Ryuichi Sakamoto: Laptops of the gods

Ryuichi Sakamoto pioneered synth-pop in the 1970s. Now he's taking digital music to the outer limits, he tells Martin Longley
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The Independent Culture

The Japanese keyboardist and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto performed two rare gigs of extreme contrast at this summer's Sonar festival of electronic music in Barcelona. Sakamoto has had a close relationship with the city since writing the monumental "El Mar Mediterrani" for the 1992 Olympic Games. On the opening night, he acted as a "sound-hacking interventionist" with the Orquestra Simfonica de Barcelona, disturb- ing audience preconceptions of Dvorak and Bach. The next evening, he re-united with the other two-thirds of Yellow Magic Orchestra, the influential pioneers of synth-pop that first brought Sakamoto to the attention in the late Seventies.

The Japanese keyboardist and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto performed two rare gigs of extreme contrast at this summer's Sonar festival of electronic music in Barcelona. Sakamoto has had a close relationship with the city since writing the monumental "El Mar Mediterrani" for the 1992 Olympic Games. On the opening night, he acted as a "sound-hacking interventionist" with the Orquestra Simfonica de Barcelona, disturb- ing audience preconceptions of Dvorak and Bach. The next evening, he re-united with the other two-thirds of Yellow Magic Orchestra, the influential pioneers of synth-pop that first brought Sakamoto to the attention in the late Seventies.

The band's back catalogue now sounds dated, but YMO's Yukihiro Takahashi and Haruomi Hosono have recently been working together as Sketch Show. With Sakamoto at Sonar, they became Human Audio Sponge, proving that their aural vocabulary is now attuned to the current trends in electronic music. Sakamoto has guested on Sketch Show albums, but this was the first time the trio had performed together in more than a decade.

At Sonar, Human Audio Sponge arranged their equipment on an exceedingly long table. "I have two laptops," Sakamoto explains. "Hosono had one. Takahashi and Hosono had some little keyboards and samplers. I also had two keyboards and a Kaoss pad. You scratch like this," he says, rubbing the table. "We had basic tracks on the hard disk, with lots of improvisation on top. The core music is coming from the hard disk, so we have freedom to improvise."

The opening night's orchestral concert was Sonar's concept. Sakamoto recalls his last flirtation with the classical repertoire: "I worked on Bach's Matthew's Passion for a concert in the Eighties; I totally destroyed the piece, chopped it up. We only rehearsed with the orchestra once. I had some tracks prepared on my laptop, so that wasn't improvised, but the piano part was 100 per cent improvised, as were the pads. Orchestras don't like that!"

Sakamoto's new album, Chasm, is his first solo album for five years. "I didn't have any direction," he says. "I started making this album around the time of the second Iraq war, and I was so depressed and frustrated. In the beginning, I was joking that I should do protest songs on my guitar. But when I was getting into the music more, the political side went away. Still, some pieces have that mood of the time."

Sakamoto is moving his sonic vocabulary along, in keeping with the times. "I was totally bored with Nineties techno. Boomch, boomch, boomch, snick," he mimics. "But some interesting artists were coming out: Pan Sonic, Oval and Christian Fennesz. They were all influenced by Nineties techno, but they were side-tracked. Looking at that younger generation of artists, they share the music of my own background - John Cage, Boulez, Stockhausen. Contemporary classical music was considered very academic in the Fifties and Sixties."

Chasm upholds the Sakamoto tradition of extreme diversity. Besides his song- based pieces, he is also concerned with quiet minimalism and superficially simple electronic textures. Chasm's "Seven Samurai" is a computer-game theme, giving the calm piano a backing of Chinese and Japanese folk instruments. "Iamento" is a buzzing, clicking electro-acoustic miniature, using the sound of footsteps and paper rustling over deep bass tones. The ethereal "Only Love can Conquer Hate" layers bass and treble extremities, while "War and Peace" features a chorus of readers intoning lines by Arto Lindsay, making up an interlocking network of voices over a pulsating rhythm.

Chasm was created almost entirely alone, although there are a smattering of guest performers: MC Sniper, a Korean rapper; David Sylvian; Sketch Show; and the Japanese multi-instrumentalist Cornelius. Sakamoto doesn't play much keyboard on the album. "It's mostly audio files, audio snippets," he explains. "I'm always carrying a mini-disc. I have recorded material on to hard disk since the early Nineties. Those were produced for some other projects, but I still have the material, and it's a treasure island for me.

"I'm now making Chasm 1.5, and maybe the next one will be Chasm 2.0. It's a continuation. Technology and software are getting more of a part of my body. When you play piano, when you practice, the instrument becomes part of your body. Software is also like that, when you use it so much. It's like a part of your brain."

'Chasm' is out now on Warners (import) and available on iTunes

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