Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Symphonic Spins

Ryuichi Sakamoto's classical club mix.

By Matt Ashare

FEBRUARY 23, 1998:  In a musical career that's now spanned three decades, Ryuichi Sakamoto has, in quiet, low-key fashion, racked up a long row of accomplishments. He is best known in highbrow circles for his work scoring films by the great Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, including Little Buddha, The Sheltering Sky, and The Last Emperor, the last of which earned Sakamoto an Oscar in 1987. Rock fans may be familiar with some of his collaborative projects, which have included teaming up with Iggy Pop (1987's "Risky"), the band Aztec Camera (1993's Dreamland CD on Sire), and the Japanese bubblepunk trio Shonen Knife, for whom he remixed "Insect Collector" last year. Somewhere between those two musical extremes there's been what you could deem, in light of the current electronic-music revival, Sakamoto's most influential contributions to popular music: the pioneering synth-pop experiments he participated in as a member of the now much-sampled Yellow Magic Orchestra, who were Japan's answer to Germany's Kraftwerk in the '70s, as well as his collaborations with David Sylvian that followed.

But the 46-year-old, Tokyo-born Sakamoto, who now splits his time between New York and Japan, has yet to settle down in his art. Over the past year he's branched out in two new directions, which bore fruit this month in the form of a couple of CDs: Discord: Untitled 01 (Sony Classical) and the Anger/Grief EP on the British techno label Ninja Tune.

The first is a logical extension of the work Sakamoto has already done in scoring films -- a full-length symphonic piece in four movements. The real surprise is that he hasn't done something on this scale previously. But as he admits over afternoon coffee at Pignoli in downtown Boston, "Symphonic music is a new a challenge for me. I've written some symphonic music for movie projects. But with film projects I'm always given directions and ideas for the music.

"This is my own music, so I needed a strong inspiration. I use different levels of my emotions for writing a pop song and for writing a symphonic piece. I don't need a very deep level of emotion for a pop song, just maybe a little light moment in everyday life will be a trigger. But a long symphonic piece has to be based on something very deep, otherwise you can't keep the continuity going. So I was looking for a strong motivation inside of myself to give me a theme for this piece."

Nevertheless, for Sakamoto, who was commissioned to compose the music for the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, it was only a matter of time before his interest in both traditional classical music and 20th-century innovators like Cage and Stockhausen led him to attempt a full-scale symphony. Much less predictable is the other new development in his career, the one tied to the Ninja Tune EP, which features remixes of two of Discord's movements -- "Anger" and "Grief" -- by DJs Amon Tobin, Rare Force, Talvin Singh, and Chocolate Weasel.

"I just started my own DJ career very recently," Sakamoto says with a shy grin. "It was in November in New York for a fashion show. My style is spinning classical records -- all kinds, Mahler, Bach, Beethoven, Verdi, with some other kinds of music like Stockhausen, Reich, and African tribal music, old Japanese and Chinese folk music, also with some kinds of drum 'n' bass stuff. I feel very close to DJ culture with my ideas. Towa Tei and Dimitri from Deee-Lite are two people I worked with for my solo albums. And I've also used a computer both for composing and for playing. But computers are not flexible, you need to take time to program them prior to the performance -- it's not live or real time. DJing is real-time performance. The turntable is a very flexible instrument."

Sakamoto's interest in DJing is such that he included NYC's illbient specialist DJ Spooky (a/k/a the Subliminal Kid) in the otherwise mostly traditional orchestra that recorded Discord. Various movements also feature avant guitarist David Torn, and the final movement has a collage of recorded voices -- performance artist Laurie Anderson, literary critic Koujin Karantini, Spooky, and Torn -- answering the question "What does salvation mean to you?" (The CD-Extra format of Discord is appendixed with answers from David Byrne, Patti Smith, Bernardo Bertolucci, and others.)

"Most of the symphony is composed in a traditional way," Sakamoto explains, "But I couldn't write a score or a part for a DJ. We needed verbal communication a lot. So we talked about what to use here and there -- bells, monks, chanting, and other sounds. It was like designing the kind of layout or map that John Cage uses."

Sakamoto has come to view the cross-genre collaboration with Spooky as a generational summit of sorts. "My background is in classical music, but I'm closer to the generation of John Cage and Stockhausen than Beethoven and Bach. So those guys, Cage and Stockhausen, are composers I feel very close to. They are my father's generation. DJ Spooky is my children's generation. In Germany, Stockhausen is still active and his children's generation -- Kraftwerk, Can, and Faust, those bands -- are still active, and their children's generation is now also doing techno. It's very interesting to find three generations working on this music."

Sakamoto was inspired to create Discord by the tragedy of seeing people starving in Africa on TV -- the four movements of the piece conform to the four "emotions," or states of mind, the famine brought out in him: "Grief," "Anger," "Prayer," "Salvation." But it was a sense of shared aesthetic purpose that pointed him in the direction of contemporary DJ culture.

"I contacted Ninja Tune to get some recommendations of young DJs," he recalls, "because Talvin Singh is a young DJ I like. When I met him he knew my music and I knew his. I feel, and he feels, that we are the sharing the issues, problems, and the same musical goals."

And what are those goals?

"My first goal is to establish a music that is my own into which I can put everything I have in my background. I have so much variety of musical sources in my background, through ethnic, classical, and contemporary sources, that it's hard to bring everything together in one place. That's what I've been trying to do. I tried to get this goal in a pop-music context for so many years. But pop music is too narrow. I need a bigger tray to put everything together in, to make my own recognizable style.

"The second goal is related to the first goal. It is to break down the boundaries and walls between cultures and genres. That's something I can share with other people even if they are working in different areas; they can be fashion people or movie people or DJs. I think some of those people share the same problems and same ideas as me. We are living with the same walls around us. Of course, I don't want to command people what to do with my music. But I hope my music will be a trigger for some people to become aware of problems and issues in the world."

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