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EMPEROR OF TECHNOPOP Not many film composers break into the field by appearing on the other side of the camera. But Ryuichi Sakamoto has always danced

EMPEROR OF TECHNOPOPNot many film composers break into the field by appearing on the other side of the camera. But Ryuichi Sakamoto has always danced to his own beat.

“My first soundtrack was music for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Ironically, I was asked to act for the film first,” says Sakamoto. “So when I was asked to act, I asked the director if I could write the music, as a kind of trade. That’s how I started my film music career.”

It’s not exactly the tale of a long-struggling, journeyman composer. Still, Sakamoto doesn’t come off as a self-aggrandizing maestro. Instead, the composer, artist and sometime-actor portrays himself as a creature of circumstance, rather than cutthroat ambition. His 1999 Platinum single “Energy Flow” began as a 30-second jingle for a health tonic before it became the first solo piano track to top the singles chart in Japan. It appears on Sakamoto’s recent Sony Classical CD of solo piano pieces, BTTB (Back to the Basics).

The keyboardist seems to save his highest ambition for his film scores. Sakamoto may listen to minimalist post-techno bands such as Pan Sonic, but his scores reflect his varied classical and world music influences with their lush expansiveness. It’s evident on Cinemage, a compilation of live performances of his film scores and other pieces, which Sony Classical released simultaneously with BTTB. “Forbidden Colors,” the theme to Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, unfolds vibrantly with a full-blown symphony and dreamy vocals by former Japan frontman David Sylvian. Sakamoto’s theme to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, a score that won the composer an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and Grammy, combines the brightness of a traditional Asian melody and the romantic, sweeping textures of a 70-piece orchestra. Returning to the basics, the 48-year-old Tokyo native supported both albums with a spring and summer solo piano tour in Europe and the U.S.

Sakamoto’s first instrument was the piano, and he earned a master’s degree (with a concentration in electronic and ethnic music) at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. But his most notable explorations of rock, jazz, electronic, world and classical music were first heard as a founding member of the Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO), a ’70s predecessor of today’s techno and ambient artists. Since YMO, Sakamoto’s solo career has encompassed collaborations with artists ranging from David Bowie, Youssou N’dour and Robert Wilson to Brian Wilson, Iggy Pop and Caetano Veloso. His first opera, Life, debuted last year and included original text by Salman Rushdie, with live and taped performances by Laurie Anderson, L. Subramaniam and Salif Keita. He finds time to write smaller pieces, such as “El Mar Mediterrani,” the music for the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Olympic Games at Barcelona, and occasionally emerges from the studio to act, most recently in Abel Ferrera’s New Rose Hotel.

Now that Sakamoto has composed scores for Oshima, Bertolucci (The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha), Brian De Palma (Snake Eyes), Oliver Stone (Wild Palms), Pedro Almodovar (High Heels), Volker Schlondorff (The Handmaid’s Tale) and most recently, John Maybury (Love Is the Devil), he has developed a rhythm for his composition process. He usually requests about eight weeks to write, record and mix a score, with help from mixer/artist Fernando Aponte. He tries to orchestrate his scores if he has time and he mainly records in New York and London with members of the New York Philharmonic or the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of England.

Plans to score a forthcoming Bertolucci film were in the works as he spoke this spring on the phone from his New York City studio, which is identical to his room in Tokyo. Sakamoto chooses his words carefully, with the precision of a person who describes himself as very technically involved in realizing his vision in the studio. Nonetheless, he prefers to talk about his relationships with cinematic auteurs rather than his gear.

You recently had a hit single in Japan with “Energy Flow” and that led to BTTB. How did that recording come about?

It’s a bit of a complicated story. I was already preparing my first opera, Life. In the middle of the preparation, I was begged to do another album by the record company, and I refused because I was terribly busy. But the record company people begged and begged and begged over and over, and what they asked me was to deliver an album in four weeks.

So I had to stop writing music for the opera, and I started writing these piano pieces from scratch in two weeks and recorded for one week and mixed it and completed it in another week. That was the original BTTB. And some months later, I wrote one jingle, commercial music for a TV commercial, for a Japanese drug company. The music was only 30 seconds; it was very quick. And then reactions to this commercial, especially to the music, were incredible. So someone got the idea to put out a single of this music. I said okay, so I had to extend the music for like five minutes and it became a hit, a Number One hit. In fact, I’m the oldest artist with a Number One hit in [Japan’s] history, and it was the only Number One single on the record chart that was an instrumental single. Of course, I was glad. But at the same time, because I had written so many other kinds of beautiful music for decades and they had never got to Number One, it is so ironical.

In the liner notes of BTTB, there is a reference to all the healing aspects of that song, as well as others. What do you mean by that?

