In 1983, David Sylvian’s Japan was a big thing for me and my mates. I was blessed with unruly curly hair but many of my crowd spent hours perfecting a Steve Jansen inspired wedge. Chinese slippers were bought from Oasis in Birmingham, wholly unsuitable for wet Black Country autumn and winters.
Like many others at the time, we were also huge David Bowie fans. This was in the period that he was maintaining a modicum of critical respect in advance of the Glass Spider years.
Ryuichi Sakamato in 1983 was the intersection of the Japan/Bowie venn diagram. Starring with Bowie in Nagisa Oshima’s “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence”, Sakamoto played Captain Yonoi, who develops a fascination with Bowie’s charismatic and rebellious POW, Jack Selliers. Sakamoto also provided the soundtrack which featured the beautiful “Forbidden Colours”, written with Sylvian.
This confluence of Bowie and Japan cemented Sakamoto on our radar. He’d already piqued our interest due to his key role in the Yellow Magic Orchestra, the Japanese contemporaries of Kraftwerk. Since then Sakamoto has been an artist whose career I’ve followed from a distance, in many ways overawed by his sheer productiveness.
He re-entered my orbit in 2007 when “Ax Mr.L” turned up on a Rough Trade end of year compilation. It was a fascinating musical vignette, the beautiful melody from the original movie theme cut, chopped and turned in on itself.
Ten years on and I’m at the Barbican, coping with potential FOMO. My friends had been to see the first of David Byrne’s two nights in Hammersmith (“gig of the century”, “unmissable” – you know the sort of thing). Things started slowly with Sakamoto and his colleague Carsten Nicolai aka Alva Noto (more on their relationship in a little while). The fifteen minutes were mostly some John Cage-like piano preparation – metal on strings, things being inserted into the open lid of the grand. Had I made a mistake? Should I have plumped for the ex-Talking Head show instead?
And then the beauty kicked in. Sakamoto sat his keyboard and played some slow graceful chords. Noto introduced some rhythmic pulses and some electronic textures, almost light fluff on a needle. The long horizontal yellow light panel at the rear of the stage changed to a black and white wave, like a Ryoji Ikeda test pattern.
We were set fair – the division of responsibility continued. Sakamoto created the melody and harmonies. Noto disrupted it but not enough to bury the beauty, just subtly pushing it a little off-kilter. The light panel changed, in a sympatico relationship to Sakamoto’s mostly acoustic playing and Noto’s electronics. It was gorgeous, emotional music. Sakamoto is a subtle careful pianist, not prone to unnecessary elaboration. Noto supports him and enhances electronically rather than dominating or over-powering Sakamoto.
The pair have been working together on a series of LP and EPs since 2002, a Japanese and German partnership. They released “Glass” earlier in the year and have received critical acclaim for their work on the Grammy and BAFTA winning “Revenant” soundtrack.
The clip of a performance of “Glass” below shows the kind of thing that they get up to. An improvised piece set in the beautiful surroundings of architect Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut. This was a true installation piece with the pair even setting up contact microphones on the glass windows of the building.
The relationship started when Sakamoto attended one of Noto’s concerts in Tokyo and immediately thought:
Something really good could come from collaborating with this guy!
Twenty years on and they are still going strong, with their own solo work interspersing the collaborations.
Both were dressed elegantly in long black coats, with Sakamoto particularly looking the epitome of cool. It was great to see him back and performing after recently being ill with cancer of the larynx.
It was a memorable evening and after my initial reservations, I was glad that I went along. My only disappointment was at times it felt as if Sakamoto was about to launch into the “Forbidden Colours” melody only to shift elsewhere equally emotional but unfamiliar.
And to deal with the FOMO, I’ve bought a David Byrne ticket for his autumn dates.
Job’s a good ‘un!
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/191205737″>Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto site specific performance at the Glass House</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/pjglasshouse”>The Glass House</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>