Between Sound and Silence

Ryuichi Sakamoto's music of place.
Installation view, water state 1, 2013, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Shiro Takatani, ‘seeing sound, hearing time’, Beijing, 2021.Courtesy of M WOODS HUTONG.

This essay was commissioned to coincide with Tin Drum's Medusa, an exhibition currently on view at Pioneer Works. A mixed reality experience, Medusa is paired with a soundscape composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and recomposed with new layers and melodies by Kelly Moran, who will perform on select Saturdays during the run of the exhibition.

There was a moment during Ryuichi Sakamoto’s December 2022 solo piano concert, which premiered as a global streaming event, when the venerated Japanese composer appeared to play the air. Towards the end of a seasoned rendition of “Solitude,” from his score for the 2004 film Tony Takitani, Sakamoto’s left hand danced above the keys, tracing the decay of the notes that his right hand had birthed just a split-second before. In the black and white footage, the light bounced off his slender knuckles, echoing the arc of the piano’s body and the curve of his immaculate white hair, which fell like silk to frame his hollow cheeks. The furrows in his brow mirrored the lines around his mouth and chin.

Out of respect for the fragility of Sakamoto’s health, the hour-long concert was recorded in pieces over several days at a Tokyo studio and then edited together. Two years prior, the composer had received a second cancer diagnosis and was given six months to live. But after several major surgeries, he was still here. As the piece came to a close, Sakamoto bowed his head, raised his two hands, and held the space between sound and silence. After a moment of reverie, he brought his palms together and broke the spell. Time was visibly folding in on Sakamoto, but the music that flowed out of him set a pace that gently asked the listener to slow down and savor, to join him in the depths of his focus.

It is rare that a screen-mediated experience has such an effect on me. To be at once so far removed from the familiar sensations of a live show yet so close to the artist—to witness their strength and vulnerability in exaggerated, high definition—was startling. The drama of this audio-visual performance reminded me that Sakamoto is never more poignant than when tangibly exploring the relationship between music and physical space. The way he chose to be lit turned a bare studio into the grandest stage, and a simple video stream into a piece of cinema. To listen to the concert without observing the intention behind his gestures, both bodily and conceptually, would have been to miss half the story.

The Western music media has often flattened Sakamoto’s artistic contributions, letting his accomplishments in composition overshadow his three decades of investigating the spatial experience of sound. It’s hardly surprising: Sakamoto’s work in the pioneering electronic music group Yellow Magic Orchestra, alongside his studio experiments with prepared piano (that is, one that has been altered to sound differently) and documented adventures in field recording, to say nothing of his award-winning film scores—which include his synth masterpiece for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), a film he also starred in alongside David Bowie, and the music for The Last Emperor (1987), which earned him an Oscar, Grammy, and Golden Globe—demonstrate a boundless love for and curiosity in the possibilities of recorded sound.

But since the turn of the millennium, Sakamoto’s most singular works have been his many installations made in collaboration with visual artists in gallery spaces around the world. In these projects, he has pushed against Western, capitalistic perceptions of music as primarily a consumer product, and toward a conception of music as a site-specific, multi-sensory experience that illuminates something about humanity’s place in the world.

In 2021, The M Woods Museum in Beijing, China, brought together eight of Sakamoto’s installation works in an exhibition titled Ryuichi Sakamoto: seeing sound, hearing time. Writing about the exhibition in e-flux, he asked, “What is it that music does to the perception of memory and the landscape? And how might it better help us understand our relationship to nature, community, and self?” I can imagine such questions finding emotional resonance while walking beneath the upside-down aquarium of LIFE – fluid, invisible, inaudible… (2007/2021). Staged in a darkened room, this immersive work featured a series of water tanks suspended from the ceiling which directed the audience’s gaze and imagination beyond their usual perspective. Each tank was connected to a speaker and had an ultrasonic mist generator which created a shifting, foggy surface for video projection. Made in collaboration with Sakamoto’s longtime friend Shiro Takatani, co-founder of Kyoto artist collective Dumb Type, the installation recontextualized music and moving images from Sakamoto’s 1999 opera, LIFE, for which Takatani had acted as visual director.

"Musically, we are flowers without root. Rootless. That’s probably a big reason for my endless seeking."

