By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Over his 30-year career spanning continents and styles, Tokyo-born keyboardist and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto has worn so many creative hats that he’d probably need a walk-in closet to accommodate them all.
His early years were spent with the synthesizer-laden Yellow Magic Orchestra. He has composed soundtracks for “The Last Emperor” and other films. He has influenced modern composition and electronica. Notably, he served a short stint on the popular cooking show “Iron Chef.”
No doubt, he’s stood at the forefront of musical innovation and leads a fascinating, multi-layered life.
His new album, “Playing the Piano,” features one disc dedicated to his past melodies, performed as piano solos. The second disc features avant garde collaborations with Christian Fennesz, Cornelius, and other cutting-edge musicians.
Sakamoto performed at the Moore Theatre in Seattle on Oct. 30. While in Seattle, he took time from his first tour in many years to provide pithy commentary on his singular body of work.
Q: Your tour of duty on the “Iron Chef” show was one of the more eccentric twists in your career. Were you a fan of the show before you appeared on it? How were you approached and asked to appear?
A: I was a fan of the program. I don’t know how they [found me to] approach me, but I have heard that the producer got to know [that] I was a fan.
It was only once, so [it was] nothing stressful. I went to the studio and had those dishes and made comments on what I thought.
Q: What were the tastiest and least tastiest dishes you had to consume?
A: The chef from Hong Kong (Chef Xu Peirong, who challenged Iron Chef Rokusaburo Michiba in a shark fin battle) was supposed to be one of the greatest, but his shark fin soup wasn’t so great.
Q: You’ve played all over the world for all kinds of audiences. How do Seattle audiences compare to other audiences?
A: They were nice and warm. But I don’t mean [to imply] they are nicer or warmer. Each city has a different character that you sense from the people there.
I enjoy the differences, but I don’t make comparison between cities.
Q: Does Seattle have a distinctive flavor for you?
A: I was impressed with a lot of [the] green and water.
Q: Your latest album allowed you to revisit melodies and themes you’ve written over the years. Was it strange going back to your older work?
A: In my career path, there were moments when I felt wired to revisit old well-known materials such as the main theme of “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” “The Last Emperor,” and such. But I am old enough that I can adore them.
Q: Which pieces do you think held up the best?
A: I cannot pick one [favorite] child of many children I gave birth to. I cannot say, “Oh, I love you John more than Jane.”
Q: Your acting career allowed you to work with David Bowie, Madonna, and Takeshi Kitano. What was most fascinating about working with these talents? Which aspects were the most challenging?
A: I am not a trained actor, so to be hired to act in those big projects was strange and difficult.
Although working with and being around those people — not only David Bowie, Madonna, and Takeshi Kitano but also [film director] Oshima Nagisa and [film director] Bernardo Bertolucci — were such inspiring moments; the sensations have remained deep inside.
Q: When you began to make music professionally, many synthesizers were monophonic. How has your music changed in reaction to improvements in technology?
A: I don’t think my music has changed by technological development. Obviously, analog synths, the first samplers, and frequency modulation synths gave me a lot of inspiration to create music and sounds then.
Q: What have been your favorite pieces of equipment, electronic and/or otherwise over the years?
A: I always feel the piano is an extension of my hands and body. The Prophet-5 might be my favorite synth.
Q: Your younger daughter Miu A became a prominent J-pop singer. Was she a musical child from a very young age? How did you go about teaching her about music?
A: She is self-studied. Although she is gifted in a way [to] be born with that voice. And I remember, one day, I came back home from work, Miu was dancing in silence, listening to the Kraftwerk with headphones. She was about 3 years old. Techno was her lullaby.
Q: How do you work around language difficulties in the studio?
A: I try to be straight to the point.
Q: What projects lie ahead for you?
A: A new collaboration with Alva Noto (Carsten Nicolai). A new collaboration with Christian Fennesz. A new film soundtrack project. Also, hopefully, my new solo work.
Q: How do you sense your music changing over this new decade?
A: I just follow my instinct where to go. I cannot describe it well. I would say that the answer is there in my music. ♦