Here’s the long version of my interview with Ryuichi Sakamoto from April.
Where were you when you heard about the passing of Bowie?
I was here in New York when I heard he passed away. It was only two days after his album, it was a huge shock.
You both starred in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and you both called New York City home the past few decades. I wonder if you would see him around town. Had you been in touch with him?
Since we were together making that film, we had some contact afterwards. Then naturally, we lost contact. He was not easy to reach, but I knew he was living in downtown New York. Now I regret that I didn’t try more to get together with him and talk personally. He was a fascinating guy.
I think about all your collaborations and it’s interesting that you only collaborated with Bowie as actors. What did you learn acting with him versus doing music?
He was a great visual artist. He knew how to look as himself in the best ways. He tried many different ways. He was a great visual artist and his only material was himself. I’m not like that. I’m not sure I learned any acting from him. Musically, certainly, I got some influence from him, especially in the early days and his Berlin Trilogy albums, they were a huge impact on me.
Did you ever talk to him about that?
Well, musicians are very shy to talk about each others’ music, so no, not really. I’m sure he knew I was a big fan of his albums.
Did he know Yellow Magic Orchestra?
He did, he did. He also knew some of my soundtracks too.
After I turned forty years old, I got very concerned about my health. I tried to eat organic food, I was very interested in macrobiotic. I thought I was completely healthy. When it started, the first symptom, I had never thought about cancer. Maybe it’s because of aging?
What was the symptom?
Something there (he moves his fingers along the left side of his throat). It was very irritated, but I didn’t think of cancer, so I left it for six months as it got bigger and bigger. This is something extraordinary, so I went to the doctor and did a biopsy. It’s cancer. My faith of “health” was crushed (claps hands together). Even though I ate organic food for more than twenty years, but still. This is life. It was radiotherapy. I could have lost my voice, so I feel very lucky that I didn’t. But the treatment was so harsh and I got the biggest pain in my life from the treatment. I couldn’t do anything, just watching some DVDs. All the work, all the schedule, I had to cancel. I’ve worked full-time since I was a student, more than forty years. It was very harsh, painful, but I wanted to use this time for something productive. So I decided to watch movies I hadn’t watched before, mainly Chinese films, throughout the decades, 70s-today. I’m more familiar with Japanese films. I knew Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi. I grew up with Oshima’s films and know them.
Carsten said you’re a workaholic, so it had to be hard to do nothing.
The funny thing is that for a long time after I won the Oscar for The Last Emperor, I thought I should give a gift to myself and to my staff. I said: “Let’s cancel all the schedule for one month.” And they did. And then after three days, I was like “Where’s my work?!” Three days. That’s what I was like.
Did you find yourself going crazy not being able to work?
I think so. Like riding a bicycle, you can’t be still.
How long did treatments last?
It was three months. I took free time for six months. my plan was to take a whole year, 2015, just doing nothing and getting back my energy. But then six months after the treatment I got the call from Innaritu all of a sudden, who said: “Come to LA tomorrow.” I was in the middle of recovery process, so I wasn’t sure I could do that. I returned to work slowly, but it was worth it. I couldn’t resist working with such a talented person. But I thought the cancer would come back after all that hard work. It was strange, that I was a lucky man. I never felt any limitation for myself. I thought I could do anything I wanted. The result is that I can reach to the goal, I was such a lucky person. But then after the treatment, my energy level was very low, so I tried my limit. It was the first time in my life I couldn’t, I lost myself. It’s a nice feeling I think, to think ‘I’m a loser.’ I was such a lucky person.
When you listen to Blackstar, Bowie’s last album, was that in your mind, ‘what if this is the last time I get to do this’?
Yes, I actually thought it could be my last one. So that’s why I tried to forget all the rules and forms, anything. I just wanted to put down just what I wanted to hear, just a sound or music, it doesn’t matter. This could be the last time.
What kind of listening did you do? Did your interaction with music change?
I made a list after the treatment of the music. I cried. Interestingly, there were some pieces that I never cried to before, or I was never interested in before. I don’t remember her name, but this old Cuban singer, Omara Portuondo, although I don’t like the style of music, corny pre-Revolution Cuban music, but the strength of the voice, the vocal struck me so much that I cried.
Who else made you cry?
Interestingly, the music that impacted me after the treatment was mainly vocal music: Maria Callas, Omara Portuondo, Japanese singer Mitsuko Koike, her voice is like an angel. Where does the title come from? Async as no synchronization. My previous album is Out of Noise, but this is Out of Sync. Out of sync means I’ve been thinking for a long time, most of music in the world is a simple thing, ethnic music, jazz, rock or classical. I wanted to make some music, anti-synchronized music. there are a few examples of async music, but not many. I’ve been trying for a long time to make…it’s not difficult to make async music, there’s no…center. Technically, it’s easy. But I wanted to make something async but still musical. It’s not easy.
