We’re pretty sure that at some point in your life, you’ll have heard Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence”, whether consciously or otherwise.
There’s just no mistaking that familiar melody that has since been sampled countless times across different genres – Watergate’s trance rendition of “Heart Of Asia”, Utada Hikaru’s pop-rock version of “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence FYI”, Chris Brown’s R&B offering of “Roses Turn Blue”, and probably 20 other songs.
Born in Tokyo on Jan 17, 1952, Sakamoto started learning to play the piano at the age of three. By the time he turned 10, he was already composing his own music.
In 1976, he graduated with a master’s degree in music from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.
While Sakamoto focused more on classical music in the later stages of his career, electronic music was his first love – this was how he debuted, together with fellow musicians Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi as Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO).
In the late 1970s, their futuristic brand of music was deemed eccentric, but the unabashed joy of embracing their oddities allowed YMO to pave the way for future like-minded musicians.
Sakamoto has always been known for his transformative musical ability; from the disco-trippy “Technopolis” from YMO days, to the synth-heavy “Thousand Knives” as a solo artiste, to the hushed calmness of “Blu” on piano.
Experimentation is something that comes naturally to him, apparent in the numerous musical projects he has dabbled in throughout the years.
In 2005, he composed ringtones for Nokia’s luxury 8800 model. Year 2007 then saw Sakamoto taking part in the production of PlayStation2 game, Seven Samurai 20XX as a composer.
More recently, in 2015, following a year-long hiatus after being diagnosed with throat cancer, Sakamoto returned to score the award-winning film, The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.
Since the 2000s, Sakamoto has taken a shine to experimental electronic music, often working together with like-minded musicians who share his interests.
Deviating from mainstream music, experimental electronic is far more diverse and obscure, often tapping into the abstract.
In an interview with The Creative Independent, Sakamoto says, “Generally, I dislike the process of making music based on a blueprint or purpose or aim. If I was an architect, I would be a bad one, because I don’t like having blueprints. But that’s exactly what I like to do.
“I shouldn’t know what I’m making, or what it will be. I want to make something I don’t know, and that I’ve never done or never known. Hopefully, for me, it’s going to be a surprise, and a new experience.”
Here are our favourite electronic musicians that have collaborated with Ryuichi Sakamoto:
Credit: Carsten Nicolai © Alberto Novelli - Villa Massimo
It can be said that Carsten Nicolai, aka Alva Noto, was the catalyst behind Sakamoto’s participation in the experimental electronic music scene.
Originating from Germany, Nicolai has been a major part of electronic glitch music since the 1990s. To date, he has performed in many of the world’s most prestigious spaces including the Guggenheim, Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern and Venice Biennale.
Nicolai and Sakamoto’s collaboration came to life as VIRUS – a series of five albums, each named with the corresponding alphabet of the word – Vrioon (2002), Insen (2005), Revep (2006), Utp_ (2008) and Summvs (2011).
Described as “static rhythmic pieces that circle round and vary on the same theme with its impressionistic atmosphere”, Vrioon’s compositions combine ambient soundscapes, piano and distorted samples.
It was even named “Album of the Year 2004” by The Wire magazine.
Apart from the VIRUS albums (which were recently reissued by Nicolai’s record label NOTON), another of Nicolai and Sakamoto’s notable joint efforts is the soundtrack for The Revenant.
Released to widespread acclaim, the score was nominated for “Best Original Score” at the 2016 Golden Globe Awards and “Best Film Music” at the 2016 BAFTAs, but was disqualified from the “Best Original Score” category at the 2016 Oscars because it was written by more than one composer.
Taylor Deupree started out in the 1990s making techno-centric music, but soon developed his signature style of natural and technological meditation, eventually founding his own experimental music label, 12k.
His works are expansive, often crossing raw and processed, resulting in a quiet ambience interspersed with underlying currents of emotions.
Disappearance (2013), brings together the best of both artistes: the tinkling of keys melds with alien-like sounds, as if you’re exploring a different dimension surrounded by organisms you’ve never set your eyes on before.
Speaking to Drifting, Almost Falling, a blog specialising in ambient and experimental music, Deupree cites Japan as one of his favourite places: “When I first went to Japan, I was really blown away by the people, the passion and the aesthetics of their creative culture.
“I became heavily inspired by wabi sabi, which briefly, is the belief that imperfection is beautiful, and the appreciation of natural objects that only get more beautiful as nature wears them away. These ideas have since been the single most guiding philosophy of my music.”
Deupree and Sakamoto’s second collaboration, Perpetual (2015), sees them joining forces with Tokyo-based duo Illuha.
Recorded on a hot summer’s evening during a live performance at the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media’s 10th anniversary, the spiritual beauty of music is brought to life as they played together for the first time.
Credit: ©️ Inés Bacher / Wiener Festwochen
One of the most distinctive voices of electronic music today, Christian Fennesz (or simply known as Fennnesz) became involved in the Viennese techno scene in the early 1990s.
Despite his formal education in guitar and ethnomusicology, Fennesz found his calling in electronic music – by plugging his guitar into his laptop, he was able to transform and create unique sounds that exclusively belonged to him.
Fennesz’s first studio album, Endless Summer (2001), was widely-acclaimed, with Pitchfork writer Mark Richardson describing it as “Fennesz seeding his clouds of distortion with radiant chunks of melody”.
Sala Santa Cecilia (2004) was his first collaboration with Sakamoto, an unplanned live performance recorded in Rome. Here, in a rare occurrence, Sakamoto used a laptop instead of a piano.
In 2017, Fennesz and Sakamoto released their collaborative studio album Cendre. For the expectant listener impressed by Sala Santa Cecilia, this offered a rather muted experience – while lush and warm, it somehow lacked the vibrancy of their previous joint effort.
The subsequent Flumina (2011) is a piano-forward album, featuring 24 tracks in 24 different keys, recorded by Sakamoto while on tour in Japan. These tracks where then sent to Fennesz, where they were embellished with electronics, guitars and synths.
At just over two hours, the album makes for ruminative listening with its soft minor key.
Credit: Tomo Saito
Christopher Willits’ Wikipedia page reads like a formal resume, but his contributions towards experimental electronic music can be clearly seen through his prolific releases and big-name collaborations.
Specialising in immersive music for relaxing, focus and healing, Willits explains: “Music can allow us to feel and become more present with ourselves and others. It can catalyse inner change, and those changes within ourselves can influence changes in the world.
“At a young age, I realised that my life’s path was to make immersive music that helps us listen to ourselves, listen with others, and listen to the world around us. I am continuously learning and evolving through the music; letting go of all that I create as it creates me.”
Both his collaborations with Sakamoto can be best described as “unexpected” – it is difficult to guess what sounds he uses to complement or contrast Sakamoto’s piano.
Strangely yet miraculously, the guitars, digital effects and ambient sounds come together almost seamlessly, adding to the depth of the immersive soundscape.
No matter where the music starts or ends, they convalesce in certain spots despite their dissimilarities.
Ocean Fire (2008) is all at once intense and stirring, almost haunting; while Ancient Future (2012) narrates the creation, acceptance and completion of one’s life experiences across a six-song cycle.
Compared with the three artistes mentioned above, these Willits and Sakamoto collaborations evoke the most comfortable, organic feeling of artistic freedom.
Read more intriguing stories about these sound artists & creators:
Cover Credit: Taylor Deupree / Tina Chan
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Writer | Michelle Tan
Having spent the past decade turning her passion into profession, Michelle is a freelance writer/translator based in Malaysia. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.