Japanese composer and electronic music pioneer Ryuichi Sakamoto is one of those guys who could coast on his credentials if he wanted to. He formed the Yellow Magic Orchestra at the dawn of the new wave/synth-pop era and managed to have a single land in the UK’s top 20, which is quite an accomplishment considering that the Japanese music scene didn’t really rule the post-punk roost for British audiences. After Yellow Magic Orchestra’s disbandment, Sakamoto began stamping his compositional style all over Hollywood by scoring films such as The Last Emperor, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and The Sheltering Sky. Through it all he’s collected an Oscar, a Grammy, a couple of Golden Globes, and many more awards that probably don’t mean much to an American audience. Does the guy have anything left to prove?
That question is answered with a glossy twofer album package, both releases previously unavailable stateside. The first disc is simply called Playing the Piano, giving you what you would expect: Ryuichi Sakamoto solo piano. The opposite disc, Out of Noise, is the harder of the two to define and may arguably be more rewarding. Standing back and looking at Sakamoto’s career and his tricks of the recording trade, weighing the quality of the two discs feels like needless hairsplitting. Which one is more adventurous? Which places compositional skill over sonic experimentation? Blah, blah, blah. If you manage to hold this deluxe set in the palm of your hand, you are in the presence of high art, plain and simple.
An important selling point for Playing the Piano is how Ryuichi Sakamoto takes the opportunity to “cover himself”, so to speak. His soundtrack work is up for grabs as well as a fantastic pre-Yellow Magic Orchestra composition called “Thousand Knives”. The advantage of this is that Sakamoto boils these pieces down to their skeletal form, presenting them to the listener in a way that’s probably close to how he was writing them all these years ago. The main theme for The Last Emperor is one example of how a familiar song can achieve new life under such minimal settings. Something peculiar seems to be going on in “Riot in Lagos”, giving the listener an impression that overdubs are taking place. That is fine, the album is called Playing the Piano, not 100% Live, No Overdubs. Besides, the muted percussive noise that propels “Lagos” is one of those breathtaking traits that helps to anchor contemporary classical music in the minds of the iPod generation. That’s to say, it’s tremendous.
The hard part is figuring out what makes the album Out of Noise tick. By the second track, you know you are dealing with a much different beast, one that favors heavy ambiance and minimalism over piano virtuosity and accessible composition. The album allegedly hatched from recording sessions in Greenland where Sakamoto captured sounds in disparate locations such as under the sea and on top of a glacier. What advantage this gives you in recording, I do not know, but it seemed to have an impact on Sakamoto personally. He speaks of his trip to Greenland as a profound and productive time, one that he hated to have end. So it’s no stretch to say that out of noise is possessed by a somber mood. A handful of additional musicians help Sakamoto sculpt the sound, lifting “In The Red” and “Hwit” to places of lengthier sustain and slower resolve. “Nostalgia” sounds a great deal like its title, while “Disko” certainly does not.
These two albums may not be the absolute perfect match for one another, but they do demonstrate Ryuichi Sakamoto’s incredible abilities in different ways. They show that, no matter what he’s doing, Sakamoto proves to us that music can be one mysterious and compelling form of communication. Be it with his Bill Evans pastiche “Bolerish” or the slow, tense burning inside of “Firewater,” Ryuichi Sakamoto has once again recorded material that should further cement an already untouchable reputation.