Network: There's a whole lot of `effing' going on

Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto began experimenting with electronic music as a teenager. Now, fans all over the world can applaud his performances simply by hitting a key on their computer. Rachelle Thackray hears about his fascination with the Internet.

Fans of techno music maestro Ryuichi Sakamoto should be thankful he didn't turn out to be 6ft tall. If he had, the world of music might have lost him to basketball. He took up the sport at the age of 12 after ditching composition lessons with a university professor in Tokyo.

"It was not my desire to take composition lessons, but my piano teacher had a strong desire," explains Sakamoto, now in his mid-forties. "I entered junior high school and got into basketball. It wasn't really good for the fingers so I stopped music. But then, after two or three months, I was missing something and I figured it was music, so I asked if I could take lessons again and I quit basketball."

Sakamoto, who first found fame in the 1970s with the Yellow Magic Orchestra and went on to score film soundtracks for Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and The Last Emperor (for which he won an Oscar), is still dabbling in diverse fields; starvation in Africa is his latest theme.

In the forthcoming debut of his new orchestral work, "Untitled 01", inspired by coverage of suffering in Rwanda and Zaire, thousands of Internet users will constitute a virtual audience for performers such as DJ Spooky, avant- jazz guitarist David Torn and the Electra String Quartet, all under the expert direction of Sakamoto himself.

He absorbed the preliminary stuff - Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann, sonatas and fugues - in his early teens, before becoming a full-time student at the National University of Fine Arts and Music in south Tokyo. Debussy was a favourite, but a parallel interest developed in experimental composer John Cage. "At high school in the late 1960s, there were lots of events with American contemporary composers. When I entered university, there were synthesisers there, and they were something I really wanted to touch and play with," says Sakamoto, whose unsmiling face belies mischief.

"Around that time, I was frustrated about the Western 12-tone music system, so I started to look for other systems. I got interested in ethnic music when I was 18."

He soon got fed up with his "conservative" music department, and turned to painters, dancers and artists for creative stimulation. But all the time, he says, he wanted to bring together old and new. "I got frustrated about the small circle of contemporary music listeners. I was getting hungry about touching the real world. That made me go into pop music, but I was struggling to bridge many worlds."

In 1978, after leaving college, Sakamoto released his first solo album; meanwhile, the Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk were creating a new musical phenomenon - technopop. He has collaborated with many artists: among them writers William Burroughs, singer Iggy Pop and directors Bernardo Bertolucci and Pedro Almodovar.

But a new dimension was added to his repertoire when he discovered the Internet in 1992. "I got online, and spent three or four months browsing and surfing. I started thinking of how to bridge this Internet and my main music together," he says.

The 1994 Rolling Stones concert, the first to go online, was a catalyst: "The news came about the first Internet broadcast of this live concert, and I was very jealous," he recalls.

"Internet technology was based on Unix and there was no software for Windows or Macs available at that time. In Japan, only about 30 people saw it." Sakamoto's next move was to begin plotting his online debut. "It took a year from that broadcast to my Internet broadcast. Some popular software came out right before my concert, and luckily we used that type, so there was access to the site," he says.

Since then, he has done several broadcasts. His manager, John Dubuque, explains: "We send a signal, a video feed from the performance to N2K, which sponsors the broadcast, and N2K sends it to a company on the West Coast called Real Networks, who broadcast it over the Internet. This happens in split seconds. You have the HTML address and in a couple of moves, you're there, watching."

He describes how a virtual audience can cheer performers on. "We first used `remote applause' in January 1997. At the end of a piece, if you wanted to applaud you would hit the `f' key, that would go through a MIDI device on to the screen, and your letter would appear. It's quite impressive; the white screen ends up blacked out by `f's."

In one Japanese broadcast, the computing team even enabled Internet observers to send e-mail messages to Sakamoto in real time. "The messages were projected on-screen; `I think your music's terrible', `Nice haircut' or whatever," says Dubuque.

Sakamoto, who has remixed two movements of "Untitled 01" (digital pun intentional), is delighted to take his musical ecumenism one stage further. He is just starting to explore technology's potential, he says. "The Internet is a great tool for communicating with the individual. Naming my piece `01' means I could compose up to 99."

Sakamoto's next Internet broadcast, from New York, will take place on 11 February (http:// www.classicalinsites.com/live/ performer/performance/).

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