When I first listened, I felt there’s an attention to what’s between the events, between piano, strings, events, this attention to negative space. As if you were interested in what’s between objects.
Yes, I think that’s the right impression. My first motivation was I just wanted to hear sounds of things, everyday things, even the sounds of instruments, musical instruments as things. For instance, the piano is a very systematically, industrially-designed thing, but they were a part of nature, taken from nature. Mankind artificially tuned and set the well-tempered scale, but the thing is if you leave the piano for a long time without a tuning, it will be out of tune. I thought that because the things in their earlier life were part of nature, are returning to what they were, going back to nature. Not fully, but slightly.
I decided to leave the pianos out of tune. I have two Steinways at home, an upright and a small piano. I decided not to tune the upright to see how it would sound. I got this idea that the instrument (noisy) I got this idea about instruments and nature from the big earthquake and tsunami from six years ago in japan. I saw many instruments drowned in the sea water and they couldn’t be used. I got a real physical pain from looking at those. As a musician, the instrument is part of my body. I went to see one of those pianos drowned in tsunami water in a high school in the affected area. It’s next to Fukushima. I went there months later and recorded that sound. Of course, it was totally out of tune but I thought it was beautiful. I thought this is ‘nature tuned it.’ I used some bits on the album.
I didn’t know how to start. It took a month to decided which direction I should go. I recorded these pianos. I went upstate to walk in a forest around architect Philip Johnson’s glass house in Connecticut. I moved to NYC in 1990. I was going to go back to Japan before I got cancer, but then I did treatments here, commuting everyday to Sloan-Kettering. I was fascinated and so pleased in New York to meet the nicest people. They’re amazing. I tried many things, then a month passed. My decision was to make a soundtrack for an imaginary Tarkovsky film, one that exists in my brain. I admire his films. I feel very close to his films. I’ve been watching his films since the 80s. He left us only seven films. The Mirror and The Sacrifice are my favorites, Mirror is most biographical. I used his father’s poem.
How did you come across this?
That recording of the poem was given to me by David Sylvian six years ago after the tsunami. We did a charity concert for Japan with John Zorn, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, so I asked my friends to contribute something. So David sent me ten recordings of him reading poems.
So you’re imagining this Tarkovsky film, how did you move from there?
I was going to make a solo album in 2014, but I had to stop because of cancer. This time, I trashed all the ideas and sketches and everything except the first track “andata,” which I finished before the disease. The rest is all from scratch, from zero. Paul Bowles and other speakers.
What led you to that quote?
This could be the last album of mine, so I wanted to include whatever I wanted. That voice of Paul Bowles struck me so much, his impact for me when I was working on The Sheltering Sky, he was in the film in the beginning and end, narrating it himself. So deep and sad, but for a long time, I wanted to do something with that moment. I didn’t know what to do. Why not try to make music with it? I emailed Bertolucci to use that recording. (Bertolucci recited the line in Italian on the track) There’s these moments that seem to touch on the many aspects of your career. I’m not a person to look back into my past. I always want to do something new. But again, that’s true, there are many elements from the past in the music I like.
At one point in the early 90s, you had an album with Arto Lindsay, Youssou N’Dour and Brian Wilson all on the same song. What was it like to work with Brian Wilson?
Even for me, it sounds very random, there’s no coherence. But that’s what I am. It’s 100% true that I always worked with unique, talented people. That’s for sure. Brian Wilson was one of the most extraordinary. It was an unexpected experience for me. he loved what he did on my track in LA. We said goodbye and it was a pleasure. And the next day in New York he showed up with all of his family.
After that point, you moved away from pop. Are you done with pop?
Generally, I’m fed up with pop music. I’m more interested in experimental music, free minds. It led me back to my youth, music related to those art movements, Nam June Paik, Fluxus, I was so interested in that area, so I was getting back to my youth with this album. After I got to know Carsten and Christian, I thought to myself, I could forget about pop. There are many kinds of music than pop, like hip-hop and other areas. During the making of aysnc, I was so much into Japanese sound artist Akio Suzuki. He’s done many different things. One of his early pieces was a big concrete cube in a gallery and he pushed it so it made a sound of friction on the floor. It’s beauuuutiful music, I think. The other beautiful music was the composition number seven or five by La Monte Young’s 1960 #5: “Turn a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) loose in the performance area.” Before I finished the album, I made a CD and put it in the car and drove around the city two times. The most intriguing sound was helicopters. There’s big noises in NYC when you listen to music, so you shut the door or window. This one you can’t mask, it’s part of nature. I was really happy.
Do you think you’ll make another solo album?
I’ve got some ideas. The big dream is to make an opera for 2019 to have the premiere. I’m going to do two soundtracks this year. I’m trying to relax, but it’s hard.
Was working on the album healing for you?
I think so. I was not conscious about that. It helped my mind and body.