In moving music into the museum space, Victor Wang, who curated the Beijing show alongside Sachiko Namba and Zhang Youdai, identified Sakamoto as part of a lineage of Japanese artists “critically remaking the history of sound through art since the early 1950s.” They include post-war sculptural artist Atsuko Tanaka, who made interactive installations including laying electric bells on the floor of a gallery to “paint” the space with sound, and Fluxus associate and composer Takehisa Kosugi, whose installations often circled explorations of how the eyes and the ears interact with sound and light. In his exhibition commentary, Wang makes the crucial point that such works push against the prevailing value system in music which was “exported by Europe, set in motion during the Age of Enlightenment.” This recalls something Sakamoto told me in 2015:

In an interview in his West Village studio about his stark score for The Revenant, he explained that Japan was politically closed off from the rest of the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The country finally opened up in 1868, but there were cultural repercussions. “It almost destroyed traditional music,” he said. “At that time, the Japanese government thought only Western culture and music was good. We lost a stream of our traditional music. Since then, musically, we are flowers without root. Rootless. That’s probably a big reason for [my endless] seeking.”

Over the past decade, that restless spirit has led Sakamoto to explore the ecological fallout from centuries of colonial capitalism. In 2011, a 9.1 undersea earthquake in the Tōhoku region of Japan, later categorized as the fourth most powerful earthquake in recorded history, set off the tsunami which led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Sakamoto is a committed environmentalist, and in the years since Fukushima, many of his installations have explored themes related to this catastrophe.

Take water state 1 (2013), for example. Another of Sakamoto’s collaborations with Shiro Takatani, this transfixing installation turned meteorological data into a potent symbol of the interconnected nature of life. According to Takatani, the pair condensed a year’s worth of rainfall information gathered from satellites positioned above Japan’s many islands and surrounding oceans into a fifteen-minute computer pattern which controlled 324 suspended water nozzles dripping into a pool below. “The ripples in this installation are a compressed version of space and time,” explained Takatani in a video at a Tokyo art festival. “If you thoughtlessly look at it, it’ll all look the same, but conceptually it’s completely reduced in scale. We’ve compressed an area larger than Japan into a two meter by two meter pattern. This compressed area and the patterns represent somewhere you currently are in, so try to think that you yourself are nested within that.”

The resulting ripples from each water droplet interrupted one another’s lines, as shifting high-pitched tones mirror the patterns created by the simulated rainfall. Sakamoto did not compose what we hear in the traditional sense. He wrote the rules a computer used to generate these sounds, but the pseudo-melody produced by the ripples evades easy classification.

Is it music? Sound art? Noise? The borders that exist between these categories say more about socialized, cultural value judgments than the listening experience itself. Whether he’s turning a glass wall into an instrument during a site-specific collaboration with Alva Noto or exploring the sonics of a drowned piano in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami, Sakamoto has proven time and time again that disregarding such contrived borders opens up the possibility for new relationships to listening.

“Where's the line between musical sound and noise? Any border? I doubt. No border,” Sakamoto told me in a second interview in 2017, this time about his exquisitely uncanny album, async. “Silence is also material for music, that's what John Cage insisted.”

We were once again sitting in his studio in the West Village. Behind the computer on his desk lay floor-to-ceiling windows which invited the energy of his small garden into the studio. It was a modest space that radiated a sense of calm despite bursting with purpose: walls adorned with electronic and acoustic instruments, wooden shelves stacked with archive materials, every surface dotted with small collections of objects, like singing bowls and stones. (Incidentally, he recently revealed that his team sent some of the latter to Tokyo, where he has been receiving treatment, in order to bring something of the spirit of his beloved home to the recording environment of his new album, 12.)

Back in 2017, I asked him what he thought about cryogenics, because listening to the record—made as he recovered from his first bout with cancer—had stirred up ideas about death and time and artificiality. (“Music is like a city,” he states in the e-flux text. “It is exceedingly artificial, in other words.”) While putting his brain on ice held no appeal, Sakamoto saw the question as one of borders: “Where is the line of brain?” Everything in the body is connected—musicians think with their fingers, he reasoned—which makes discerning boundaries between our trillions of interdependent cells as much a philosophical as anatomical concern. “So is a brain, a brain? That’s my big question.”

On this finite planet of ours, where does one space end and another begin? We are all located within the patterns of our interrelated makings. That’s something that bears remembering during a time when so much of daily life takes place within the digital dimensions of our screens. There is an urgent need for musical experiences that resist the flattening of commodification and instead invite listeners to commune, in space, in thoughtful new ways. In creating so many different environments in which to experience sound as a multi-sensual art form, Sakamoto not only expands our understanding of what music can be, but reminds us that listening opens a door to learning, and through it a world of infinite possibilities. ♦

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