Life, Life: async and the Legacy of Ryuichi Sakamoto

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.”

“fullmoon,” which acts as the centerpiece of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s latest album, async, opens with this quote from Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, read by the author over a single sombre sine-wave. As the piece progresses, the quote is spoken in numerous other languages by Sakamoto’s friends and collaborators; German musician Alva Noto, Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, and many more contribute versions of Bowles’s quotation, all meshing together over Sakamoto’s sparse and funereal melody.

Ryuichi Sakamoto by Joi Ito

This process of layering language is nothing new for Sakamoto; he previously employed the technique on “War & Peace” off of 2004’s CHASM. In this context, however, it is used particularly poignantly; Sakamoto was diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer in 2014, which caused him to take a hiatus from music and reevaluate his outlook on life and mortality. Although treatment was successful and his cancer went into remission, Sakamoto told The Fader earlier in 2017 that “that sense of time, time left, [became] much more realistic. Not serious, just more real.”

David Sylvian, the criminally underrated former vocalist of Japan and a frequent collaborator of Sakamoto’s since 1980’s “Taking Islands in Africa,” wrote that async is a work that “sings of mortality… it expresses a love and gratitude for life accompanied by the knowledge of its fragility.” This is very noticeable when listening to the album, especially to a listener with an acute knowledge of the eclectic intricacies of Sakamoto’s discography. async was composed and recorded by Sakamoto with the possibility in mind that it could be his last album, and in many ways it plays like a forward-thinking retrospective of his career. “solari” sounds like a Yellow Magic Orchestra (Sakamoto’s first group) recording session possessed by the ghost of Chopin, and the David Sylvian-assisted “Life, Life” fits neatly into the canon of Sakamoto/Sylvian collaborations such as “Forbidden Colours” and “World Citizen.”

async is much more than just a revisiting of Sakamoto’s artistic highs, though. Rather, it uses these creative milestones as starting points to inform a new sound, one which feels as contemporary and vital in 2017 as Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Rydeen” did in 1979. For the Ryuichi Sakamoto neophyte, async provides a great jumping off point for his other music, and for the established Sakamoto otaku (which I will readily admit I am), the album is yet another entry in his oeuvre which simultaneously feels unique from his other releases and yet inescapably Sakamoto in its depth and emotion.

Part of what has made Ryuichi Sakamoto such a venerable name in artistic circles over the course of his career is, despite the almost overwhelming variety of his back catalogue, the deep connection many of his fans have to their favourite works. My introduction to Sakamoto’s music was through a YouTube “study music” playlist, the name of which is lost to me at the time of writing. Interspersed with tranquil piano-based anime OSTs and “1 hour of best relaxing music Debussy” videos was Sakamoto’s 1995 composition, “Bridge.” Composed as the soundtrack to Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto’s Autumn/Winter 1995 collection, the piece begins with six minutes of abstract, muted piano notes, picking out a melody which paradoxically seems both distant and intimately close over a buzzing background of resonating piano strings. Eventually, the buzzing ceases, and the listener is treated to a melancholy, sparse collection of chords – disconnected almost to the point of dissonance. These chords form the backbone of the composition’s main emotional leitmotif, an achingly beautiful cascade of notes which is best described as the sound of snowflakes falling and spiralling in the night onto a deserted street already blanketed and sheltered in snow, a single streetlight casting distended shadows of the trees onto the alien landscape below. The notes flow precisely, although with a distinctly human syncopation that is accentuated by the audible tapping of Sakamoto’s fingers on the piano’s keys.

The piece vividly suggests flow, movement, and dynamism in the same way as Yamamoto’s almost dangerously oversized and simple, yet stunningly precise and complex tailoring. Just as how Yamamoto uses an often austere, monochromatic palette to create deliriously beautiful clothing, Sakamoto’s employment of a single piano in “Bridge” creates an all-encompassing work, at once joyous and melancholic, lighthearted and sombre, ethereal and grounded.

Although it was written almost a full two decades before Sakamoto’s diagnosis with cancer – a chain of events concluding in the release of async – “Bridge” offers a reflection of mortality and the fluid march of time that manages to evoke emotion as only a composer of Sakamoto’s talent and empathy can.

“How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.”

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