Interview: Ryuichi Sakamoto

October 12, 2010

Ryuichi Sakamoto has the finest hair you've ever seen. It's incredibly thin, but there's so much of it, like the hair version of a high thread count. It comes up from the center of his head and out in two U arches. He is constantly flipping it over his face while he talks, just like he is constantly laughing. Actually, he's giggling. And mostly at himself. While he is an incredibly serious composer, he's got undeniable goofball vibes, as though as an adult he decided to stop taking this music shit so seriously and just jam the piano until he was entertained and that that might be good enough. Turns out, it is. In his West Village studio, surrounded by keyboards of different types, a big cardboard box of various percussion, years worth of scrapbook photos pinned to the wall and a rug that looks like it may have once lined a playpen, we talked with Sakamoto about his new album, the simply, aptly named Playing the Piano. Sakamoto has had a long career dabbling in many varieties of music—from his ’70s electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra (kinda like the Japanese Kraftwerk) to his film scores (including the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor)—but on Piano, he's winnowed away the extras, reworking many of his complex compositions to their marrow and playing them solo. It's a beautiful, moving record, and, curious about the propulsion behind its origins, we sat with Sakamoto to find out. He plays New York City this Monday. It's sold out, but worth scalping for. Playing the Piano is out now.

When did you first play the piano?
In kindergarten, all the kids had to at least touch keys, and that’s probably the first encounter for me. Also, one of my uncles was a music lover and he had a big collection of vinyl, and sometimes I went to his room and picked up some vinyl and played it by myself. Mostly classical. After kindergarten, my friends took a piano lesson with an old Japanese lady piano teacher, so I just followed my friends. It was not my intention to fall in love with piano. When I realized no one was there, like fifth or sixth grade, everyone had stopped piano lessons except me. So it was not my intention, it’s just like a routine I went there every Saturday and Sunday. It’s always like that.

How did you decide to do a solo piano album?
I call it self-cover, because the pieces I played were written before for certain reasons, for my own solo albums, so I don’t think there’s a new piece for that CD, they’re all covers. I just wanted to play, that’s what I do onstage for a tour. More recently I played the piano of those pieces—some film music, some from my solo albums—but just on the piano. So that’s what I do. I just wanted to put out what I do recently.

Why is it just you?
It’s probably the easiest way to express my musicality, because I started playing the piano when I was three or four. I was forced by the school to play in kindergarten, but it was good. I was probably lucky to touch the piano. Since then, the piano is the closest instrument to me, almost some extension of my body. When I imagine some music in my mind, almost automatically I imagine the piano keys. Sometimes some kind of music is not able to be played on the piano. As far as the timbre, of course the piano is very limited, like compared to the guitar you can express many, many different timbres, very pure acoustic or very electric. With the piano, it’s so limited, and also you cannot play the intervals between keys, that’s also a limitation. But there are many benefits also. Probably more than half of the cases I imagine music in my mind on the piano keys. It’s easy to go to the scores to write in that case. It’s the easiest way for me to play music. Cost-wise, it’s cheaper.

I would have expected you to have a very emotional response to it, but this seems very logical. Do logistics dictate that much of how you think about music?
Probably the biggest reason [I play piano] is I cannot play the other kinds of instruments. I’m a terrible drummer, I almost cannot play the guitar, nor sax, nor trumpet. A little bit of tuba, because when I was in junior high I played the tuba in marching band, but that’s it. The piano is the instrument I can play the most.

But if you said, I want to make this record and tour with a drummer, you could. You have before.
The simplicity to have a piano on stage and just myself... It could be really wonderful to have Christian Fennesz, actually we have toured just the two of us in Europe sometimes, like last year or the year before, just my piano and Fennesz in summertime in Italy. It was so beautiful. So it’s still possible in the future, but this time I like simplicity.

What does it feel like to perform solo?
It’s also easy to play with a band or with a big orchestra, because they can hide me. Just being myself on stage with nothing to hide, I feel like I’m naked, totally naked in front of the audience. It’s intense.

Really? You've had such a fruitful career, it’s still scary?
If I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t. But after the CD release, still I have to do it by myself, to show up on stage and present my music to the audience. More than 30 years ago when we were doing the Yellow Magical Orchestra, we were talking about maybe we should stay in the studio, and with 3-D projector cam project live from the studio to anywhere in the world. Now we can do that.

In the mid-'80s you made an album mostly of samples. So many people are catching up now to what you were conceptualizing, and now you’ve gone back to what you were doing when you were three.
Because not many people are doing this kind of thing. The majority is using the laptop now. I sometimes do use a laptop. People hate practicing, even me I hate practicing, and nowadays it’s not a joke. You don’t need to practice, or even be a player, you just need a laptop and you can make music, seriously. But I feel like because I’m trained, I can play with my body robotically.

