Ryuichi Sakamoto Is Listening Closer Than Ever

An extensive conversation with the Japanese composer about making async, life after cancer, and why cryogenics is not for him.
Story by Ruth Saxelby
Ryuichi Sakamoto Is Listening Closer Than Ever Ryuichi Sakamoto   Photo by nss (zakkubalan)

The air inside The Park Avenue Armory in New York has a very specific quality. It vibrates with something between anticipation and apprehension. On the last Tuesday of April, a small handful of people dressed for the occasion in dark, expensive fabrics gathered on the stone steps leading to the Armory's entrance. Through the door and down a luxuriously wide corridor lay the Veterans Room. Recently refurbished, it's a cacophony of intricately carved wood panels, proud columns wrapped in braided metal ropes, and painstakingly detailed stained glass windows: the extravagant trappings of the late 19th century's aesthetic movement.

It was perhaps an odd setting for a performance by a Cageian baby such as Ryuichi Sakamoto — he was born in 1952, the the same year as John Cage composed "4'33"," he later told me — but then odd juxtapositions are often what frame the sonic adventurer's work. The room was set up with 100 or so seats in rows around a piano and an array of music instruments and curious looking objects that would seem more at home in a science lab or a museum. After a short wait for which he graciously but unnecessarily apologized, the Japanese composer entered the room through a heavy door that slid shut behind him. Now we were all in the space together and the air grew even thicker.

Over the course of an hour, Sakamoto brought to life tracks from async, his first solo studio album in eight years. He played the piano, synths, various boxes of electronic tricks, some ancient-looking chimes, an electric guitar, and, thrillingly, a pane of glass equipped with contact mics. Throughout, a number of voices piped up in emotionally surprising ways. At times it sounded like atoms being rubbed together to forge new life. At others, like what closing your eyes to the sun feels like: when you can see-feel your own blood glowing red. Above Sakamoto's head hung a large screen on which an array of visuals underlined async's main preoccupations: a palpable sense of passing time, the tenuous boundaries between life and death, and the organic and the digital caught in a slow dance.

A few days later, I met Sakamoto at his basement studio in the West Village. Before we began, he rustled us up a cup of tea with a warm smile. While he's in full recovery from the throat cancer he discovered in 2014, his voice remains a little gravelly — but he's as quick to laugh as ever. Humor is a crucial survival skill for being alive in this world, and Sakamoto has it in spades. He spoke at length about the making of async, how his view on life has changed, why cryogenics is not for him, and the opera he's planning to release in 2019.

How are you feeling after those three shows at the Armory? You're doing an awful lot throughout the hour, and there's a very specific feeling to be held in the room.

It was very hard. The show itself is about one hour, and of course I have to satisfy the people, the audience, and over the course of one hour I try to be as close to perfection as possible. But many mistakes, issues, but this one hour is the final result. The preparation is so tough, always.

Having performed so many times over the years, do you feel any more comfortable with mistakes? Or are you still hard on yourself?

Well, yes, I am very hard [laughs]. Yes and no. Conceptually, I am open to mistakes — errors actually. I do play lots of wrong notes while I am making some music, and a mistake or a wrong note is like a gift for me: Oh, wow, an unknown sound or an unknown harmony. I didn't know about this. It's just a simple wrong note but it completely changes the music color. I'm always open to those errors and unknown things to come to me.

But for performance, it's for the audience, not for me. Well, you know, part of it, yes but. Let's say 50/50. It's not only for me, it's for the people who come to see, so it must be good.

I have to ask about the pane of glass you played. I didn't know it was there, so when you initially went round to it, I was like, what is he doing? The sound it made...

A whale, whale-ish...

It was making me think of the echo of an extinct animal.

An extinct animal echo, well, that's a beautiful image.

How did you come to the glass?

That was an idea I got at The Glass House. It's designed by the late, great American architect Philip Johnson. It's a small glass house in Connecticut, in the nature — beautiful architecture. We were invited to perform inside The Glass House so I called my longtime friend Carsten Nicolai [who records as Alva Noto] to perform together, the two of us — and it was so much inspirational. The idea was at the time, hey, let's use The Glass House itself as a musical instrument. But it's all glass — the ceiling, glass, floor, glass; 360 degrees glass walls; windows, walls, whatever. So I put some contact mics and hit and scratched and it sounded really good. We really enjoyed the performance we did for 45 minutes in The Glass House, in the vast nature. The sun was going down and the rain storm came to us, but then stopped, so [it was] the perfect transition of nature and artificial things, including our music. It was so connected, and in a way very dramatic. Okay, so, glass wall can be an instrument.

The nature and the artificial, the organic and digital, that juxtaposition is very much at the heart of async. I really feel that on "Tri," where we hear chimes and then later, a digitized version of the chimes. The analogue and then the digital.

