#14 Ryuichi Sakamoto

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?

Sakamoto:

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?

Sakamoto:

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?

Sakamoto:

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.