The commercial production company asked me to write some healing music, and generally, I don’t like healing music, new age music. So I said, “Okay, but I will write my own version of healing music. I’ll try, but it’s not going to sound like healing music or new age music.” It’s just maybe a little French impressionism-influenced – tiny, beautiful piano music. Most of [new age music] is too easy, too easily written, kind of a cheesy stereotype.

Going back to your beginnings, how did you first get into music? Were you a piano prodigy?

Well, no, I wasn’t a prodigy, but again it was not my choice. In kindergarten, they gave all children piano lessons and after that, when I entered elementary school, I just followed my friends who decided to take piano lessons. We all went to the same private piano teacher, but probably when I got to the fifth grade, I realized I was by myself and old friends had dropped out. At the same time, my piano teacher took me to another teacher who was a composition professor at the University of Tokyo. Eventually, I entered that college. So they forced me to take composition lessons besides piano lessons. We refused, but we lost! [Laughs]

So other people have been forcing you to get into music?

Right, but there was one time I won. Maybe the first year I entered junior high, I was so into basketball…because basketball players are the girls’ favorite boys. I couldn’t practice piano so much because I was doing basketball. So I quit taking both lessons for six months.

In the middle of this break, I realized I was missing something inside me. And for a while, I didn’t figure it out, but finally I figured out that it was music. So this time it was me that begged both teachers to take lessons. I was 12.

How did Yellow Magic Orchestra form?

Probably the second half of my college years, I gradually started taking some studio-session jobs. Through those sessions, I got to meet those two guys of Yellow Magic Orchestra, Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi, and I already respected their music. So it was kind of exciting to meet them. One day, Mr. Hosono – he’s five years older than we are – invited Takahashi and I to his house and showed us his idea of the band, Yellow Magic Orchestra. But I was already busy, working as a session man, so I didn’t want to sacrifice my private time and everything. I was so arrogant! [Laughs] I was so rude. But if I had spare time, I would do that, I said.

So we started writing the first album, and it didn’t succeed, you know. It didn’t get great reaction. But then soon after, we did our first world tour. Nobody knew about the band in ’79. But the feedback about the news, the world tours, to the Japanese media lit some kind of boom or something. So suddenly, we became famous in Japan.

You were really the first Japanese rock/pop band to get any international attention.

Sort of, sort of, yes. We were all big fans of Kraftwerk, and I knew Kraftwerk even before they started doing techno. Kraftwerk was like a hippie band, playing guitars and handmade synthesizers. So I kind of introduced this band to other members of YMO, and we became huge fans. So instead of imitating Kraftwerk, we wanted to invent something like that, some Japanese version of technopop.

How active are you in technical aspects of recording your own work?

I have my own private studio, very small. But everything is digital domain or connected.

I’m pretty technical; in fact, I like technical problems. I’ve been using StudioVision, along with Pro Tools 24-bit, for some years. [BTTB was recorded on Pro Tools in a Tokyo concert hall.] I used to use [Mark of the Unicorn] Performer, but I switched at some point. I just bought the analog synthesizer ART 2600. That’s kind of where I’m from.

The first year of university, the most important benefit I got was to encounter analog synthesizers, which was 1970. At the university, they had ART and Buchler synthesizers, Moog – they were all huge. Anyway, I’m using Akai samplers and Yamaha’s new synthesizers, EX5. I also use Akai’s DR16, kind of a hard disk recorder.

What do you compose on?

Usually on a synthesizer – at this moment, Yamaha’s new keyboard called S80. It’s good. Finally, they made a good choir sound on this keyboard. That’s why I like it.

When you start to build a score, where do you begin?

I prefer to sit down with the director in front of the editing machine. I keep stopping frame by frame of the film and keep discussing with the director. That would go easily one or two days, and according to the memos of those discussions, the first thing I do is write some demos of the major theme. The director will pick up one major theme, and then I could get started writing some variations and other pieces. I prefer to write in order, chronologically.

What’s your favorite score so far?

As far as the strength of the music, The Last Emperor and Merry Christmas. But as far as the technical accomplishments as a soundtrack, I would say Little Buddha. I’m really satisfied with the marriage between images and music, technically and artistically. The scene was very deep and difficult to write music about. The first music I was asked to write was the theme for reincarnation. How do I do it? The last piece of music in the film was the most difficult one. [Director] Bernardo Bertolucci wanted me to write the most sad music ever in the world. So I tried very hard, and I presented some demos and he said, “Ryuichi, this is too sad. There must be some hope.” [Laughs]

How do you create the saddest music in the world?

Well, after two hours of yelling at Bernardo, I calmed down, and crawling on the floor, tried to. I don’t know, I throw everything I’ve got in my brain, make my brain empty and tried to get some sounds, some piece of music from deep inside me. It was hard.

Let’s talk about some of your scores. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence?