What compels you to still make music? Or to sign new bands and have a record label? What’s exciting to you about music now?
There are many aspects. One thing is I’m still discovering, almost every day, unknown music to me. Finally discovering the music of Mahler, and some people were talking about those composers in the beginning of the ’70s already. For some reason I hated it, so I can listen to those composers, just very recently, this year. The switch was on somehow, so I started listening to those pieces, to those composers, and it’s very interesting, very very interesting. So the good thing is there is always unknown music in the world.

But you've known Mahler probably since you were a teenager.
Of course, but I didn't like it.

What changed?
As I get older, boundaries get lower somehow. Boundaries between music, or between what I like and don’t like. I used to dislike Hawaiian, for some reason. I don’t know why. Then some years ago, I went to Hawaii for a holiday, and I happened to listen to the earlier Hawaiian music, the original not the resultant music, by chance, and I was just blown away. So I started collecting and I’m still fascinated. So I got to know Hawaiian music and how they created that result. That was created for the white people from American when they started building the hotels on the shore. Chanting was originally when they finally came to Hawaii from Tahiti, they brought the chants from Tahiti. So curiosity never stops. That’s a good thing in music.

How did you start doing a record label. I saw you signed OOIOO, and I can’t think of a band more different from Playing the Piano. What’s exciting to you about a band like that? In feeling, are they the same thing as what you’re doing now?
Not the same thing, but I have both. Not only two, but many sides. I grew up with the music of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, but on the other side I grew up John Cage and avant garde jazz and free music, improvisation. It is not the music, but the sound. I honestly like any sound. Birds. I have a very broad space to accept or enjoy anything, except quite.

That must be overwhelming, because everything is exciting.
I mostly choose what I like, what I listen to. I’m very focused on working on something here, working hard, but as soon as I hear about singing I stop and go there to listen to it or record. If there’s some beautiful music I would love to use them in my music, I do sometimes. But field recoding is like, you get maybe five very short beautiful moments in fifteen minutes of recording. It’s hard to find the beautiful moments.

What were biggest musical moments in your life?
There’s several big moments in my early life. Like when I got to like the Beatles, that was a big moment, 11 years old.

Did you speak English at that point?

But you just knew it. I guess everyone in the world knew it.
Yes. The lyrics didn’t mean so much. The sound, the music and the style, the fashion. The impact of the Beatles was huge. Then the next impact was Debussy.

Oh yeah! That makes better sense.
Two years later or something, 13, 14. It was a big impact on me.

What was it like?
When I heard the Debussy for the first time, I knew there was nothing like this music of what I had listened to before. So this was really a new sound. I didn’t know this kind of music, it was totally different from music that I knew like the Beatles, but there was some similarity between the Beatles and Debussy I found, some kind of harmony, the sense of harmony, that there’s some similarity. I kind of sense that, like a ninth. [Here he gets up and plays the piano in the ninth chord.] But because I didn’t know the name of the harmony, I had no idea. Then some years later, I found this is called a "ninth," ninth harmony, ninth chord. Maybe by chance or maybe George Martin did, in the Beatles music there’s a ninth harmony. There’s a lot in Dubussy's music.

I would never ever make that connection. Did that feel weird that you made that connection when you were 11 years old?
I didn’t feel it was weird. But its an excitement, a lot of pleasure to find this kind of harmony and find the connection between very different music, it was a huge excitement.

That connection between different music is maybe the strand between your entire career. So knowing that you think all sounds may be equal, do you have to play on a special piano?
There’s no guarantee to get a good piano when I go on tour, when I use local pianos. In many cases I get terrible condition in pianos. Terrible! Even in Italy. It happens all the time. So I asked Yamaha to make one. Actually, I asked three. So then, one in New York, one in Japan, the other one is in London. I tour mostly in Japan and Europe and very rarely here. But for the recording, I use the new piano most.

What's special about it? You don’t strike me as picky, honestly.
To have a customized piano costs a lot, so, I have to use it. But meanwhile, I sometimes miss the sound of the Steinway, sometimes. So, sometimes I go to the studio maybe they have Steinways and maybe I go and play it. But, also carrying my own piano on tour costs a lot. And last year I did and this time in the states I carried two pianos.

Well cause some pieces I want to play for the duet, I need two pianos. I could hire another pianist or something, but I want to play both.

Can you still play without any of these things though? If someone said there was a concert you wanted to play in Kansas or in Prague or any of those things and they said, would you still do it? Or do you need all of those things now?
I need all of those things. But I have another idea to play music in a very little audience like maybe four or five people, in a very little small room, almost a tea ceremony room. Of course we cannot put a piano in a tiny room, but something like total intimacy.

Please invite me.
That’s my dream.

Why? That’s a great dream, it's just a funny dream.
It is funny. Well, I had an experience sitting in a tea ceremony room in Kyoto some years ago. It was a very unique and special experience. When we were sitting no one talks, and suddenly a storm came. And so we were just listening to the sound of the storm outside. Inside, sitting inside a very tiny room for maybe half an hour. I felt like I was in the center of the universe or something, it was almost like meditating. So that, according to that experience I wanted to share a similar experience with very few friends and you know. It’s a very different way of listening to a sound.

Interview: Ryuichi Sakamoto