You might know Ryuichi Sakamoto best for his role as one-third of pioneering electropop group Yellow Magic Orchestra, or as the mind behind soundtracks for films like The Revenant, The Last Emperor, and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, the latter two of which he also acted in. Maybe you know him better for his more recent avant-garde work, including last year’s Glass with Alva Noto or 2017 solo release async. The complete Sakamoto oeuvre has, to put it mildly, a range, every new work revealing some new facet of Sakamoto as composer and artist.
Though innovation is certainly a hallmark of his catalog, Sakamoto is an excellent musician regardless, technical and sensitive in every piece he plays. The 1999 album BTTB — standing for “back to the basics” — is Sakamoto at his simplest, primarily playing stripped-down piano solos that are sometimes lush, sometimes minimalist, and sometimes carefully distorted. This year, its 20th anniversary rerelease on Milan Records gives a broader audience (the original album, is hard to run across outside of Japan) a chance to experience some of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s most intimate work.
Articulation is foremost from start to finish on BTTB, Sakamoto’s fingertips delicate and conscious of every note, every tone, every emotion that he wants to convey. The composer’s relationship with music always seems to be an organic one, displayed in the ease with which he steps from the adagio waltz of “Opus” to the sunshine of “Sonatine”, from the watery effects of “Uetax” to the reverent “Aqua”. When precision is called for, Sakamoto turns out the sparkling notes of tracks like “Distant Echo”. On languid “Energy Flow”, he glides smoothly from one chord to another, letting the momentum of the piece build naturally and drive him forward.
Perhaps most intriguing in this regard is “Sonata”, where Sakamoto plays quick, classical runs of notes with ultramodern, percussive synth sounds, dull and metallic. The juxtaposition is exciting, a perfect example of how Sakamoto mixes basics and elevates every style he touches. Similarly, “Snake Eyes” merges Sakamoto’s skill for relaxing, borderline-new age sounds and high drama, a spacious start giving way to spikes of panic. As minimal as it is in terms of instrumentation, Sakamoto transforms it into an arresting cinematic journey.
A milestone anniversary alone does not a reissue warrant, but BTTB is special. Far from Sakamoto’s most groundbreaking work, it is nonetheless a striking show of his genius. He conveys tremendous warmth and soul in each track, bringing feeling to his technique while compromising neither. Every track is evocative, bringing to mind some setting or even full story throughout its arc. Sakamoto proves that atmospheric does not need to be synonymous with overproduced. Given enough stillness, a breeze can be just as affecting as a gale, a trickle as noticeable as a typhoon – and far more approachable.
There are surely more representative examples of Sakamoto’s creativity. In a professional career that has spanned over four decades, the artist has incorporated traditions from across time and the world – Okinawan folk, Indian and African beats, Moog-based psychedelia — into his incomparable repertoire. He has also cited Debussy as one of his strongest influences, and on BTTB, this affinity for the suggestive qualities of the so-called Impressionist movement reveals itself through subtleties, Sakamoto’s mastery of which should not be forgotten in his more elaborate moments.