It sounds like that, right? [Smiles.] But in fact, that track "Tri" is done by all humans. Three triangles, three players, in one shot. No edit. Incredible. Can you believe that?

No! I honestly thought you had processed that.

Of course, of course, of course. Sounds like that, but those amazing three players, contemporary music players, best in New York. I wrote the music down because I wanted to ask players to play so I needed music sheets. So I printed out but it looks almost impossible to play, so I had big doubts. Is it really possible? And then they did it. They're perfectionists so they insisted to do more and more, more than 10 times, they wanted it really perfect, like a machine. [Makes harsh, swift tapping sounds with mouth.]

“I always try to keep my ears very open, to listen not only to musical sounds, but sound and noise. Maybe hopefully I can catch some kind of musical element in those sounds.”

Playing familiar instruments and objects in unfamiliar ways is also a process running through...

That's async too [laughs].

Definitely. When we last spoke, you said that you had started collecting sounds for that album. Was that idea of approaching the familiar in an unfamiliar way a concept from the beginning?

It's one of the concepts for async. But I always try to [keep] my ears very open, to listen not only to musical sounds, but sound and noise. And maybe hopefully I can catch some kind of musical element in those sounds. I do that all the time, for a long time. Maybe I started doing that when I was a high school student, when I commuted. I took a train, 20 minutes, every morning. It was packed, like the very famous Japanese trains. You can't move. So the only thing I could do is just listen to the sounds inside the train. And I found that there were a lot of sounds, not just of the train but [rubs hands together] people's clothes, maybe the ceiling might be a little bit making some noise. Obviously when the train goes to a curve, it creates a nice [makes blown-out sound with mouth] very high noise. So I started counting and I found more than 10 different sounds, so I started enjoying hearing these sounds. Of course, the main inspiration was John Cage. Coincidentally, his famous '4'33"' piece was made in the year I was born: '52. So I was a baby of silence — or opening ears.

There are so many voices on this record, which is poignant for obvious reasons. On the track "fullmoon" with the quote from writer Paul Bowles and then a forest of voices from around the world in the latter half, I was curious how those voices came to be, and also if you'd selected them for what they are communicating or how their voices sounded?

The first time I heard the recording of Paul Bowles was almost 30 years ago when I was working on the film The Sheltering Sky. That recording happens in the very end of the film. That struck me so much the first time I saw it. Obviously the text is so heavy and serious about life and death, and that excerpt is right after the husband dies in the middle of the Sahara, in the middle of nowhere. The quote in Bowles's voice sounds something very profound to me: it's not too dark, it's very light; it doesn't sound too serious, the way he expresses it. I like that balance. So for a long time, I wanted to do something with that recording, but I was not sure I could make good music with it.

Then, this time, for making async album — because after the cancer, I thought this could be my last one so I thought I should do everything that I wanted to do. So I asked [The Sheltering Sky director Bernardo] Bertolucci to use that recording. He replied immediately, "go for it." So I listened to it many times, put a sound, and listened to it over and over. Thinking what I needed more than that? Just a drone and his voice, looped. It sounded very nice. So what do I need? I was waiting for some weeks, for any idea to come.

Finally, I thought it would be nice to hear the same text but in Russian — because I love [Andrei] Tarkovsky. Although I don't understand Russian, I like the sound. Then, I love Chinese movies, so why not Chinese? Then gradually I added some others. Luckily, I had a Russian friend here so he did it. Lots of friendly connections spread to many different countries, so those people [in the latter half of "fullmoon"] are basically my friends or friends of friends. Somehow they are all artists, writers, musicians. The German is spoken by my friend Carsten Nicolai. The Persian language Farsi is narrated by Shirin Neshat, who is an Iranian artist. By the [end], we got Spanish friend, German, Farsi, Icelandic, Chinese, Russian — why not Italian? For Italian narration, I should ask Bertolucci first, otherwise he will be mad [laughs]. So I wrote another email to him and explained that I wanted him to read Paul Bowles quote in Italian, okay? And he did it. Amazing.

It's moving on many levels: on a sensual, aesthetic level, but also what he's saying about life and death. How has your view on life changed post-cancer?

Obviously after cancer, [my view on] death is more realistic. Of course, I knew we all had to die sometime, but it's very, very much more realistic. I'll maybe die in three months, or in three years. Not 30 years! [Laughs.] Maybe I got another 10, 20 years. Nobody knows. That sense of time, time left, becomes much more realistic. Not serious, just more real.

async does feel like a processing of that emotional fact. The visuals in the Armory performance complemented that very well. There were things that made me think of the ripples in Tarkovsky's Solaris, and a sense of something being scanned.

