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Beauty and the Beholder 

The forbidden colors of Ryuichi Sakamoto

Wednesday, Aug 28 2002
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Photo by Hiroshi Nomura

THIS IS THE STORY OF THE COMPLETE MUSICIAN. Or fairly complete -- Ryuichi Sakamoto would say he's only begun his search for the definitive sound. And that'd be saying something, coming from a man with a rather astounding number of achievements spanning the realms of film and television soundtracks (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence; The Last Emperor; Wild Palms; The Sheltering Sky; High Heels; The Handmaid's Tale; Snake Eyes; Love Is the Devil; many more); techno-pop (Yellow Magic Orchestra); grand-scale operas; collaborations with avant-garde poets, players and DJs; and the opening music for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Over the phone from Tokyo, Sakamoto sounds matter-of-fact about his scroll of career highlights. It's this brand of cool that, for example, has allowed him to interpret so persuasively the airy mysteries of Antonio Carlos Jobim on a sterling new disc called Casa (Sony Classical), as a pianist in empathetic collaboration with Brazilians Jaques Morelenbaum (cello) and Paula Morelenbaum (voice). Sakamoto finds an affinity with the sensuously bittersweet soul of Brazil, and with Jobim: The path of beauty and substance is common to all three.

As he negotiates the misleadingly pretty twists, turnarounds and surprises, Sakamoto performs alongside the Morelenbaums on these hitherto unheard Jobim works with such intricacy and poise as to be translucent. The composer's charts left plenty of room for expansion.

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"The piano playing on this album is a reflection of the way Jobim played," says Sakamoto. "Since the first time I heard the bossa nova, the thing that struck me most was his touch -- it sounded almost like Zen, and not only the spaces between the notes, but the timbre, the kind of filtered sound of the piano. It's like a meditation."

At the recording sessions, which took place in Jobim's house on the outskirts of Rio, Sakamoto played Jobim's actual piano, which must've engendered a sense of obligation. You can hear Sakamoto channeling the master's spirit.

"You could see his fingerprints on the keyboard," he says. "You know, it's almost sacred -- you can't touch. But I did."

Brazilian sambas and bossa novas often come off mushy and insipid, usually owing to performers' aloofness to the material's wily strategies. Sakamoto, though, grounded not only in the French "impressionist" composers such as Debussy, Ravel and Satie but also in ethnic musics and electronic composition, has the qualifications -- high intelligence, good taste -- to play Jobim's music. And his own compositions reflect a superwide harmonic/melodic/timbral range he developed by listening to everything: "Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Johann Sebastian Bach, Brahms, Pierre Boulez, Stockhausen, Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen, gamelan, African tribes," he says.

For many years at least one of Sakamoto's avid pursuits has been beauty -- how to perfect and redefine it. (He even titled his 1990 solo album with the word.) But he's also striven for intellectual rigor, content. His work has addressed beauty in overtly lush European ways, and in the more, say, Japanese way of exploring empty spaces to draw power from unstated emotions. He has absorbed a great variety of music. But these days he's not such a feverish student.

"Into my 20s, of course I was interested in other people's music, but I was not interested in establishing my own style. That's why I took a path to one thing, then to other things. And that was fun, and that confused my listeners a lot. But now, probably for the first time in my life, I'm looking for something of my own."

So what clues the musician toward his own destined road? "I don't have any particular approach," he says. "Ideas come to me whenever -- when I watch CNN, or I'm reading a book or doing photography." When the song strikes, he usually has something at hand to capture it with. "Driving a car, I don't have any device except a cellular phone. So I call my house, and I put a melody or some idea onto my own answering machine."

SAKAMOTO HAS ENJOYED A SMALLISH SIDELINE as a face, with memorable roles in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence; The Last Emperor (his score for the latter earning him an Oscar and a Golden Globe award); and more recently Abel Ferrara's New Rose Hotel. That was Sakamoto playing "the Director" in Madonna's "Rain" video, and you've seen him draped stylishly in ads for Barneys New York, fashion designer Antonio Miro and the Gap. His sullenly handsome charisma seems a natural for the silver screen, but he found the acting life disheartening.

"I decided not to take roles after The Last Emperor. I like movies, but I'm a really bad actor."

But his performance in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was . . .

"So bad. People can't see my consciousness on the screen. That's really annoying. The only film director who could pull me out is Jean-Luc Godard."

Sakamoto's Web site reveals that he's not an artist who lives in a plastic bubble. Www.sitesakamoto.com is a valuable source of activist links concerned with militarism, terrorism and retaliation, nuclear proliferation, economic exploitation of the Third World, the environment, and numerous geopolitical issues; it's also a forum for intellectual-property rights. Yet his art doesn't strike one as politically motivated.

"I think everybody is influenced by political issues, whether he's interested or not," says Sakamoto. "I try to put my feelings about those issues in my music; I don't like to put social or political messages onto my music."

Sakamoto was moved when he witnessed in person the fall of the World Trade Center, and now "I feel some responsibility to do something." Though he has long disliked using his name to promote causes, last year Sakamoto recorded a single, "Zero Landmine," to benefit the HALO Trust, which raised millions of dollars for that organization's land-mine-removal campaign.

"I was tired of being tired," he says. "In Japan, almost all musicians and artists are still very quiet, not political. I was like that; I was involved in the late-'60s student movements, and I saw a lot of bad things, and I was traumatized. But that project with the land mines was very fascinating, because I had to re-see myself as a musician."

SAKAMOTO'S RESTLESS. WHILE HE'S PROVED HE can beat the band in most musical settings, at age 50 he's on the prowl for meaningful modes of expression, new technologies that can alter the way we experience music and sound itself. 1999 found him exploring digital interactivity with the star-studded opera Webcast Life, which allowed viewers to convey in real time their approval or disdain. His video-and-animation-enhanced CD project Discord (with guests DJ Spooky, Laurie Anderson, Bernardo Bertolucci, Banana Yoshimoto, David Byrne, Patti Smith, David Torn and others) is a marvel of user-participatory potential. Recent performances have seen Sakamoto applying his encyclopedic knowledge of composition theory and pop, ethnic and electronic history to the art of deejaying.

"I've been doing a kind of laptop deejaying. Instead of using turntables and CD players, I've got a lot of audio files in my hard disk, with some digital programs. Basically, it's the same as deejaying, but virtual, software-based. I could have 10, 12 different turntables at the same time on my desktop, playing and mixing at the same time. No blueprints or anything -- it's all spontaneous. And it's so free."

While he'll continue his scoring work in several upcoming big- and small-scale films, including the prize-winning documentary Derrida and Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale, freedom of expression, in the end, is what Sakamoto's all about. And, he says, time is of the essence.

"All music is still based on measurements, and I'm losing interest in that. I wish I could have a program or software where the musical space can be a canvas. I just put, like, some painting from Miró, I put some color here, and some shapes here, like a painting, without thinking too much about structure based on time. Because we are still trapped by the flow of time in music, and this limitation is so strong, for all kinds of composers, like punk rock, rap, classical -- we are like a slave of time."

Morelenbaum2/Sakamoto perform at the Knitting Factory on September 7.

Reach the writer at jpayne@bluefat.com

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