature would like to go back to what they were. That’s what “out of tune” means. So, I thought the tsunami piano that’s tuned by nature, it’s beautiful.
Rail: It is very beautiful. When I saw you playing that piano, the first thing I thought of was Debussy and La mer, inspired by Hokusai’s tsunami print. I wonder if you felt Debussy in this piano, or when you were working on async perhaps with that material?
Sakamoto: Yeah—that Hokusai. It’s my favorite Hokusai print. Debussy even used it for his cover for La mer. Debussy loved the sea, waves.
Rail: He wanted to be a sailor, right?
Sakamoto: Yeah. And he tried to catch—like an impressionist painter—repetition, the movements of color, the light and shadow of the sea. But the same sea, sometimes, can be very hard… such as the sea of northern Japan, Tōhoku. So that's also a very good thing to think about. Recently, I have been organizing the Tōhoku Youth Orchestra with three different prefectures, and we just had the third concert in March, in Tokyo and Sendai. And one of these was Debussy’s La mer. It’s very, very hard for kids to play but also, not only musically and technically hard, but for some kids the sea is still traumatic. Not all, but some kids, because they lost friends and lost family members. So I was wondering if they would accept my request to play La mer, but then they kindly concurred to overcome the difficulty of technique, but also trauma.
Rail: La mer captures the beauty of the sea as well as the dangers of the sea, so perhaps, in the future, it will be a healing moment for them. I also saw a video of you teaching them dissonance. You had them all turn on their cellphones, [creating] cellphone music.
Sakamoto: Yes, yes, the cellphone music.
Rail: So you’re teaching them very classical pieces of music, but you're also teaching them how to be experimental and…
Sakamoto: Yeah, that's my purpose—to expand their musicality.
Rail: And you’ve been doing a lot of that lately. On Thursday, you have a show with Taylor Deupree, Joseph Branciforte, and Theo Bleckmann. What put you on this trajectory towards ambient and environmental music, field recordings … you became famous for techno pop, but was there a moment where your perspective shifted?
Sakamoto: Well, musically, I recognize there is a decayed wave. It's strange, because I was interested in the more electric music than the more acoustic sort—kind of, based on decays . . . So since I met Carsten [Nicolai] (also known as Alva Noto) in 2000, I was heavily interested in doing the electric side, for ten years. Since then—2010, 2011—I was moving towards the acoustic side.
Rail: And now it’s in between, the synthesis of the two.
Sakamoto: Yeah, according to tradition. But maybe not that patternized this time, because of my illness. It was a big impact, of course.
Rail: Yes, I’m happy to see you look healthy. You seem quite genki. [Laughter] On a similar note, I’m curious how interested you are in environmental music from Japan from the eighties. It’s experiencing a resurgence, like Hiroshi Yoshimura or Midori Takada—she’s touring this summer in New York. Was there ever a connection there in your past?
Sakamoto: Well, I didn’t have a strong connection, but of course I knew her activities and music, but I was more on the electro-pop side.
Rail: Yeah, different currents.
Sakamoto: I was a big admirer of Brian Eno, since the middle of the seventies, but I was a little bit skeptical about Japanese environmental or ambient music in the eighties.
Rail: Do you still feel the same way?
Sakamoto: Eh . . . you know, they were easily connected to spirituality and meditation, eastern, whether it be religious or . . .
Rail: New age.
Sakamoto: A new age, yes. I was trying not to be close to that then.
Rail: So interesting, I love Hiroshi Yoshimura—I always associate him with sound design.
Sakamoto: Now I don’t have any difficulties, so yeah, I like him.
Rail: Midori Takada seems more close to you—she’s got a fourth world aesthetic. Something I’ve always loved about your work is it’s international. You draw from all sources. You don't feel like you have to be a Japanese musician. You can be a world musician.
Sakamoto: Yes. [Sighs]
Rail: Is it exhausting?
Sakamoto: Before, I had interviewers ask me, “what's Japanese music right now in Japan?” I don’t know! I am not following it. I was so furious about that, because I am not the representative of Japan’s culture.
