It’s not uncommon for hyperbolic language to be used when describing some of the world’s favourite, and most revered, musical artists.
But in the case of Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Japanese composer, producer and musician behind a catalogue so vast, so varied, that any attempt to compact a life’s work into only a smattering of sentences would feel like a disservice. Terms like ‘pioneer’, ‘icon’ and ‘one-of-a-kind’ aren’t simply descriptors, but rather straight facts.
From scores to solo albums, crusades through pop to experimental electronic music via any one of his collaborative pursuits – be it influential trio Yellow Magic Orchestra or projects with the likes of Alva Noto or Fennesz – Sakamoto was an artist creating firmly in his own lane. A dreamer guided by intuition, boundless curiosity and expansive knowledge and skill. A teacher to all those touched by his sound and story.
Last month, it was announced that Sakamoto had passed away on 28 March 2023 while undergoing cancer treatment. He was 71 years old. Though his condition was publicly known, shocked and heartfelt tributes flooded in, with a statement from his management company describing him as living with music “until the very end”. Indeed, this commitment to his craft was ever-enduring; last week his team also shared a 33-track playlist compiled the late maestro to be played at his funeral following his passing.
Here, ten contemporaries, musicians, fans and collaborators pay their tributes to Sakamoto and discuss his influence, their earliest encounters and his lasting legacy.
One of the first things I did when I moved to Vienna in the early 80s was go to a movie theatre to watch the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. The soundtrack was different to anything I had heard so far; it was just incredible. Soon after this, I started listening to Ryuichi’s solo work, David Sylvian, and Yellow Magic Orchestra.
How did we first connect? So I was on a short US tour together with Keith Rowe and we were staying in Manhattan for some days. David Sylvian, with whom I had worked [with] at this time, told Ryuichi that I was in town. Ryuichi called me and invited me to his West Village house. We spent hours in his studio just playing music together, talking, eating, drinking wine… it was a beautiful day.
He’s influenced my work in many ways; leaving space and silence within a composition, considering the right timing, never shying away from a great melody – even when it is too romantic. [Ryuichi Sakamoto] was one of the greatest composers and musicians of our time. His music will live forever. Time will tell how incredibly good he was.
I first heard Yellow Magic Orchestra when I was about 17 and getting into Japanese music. I was amazed by how modern it sounded, despite being made in the 80s. I instantly became obsessed and ended up doing deep dives on all of the members, including, of course, Ryuichi Sakamoto. I was really drawn to the diversity of his back catalogue – my favourite track was Field Work (and still is!).
Discovering Ryuichi was definitely a gateway to other Japanese art forms – through musical collaborators of him and Yellow Magic Orchestra, and visual artists he was a fan of. His productions always find a way into my radio shows and DJ sets, and his music taught me to appreciate silence and space. His approach to creativity also taught me to embrace and accept mistakes and use them as a way to learn and evolve.
The breadth of his lifelong work has reached people all over the world, of all different tastes. His legacy is unlike any other artist – he traverses genres, methods of creation and technology. Sakamoto is an artist who will continue to influence and inspire the world. He’s taught me that there’s no limit to methods of creation. This quote from him will live with me forever: “Art is long, life is short”.
Dennis Bovell MBE
Prior to knowing Ryuichi, I had been a fan of YMO. The first time I heard of Yellow Magic Orchestra, Chris Blackwell from Island Records had given me an album. Before I played it, I noticed that it was a three-piece band and they were dressed like waiters in a restaurant, and they were serving, over their forearms, patchbay wires – the wires that we use in the studio to connect different sections of the studio. They were serving electrical musical connections, as it were. I thought that was good. I really liked that. I thought, ‘These gentlemen are forward-thinking’.
They had also recorded a reggae song with a friend of ours, a lady by the name of Sandii. It was quite exciting [to see reggae] being reborn in Japan. I noticed that YMO had done a song called Behind the Mask. On that song, the topline seemed to be replicating Jamaican [artists like] U-Roy or I-Roy. The melody of it – that caught my ear. So by the time Don Letts had been to Japan, and met him and people connected with his record company who were [keen] to meet me, I was knocked out that, ‘Wow, I’m grooving on their thing. And they’ve heard of me!’
The story of Ryuichi and I working together – so, Don came to me and said that Ryuichi was anxious to meet up with me, and wanted my number. I said, “Yeah, give it to him!” to which he replied, “Oh good, because I already did”. I received a telephone call. I thought it might have been a prank of some kind because the person on the other end of the phone said, “I’ve got some equipment over in Germany and I’ll be sending it over to your studio prior to me arriving.” I hadn’t realised that he had been working at Kraftwerk’s studio in Germany until the lorry arrived and I was asked to sign for this equipment. It was then I knew that this thing was [actually] going to happen. At the time, I was building the studio but I hadn’t yet finished the studio. I hadn’t even tested it myself, and this person was saying, “Yeah, I want to use your studio before you do!” I found out later that this was typical Ryuichi.
