Ryuichi Sakamoto On Life, Nature and ‘Time’


Ryuichi Sakamoto is in Tokyo for the rainy summer season. The Oscar-winning composer, who has lived in New York for over 30 years, has been in Japan since last November – not because of the pandemic, but because of a diagnosis of rectal cancer that was discovered just after it went into remission after several years of treatment. throat cancer.

Despite his health problems, Sakamoto has been as productive as ever, attending concerts, exhibitions, and most recently an opera, “Time.” premiered last month At the Dutch Festival.

“Time” It is part of Sakamoto’s ongoing research into “asynchrony,” music arranged outside of traditional time structures. introduced 2017 album “async” The concept was conceived while recovering from his first encounter with cancer – an experience where he said he could sharpen his ear to the beauty of new everyday sounds, both natural and man-made, of sun showers and singing bowls.

Without conductor or tempo markings, “Time” is a “Mugen Noh”. a subset of Noh drama based on dreams. Created in collaboration with visual artist Shiro Takatani, this dreamscape unfolds on a water-filled stage and screen showing weather systems, cities, and empty space.

Crossing the stage with her sho, an ancient Japanese wind instrument, Mayumi Miyata represents nature. Dancer and actor Min Tanaka is a weak symbol of humanity struggling to build a path on water. Evoking visions of rising sea levels, “Time” – like our new century – also offers a premonition that feels like a memory: At the end of time, we all return to the same sea.

Sakamoto spoke about the piece in a recent video call. These are edited excerpts from the speech.

At what point in the production of “time” did you learn that your cancer had returned?

After “Async” I worked on “Time” for four years and last year I was diagnosed with rectal cancer. It’s a long treatment. I’m in the middle right now and will be back at the hospital for surgery in the fall. It’s been a year since I left New York; I don’t know when I can return.

Were you originally planning to perform in opera?

I was thinking of making an original instrument for it. I still have this idea for the future.

I used to use the word opera in the beginning, but I stopped using it now. A combination of installation and performance – a theatrical work.

Seems to be pretty deeply linked to “Async”.

The conceptual idea behind “Async” was my skepticism about synchronization, which got me thinking about time itself. If you know my work from the past, I draw a zigzag. But the things I got from doing “async” were so great that I didn’t want to lose them. I really wanted to improve them. The album was very spatial, like music for an installation, so the development would be an installation by the artists together. This was the original idea for “Time”.

“Time” is a Mugen NohIt has no pace – so it seems like the perfect landscape to explore these ideas.

Time is so natural to our society that we do not doubt it. But as a musician, I always deal with time. When composing, we must consider how we will manipulate sounds over time.

There are no instruments on the stage other than the sho.

It’s just sho that I’ve been a fan of since I was a college student. I didn’t like all other traditional Japanese music or even other traditions like kado. [flower arrangement] or sado [tea ceremony]. I hated them all except Gagaku [court music]It’s like alien music to me.

Miyata, representing nature, crosses water very easily, Tanaka – “humanity” – very weak.

The woman and the sho represent nature. Tanaka tries to create a straight path in the water – over time – to get to the other side, but fails. He goes mad and eventually dies in the water.

What is humanity trying to achieve at the end of the road?

This is the nature of humanity. It’s a bit like Sisyphus: just a natural passion to build roads, to conquer nature.

Road construction scenes interrupt a series of stories: a dream from the work of writer Natsume Soseki; a traditional Noh game; Butterfly dream from Zhuangzi text. How did you choose these?

In our dreams all the properties of time are destroyed. In Noh story “Kantan” a man seeks enlightenment and takes a nap. It only takes five minutes, but in his dream 50 years have passed. Which is reality? Five minutes or 50 years? And then in the butterfly dream, we have the philosopher Zhuang Zhou. Does the butterfly imagine that it is Zhuang Zhou, or does Zhuang Zhou imagine that it is a butterfly? we cannot say.

Do you feel it slowing down, releasing time musically?

The theme of “Time” is not to insist that time passes slowly, but to insist that it does not exist. Watching the broadcast premiere, I felt like an hour ago was just a minute ago or that some moments were repeated. At least I could feel another time.

You were also painting on ceramic pieces (“2020s”), using found objects and installing (“Is it your time”) and what you currently have a great retrospective In Beijing with many visual works. What triggered this turn towards the visual arts?

maybe the big moment The opera “Life” that I composed in 1999. It included visual images, moving images and some text – all these visual elements were the main characters of that opera.

And was this your first collaboration with Takatani?

Yes, and the next thing we did was deconstruct “Life”. In 2007 we also deconstructed all the visual images and sound to create an installation. It was a great feeling.

I think you’ve always worked in the visual arts – you’ve worked very closely with filmmakers on soundtracks.

It’s weird, you know, I didn’t think about movies. Movies are more narrative, more linear. Unfortunately, a linear structure is in time; It has a beginning, middle, and end. I don’t want to go back to this. That’s why I was amazed by the setup. Installation does not need to have a beginning or an end. The best setup, in my opinion, is just listening to the rain.

And at the end of “Time” there is a massive rainstorm followed by a wave crash in slow motion. Which sea were you thinking of?

Man wants to conquer nature – water – but must fail, so he must die by water. I needed a great flood, maybe a tsunami, to represent the fierce force of water. Also, almost all ethnic groups have memories of a great flood. Perhaps we all have a deep memory of surviving a flood.

I think a lot of people will wonder if this opera is primarily about climate change.

Climate change is the most vivid conflict between humanity and nature, so of course it is included. But that’s not the main focus. I wanted to create a myth about humanity and nature.

It is very similar to Soseki’s dream in which a woman returns as a flower from her own grave. I read a few comments. For some, it represents Soseki’s struggle with the modern world.

This is my belief about reincarnation. Because he promises to return after 100 years and he has returned as a flower. You know, I always wanted to be buried in the ground, so that my body could feed other living things. And in Soseki’s story, the woman turns into a flower. It’s beautiful.

I love your comment.

Very romantic, isn’t it?


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