Aaron Coultate speaks to the revered Japanese composer about overcoming cancer, The Revenant and his absorbing new album.
It's perhaps no surprise that the Japanese composer has found beauty in life's simple things after his 2014 diagnosis with throat cancer. He's now in full remission, but the experience forced him to contemplate his own mortality. Now, he says everyday things—having a nice lunch, drinking a glass of wine—bring him "joyous pleasure." Sakamoto, 65, can look back on a rich catalogue that has brought experimental music to mass audiences. There's his pioneering early work with Yellow Magic Orchestra, a long list of acclaimed film soundtracks—Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, The Last Emperor and many more—plus collaborations with everyone from Alva Noto to Fennesz to David Sylvian. I spoke with Sakamoto in the days before async was officially released.
Your new album takes inspiration from everyday things, sculpture and nature. Why is that?
My first desire when making this album was just to listen to, and enjoy, the sounds of everyday objects. I had returned to a point in life where I wanted to simply hear the sounds of objects, and that included thinking of musical instruments as everyday objects.
Harry Bertoia, the furniture designer and sound sculptor, is referenced as an influence on the record. What kind of links can you draw between furniture and music?
My interest was in Bertoia's sound sculptures more than his work as a furniture designer. But your question reminded me of Erik Satie, the French composer. At the beginning of the 20th century, he wanted to make music as furniture, or wallpaper. And that influenced John Cage a lot. So there must be a thread within the history of music about that type of desire.
You use field recordings on this album, and some of them are clearly audible. Have you used these much in your music in the past?
I regularly record interesting things around me, especially when I travel, because when you go abroad the sounds and environments—not only the sounds, but the landscapes, the food, the people—everything is more interesting. So, yes, I take field recordings a lot. And that was particularly the case for this album. There are recordings from Tokyo, New York City, upstate New York, Paris, Kyoto and in and around my house.
One track, "Walker," has the crunchy, satisfying sound of footsteps. I presume they're your own footsteps?
Yes, that's right. I walked in a forest holding a recorder for ten to 15 minutes, very slowly, and that's the main element of this track. You can hear some mud, but mainly it's leaves. At the end of the piece I reach a concrete area, so the footsteps sound different at the end, and I think you can properly imagine the setting by hearing the soundscape.
Do you feel that your experience with throat cancer, and having treatment and coming through it, has made you to appreciate the small everyday things in life?
That's true. After a serious disease, you look at everyday life with very fresh eyes. Doing normal things, like having breakfast or having lunch, drinking a glass of wine, it becomes a very, very joyous pleasure. I get this feeling with everyday sounds, too.
Andrei Tarkovsky's films were an influence on the album. What is it about his work that appeals to you?
I didn't specifically watch Tarkovsky films for this album, but I am a long-time fan of his films. He only left seven masterpieces, and I have watched them again and again throughout my life, but recently I like his films more than before, maybe because of age, maybe the disease. Maybe my experience with cancer is more related to the concepts of his films—life and death and memories. His films are full of poetry. There's one, very biographic movie called Mirror. It's very poetic and there's almost no story, but it's all about his imagination and his memories.
One of the songs on the album, "Life, Life," quotes a poem from Andrei's father, Arseny. Why did you choose that poem specifically, and what was it like to again work with David Sylvian, who read the poem?
I've been reading Arseny Tarkovsky's poems for a long time, but this poem is about life and dreams, so naturally it sounds very charming and interesting to me after cancer. But this recording of the poem by David Sylvian was actually made right after the big tsunami and earthquake happened in Japan in 2011. So David sent me around ten recordings of Arseny's poems and I used maybe three of them for a charity concert for Japan around that time.
The album's other vocal song, "Full Moon," begins with a Paul Bowles quote from the The Sheltering Sky. Of course, you recorded the score when it was made into a film. It's another very powerful quote—this idea of life experiences coming from an inexhaustible well, when of course that's not the case.
