Last month, I interviewed Ryuichi Sakamoto for an article that will appear in the next issue of Signal to Noise. On October 18, 2010, I got a chance to hear Sakamoto perform live at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NewYork University. It was the second show in a two month long U.S. concert tour promoting his new US release Playing the Piano/Out of Noise.
In recent years, many entertainers have become more outspoken about the consequences of their jet-setting ways. True, the environmental impact of concert tours, concerns about climate change, and, in turn, advocacy for human rights and fair trade are often associated with big-name pop acts: Bono, Sting, and David Byrne. But it isn’t only artists at the top of the charts who are trying to change their business practices. Sakamoto has become a forthright advocate for these causes as well. His touring schedule is crafted with climate impact in mind. A carbon offset is made to counteract the carbon dioxide emissions from the US tour.
The offset isn’t the only concession made on the tour. During the concert, several pieces are accompanied by projections or incorporate spoken-word recordings. Some of the visuals are abstract art projections – kind of benevolent large-scale screen-savers. But others encourage engagement on particular topics. These invariably reference social issues important to Sakamoto, and range from discussions of the melting of the polar ice caps by Greenland official Karen Filskov to principles for engaging in reconciliation by the Dalai Lama. Still, if rendering opinions on social issues from the concert stage has become a not-uncommon practice, one certainly prefers this kind of subtle insertion of the topic to the polemical speeches some artists make between songs. And there’s an organic component to their presence onstage. Sakamoto incorporates these ideas into his compositions themselves as well: often in a singular and evocative fashion.
One of the most overt examples of this is the piece “Glacier.” The composition appears on Out of Noise and is featured as the opener on many of Sakamoto’s concerts. It incorporates excerpts of field recordings that Sakamoto made while on a trip to Greenland featuring sounds collected while he visited several rapidly melting glaciers. The sounds he recorded are haunting, alternately brittle and percussive shards of cracking ice as well as the flowing sounds of water and howls from biting winds.
Sakamoto’s response to the sounds of Greenland’s glaciers is to play his instrument in an unconventional fashion. He plays inside the piano, using his fingers to elicit scratches, thumps, and plucked strings. Ample amplification and reverb add a cavernous echo to these extended sonorities. When listening to the recording, “Glacier” certainly makes an impression. But seeing Sakamoto play the piece live really brings its message home.
The concert starts in darkness, with glitch electronica and field recordings emanating from onstage speakers, creating an eerie ambience. Sakamoto takes the stage, standing beside one of the two grand pianos that adorn it, illumined by icy projections playing from a screen behind him and a small light on the piano. Playing inside the piano in this dimly lit setting, he is visually accompanied by projected titles that translate a calmly spoken but clearly urgent narrative about the impact of climate change on Greenland’s fragile ecosystem and on the fisherman who eke out a precarious living in the region: a vanishing way of life.
The music could scarcely be further from the public’s perception of Sakamoto, which is guided by Neo Geo fusion pop and hummable film score themes. Doubtless some of the sold-out crowd is taken aback, but they are very responsive to “Glacier:” to both its message and its music.
Glacier, like other socially engaged pieces on the program, manages to communicate without ever overreaching or seeming preachy. Just as Sakamoto is known for restraint and balance in his compositions, his approach to activism is similar in approach: gentle yet potent.
During the concert, Sakamoto presents several other pieces from Out of Noise. If one wonders why the pianist has two grand pianos onstage, the answer is supplied by the evening’s second selection: a new piece called “Hibari.” For “Hibari,” Sakamoto plays one grand piano, while the opposing MIDI grand creates a virtual duet, echoing back some of the music he’s already performed. It’s great fun to watch the keys move seemingly of their own accord, like a player piano. It’s even more fun to listen to the accumulation of repeating layers, over which Sakamoto continues to weave successively more intricate harmonic clusters and diaphanous lines. The overall effect is simultaneously minimalist and post-Impressionist. It’s as if Steve Reich and Oliver Messiaen were given “mash-up” treatment, with a little bit of the score for Silk thrown in for good measure! “In the Red” takes on a more avant-ambient space. The second piano remains silent, but Sakamoto is “accompanied” here by glitch guitar samples supplied by Cornelius and Christian Fennesz.
While there’s plenty of new material on the NY concert, Sakamoto also gives the audience an ample share of older songs. He even reaches back into his Yellow Magic Orchestra catalog, playing an instrumental version of 1979’s “Behind the Mask,” one of the hits from the group’s second album Solid State Survivor. He leaves the original’s vocoder at home, but the lyrics are displayed on the projection screen. This “music minus one” endeavor leaves more room for Sakamoto to craft an elaborately syncopated accompaniment; and the scrolling lyrics encourage more than a few audience members to take their cue to indulge in a little “concert karaoke.”
Spontaneous audience participation and multiple encores featuring Sakamoto’s biggest hits close out the show. But as soon as the houselights go up, we hear a recording of more glitch electronica from Out of Noise; bringing the evening full circle. And so it is with Sakamoto, who’s eager to present his latest creative endeavors, even to his oldest fans. Unlike some ‘dinosaurs of rock’ tours, where the audience grumbles when the concerts contain too many “songs from the new album,” few at NYU seem to mind – the queue for autographs is so long that it extends further than the line for the exits.