Lyndon Pike pays tribute to a modern day musical pioneer

Last month witnessed the passing of renowned Japanese musical visionary Ryuichi Sakamoto, an artist whose talent and versatility as a musician, composer, actor and producer earned him a reputation as one of the most influential artists of our time. His innovative use of technology and experimentation with different musical styles have had a profound impact on the development of electronic music and helped to bridge cultural gaps between East and West.

His music has been featured in films, television shows, documentaries and video games, and he collaborated with countless musicians and artists throughout his career. An active performer and producer right up until his passing, his work remains a testament to his creative genius and dedication to social and environmental causes.

Born in Tokyo, Japan, on January 17, 1952, Sakamoto began his musical education at the age of three and later attended the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he studied composition and electronic music. Exposed to diverse musical styles and avant-garde filmmaking, he formed Yellow Magic Orchestra with Yukihiro Takahashi and Haruomi Hosono. The band’s groundbreaking sound and use of electronic instruments helped to build the foundation for synth pop, electro, and techno during the 1970s and early ‘80s. Blending traditional Japanese music with Western pop, YMO became huge stars in Japan, where they topped the Oricon charts.

During his time with YMO, Sakamoto released his first solo album, Thousand Knives Of, which blended classical piano with electronic elements. This art pop record was followed by B-2 Unit two years later, which included the groundbreaking electro-funk single Riot in Lagos. The contrasting styles between the two albums showcased Sakamoto’s unpredictable and diverse range of musical influences, which became a defining characteristic of his later work.

After YMO disbanded in 1983, Sakamoto dedicated himself to solo and collaborative projects. His work as a film composer also allowed him to explore his love for classical music, achieving both artistic and commercial success with his score for the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, in which he also acted alongside David Bowie. The score incorporated elements of Japanese traditional music and European classical music. His most famous film score is undoubtedly the soundtrack for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, which earned him an Oscar, Grammy, and BAFTA Award for Best Original Score.

His talent for creating classical arrangements of his own works and the works of others is also evident in his discography. In 1996, he released an album of his own compositions, 1996, performed entirely by the string quartet Kronos Quartet. He has also arranged works by David Bowie, including Life on Mars and Heroes, for piano and orchestra, demonstrating his skill at creating arrangements that highlight the beauty and complexity of classical music.

Throughout his career, Sakamoto collaborated with a variety of classical musicians and ensembles, including the New Japan Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra. His collaborations with cellist Jaques Morelenbaum resulted in several critically acclaimed albums, including Casa and Smoochy, which seamlessly blend elements of classical, jazz, and Brazilian music.

Sakamoto received numerous awards and honors throughout his career, including an Academy Award, a Grammy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and an Order of the Cavaleiro of the Brazilian Order of Cultural Merit. He was a passionate activist and was involved in various environmental causes throughout his career. In 2011, he helped organize the No Nukes 2012 concert in Japan, which called for the abolition of nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

Sakamoto was also involved in humanitarian work and worked with organizations such as Amnesty International and the United Nations to raise awareness of human rights issues around the world. In recent years, Sakamoto became an advocate for anti-ageing research and has spoken out about the need to address ageing as a major public health issue which culminated in the Longevity Consortium at the University of Southern California.

In 2014, Sakamoto was diagnosed with throat cancer and underwent treatment, which forced him to put his music career on hold for a while. He recovered and resumed working, releasing several albums and performing live concerts, including an Australian concert performance in 2019, which was recorded and released as the album Two: Live At The Sydney Opera House. However, he later revealed that although his throat cancer went into remission, he had been diagnosed with rectal cancer.

While unable to perform on-stage, he presented live streams edited together from short takes into virtual concerts. Playing the Piano 12122020, an audio recording of a streamed concert, was released in late 2021, preceded by Garden of Shadows and Light, a full-length with David Toop.

In early 2023, Sakamoto released 12, an album of atmospheric, minimalist pieces, some of which incorporated the sound of his strained, unsteady breathing as a reflection on his own mortality. Just months later on March 28, Ryuichi Sakamoto died at the age of 71.

This article originally appeared in our May edition of the 2MBS Fine Music Magazine.