The art is also done by a longterm friend, Japanese artist called Shiro Takatani. He did the visuals for the Armory and the cover art. The scanning motion, repeated on the screen: I liked that. His art for async made me think about time deeper than before. Of course, time is the main subject for any musicians, music writers, composers. I've been interested in thinking of what time is for a long time. I'm also interested in quantum physics; their concept of what time is in quantum physics, I think that's an aspect of reality. It's not 100% fantasy, it's man-made theory, but try to explain what nature is and what time is. It's one aspect to the reality. I'm naturally interested in it. Of course, you know, I have no answer about time [laughs], but I can just think about it and feel it. Time in our universe is always one way, no going back, no reverse. In music, you can reverse it! [Laughs.] That's strange.

I was also thinking about all the intersections between life and death, technology and the organic, and it was making me wonder what you thought about cryogenics? Those people that have their brains preserved after they die so that in the future, maybe, science will be able to reanimate them.

Technologically, it might be possible in the near future.

Is it a good idea to you?

Hmmm, not so interested. My problem about language, especially nouns, is that we call [points to eye] eyes or a nose [points to nose] or a mouth [points to mouth], but where is the edge lines of a mouth or a nose? Here? Or here? Or here? [Gestures in circling motion to the skin around the nose and mouth.] Eyes are a little bit clearer than nose or mouth. The obvious example is, where's the line between musical sound and noise? Any border? I doubt. No border. Silence is also material for music, that's what John Cage insisted. Anyway, so where is the line of brain? Because it's all connected to the edge of our legs and everything. So is it possible that we cut [gestures to the back of his head] and put this thing in some liquid? Of course, technologically we may be able to keep it survive, but is it really a brain? Our ability of thinking and using our brain is not only by this one [points to head]. How about thinking with fingers? Musicians do that. Or typing is part of thinking. So is a brain, a brain? That's my big question.

“Time in our universe is always one way, no going back, no reverse. In music, you can reverse it! That’s strange.”

It's really impossible. The reason I ask about that too, is because there's that piano note on the album that's so like a life support machine. There are so many signals of waiting, of time. It's fascinating to me that some rich people's response to the trauma of contemporary life is freeze me, so I can escape the present and get to the future. But obviously you can't get to the future if you escape the present.

I like that idea: escape now and go to the future. Or maybe the past, might be interesting, I don't know. I don't like the kings and queens. I don't want to be a worker, a laborer, for those rich people. Maybe not the feudal era.

That reminds me of Holly Herndon — she worked with an economist on her last album who had this idea about how we're in a new stage of feudalism and we're all digital serfs who are creating all this data. Because data's the new currency and we're all doing this digital unpaid labor.

Ah, yes, yes.

We have got ourselves into this cul-de-sac moment with technology. Sometimes I feel like I am going round in circles, constantly walking around with my phone in my hand. Swinging between needing to log off and needing to get back online. Are you afflicted by that?

I try to avoid it. Yes, that affects me a lot. Especially when I wanted to concentrate on making this album, so for eight months I try not to be on SNS [social networking sites] as much as I could. I've been interested in, how do you say, off-grid people. I heard that there are a million Americans in off-grid. No cell phone, nothing. They live in camping cars somewhere.

On and off is what we need to do. Sometimes, of course, yes, we need to do that for work, for communicating. But we have to be off sometimes, and we have to be very conscious about that, otherwise you are all the time on and that makes you really tired.

“I’ve been interested in off-grid people. I heard that there are a million Americans in off-grid. No cell phone, nothing. They live in camping cars somewhere.”

I feel like we're still children with technology. My phone makes me feel like a little kid because I can't put it down. I wonder when we're going to get to the adult stage, where we know how to use it responsibly.

It's an interesting question, and instantly reminded me of my thoughts I had before. I thought homo sapiens is still a child, it's not an adult yet. As a species, it's been only 200,000 years since the homo sapiens [arrived]. For example, elephants have been living on the same planet we share for 30 million years, something like that. We must respect them, all those other species. We shouldn't destroy them. So we're still babies. That's why artists and musicians, we are so clouded by what we make and build, we think we make something. People say, "I made this rice, or these vegetables," but no, no, no. We don't make it. Nature makes it. We care, we grow, and we maybe change, modify, but we can't make it. But we don't think that way, it's very, very arrogant. Because we are still childish. I hope.

We need to evolve quicker. But these systems don't allow for evolution.

Sorry, it's maybe one too many jokes, but I love this joke: There are some astronauts launch a rocket to find another planet for humans to live. So it takes some years, but finally they find a beautiful planet like Earth. So they land and there are people on this planet, so they ask, "Whose is this planet? What's the name of this planet?" But the people are so silent and quiet and smiling, so the astronauts think they are dumb, stupid people. "Let's leave and find another one." They leave the planet, and actually in fact this planet is the same Earth in 10,000 years in the future, and the people are homo sapiens but they evolved. Each person is like a Buddha or Jesus: very peaceful, very wise. But we can not recognize Jesus or Buddha-like people.