Rail: People like to categorize…
Sakamoto: Now, I’m not furious and I get less of those questions, and I’m okay. And in a way, my music is related to Japaneseness. I own it. Before I didn’t want to admit that—my music’s not Japanese like that! [Laughs] But now I’m more flat, you know, neutral about that.
Rail: So I want to talk about Andrei Tarkovsky, too. You wrote this really beautiful chorale that was inspired by Bach, a composer he loved. In the film Coda, it seems it was perhaps the hardest piece to compose? Was it just the way the film was edited, or did you spend the most time with that one?
Sakamoto: It wasn’t the most difficult piece for async. The thing is that in the beginning of the process of making async, I was experimenting with many different things for four months, half of the whole process. The first thing I did was to arrange Bach's music like Tarkovsky’s soundtrack, because Bach’s chorale was synthesized in Tarkovsky’s film Solaris (1972). So I was kind of mimicking, but in my own sound—much more grey, more monotone. I chose five of my favorite Bach chorales. It was beautiful. So, I was listening to them for weeks, and I thought, maybe this could be my next album.
Rail: So it was the first piece you thought of?
Sakamoto: Yeah, but then I thought, wait, maybe I should write my own chorale inspired by this. So I tried to write that chorale.
Rail: Did you ever consider working with Eduard Artemyev, the original synthesist? He’s quite elderly now.
Sakamoto: He’s still alive, he’s still active, even he must be in his late seventies now.
Rail: He’s eighty.
Sakamoto: Eighty, wow. I don't know, he’s too far from . . . I don’t know, I never thought of that.
Rail: I haven’t heard about him since Tarkovsky's films. I'm not too familiar, I know he's quite legendary but—
Sakamoto: I was with Tarkovsky, Jr. in Berlin in February. Of course, Jr. knows Artemyev, and he said that Artemyev is still working on films, and there is a huge analog synthesizer Artemyev used for Solaris, in Moscow. So Jr. said, let’s go to Moscow to see this synth. Because it was a custom made synth, very unique. There are only three of them in the world.
Rail: Can you play them?
Sakamoto: Probably, but they are in a museum.
Rail: Yeah, that would be too tempting I think. [Laughs]
Sakamoto: Oh, also I like Tarkovsky’s Polaroids of flowers. It's a beautiful photobook, Instant light (2006). Especially, I liked the one of some countryside of Moscow, a great modest house in nature with a tiny stream, like in Solaris, and with a dog and a boy—and this boy is his son.
Rail: All the archetypes.
Sakamoto: So he said the house is still untouched. The nature is still the same as fifty years ago, or forty years ago. That’s my dream.
Rail: Did you go?
Sakamoto: No, that's my dream to go.
Rail: I was also thinking about the zone in Stalker (1979). In Coda, we see you visit the exclusion zone in Fukushima. Did that direct you down the Tarkovsky rabbit hole, or were you already thinking of Tarkovsky in your work before?
Sakamoto: Well, even before the Fukushima accident happened, I kind of knew of … Stalker was made before Chernobyl, right?
Rail: Yeah, 1979.
Sakamoto: It’s incredible.
Rail: He’s a prophet.
Sakamoto: Yes, definitely. So I knew that, so … definitely when I went to Fukushima I was thinking of Stalker.
Rail: One of the most bizarre stories I’ve heard is about the filming of the zone in Stalker in Estonia. They believe that Tarkovsky’s cancer, his wife’s death, and Anatoly Solonitsyn’s death were all due to a chemical spill in the river. The Zone, it became alive in a way—a mingling of art and life.
Sakamoto: Yeah, he passed so young.
Rail: I know. He was working on his deathbed.
Sakamoto: Two of my favorite film directors—Tarkovsky and Edward Yang—they left too early.
Rail: And Tarkovsky believed that he would make seven masterpieces. He had been told by a seer, as recounted in Chris Marker’s Life of Andrei Arsenevich (2001).
Sakamoto: But also I found that 1983 was a very special year—that’s when I went to Cannes with Nagisa Oshima to present Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983). That was the first time I went there, but also the same year that Tarkovsky presented Nostalghia (1984) and Robert Bresson presented L'argent (1984). So they were all there, and I was there. [Laughs]
Rail: Wow, did you meet Tarkovsky?
