Ryuichi Sakamoto, Electronic Music Pioneer, Passes Away
Ryuichi Sakamoto, a pioneering composer and producer who helped revolutionize modern songcraft by introducing electronic production to popular music, has passed away at the age of 71.
A statement on his website on Sunday announced that the Japanese musician had lost his battle with cancer after several years. The statement included one of Sakamoto's favorite quotes, “Ars longa, vita brevis.” (“Art is long, life is short.”)
Throughout his illustrious career, Sakamoto was a multi-faceted artist who was equally at home with synth-pop as with sweeping film scores and delicate soundscapes. He worked with a variety of artists, such as David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Bernardo Bertolucci, to name a few.
Born on January 17, 1952, Ryuichi Sakamoto enjoyed a culturally affluent upbringing; his father was the editor for acclaimed Japanese novelists such as Kenzaburo Oe and Yukio Mishima. At the young age of 6, Ryuichi began taking piano lessons and soon started to compose his own music. Influenced by the works of Claude Debussy, who drew inspiration from East Asian music, Sakamoto found himself captivated by this style and subsequently began incorporating these motifs into his own compositions. A member of the influential Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra and solo artist, Sakamoto has become something of a grandfather of electronic pop music, crafting songs that would lay the foundation for early hip-hop and techno.
At university, Ryuichi Sakamoto, who had already been exposed to a variety of musical styles, was studying the works of renowned post-war European modernists such as Stockhausen, Ligeti, Xenakis and Boulez. In his spare time, Sakamoto also played Okinawan folk music and free jazz and searched record stores for Kraftwerk. In 1978, he joined musician Haruomi Hosono and drummer Yukihiro Takahashi to create Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). Sakamoto was the keyboardist of the group and the three of them sang.
When asked about his music in 1988, Sakamoto replied, “I think my music is based on a very Western system, because there's a beat, there's a melody, there's harmony. So this is Western music. But you know, some feeling, some atmosphere, or sense of sound is a little bit Asian, maybe 25, 30 percent.”
Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) had a tremendous impact on culture on a global level. Their pioneering blending of electronics, playful sounds and complex layers of production held great sway in the burgeoning hip-hop and techno circles. In fact, YMO performed on Soul Train with their song “Computer Games”, and their “Firecracker” was famously sampled by Afrika Bambaataa in his “Death Mix (Part 2)". This influence and impact was recognized in 1993 when a group of prominent ambient, house and techno producers, including The Orb, 808 State, and Orbital, paid homage to YMO with an album of remixes titled Hi-Tech/No Crime. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Riot in Lagos” was also one of the many solo projects for which he was celebrated.
In 1983, Sakamoto acted alongside David Bowie in the Nagisa Oshima-directed movie Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Sakamoto also composed the film's score, which marked the beginning of his acclaimed career as a film composer.
Sakamoto went on to score numerous films including Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987), for which he won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy, in collaboration with David Byrne and Chinese composer Cong Su. In 1990, he wrote the score for Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky, for which he won a Golden Globe. Two of his other works include the scores for Pedro Almodovar's High Heels in 1991 and Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel in 2006 and The Revenant in 2015.
As his career advanced, Ryuichi Sakamoto developed an increased passion for aesthetic and intellectual exploration. From the 1980s right up until his death in 2020, the iconic composer collaborated with a diverse array of artists, including Thomas Dolby, Youssou N'Dour, Iggy Pop, Jaques Morelenbaum, Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) and the regular collaborator David Sylvian. Visual artists that he worked with included Nam June Paik and Shiro Takatani, with whom he created the 1999 multimedia opera LIFE.
Even while battling throat cancer, Sakamoto continued to produce music and released the ambient album async in 2017. He continued to make music until the very end.
Ryuichi Sakamoto has been an influential figure in the music industry, starting out in the 1970s as the keyboardist and co-founder of the Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra. In his later years, he has become a powerful advocate for the anti-nuclear movement, especially in the aftermath of the 2011 Daiichi nuclear disaster in Fukushima prefecture. This activism and his fight against cancer are among the central topics of the 2017 documentary film, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda.
Discussing the potential duration of his life in one of the scenes from the documentary, Sakamoto shared that “it could be 20 years, 10 years, or a relapse reduces it to just one. I'm not taking anything for granted. But I know that I want to make more music. Music that I won't be ashamed to leave behind — meaningful work.”
Unfortunately, in January 2021, Sakamoto was diagnosed with rectal cancer. After announcing the news on his website, he stated that although he will have to live with cancer now, he is hoping to continue making music.