Born in Japan in 1952; once married to keyboardist AkikoYano. Education: Received degree in music composition, and advanced degree in electronic and ethnic music, both mid-1970s, from Tokyo's National University of Fine Arts and Music. Addresses: Home--New York City. Record company--Island Records, 400 Lafayette St., fifth floor, New York, NY 10003.

Though Ryuichi Sakamoto has cited nineteenth-century French composer Claude Debussy and 1970s-era German synthesizer act Kraftwerk as his biggest influences, his style is far beyond a mere hybrid of classical impressionism and technopop. Sakamoto is known for coupling a melodic touch with technological mastery, but the depth evident in his work derives from a deep interest in multicultural forces. His compositions have combined elements from the musical traditions of Asia and other cultures with the European formalism and American hip-hop. This cultural integration was an influential precursor to the world music of the Nineties, just as Sakamoto's electronic lyricism broke ground for contemporary ambient and new-age movements.

Sakamoto was born in Japan in 1952. He began piano training at the age of three, and by his tenth year had begun composing. By the time he was eleven, his musical interests ranged from the Beatles to Beethoven and he began to study under a professor at the Tokyo University of the Arts. He enrolled formally as a student there in 1971, and came into contact with synthesizers for the first time. The university owned several, which were then fairly expensive and rare. Sakamoto eventually earned a B.A. in composition and later a master's degree with a concentration in electronic and ethnic music; his university years also introduced him to radical politics, and he was associated with a leftist student group, Zen Ga Kren. In 1977, he began work as a composer, arranger, and studio musician with some of Japan's most popular rock, jazz, and classical artists. Within a few years, he became a noted producer, arranger, and keyboardist.

In 1978, Sakamoto released his first solo album, The Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto. That same year, he and two fellow young, avant-garde Tokyo rockers, Haruomi Hosano and Yukihiro Takahashi, formed Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). With a sound that drew heavily from progressive European music of the 1970s-- especially the German band Kraftwerk--but also presented a distinctly Japanese sonic touch, Sakamoto and the others became celebrities. "They were the Great Yellow Hope, the group that would crack the Anglo curtain and do for Japanese musicians what the Beatles did for the British," wrote Bob Doerschuk in Keyboard magazine.

YMO became wildly popular in Japan, but also found an audience abroad. "Computer Game," a track from their debut, became a staple in both discotheques and new wave clubs in America and Europe. Their second album, Solid State Survivor, released in 1979, sold well over a million copies, which led to the first of many world tours. In his travels, Sakamoto became acquainted firsthand with the cultures of much of the international music that had long fascinated him. Between 1978 and 1984, YMO released 13 albums, plus another 13 albums of other material and remixes over the next dozen years. Though they disbanded in 1983, with members wishing to move on to other projects, YMO remained popular even in the late 1990s, with several Internet Web sites devoted to the group. Sakamoto's contributions to the group's prolific output demonstrated his interest in such diverse sources as jazz, classical, Jamaican dub, Latin bossa nova, and Indonesian gamelan as well as his interest in pioneering electronic equipment.

Sakamoto segued from pop stardom to a career in film. He scored the 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and starred opposite David Bowie in the World War II-set drama. He became involved in other media as well. In 1984, he formed his own publishing company, Hon Hon Doh, and published Long Calls, a dialogue with Yuji Takahashi. Subsequent issuances have included dialogues with composers and philosophers. In 1987, Sakamoto's score for the Bernardo Bertolucci epic The Last Emperor, written with Talking Heads founder David Byrne and Cong Su, won an Oscar, a Grammy, a Golden Globe, and the New York, Los Angeles, and British Film Critics Association awards for best original score. Sakamoto also acted in a minor but pivotal role in the film. "The director asked me to act first then I asked to compose the music so it was a good trade," he said on an America Online chat.

Since then he has worked with Volker Schlondorff (The Handmaid's Tale), Oliver Stone (the television series Wild Palms), Pedro Almodovar (High Heels), Bertolucci again (The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha), and others. Of his working relationship with Bertolucci, he said in the America Online interview: "We're friends, but when we work, we, of course, fight. I'm always the loser, because it's his film. That's what he says, `It's my film.'" Sakamoto's film roles have led to an appearance in Madonna's "Rain" music video, and he has even worked as a menswear model for top designers. In Japan, his famous face appears frequently on billboards pitching a variety of products. Since 1990 he has lived in New York City's Greenwich Village, but he described living there as "a disaster," to Mark Prendergast in New Statesman & Society. "It's quite violent.... When I'm driving in Manhattan and you stop at the lights people come at you from all sides banging on your windows for money."