I made a list of the cues, the pieces of music, according to the scenes, the cuts. I showed the list to the director, and just by chance, his own list and my list shared 99 percent in common. He was so pleased. So he left me alone for three months, just in the studio, and he came to the studio to check on the music I wrote, just once in three months.

But that was my first soundtrack, so I had no idea how to score. I asked the producer of the film, Jeremy Thomas, to give me one best reference that I should refer to. His answer was to see Citizen Kane – which was Bernard Herrmann’s score. So I did, but obviously the music is very different and I mostly used synthesizers on that score. The technique and methods were pretty much similar to what I was doing at the time in the early ’80s.

How did the vocals by David Sylvian come about?

After the film was done. That vocal version was not in the film. But you know, our friendship with David Sylvian was tight. So I really wanted Sylvian to sing on that scene. Naturally, I expected Sylvian would sing that melody with his own words, lyrics, but he created his own melodies on top of my music. Ha, that was surprising.

What about The Last Emperor?

After we finished Merry Christmas, we went to the Cannes Film Festival in ’83 or ’84, and Mr. Oshima introduced me to Bertolucci. At that time, Bertolucci was preparing for The Last Emperor. He was so passionate. We met at a big party, a very noisy party, but he kept talking, talking, talking about his new project, which was The Last Emperor, for hours. I was just listening to him.

Then maybe a year later, I got a call from his production to come to China to act again. Not to write music, but to act in The Last Emperor. So I went there; I was with them for almost two months for shooting. Then shooting was done, and I went back to normal life. Maybe three, four months later, I got another call from him: Come to London, to write music. I almost gave up, because there was no phone call for me to write music! But Bernardo Bertolucci decides everything very late, at the very end. Very last minute. So at that time, I had only two weeks to write and record the music for The Last Emperor.

What inspired the main theme? I read somewhere that Bertolucci wanted more emotion.

He’s not easy – to understand, you know. What he’s saying is not easy. He started telling something he wanted, like, “Well, Ryuichi, music should be something like 1920s or 1930s or Fascism era of music. But this film is a modern film, so the music should be also, at the same time, modern music. And this is about the Chinese last emperor, so of course, music should have some influence of Chinese music, but this film is a European film, so music is European at the same time! So four different things at the same time – ’30s, ’20s, and modern and Chinese and European in one music. That’s my inspiration.

The Sheltering Sky?

Some years later, after The Last Emperor, I heard they went on to the Sahara to shoot Sheltering Sky. They were in the Sahara for six months, and during this shooting, the world changed drastically. The Berlin Wall was broken down. But they didn’t know, because they were in the Sahara; and finally, they came back. I was in London and I saw Bernardo Bertolucci, and he was so empty. Usually he is very musical, and he is full of ideas about everything, music. But at that time, especially for this Sheltering Sky, he didn’t have any idea. So we decided to listen to music together, different kinds of music – we listened to lots of Arabic music. But because the subject is the tragic story of a couple, the first thing that came to my mind was music of Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner. But [that] music didn’t sound right for this film, so we threw it away and finally, I got this Requiem written by Verdi, which I thought was very sad and tragic and maybe the closest reference for writing music for this film, and he agreed.

Snake Eyes?

That was, maybe 1995. I was asked to write music for his Mission Impossible, but I was in the middle of the tour. I was touring in Japan. Not [director] Brian De Palma, but some people on his side said I should cancel the tour, but I couldn’t, so I couldn’t get a chance to work with him for Mission Impossible. But luckily, he waited for me, and he asked me to write his next film, Snake Eyes. So we met in New York, and he came to my private studio almost every day to check whatever I got.

Strangely, it went very smoothly, except at the very end; he changed the ending of the film after we completed everything. He changed the ending just a month before the film was out. I was in Mongolia for fieldwork. That was my fault again – I carried my laptop, and unluckily, I got online in Mongolia, and so I got an e-mail from him: “Hey Ryuichi, I changed the ending. Come back!” [Sighs] So that was insane. I rewrote maybe three pieces of music.

Do you enjoy scoring film? Is it your favorite genre to work in or do you prefer solo piano or having the interaction of a band?

Maybe the most fun time is being onstage with a band, in front of an audience, because performance is not about creating something. It’s basically repeating whatever I have done before in the past. So it is fun, because I don’t have to use my brain to create. It’s like sport.

But I prefer to be in the studio to create something new, because this is most challenging and I can get deeper satisfaction. Working on a soundtrack is worse, because you’re working for some other people and I am told what to write, what to do.

When you perform live, you have a very distinctive keyboard style.

My style is mainly based on classical music, but with some sense of pop music and mainly French Impressionism, along with some elements of Brazilian music. The French Impressionists because they try to draw music with harmony, not with points. Melodies are like points in time. Like the French Impressionist painters, they try to draw their music with different colors of harmony. That’s what I like.