1996 – Ryuichi Sakamoto (1996)

1996 album cover
1996 album cover

In the process of following the careers of David Bowie and David Sylvian, I eventually noticed a pattern of collaboration both artist shared. As it turns out, they have crossed paths with Ryuichi Sakamoto on more than one occasion. David Sylvian’s music in particular owes a lot to influences from Japan’s number one musical export (or is that number two behind Shonen Knife?). David Bowies street cred as an actor got a further boost when he starred in the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, a film that co starred Sakamoto and featured his music in the score.

Ryuichi Sakamoto is one of those musical virtuoso who you may have heard, but never knew who you were listening to. As a kind of Japanese Brian Eno. Sakamoto’s career goes back to the 1970s with the pioneering band Yellow Magic Orchestra. His solo career started shortly after and he found his niche in experimental music, mostly in soundtracks and scores – a kind of alternative Windham Hill.

In addition to influencing artist like Afrika Bambaata to Mantronix, Sakamoto has worked with Robbie Robertson, Thomas Dolby, Ingred Chavez and many others. His musical styles incorporate classical, electronic and dance elements in a way that makes his work suitable as backdrops for film or dance performances .

While Sakamoto’s vast catalogue of styles explores some aspect of the fusion between pop/electronic and classical music, he is first and foremost a pianist/composer. On his 21st album 1996, Sakamoto collected his most popular songs and reinterpreted them for piano. Popular is relative, as none of his singles landed on the charts, but he has made contributions to many popular soundtrack albums and film scores.

Essentially a greatest hits album, with the compositions taking on a Phillip Glass like classical flavor.  A comparison to Glass might not be fair, as the songs on 1996 are not classical in structure and are in no way typical of Glass’s rigid and repetitive compositions.

Aside from Sakamoto’s piano, the album features cello and violin versions of songs from soundtracks like ‘Rain’ from The Last Emperor in 1987 and ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ from the 1983 film of the same name featuring David Bowie. Other tracks from films include ‘High Heels’, ‘The Sheltering Sky’ and ‘Little Budda’.

The most popular track may be Sakamoto’s interpretation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (‘The Wuthering Heights’). For those who are not particularly big fans of classical music, this album might be a good starting point to learning to appreciate some of its subtleties.

The music of Ryuichi Sakamoto is varied enough to warrant more than one compilation type album devoted to a particular style, but for anyone wanting to hear the original versions of some of these compositions, Collection: 1981-1987 and Pure Best are good places to start (if you can find them).

 

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