Ryuichi Sakamoto: 'We must have done something wrong to nature'

Interview: Ryuichi Sakamoto - Months after the Japan earthquake, the musician, composer and actor tells Phil Johnson he's still feeling its aftershocks.

On the afternoon of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March, the composer and pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto was in a recording studio in Tokyo.

"I was waiting for the musicians to arrive when the building started shaking", he says. "Perhaps because I am a musician, instead of leaving the building, I tried to protect the equipment, the instruments and the microphones. As soon as we could we turned on the TV and looked at the damage across the country. I was shocked, stunned. Probably I am still stunned." He had been in another recording studio, in Manhattan, on 9/11.

Sakamoto, now 59 and silver haired, impossibly cool and handsome, is one of Japan's most important cultural exports. For more than 30 years his projects with a host of international names (the 1983 film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence in which he starred with David Bowie; his Oscar-winning score for Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor; High Heels for Pedro Almodóvar; albums featuring Iggy Pop, Brian Wilson, David Byrne) have always appeared to relate to the world at large rather than domestic issues. But if the earthquake served to redirect Sakamoto's attention to Japan, it also re-focused the conflicts between nature and culture, man and technology that have driven his work since he emerged in the late Seventies with the futuristic techno-trio Yellow Magic Orchestra. For Sakamoto's music has always mixed a lambent, infinitely melancholy mood that recalls the classical influence of Claude Debussy and Erik Satie with the latest trends. Last May, he brought to the Roundhouse in London a multimedia collaboration with Alva Noto, Summvs, in which acoustic piano frequencies were treated and distressed until the original material became a shifting pulse of digital patterns.

"It's acoustic versus electronic," Sakamoto says. "We talked of that even in the days of Yellow Magic Orchestra. 'What if there are power cuts?' we said. 'How can we generate sound?' So it might be better to have something instead of computers ... like the piano! It's probably why I stick to playing it."

But of course the piano itself was once new technology. "It developed through the Industrial Revolution, and this was partly why Beethoven liked it," Sakamoto says. "If he were alive today he would be into new technologies. But today's piano still has a pure sound generated by wood, steel and felt; it's not a virtual instrument like the things kids make music on now.

"Until a relatively short time ago, all music was made from the hair of horses, from the skins of animals, and for me this still represents the soul of music. I'm not sure if 'soul' is the right word, but it's not merely a nostalgic view. I think there's a genuine difference between the real and the virtual in music. As soon as I choose the timbre of an instrument, that dominates how I compose."

This traditional side to Sakamoto – favouring acoustic over electronic – is best heard in the music of his trio, the group he brings to London on Tuesday. Featuring his long-established colleague Jaques Morelenbaum on cello and relative newcomer Judy Kang on violin, the trio is where Sakamoto's very Japanese concerns with beauty and symmetry are perfectly expressed.

In 2001, the trio made an album, Casa, dedicated to the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, the co-inventor of bossa nova, a form of music Sakamoto loves, combining as it does the delicate impressionistic influence of Debussy, and the Afro-Brazilian rhythms of samba. The recording was made in the late composer's home in Rio, using the same old piano on which he had written "The Girl From Ipanema" and a hundred other classic songs, all of which Sakamoto knows by heart.

In 2002, I booked Sakamoto and the trio to perform the Jobim material at a concert hall in Bristol, and the live show was even more perfect than the album. Ryuichi Sakamoto also proved a very striking presence. I remember him sitting outside in the sculpture-garden designed by Ian Hamilton Finlay, smoking cigarettes and staring into space, as inside the hall his technicians tuned the piano – a Yamaha, which he had brought with him – with the specially sweetened voicings he favours. "As soon as I touched his piano some of Jobim's spirit came into me", Sakamoto recalls. "It was like animism ... the dirt underneath the keyboard, the ash from his cigars ... Even Western people like you, you could understand this feeling."

This thought returns him to the Japanese earthquake and its aftermath. "In Japanese culture there is a belief that God is everywhere – in mountains, trees, rocks, even in our sympathy for robots or Hello Kitty toys. In an animistic sense, then, this tragedy means we must have done some wrong to nature. To me, it is easy to fantasise about these things."

The Ryuichi Sakamoto Trio play at the Royal Festival Hall on 1 Nov

Career Highlights

Yellow Magic Orchestra

Formed in 1978 as a Japanese answer to Germany's Kraftwerk, YMO were pioneers of pop-electronica. Whenever you hear a singer using a vocoder, remember Sakamoto did it first on YMO's hit single "Behind the Mask", later covered by Michael Jackson.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence

In Nagisa Oshima's 1983 film, Sakamoto played a Japanese prison-chief opposite David Bowie's PoW. He also wrote the score.

The Last Emperor

Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 epic took nine Academy Awards and was Sakamoto's greatest triumph as a film soundtrack composer.