Like a lot of people I first became aware of Ryuichi Sakamoto when I stumbled across a Yellow Magic Orchestra album in a junk shop. I have no idea how it wound up there, but I snapped it up immediately. It was filled with massive pop hooks but also an avant-garde sensibility that was intriguing. As I delved deeper into their back catalogue I started to branch off into Sakamoto’s; it ranged from pop, experimental, film scores, opera and modern classical. It was these modern classical releases that really spoke, and still speak, to me.
On his latest album ‘12’ the Japanese composer has given us his finest experimental / modern classical album to date. There is a fragility to the recordings. At times you feel they will buckle and crash under their own weight. But they don’t. Instead, they continue to grow and soar.
‘20211130’ is a prime example of this. Comprising of a few delicate piano refrains it is underpinned by billowing synths. The piano is jarring. The keys are more hammered than played. As the piano becomes firmer the synths more gaseous. They envelope the rigid playing and make it sound softer. Almost embracing it.
And this, in a weird way, was how the album was composed. After an operation, and long stay in hospital, Sakamoto was recuperating at home. He had no interest in listening to, or making, any music, but one day he found himself tinkering on a synth. After a while he started recording sketches as if they were a sonic diary. The album is comprised of 12 of Sakamoto’s favourite sketches.
‘20220123’ follows this pattern. The piano is deliberate. The notes are played until they disappear. Under this is a deep fug of noise. The more you listen the more you can make things out. At times it sounds like the ocean droning on; throughout there are the sounds of what could be birds gently squawking in the distance, on a breeze. Whatever the original samples are it all blends to create something glorious.
‘20220202’ is a darker, broodier track. The synths create a dank melody that grows and grows. Under this almost obsidian umbrella a few clanging percussive notes ring out. Reminding me of a lighthouse in a storm. As ‘20220202’ continues the synths undulate to create something constantly in flux, but also unyielding. It’s one of the standout moments on the album.
Like the healing process itself they are raw, filled with emotion and sometimes trail off without either a proper ending or explanation. Other times they feel fully formed. They are always beautiful. The album seems to be talking about the fragility of life. How at times we feel like we are indestructible and others like we could crumble if we dare to move to far from home. It also feels like the sound of a man coming to terms with his own mortality. It’s heartbreaking, but somehow life-affirming. This feels how Ryuichi Sakamoto has always made music. By looking into himself and channelling those feelings either through words or melody.
‘12’ is not an album to take lightly. It is an album to listen to intently as often as you can. With each listen you learn something about what it takes to be a great artist, Ryuichi Sakamoto is a great artist, but it also teaches us not to take things too seriously because one day it could all be over.
Words: Nick Roseblade