After we loaded the equipment in, I realised that I didn’t have enough and I had to borrow some from Sir. George Martin at AIR Studios. I had to borrow 24 tracks of Dolby because I was going to run the master tape at superspeed, 32 inches per second, instead of the normal 15. So I had my team borrow some from AIR Studios. When Ryuichi arrived, he amazed me with a new sequential circuit synthesiser. It was the Prophet-10 – until then, we’d only seen the Prophet-5! And then he said, “Right, let’s go”. He recorded the kick drum and then the snare. As he was playing it back, he was writing on his manuscript what he was going to play next. So when he finished he said, “I’ve done it now, you do your thing”. I started to bounce it around, dub-style, and he was going, “Yeah, that’s what I want.”
Ryuichi Sakamoto’s sound has already traveled to the future, because when he did it, it was in the past. His music will continue to live in the future because there’s so much to learn from the sounds that he conjured, the sounds that he squeezed from his synthesiser.
ColdcutMatt Black and Jonathan More
Jonathan More: Having been a fan of Sadistic Mika Band when I was at art college in the 70s, it wasn’t a big leap for me when drummer Yukihiro Takahashi formed Yellow Magic Orchestra with Ryuichi Sakamoto. Seeing them perform Cosmic Surfin’ on the Old Grey Whistle Test – that was a moment. Firecracker became such a club fave and [was] sampled in so many records in the mid-80s. Just forward-thinking musicians.
Matt Black: Firecracker was a classic breakbeat hip-hop fave that was different to everything else with its electronic sounds. It bridged a gap between breaks and electro that later proved seminal.
JM: Ryuichi has influenced our work in so many ways – from the electronic music blueprint laid out with those early Yellow Magic Orchestra records to the lush ambient journeys and soundtracks that we would use in our Solid Steel radio shows…
MB: Ryuchi generously answered our request for an exclusive track for the @0 album for mental health benefit during lockdown. Having his august name and wonderful music made it possible to attract other top flight talents, and his track Aqua of him playing solo piano leads the album.
MB: We released Prayer / Salvation on Ninja Tune, with mixes from TCO, Fink, Andrea Parker, so we got the chance to connect there, too. More broadly, his work was inspirational in covering a wide spectrum of styles from classical to avant-garde electronics and dance experiments. He was a pioneer of modern eclecticism.
The very first Ryuichi Sakamoto album I listened to was Thousand Knives. Though, at the time, I wasn’t as interested in synthesiser music, so it wasn’t [actually] this album that got me interested in his music at first – rather, it was his album 1996.
Of course, it was because his hit track Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence was included, but also because I thought that his pieces on this album, which were composed and recorded using an ensemble with live instruments, contained something that was the basis of his music.
In the 90s, Sakamoto was also actively involved in Japanese variety shows, so it was fascinating to see the intertwining of his wide range of interests and his musicality. In the early 2000s, I became interested in experimental electronic music such as the releases on labels like Raster-Noton or 12k, and the fact that he had released a collaborative album with Alva Noto and Taylor Deupree around that time also gave me an opportunity to listen to his music from a different perspective than before.
I learnt a lot about his ideas and philosophy not only through his music, but also through his writings, interviews and his active engagement with social events. I think I was more influenced by his way of life and how he involved himself in society as a musician rather than his music. Also, it was quite interesting for me to read that how he tried to deal with getting constant expectations of an Eastern image of his music and actually wanted to be free from this image, when working in the West.
I think a musician like Ryuichi Sakamoto, who developed his own style while covering from highly experimental contemporary music to pop music, is still quite rare in Japan, and from that point of view he has left a valuable legacy. When it comes to his later works – async or 12 – this extreme simplicity shows his aesthetic sense which seemed to be essential for his works throughout his life. I think it’s wonderful how he had pursued his music to the very end and kept updating his style.
Alec FellmanAssistant Engineer; Artist aliases Insomniac Hotel, MA
When I first interviewed for a position [in Ryuichi’s NY office, where I’ve been working since May 2010], I was given a few of his albums including Out of Noise – that was my first time hearing his music. I was just getting into ambient and neo-classical music – Max Richter and so on – and was blown away. I couldn’t stop listening, and still haven’t. In the Red is one of my favourite pieces of his and one of the first I heard.
I studied audio engineering and music production at Berklee College of Music. I could not believe I had never heard of Sakamoto in my four years there… it felt like a massive gap in my musical education.
Whether I’m conscious of it or not, I’m always considering if something I’m doing – even if not musically – is something he would like or approve of. It’s not so much an overbearing eye, but a compass. I share his appreciation for sound, and certain sounds. The moments in the studio when a sound occurred that made both our mouths open and look at each other silently are ones I will never forget. I keep looking for those sounds.
Being close to him for many years… I cherish those times. Both working for and with him, but also the casual moments. He was so kind, genius-level smart, curious, and very encouraging to all artists and musicians. It’s so hard to say what his lasting legacy will be, but certainly all the incredible music he left us.
