As one-third of Yellow Magic Orchestra and an Academy Award-winning composer for his work on the soundtrack for The Last Emperor, synth pop innovator Ryuichi Sakamoto is among the most groundbreaking artists to have emerged since the late '70s. The driving force behind "Neo Geo," a cutting-edge fusion of Asian and Western classical music with other global textures and rhythms, he has been equally adept in electronic and acoustic settings, whether recording in solitude or in tandem, with decades of steady activity. His discography is immense and varied, including solo piano works, proto-techno, experimental ambient, and glitch.
Born January 17, 1952, in Tokyo, Sakamoto took up piano at the age of three, and regularly performed in jazz bands while in high school. Exposed to everyone from the Beatles to Beethoven and John Cage, he was also heavily influenced by avant-garde filmmaking. He went on to study electronic music at Tokyo's University of Art, and after graduating formed Yellow Magic Orchestra with Yukihiro Takahashi and Haruomi Hosono. Informed by the robotic iconography of Kraftwerk, YMO became massive stars in their native Japan, where they regularly topped the Oricon charts. Their 1980 single "Computer Game" reached the Top 20 in the U.K. and inspired old-school rap legends including Afrika Bambaataa.
While in YMO, Sakamoto also issued his first proper solo effort, 1978's Thousand Knives Of. Two years later, he returned with B-2 Unit, and the vast differences between the two discs gave a clear indication of the mercurial eclecticism that would define the remainder of his work. After YMO's 1983 breakup, Sakamoto pursued solo and collaborative work full-time, achieving his artistic and commercial breakthrough that same year with his acclaimed score for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, a film in which he also acted. The soundtrack marked one of several collaborations with David Sylvian, just one of Sakamoto's many intriguing musical unions. Other performers with whom he worked during the decade included Iggy Pop, Bootsy Collins, and Tony Williams. Most unexpected was a collaboration with Robert Wyatt and Brian Wilson, as heard on a cover of the Rolling Stones' "We Love You" recorded for 1989's Beauty.
Throughout the '90s and 2000s, Sakamoto's soundtrack discography continued to increase in size and significance. As he released eclectic and ambitious solo projects such as Heartbeat, Sweet Revenge, and the LIFE series, he produced a large amount of material for films, including Pedro Almodovar's High Heels, Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha, and Nagisa Oshima's Gohatto. Additionally, keeping up with Sakamoto's collaborative releases developed into a bit of a chore, albeit a rewarding and adventurous one. On Morelenbaum 2/Sakamoto: Casa, he reworked Antonio Carlos Jobim's music with cellist/arranger Jacques Morelenbaum and his wife, singer Paula Morelenbaum. Sakamoto's collaborative work with musicians such as Alva Noto, Taylor Deupree, Fennesz, and Christopher Willits, all partnerships that resulted in multiple full-length releases, were well-regarded in the fields of ambient and experimental electronic music.
In 2009, he was particularly productive. He released the solo acoustic album Playing the Piano and the more experimental effort Out of Noise, and scored Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari's Silver Lion-winning Women Without Men. That year, he was named as an Officier du Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters) at the French Embassy in Tokyo. A denuclearization advocate, Sakamoto organized the NO NUKES 2012 festival, which included a reunited Yellow Magic Orchestra among the performers. Diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014, he responded well to treatment and continued to make music. Among his most notable recordings released after the diagnosis were the soundtracks for The Revenant and Nagasaki: Memories of My Son.
In April 2017, Sakamoto issued async, his first solo studio album of unheard material in eight years. A remix album, async: Remodels, arrived that December and featured reworkings by Fennesz, Arca, Cornelius, and others. In February 2018, Sakamoto and Alva Noto released Glass, a live improvisation recorded at Philip Johnson's Glass House in Connecticut. The following year, he scored the Black Mirror episode "Smithereens" and released two concert albums, Live in London and Two: Live at the Sydney Opera House. In 2020, Sakamoto composed the music for the French astronaut drama Proxima.
© Jason Ankeny /TiVo