Various Artists A Tribute to Ryuichi Sakamoto – To the Moon and Back Milan Records
For those unfamiliar with Ryuichi Sakamoto, trying to find an entry point into the composer’s vast body of work can feel like a daunting task. For many, his contributions to cinema are the route in. Over more than four decades, Sakamoto has produced an incredible set of almost 40 film scores, ranging from 1983’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – in which also he stars alongside David Bowie – to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s brutal epic set on the American frontier, The Revenant.
Many of these films are staged amid wild, elemental landscapes and often feature characters experiencing some form of cultural disruption. His work with Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, for example, with whom he worked on The Sheltering Sky, The Last Emperor and Little Buddha, interrogates the consequences of humans colliding with huge social forces such as colonialism, war and revolution. Accompanying these existential themes are scores that are equally vivid and often suffused with melancholy.
In parallel to his film work, Sakamoto has been a significant pioneer within electronic and ambient music, as well as various forms of fusion. A graduate of the prestigious Tokyo University of the Arts, Sakamoto began his musical career in the 1970s, initially finding fame with the proto synth-pop outfit Yellow Magic Orchestra, while his solo releases, particularly 1978’s Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto, saw him experimenting with funk, early synthesisers, musique concrete and Japanese folk music.
Perhaps it’s the breadth of human experience his music seems to speak to, and the variety of genres he’s worked in, that gives Sakamoto such a loyal fanbase. A Tribute to Ryuichi Sakamoto: To the Moon and Back – released by Milan Records to mark the artist’s 70th birthday – is an illustration of just how wide his appeal is, featuring reworked versions of his tracks by artists including The Cinematic Orchestra, Thundercat, Alva Noto, David Sylvian and Devonté Hynes. The album’s release coincides with a challenging chapter in the composer’s life: having recovered from the throat cancer he was diagnosed with in 2014, Sakamoto was again diagnosed with cancer in early 2021, and is, at the time of writing, postponing live performances while he undergoes further treatment.
The risk of losing such a treasured and pivotal artist gives the 13 tracks on the LP an extra sense of poignancy. It’s a complex and multilayered record, homing in on various touch points from the composer’s impressive career, and reimagining them through divergent styles including funk, ambient and techno. Taiwanese composer Lim Giong’s take on Walker, for instance, is a gorgeous work of subtle drones, flutes and gongs augmented by crunchy field recordings of rocks, woodland and bird calls. This combination of electronic and nature-derived sounds hints at yet another aspect of Sakamoto’s life: his work as an environmental activist and founder of More Trees, an organisation dedicated to protecting Japan’s forests.
The album is at its strongest when tracing this vein, allowing composers from the ambient and electronic spectrum to pull apart the strands that run through Sakamoto’s work and take them to unexpected places. In the hands of long-time collaborator Alva Noto, the theme to The Sheltering Sky is transformed into a hypnotic work of pulsating strings and delicate xylophones, while Austrian guitarist Fennesz turns Sakamoto’s solo piano piece Amore into a hazy, nocturnal soundscape, rippling with distorted guitars.
There are a few overbearing moments. Electric Youth’s remodel of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is stuffed with synths and strings, amping up an already heart-wrenching melody to unnecessarily melodramatic heights. But this is a minor blip on an album that is otherwise superbly produced, rich and varied. Other gems include Thundercat’s version of Sakamoto’s Thousand Knives. With its squelchy Moog synth-bass and warm, soulful vocals, it sits slightly apart from the rest of the tracks, direct and playful in contrast to some of the more abstract compositions. The track crowns a record that will surprise some long-term fans. But for those less familiar with Sakamoto’s work, it offers a unique gateway into the creative output of one of the most vital composers of the past half-century.