Interview with Ryuichi Sakamoto
Ryuichi Sakamoto is a Japanese composer and musician. After winning Academy Award for “The Last Emperor” and Grammy and a British Academy Award for “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”, he moved to New York. Now he is one of the best well-known composers in the world. We had an interview with him asking about the secret of writing music, Japanese virtues and his recent social activities.
– What was your first encounter with music?
My uncle was a record collector and owned so many records. I used to pick one I like and listen to it. That was my first memory. I remember that it was Mendelssohn’s violin concerto.
–Your music is appreciated all over the world. What is the secret of composing music loved by all people, regardless of age and nationality?
I think there is no secret. First of all, I must say that there is no border between Japan and the rest of the world now. Unlike the period of national isolation, we have easier accessibility of information from all over the world. Because I was born after World War II, I have grown up listening to all kinds of music. I am from Tokyo but I don’t really have any memory of listening to “traditional Japanese music,” except for the fact that we would hear someone’s Koto (Japanese Harp) performance or Gagaku ( Japanese ancient imperial court music) on TV. I thought of them as some sort of festival music, nothing special. Now I regret that I didn’t have the opportunity of listening to traditional music that has been cultivated in Japan for over a hundreds years. I don’t try to write to be recognized by the world at all. Rather, the most important thing is to question yourself if you are happy with what you write. Whether you are performing or composing music, you must make sure that you are satisfied with what you do. This sounds easy, but it is really difficult. Unfortunately, I always go easy on myself.
– How did traditional Japanese music effect your composition?
I don’t think it effected my way of composing. However, there is a renowned Japanese ethnomusicologist who had a huge impact on me. His name is Fumio Koizumi. He taught me while I was at Tokyo University of Fine Arts. Being able to study with him was one of the main reasons why I applied for the school. His seminar was so inspiring that I even considered being an ethnomusicologist for a time.
I believe that there is a huge difference between the music written by a really talented composer who had to struggle very much, such as Bach, Mozart, and today’s pop music writer, and the music formed by each tribal life style and culture over generations. After all, an individual work cannot be better than the folk music. It has some mysterious charm, and we won’t be able to achieve its luxuriance of imagination. I would like to know the secret of these. Even now, I always try to write music that has such imagination.
Needless to say, there is music that has the same quality of luxuriance of imagination in Japan. Following the Meiji Restoration, however, Western culture was more revered than Japanese culture. As a result, people are often denied the unique culture of Japan. Things are probably the same even now. I strongly disagree with this. Mr. Koizumi also taught us the comprehensive way to listen to music. It is really important to analyze music, or “the heritage of mankind”, with a objective view point.
–What is “the good” of Japan?
There are many good characteristics about Japan and Japanese people. We are able to discover new technologies and develop a new products. On the other hand, we have the ability to preserve historical heritages. It’s not a uniform state; there are numbers of rich traditions of Japanese culture. The traditional arts include Noh, Kabuki and Joruri, dyeing, potteries, wooden architecture present our traditional craftsmanship.
In addition, Japanese people had been changing the landscape of the country to blend in. Cultivating terraced rice paddies and satoyama helps other creatures exist. As the result, Japanese people have successfully blended into the natural cycle and support rich the biological diversity. Even though we have such a great traditions, the Western large-scale agriculture has recently spread across the country, which exterminates all the creatures and grows only one species. I think it is about time to reconsider the good of the Japanese traditional approach once again. There are so many good aspects of Japan.. I can’t describe them all at once.
– Could you tell us about your participation in anti-nuclear demonstrations, including your production of the music festival No Nukes 2012?
