Ryuichi Sakamoto has been an enormously respected artist for decades, starting with his work in the '70s and '80s as a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra in his native Japan to his deeply affective, Grammy and Oscar-winning scores for film and within his numerous avant-electronic solo experimentations. Those experimentations continued most recently with the Jan. 17 release of 12, his latest solo album – created in March 2021, while Sakamoto was undergoing treatment for cancer.
Unfortunately, Sakamoto wasn't able to record an interview about his new release, so we spoke to some of the celebrated artists he's worked with to discuss and explain his impactful career.
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Alejandro González Iñárritu, film director
"I vividly recall the emotional experience I had the first time I listened to Ryuichi Sakamoto," explains Alejandro González Iñárritu, lauded director of films like the Best Picture-winning Birdman and The Revenant, for which Sakamoto composed the score. ("I wanted to have somebody who was able to understand silence," Iñárritu explains of his selection, "and that's Ryuichi.")
"I was in a car, stuck in traffic in Mexico City with a friend of mine, and we put a pirate japanese cassette on – this was 1983. I heard some piano notes and I felt as if the fingers were penetrating my brain and giving me a cranial cosmic massage... and it was 'Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.' "
Carsten Nicolai/Alva Noto, artist
"I can hear so much in these 12 tracks of his current state of him and his kind of sensibility, the fragileness, the weakness," says Nicolai, who has recorded and performed with Sakamoto many times, of his friend's newest album.
"It feels strong and fragile in the same moment. It has this incredible beauty of not being too complex."
Hildur Guðnadóttir, composer
"When did I first come across Sakamoto's music? Ryuichi's music is so timeless, it feels like you've almost always known it. There's such deep listening in the way that he works.
"He invited me to work with him on the soundtrack for The Revenant –it was very interesting to interpret how he was explaining his music, like it wasn't so much with words, but it was with the gestures of his wrists and the movements of his eyelids – he just physically embodied his music."
Flying Lotus, composer and producer
"If you want to talk about his history and what he's done in the past, there's a lot of stuff from Thousand Knives ... that was like some really early stuff," the LA-based, jazz-leaning experimental producer tells All Things Considered of Sakamoto's 1978 synth exploration. "But if you play it up against something today, it still sounds like the future."
"He came to LA to work with me for a little bit ... he had this childlike curiosity about the potential for sounds that we could come up with. He would look around, tap on surfaces ... tinker around with my ceiling fan above us. [Laughs]
"He found the beauty in all the little things."