When Ryuichi Sakamoto was a high schooler in Tokyo, he had to ride a commuter train to get to class. The passengers were always crammed on, trapping one another between stray limbs and contorted torsos. Unable to move, all the teenage Sakamoto could do was listen. He amused himself by counting the sounds the train made, identifying more than 10 that he would listen out for every morning.
Close listening is a habit that has carried Sakamoto through nearly 70 years of musical exploration, each decade leading him in new directions. He was born in 1952, the year John Cage composed 4′33″. When he was a toddler, he was introduced to the piano, an instrument he would go on to examine from many Cageian angles. As the ’70s bled into the ’80s, he segued from an ethnomusicology and composition degree to the role of keyboardist and songwriter for Yellow Magic Orchestra, the proto-synthpop group led by Haruomi Hosono. In the solo career years that followed, Sakamoto’s embrace of a new wave of electronic instruments led to fruitful experiments in fusing global genres, which in turn made way for close studies of classical impressionism. Many times over Sakamoto’s sonic path has leapt forward then looped back on itself, forever telling the present something of both its past and future.
The how of composition is as important to Sakamoto as what he makes, and more often than not his creative process starts with improvisation. “You have to open your ears all the time because anything could happen unexpectedly,” he has said of his approach. “Anything can be music.” A wrong note could be the right way into a fresh musical idea. The sounds of a city at night might inform the architecture of a new album. In fact, it was a building that inspired Glass, Sakamoto’s 2016 live improvised composition with longtime friend Alva Noto. Specifically, Philip Johnson’s modernist Glass House, which the American architect built in Connecticut in the late ’40s to live in. As part of their performance, Sakamoto and Noto played Johnson’s glass and steel home like an instrument, sweeping rubber mallets over its contact mic’d surfaces.