The list of contributors Sakamoto has worked with musically is a long one: the aforementioned Byrne and Bowie, as well as Public Image Limited (PiL), Iggy Pop, Jamaican reggae artist Sly Dunbar, Thomas Dolby, Beach Boy Brian Wilson, David Sylvain, and Caetano Veloso as well as the writers William Burroughs, celebrated video- installation artist Nam June Paik, and cyberpunk trailblazer William Gibson. One of Sakamoto's more noted accomplishments was the invitation to compose a musical work in honor of the 1992 Summer Olympics, held in Barcelona, Spain. He conducted the piece, "El Mar Mediterano," for the opening ceremony.

In addition to his work with YMO--they reunited for one album in 1993--the film scores, and the extensive collaborative efforts, Sakamoto has enjoyed an impressive solo career. Between 1978 and 1996, he released several solo albums, including as 1984's Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia, Neo Geo, released in 1987, and 1990's acclaimed Beauty. On this latter effort, Sakamoto's vision brought together the diverse talents of the Beach Boy, the rasta Dunbar, and Senegalese vocalist Youssou N'Dour all on one track, "Calling from Tokyo." The Band's Robbie Robertson and Ravi Shankar also guested in the studio, and Sakamoto even undertook a rare concert tour for the work. Doerschuk called it "an album that fully lives up to its name," he wrote in a 1990 issue of Keyboard. "It's a complex beauty, at times even unsettling."

For Sakamoto's 1992 solo album, Heartbeat, the composer branched out from the Middle Eastern and African rhythms that had peppered Beauty and found inspiration in house music. He invited Dee-Lite's DJ Dmitri to appear on it, as well as Lounge Lizard John Lurie, who played alto sax. Smoochy, released in 1995, was influenced by Sakamoto's trip to Rio de Janeiro and that city's diverse culture. The following year he made a return to more classical form with 1996, in which Sakamoto abandoned the tablas and synthesizers in favor of an actual piano and string instruments. He writes and records music via a Macintosh computer, however, and his years of experience and resulting proficiency in electronic music and cutting-edge technology allow him to arrange and conduct his compositions not in a studio, with other musicians present, but on computer disk.

In Sakamoto's 1985 interview with Keyboard, he predicted the demise of record and CD sales. "Soon music will primarily be sold as data over telephone lines and cable," he told Doerschuk. "To prepare for this, I've started gearing toward audio-visual projects, like videos and cable television." Several years later, Sakamoto was lauding the technology had brought new immediacy to connecting with others across the globe. He noted in a 1996 interview with Billboard's Steve McClure that "some record companies are very nervous" about the Internet. "It's a new medium through which you can transmit any information, without a third party, directly to the world.... You don't need [label executives], you don't need a CD factory, you don't need trucks to bring the CDS to the stores."

Sakamoto's musical interests, always geographically expansive, have broadened in a conceptual sense as well. Three of his live performances--a June 1996 show at the Knitting Factory in New York, a July concert at London's Royal Festival Hall, and another at Orchard Hall in Tokyo the following month--were broadcast on the Internet. He also has a radio program in Japan, and his guest lecture at Keio University is available on the Internet as well. Sakamoto continues to explore new musical concepts and technologies--in 1996 he was releasing work on laser disc as well--and anticipates the music of the next century. He theorized that the earth's inhabitants "will have to move to a big space station in the next hundred years. We will have to bring Earth culture with us--not space station culture, but culture of this world," he mused in the 1990 interview with Doerschuk. His online diary for September, 1996 reflected his vision for even more dramatic possibilities: "I ask myself what the sound of music originating from something as immense as the Internet would sound like. The music would be without a center. Perhaps a key in understanding of what this kind of music would sound like lies in the music of the Pygmy tribes in Africa or in sounds made by whales."

by Link Yaco

Ryuichi Sakamoto's Career

Began composing music at the age of eleven; formed Yellow Magic Orchestra with two other Japanese musicians, 1977; released several albums with group, 1978-83; group disbanded, 1983 (reformed briefly, 1993); began solo career with The Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto on Nippon Columbia, 1978; released several other solo albums from throughout career; began composing film scores with Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, 1983; has collaborated with numerous musicians and producers from around the globe.

Ryuichi Sakamoto's Awards

Sakamoto's soundtrack for the 1987 Bernardo Bertolucci film The Last Emperor, composed with Cong Su and David Byrne, earned a Grammy Award, a Golden Globe, and several other awards for best film score.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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