I believe that many people have noticed the danger of nuclear power plants after 3.11 in 2011. Since then, everyday has been a series of dangers. Even people who live outside Japan have been concerned about this incident through the news from the Internet including the amount of leaking radiation and coinciding health issues. The incident is not over yet. It will take at least 20 or 30 years to settle down the problem of Fukushima alone. Meanwhile, we will have to decommission other nuclear power plants that have been used for a long time. So far, two reactors of Ohi nuclear power plants have been restarted. I don’t know where it is going, but it is true that we will eventually need to decommission them, and it will cost A LOT. We need the technology. We also need people. It is really difficult to maintain them even thought there was no accident like 3.11. Who will pay for that? Of course the Japanese people have to pay. I wonder if the people have been given all the right information about nuclear power plants before they were built everywhere in Japan. The people of the village or town have most likely been informed of this fact, but I believe the people in other parts of Japan spent a long time without knowing anything. Now, many people are gaining more attention to how the government has used the money and more are concerned about what is to be done with the money in our future. In America, people are really interested in the politics because they want to know how the government will use our money. I don’t think Japan was like this until now. I think we are now reaching the turning point. We are making a huge change from the old system. It is essentially up to the people to make a decision regarding the energy issues. I am hoping that this is the beginning of the establishment of genuine democracy in Japan.
–Please give us a message you would like to express through the No Nukes music festival.
In July 2012, we had an anti-nuclear music festival in Makuhari Messe. It was the very first time I produced such a music festival and we only had 6 months to coordinate everything. We didn’t even know if it was going to happen, but it turned out to be such a successful concert and many people thought we should continue doing it every year. All the young musicians who participated in the concert made great speeches. I think it is easier for everyone to express their opinions about nuclear power if we gather in one place. They said that they could tell the audience what they really thought with confidence. I think this festival will continue next year and after.
–Are you planning to write an anti-nuclear song like what Kiyoshiro (the Japanese Rock singer) did?
I am not the kind of musician who writes lyrics and music and sing like he does. I have done that only a few times. I wouldn’t like to use my music as a tool to deliver a certain message like a propaganda tool strongly speaking. You will find no such message in my music. I have written some music for people in Fukushima with the sympathy to support them. Yes, I would write more music like that, but nothing simply singing “Stop the nuclear power plants!” I don’t think I would write such music.
–What would you like to do in the future?
There are so many thing I would like to do, but basically: “write music that is true to myself” That’s it. I have a new project that consists of composing Japanese poetry. I have been reading various poems from modern time. I don’t really know how it will turn out. Also, I would like to learn more about traditional Japanese instruments and compose music for them. This is sort of my life-long project, but I have to complete “Schola” up to volume 30!(http://www.commmons.com/schola/index.html) I have done 10 volumes so far. It takes a tremendous amount of time to research and make one volume, but I have a responsibility to complete this project since I am the one who started it. Well, after all, “write music that is true to myself”, this is my goal.
Ryuichi Sakamoto was born in Tokyo in 1952 and made his debut in 1978 with the album “Thousand Knives”. Sakamoto’s diverse résumé include his pioneering electronic works, globally-inspired rock, classical scores including an opera, and being a founding member of electronic music as a part of Yellow Magic Orchestra. His film soundtracks have won many prestigious awards such as an Academy Award for “the Last Emperor,” two Golden Globes, a Grammy and a British Academy Award in addition to the several Japanese awards for his most famous film score, “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”. In 1992, he composed the music and conducted in the Barcelona Olympics opening ceremony. He was awarded the National Order from Brazil, the Orde des Arts et Lettres from France Ministry of Culture and Japanese Ministry of Education Award for Public Entertainment. Sakamoto’s recent releases include collaborations with Alva Noto ( Summvs ), Christian Fennesz, ( Flumina ) and a new trio album (THREE). Since 3/11 in Japan, Sakamoto has been a strong voice for support and help for the victims of the earthquake, tsunami, and the anthropogenic nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. In response, Sakamoto has launched the following three charity organizations: “kizunaworld (http://kizunaworld.org/english/index.html)”, “ LIFE311 (http://life311.more-trees.org/en)“ and “School Music Revival (http://www.schoolmusicrevival.org/index_eng.html)“. Sakamoto resides in New York City.