Where does your sense of spirituality come from? Do you align with any major religion?

No, but I've interested in Tibetan Buddhism for a long time, since the early '90s. I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama three times. Personally, face-to-face — well, with some guards [laughs]. He's an amazing person. When I made my first and only opera called Life in 1999, the end of the 20th century, I really wanted to have a message from His Holiness. I wrote a letter, several times. And finally, I got a letter from his office saying on that day at one o'clock, come to Leh. Leh? What is Leh? Obviously, Leh is a city of the Kashmir region of north India. I had never heard of Leh, and found out it's one of the highest cities — 4,000 meters from the sea level in the Himalayas. So come to Leh on that day at 1 p.m.! [Laughs.]

I couldn't believe it, but I did it. So we were very nervous and waiting in the waiting room, then His Holiness came into the room, and I felt like some light coming out from him, like a Jesus. This is him, this is the man. I felt — not I thought, but I felt it — some aura or light coming from him. If I am Matthew or Paul or John, and I put down my fishing nets and just started following him. I wrote about this to [David] Sylvian, I said I was like John when he saw Jesus coming on the street. "Why didn't you do that, just follow him?" Sylvian said. He's an amazing person, and I hope and pray for his long life. I became friends with one of his guards, who can speak Japanese. He's Tibetan but lived in Japan for some years, so he could speak Japanese. He said His Holiness has almost every day an assassin who come. His Tibetan guards, who protect His Holiness, are so, so nervous.


One thing that I think you have in common with the Dalai Lama is your sense of humor. In your performance on Tuesday, you scolded the chimes for continuing to move after you'd finished playing them. You welcome laughter. In interviews, it seems like Dalai Lama also does that.

Sometimes his jokes are a bit beyond the line [laughs]. His men get so, [in hushed tone] "Please, His Holiness, don't say that." One time an interviewer asked — because the global issue is so serious and the human population is probably the cause of our environmental disintegration — so what's the answer? He said, "Maybe people should become like Tibetan monks, so they masturbate." That's the solution! Oh my god, hilarious.

I feel like it's only through humor and play that we can evolve.

The organization I've been doing, More Trees, is to conserve forests. I started this organization over 10 years ago, and we've been working on 11 forests in Japan and one in the Philippines and another one in Indonesia. Just a few, just a small addition, but our catch-logo is "Think pessimistically, act optimistically."

What do you do to relax?

I take a long bath when I wake up, a very hot, long bath. Just for the health reason, I started that. Since the '90s, I've been interested in lots of different health concepts, Eastern and Western, new and old. I'm a lazy person, so I've taken bits from here and there, and build my own flow of things to do: stretching, breathing techniques. Looking at trees, listening to birds singing. [Gestures behind him.] It's a tiny back yard but lots of birds come. Mainly because it's downtown, close to the river and the sea, so that's a great thing. There is a very tiny ecological world in the back yard. It's really, really nice to see a little bit of nature.

I read that you want to start work on a new opera.

It's still at the conceptual stage, but maybe 2019, maybe fall. Already some European opera houses are interested, maybe.

What made you want to return to opera as a form?

Through the past 10 years or so, I've become more interested in very old Japanese Noh theater, which was developed maybe 600 years ago in Japan. It's very interesting, very strange, very different from what we know as theater. Already, contemporary composers love it because it's so abstract to us, minimum but very abstract music. So minimum gestures and movements. Very quiet, sometimes. Musical structures so complicated and hard to understand. I cannot explain what the system is. I'm still learning about it, but very interested. Generally, I don't like theatrical art: I don't like musicals, I don't like operas; it's not my favorite things. But gradually I'm becoming interested in using some elements from Noh theater to develop a spacial installation situation. Of course, you know, sound and music involved. So it's not a traditional opera, but some kind of mixture of music, art, and installation, and some theatrical elements, all mixed very new and old things. That's what we want to make.

For the Armory show, we set up 4.1 sound system, so we got six speakers including sub-woofers, so probably you remember you heard sounds jumping from one edge to another edge, like calling each other. I want to develop that kind of space — how do you describe it? Spacial music. Combined with other elements from other Japanese arts. Opera is multimedia, like a ballet, theater, and music combined. I know the word "opera" is a plural of "opus," so it's a perfect word for lots of different elements.

Ryuichi Sakamoto's album async is out now on Milan Records. Buy it here.


Ryuichi Sakamoto Is Listening Closer Than Ever