I got into Ryuichi Sakamoto’s work from listening to Mala’s selections on a RBMA Fireside Chat podcast many years ago, in 2008. Mala played two of his songs and spoke highly of Sakamoto as a musician and an artist. The first song was a more subdued song made with Alva Noto named Siisx on the album Revep, signified by electronic glitches, space and subtle piano playing. The second was Rain from the movie soundtrack The Last Emperor, which had pronounced pulsating piano and live strings.
These two songs were the closing songs on this podcast. I immediately connected to Sakamoto and proceeded to find more of his music, including his works with Yellow Magic Orchestra. Both of those songs from Sakamoto have so many layers and depth. I can hear how much he used sounds and created music to reflect deeply on things, including nature and the forever uneasy subject of mortality.
[Ryuichi’s] Siisx and Rain demonstrated to me that it’s possible for musicians to not be limited in genre, subject matter, their approach or tone — that it’s possible to embrace and traverse maximal and minimal approaches, across so-called genres — and that a key way of doing this is to be continually curious with different juxtaposition of sounds and space. I’m into Sakamoto’s work for these very reasons.
Mica [Levi], [Brother] May, Alpha Maid and George Finlay Ramsay and I performed together as CURL on Sunday 24 June 2018 at the Silver Building in London as part of MODE. We were super lucky to be invited to support Sakamoto and David Toop. Sakamoto complimented our show, which of course I’m super honoured [about]. Sakamoto’s set with [David] Toop was beautifully spacious and sparse. I knew I was in the presence of someone who really gave a lot of his life to music and for showing how music can be found in anything.
My earliest memories of Ryuichi must have been from my tween years, sometime in the late 90s. One night, MTV Asia played Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Rydeen during a synth or electronic programme and I remember thinking, ‘Whoa, what is that?’ I grew up playing video games and anime in between watching shadow puppets and gamelan with my father; somehow this track just made sense, something in its tonality. It’s so strange but also so familiar. This memory however was kind of forgotten until years into my teenage era, when I got kind of into punk and metal, and one day my friend gave me a pirated version of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (of course!) and it came back to me.
His work means a lot to me. In some personal way, his tonalities are uniquely relatable for me; they take me somewhere further yet remind me what is home. Ryuichi made me rethink the process of writing music: notes and sounds that matter only to me, humility, gentleness and respect. Genderuwo… that’s one of Ryuichi’s moments for me. I wanted to make some hardcore electronic sounds that didn’t come from the club, but from somewhere closer. I started retuning my synth to something that was more rooted in me rather than focusing on technique or crazy sound stuff. Feelings. That track and a lot more happened because of his influence.
I think his hard work and consistency to keep roaming to different territories without ever losing his touch will be his legacy. Plus his elegance and kindness.
My earliest memory as a child is my Dad’s vinyl [collection], which he kept outside my bedroom door. I can remember two album covers vividly: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Yellow Magic Orchestra. I asked my Dad to put it on and it was probably the first electronic music I heard, alongside Jean-Michel Jarre. I was fascinated by the artwork, the unique sounds and its infectious energy as a kid.
Sakamoto combined a sense rhythm and funk with a classical and ambient know-how, which is quite rare, and has really influenced me. In his classical work in particular, he didn’t shy away from something really melodic and sweet or stripped back and traditional, if it was right for the piece. And when he did experiment into the more leftfield, dissonant and conceptual areas, it was all the more potent for it. He could do it all. I was really inspired by watching him play the piano that had been underwater due to a tsunami and was totally out of tune, and his joy in exploring its sonic possibilities anyway. I am particularly attached to his album async and its exploration of the existential and themes of mortality.
As a sonic explorer, you couldn’t pigeonhole him. He was transcendent of genre, with a credible connection to many. For me, not many artists can explore as many spectrums of human emotion as he did, always with authenticity [as] a glue holding it all together. His music evolved like a free-flowing river over many decades, but I feel it was the piano that was closest to his heart, and those final albums and performances he wanted to leave with us.
In 1982, I was watching TV. There were two men who wore makeup on their faces and kissed each other. That was the music video for Ryuichi Sakamoto and Kiyoshiro Imawano’s Ikenai Rouge Magic. It was the first time that I had recognised that one of them was Ryuichi Sakamoto. I was five-years-old – I didn’t even know that people did kiss each other.
I saw a lot of his radical things through TV; he did everything he wanted. One day, he was a comedian who acted funny with comedians. Another day, he played beautiful music with a piano. He has produced popular music or experimental music. He sang a song with his lower voice. He was a climate activist. I still can not follow [all that] he has done in this world because his artistic [remit] was so vast. It will take a lot of time to understand it. But if someone like him showed us the achievements without any limitations, we as young artists are able to feel free in the art world.
It’s like he built a huge playground for us; he showed us that we can do whatever we want. He had done so many things himself that he made it seem easy for me to become anything [I wanted], too. Rapper, singer, beatmaker, DJ, cartoonist – I could take on whatever I wanted because there was an artist like him before. We were extremely lucky to have him.