Paul Bowles himself was in that film, in the beginning and the end, and he narrated those texts, which struck me like a thunderbolt when I was working on that film's score. So it's been in my mind for 30 years. When I was making this album, finally I thought the time was right to use that recording, that sound of his voice, so I asked Jeremy Thomas and [Bernardo] Bertolucci to use it.
I looped that very short recording, it's less than one minute, and listened to it over and over again. Then gradually I had this desire to hear the same text in different languages. So I tried first with Russian and Chinese, because I like Russian films, and Chinese films too, but somehow, perhaps because I was into Tarkovsky films when I was making this album, I needed to hear it in Russian. So I asked my Russian friend living in New York to come to my studio and record it. The Russian was first, the Chinese was next, and my Japanese fans are asking why there's no Japanese text.
And what's your response to that?
I don't know why.
How much creative overlap is there between The Revenant score and async? Nature was a big part of The Revenant and its soundtrack, and nature and field recordings clearly seep into async.
Certainly yes, working on The Revenant affected me for this album. Without working on The Revenant, async would be pretty different. Of course I was interested in sounds of nature, like wind, water, rain, whatever, for a long time, since I was a child. But seriously combining the sounds of nature and white noise and music, and making it into one piece of music for The Revenant, was a new challenge for me. So, yes, that influenced me.
Do you have an idea of what you'd like to do next?
I have several ideas. My priorities are always changing, day by day. I have some serious dreams—one of them is making an opera, again with my friend Shiro Takatani, who I worked with on my first opera in 1999. Actually that was the first time we worked together, and since then we've made several installations together. So we are thinking to have a premiere of this new opera sometime in 2019. We are brainstorming and at this stage our discussion is still very conceptual.
Do you have plans to tour?
The music on async is not something for a tour. It's very difficult to play live. I'd rather have a kind of exhibition or installation space for this. I'm exhibiting the installations based on this album in Tokyo right now, for two months, at the Watari Museum Of Contemporary Art. I want listeners to have the ideal listening space to observe this music, so I set up a 5.1 soundsystem, with nice speakers. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the well-known Thai filmmaker and artist, made original images for this installation. I would like to find a space like this to hold a one-day listening party for the album in many different cities.
There seems to have recently been interest outside of Japan for Japanese electronic music from the late 1970s and '80s, mostly from around the time you were in Yellow Magic Orchestra. A lot of these albums are now being reissued and eagerly snapped up in the West, stuff that didn't catch on outside of Japan when they were released.
Well, sometimes I'm approached by young bands or artists I don't know, and I get some compliments by young artists—lots of young people are interested in the early stage of techno-pop and the experimental electronic music from the 1970s and '80s. It was an interesting time in Japan. In Tokyo there were techno-pop and experimental bands and punk bands emerging, and then from the '70s in Osaka, the second city of Japan, lots of noise bands were emerging. And we didn't have a connection with them, which to me was very interesting and strange.
Is it correct to say that one of your current areas of interest is traditional Japanese music? What have you learned during your research?
I'm becoming more interested in traditional Japanese music. When I was young I had no idea, no knowledge about that, because we didn't learn when we grew up. So Japanese traditional music sounds fresh to my ears, and also the systems were so complex and very hard to understand. The musical system of traditional Japanese music is very different to the modern music system. It's very hard to understand but it's also interesting to study, because that involves reconstructing or rethinking our system. That's why I'm studying it.
You've always had a very open, global outlook with your music and your politics. How does it feel to be living in New York at a time when across the world the idea of globalisation seems to be crumbling?
I always have had doubts about living in New York because I'm Japanese. I'm not an American. America used to be the land of Native American people and it was exploited. So I'm not American, I'm not Native American—I'm totally different, from the Far East, and is there any righteousness for a Japanese guy living in New York? Then Donald Trump was voted in. After Trump came, the New York state governor [Andrew Cuomo] made a very strong statement—he said as a New Yorker I'm black, as a New Yorker I'm disabled, as a New Yorker I'm a woman. He showed me the reason why I'm living here.