The Japanese composer meets us in Manhattan to discuss his work with designer Rei Kawakubo and director Luca Guadagnino, and why the past is history
Ryuichi Sakamoto is bent over, swiping through the Discogs page of Yellow Magic Orchestra, in search of the name of a song he’d written long ago. He can’t find it, and his frustration is evident. Sakamoto’s assistant, who is standing nearby, begins searching on his own phone, offering up song titles. “There are many songs,” Sakamoto says to me, almost apologetically. “I remember the music, I can play it. I can hear it.”
The song in question turns out to be “Absolute Ego Dance”, a tight, lurching groove from 1979’s Solid State Survivor, Yellow Magic Orchestra’s second album. Last summer, Sakamoto, along with former bandmate Yukihiro Takahashi, shocked the audience at London’s Barbican Theatre when they joined YMO’s founder, Haroumi Hosono, onstage to play a sedated version of the song as a surprise encore. A video of the performance shows Sakamoto tentatively stabbing out the chord progressions with one hand as he stands in front of a Nord keyboard. It was the first time in six years that the trio, one of Japan’s cult musical exports, had played a song together in front of paying audience.
“I was holding myself back,” Sakamoto says of the impromptu performance today. We’re sitting in a small, airless room adjacent to a recording studio in New York’s SoHo neighbourhood, where the composer has been finalising mixes for a score to a new short film by the director Luca Guadagnino. Framed records line the hallway – one announces the platinum sales status of Travis Scott’s Astroworld – and on the wall above us, there’s a black-and-white print of Jimi Hendrix, wailing as he strikes out a chord. Sakamoto speaks with a measured hesitancy that borders on discomfort, but in his utterances it’s clear that the composer is more content to move through the world as a realm for new possibilities, than to retread past journeys.
“The past is past. I’m always looking forward because I want to hear, or to see, or to feel something unknown. In front, not in the back” – Ryuichi Sakamoto
Painters, after all, aren’t asked to “perform” their greatest works again, but musicians are held to different standards – especially ones like Sakamoto, who four decades ago was the boyishly elegant pianist for what amounted to be his country’s closest embodiment of the Beatles. This tension has existed in Sakamoto’s mind, it seems, since his earliest days. Speaking with him back in 2017, at his West Village studio, he told me how, after the runaway success of “Forbidden Colours”, the melodic centrepiece of the 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which he starred in with David Bowie, that he refused to play the song live for over a decade. Only after seeing Carole King and James Taylor play their chart-topper “You’ve Got a Friend” in concert at Tokyo’s Budokan concert hall did he soften his stance. “I realised what it is when everyone wants to hear the biggest hit,” he said. Sakamoto reintroduced his hit into performances. You could understand why some would want to run away from such things, to look for things, sounds, ideas, in front, and not, in the back.