Sakamoto: No, no, I couldn’t… what a special year. And Orson Welles gave Tarkovsky and Bresson special awards, but no Palme d’Or. [Laughs] And Merry Christmas didn’t win the Palme d’Or either.
Rail: Did you take any field recordings while you were in the Fukushima zone? I ask because the pulsing sound on “Zure” and “Ubi” reminds me of a Geiger counter, but it also has this very lush, beautiful movement under it.
Sakamoto: I must have … I was with this free guitarist, Yoshihide Otomo, and in the microbus we were playing the Geiger counters together and dun dun da dun dun da, that kind of randomness, very bizarre.
Rail: I've thought about creating a musical instrument that picked up on radiation … but yeah, I didn't know if it was implied to be a heartbeat, or the Geiger counter, or—
Sakamoto: My friend, a very young Japanese artist called Soichiro Mihara, after Fukushima he created a very beautiful piece [Bell, 2013] related to radioactivity. He modified Japanese traditional furin—furin is wind chime in Japanese—but in his piece, the wind chime does not pick up wind but radioactivity. Passing the radioactive particles, it will ring. So I think that’s the best piece after Fukushima.
Rail: Yeah, there’s been a lot of study of post-Fukushima artists, and it runs the gamut from pieces like that, very poignant and beautiful, to things that are clearly exploitative and…
Sakamoto: Scary, so scary, but so beautiful. It’s too hard for me.
Rail: Have you heard of Chim↑Pom’s work there, Don’t Follow the Wind? They set up an exhibit in the zone with Trevor Paglen and other artists.
Sakamoto: Now after that, maybe not anymore, but Chim↑Pom, they were doing something on the border with Mexico.
Rail: Yeah I saw that. They built a treehouse …[the other side, 2016]
Rail: I love Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time (1982). In the book he says “properly organized in a film, the resonant world is musical in its essence—and that is the true music of cinema.” He’s talking about how cinema doesn’t need music, yet all of his movies have music.
Sakamoto: I think he’s a composer, and he composed symphonies with sounds of nature and human steps.
Rail: Yeah, I can hear that on “walker” on async, that cinematic quality.
Sakamoto: From Solaris to, what’s the last one?
Rail: The Sacrifice (1986)?
Sakamoto: I think the steps—the sound of steps is always a very unique character of Tarkovsky’s films. Of course everybody recognizes the sounds of water, like a stream, and of raindrops, but the steps also sound symbolic to me.
Rail: Where did you record those steps?
Sakamoto: Actually, I recorded my own steps in the forest of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut [the site of a recent improvisational piece made with Alva Noto].
Rail: Oh wow, yeah, that was a beautiful show. You didn’t have a piano or anything with that?
Rail: And so you played on the glass?
Sakamoto: Glass walls, yes, so after the sound check I was walking around for ten, fifteen minutes.
Rail: So you exhibited the tsunami piano in Tokyo recently?
Sakamoto: Yes, it’s over, but we had an exhibition for another new installation piece. Shiro Takatani did the design and the artwork, and it’s a part of this installation. We modified the tsunami piano, except the out-of-tune strings and debris and dust were left untouched. We had to smooth the key functions, and my idea is to use the tsunami piano as a device of earth’s tremblings.
Rail: Like seismic data?
Sakamoto: Like earthquakes, and it can translate earth’s vibrations into sounds.
Rail: So using the entire earth almost as a percussion instrument?
Rail: And I heard a rumor that you were planning to do another opera?
Sakamoto: Ah, yeah, I’m planning to make another opera with Shiro Takatani. We made the first opera together in 1999, LIFE, so it’s almost twenty years ago, and we want to make another one, but we’re still just brainstorming.
Rail: I know the last one was very—
Sakamoto: Twentieth century.
Rail: Yes, it was basically a collected volume of the horrors of the twentieth century… I feel like this century’s pretty horrible also.
Sakamoto: This time, the subject we’re drawn to is more abstract—it’s about time and space. [Laughs]
Rail: Plenty of material there.
Sakamoto: Yeah, why not? Time and space is a lot about music.