Teengirl Fantasy's Logan Takahashi Gives Us the Lowdown on Ryuichi Sakamoto's Most Influential Releases

We've delved deep into the Japanese genius' genre-spanning back catalogue.

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Aug 8 2016, 3:07pm

We like Teengirl Fantasy, and we really like Logan Takahashi's recent solo material. We also really, really like Ryuichi Sakamoto. So we decided to get Logan Takahashi to write about Ryuichi Sakamoto.

This article was originally published on THUMP UK.

Trying to tackle the mountain that is Ryuichi Sakamoto's oeuvre can be quite the formidable task. From the mid 70s through today, he's consistently released music, first as part of the influential group Yellow Magic Orchestra, and then soon-after as a solo artist, film composer, and producer for other musicians. But it's not just the size of his catalog that's daunting—there's also the fact of his musical eclecticism. His willingness to continually experiment, to be perpetually unpredictable, sets him aside from many of the other musical figures who've become similarly iconic.

This eclecticism is reflected in the far reach of his influence throughout broader culture. You only need to take a look at his four-page entry on WhoSampled to get a sense of the range of types of artists and musical styles he's had an effect on. I would argue that there are two different arcs or branches of Sakamoto's influence. One reaches outwards towards "new" progressive ideas (musical and otherwise), ideas that in their very nature reject or leap away from established forms, working to create new spaces or territories. The other arc is rooted somewhat more on the "giant's shoulders" of contemporary and classical music. The latter is perhaps the Sakamoto that most people are familiar with: the film composer and pianist, pop celebrity and actor who's worked alongside David Bowie, David Byrne, and recorded the song that could pretty much reduce even the coldest of men to unstoppable tears. Both of these branches come from the same artistic place of introverted contemplation, playfulness, and an almost zen-like approach to music.

Rather than trying to present a definitive picture of Sakamoto (which would be impossible here), I'd like to take as an entry point works that fit within the former branch that I described—music that reaches out towards new, undefined places, music that is experimental and adventurous, at times obtuse and difficult, and always working to push boundaries and create new vocabularies. Much of his electronic solo work in cross-media collaborations from the mid 80s can be characterized by this approach, and indeed that is a lot of what I find myself being drawn to as a listener. Here, then, are some of my favorite pieces of Sakamoto's more exploratory, electronic-music-vocabulary-defining work.

1. Ryuichi Sakamoto - "Rain Song" [Esperanto, 1985]

Esperanto was written in 1985 for a ballet performance and is perhaps my favorite album of his. The sounds he uses here define so much of the 'digital-organic' sound that still resonates especially well today. It's as if with this album he created some kind of wormhole that leapt over the following three decades and landed in some kind of dialogue with today. Anyone who relies heavily on music software Omnisphere for their sound has a lot to owe to this album.

(See also: "Dolphins" from same album)

2. Ryuichi Sakamoto - "E-3A" [B2-Unit, 1980]

This extends from the same lineage of sounds as fellow early synth explorers Doris Norton, David Borden, Kraftwerk, etc. but already is offering a hint of the decade to come with its IDM-leaning cut-up complexities. The main arpeggiating thumb piano also wouldn't sound too out of place in the club today in both its sound quality and swing.

3. Nam June Paik and Ryuichi Sakamoto - "All Star Video" [1984]

Here is an amazing gem of a video from 1984, a collaboration between Sakamoto and video artist Nam June Paik. It showcases different avant-garde 'allstars' from boundary obliterating avante garde art movement Fluxus, including one of Sakamoto's heroes, John Cage.

4. Ryuichi Sakamoto and Radical TV - "TV War (Robot)" [1985]

This is by far some of the most exploratory, experimental music I've heard from Sakamoto. It's primarily rhythmically and texturally driven, and at times veers into straight noise. The pattern that drops at 6:52 would still sound fresh if it came out today. The aesthetic of the visuals also resonate with rave scene of the decade that followed its release.

5. Ryuichi Sakamoto - "Grasshopper" [Thousand Knives, 1978]

I wanted to include this just as an example of the seemingly time-proof translatability of Sakamoto's musicality. The lead melodic line that it begins with to me has a really strong grime feel to it in both its bounciness and cartoonish sound quality. I could easily hear this being turned into something ala XTC "Functions on the Low". You could argue that the lead-line 1.08 into "End of Asia" (from the same LP) laid the bedrock for sino-grime.

6. Ryuichi Sakamoto, "The Seed and the Sower" - [Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, 1983]

The bombastic, tough final section of this song that starts at 3:16 is basically begging for some kind of contemporary club edit. Maybe I've already had a crack at this myself...

7. Ryuichi Sakamoto, "Break With" [Chasm, 2003]

The alternating between an interval of repeated microsamples in this track is the same technique which Axel Wilner would employ in his own tracks a few years later as the Field.

8. Ryuichi Sakamoto - "Okinawa Song" [Neo Geo, 1987]

Here's some stunningly shot footage of Sakamoto leading his live band while performing on a Prophet synthesizer and Fairlight sampler in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The song is from his 1987 album, Neo Geo, which took his electronic experimentations of the first half of the decade and packaged them into something more pop-ready and mainstream. Still very weird music.

9. David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto - "Steel Churches" [1985]

Released as a VHS in 1989 this is a collaboration between David Sylvian, Sakamoto and director Yasayuki Yamaguchi. The music is eerily jazzy, creeping and abstract, and the combination with saturated and blurred visuals makes this read like some proto-vaporwave (rather, vaporwave looks/sounds like THIS). The slow pace and vast open space of this music foreshadows the droney experiments he'd make a couple decades later with Alvo Noto.

Logan Takahashi's latest album NoGeo is out now on Ghostly.

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