Text: Neil van der Linden
I first got to know the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto (b.1952) through the Yellow Magic Orchestra, formed in 1978, a Japanese electronic artpop ensemble of which Sakamoto was a member, responding to Euro-synthesizer-pop acts like Germany’s Kraftwerk, Switzerland’s Yello, Jean Michel Jarre and Donna Summer’s disco music recordings with Giorgio Moroder. The Yellow Magic Orchestra or YMO as their name was often abbreviated gradually developed a style of their own, a mixture of jagged computer-generated riffs resembling computer game tunes and smooth, suave and sometimes cheesy melodies. As more and more of the electronic instruments were being made in Japan, first by imitating the American and European originals, then coming up with more advanced, reliable and userfriendly models, the members of the YMO more and more went their own way well.
Sakamoto’s solo career started to soar with his magnificent role as actor in the movie Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), playing opposite David Bowie and Tom Conti, for which Sakamoto also composed the music.
Japanese culture was becoming fashionable just when the Western political leaders started to depict Japan as an economic threat to the West. In Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence Sakamoto personified a different Japan. He was likeable, good looking, easily embodying the semi-homoerotic infatuation between the characters played by him and by Bowie that is at the centre of the storyline. Musically this was even sealed in a vocal version of a piece in the soundtrack, ‘Forbidden Colours’, performed by Sakamoto with singer David Sylvian, frontman of the British glam-art-rock band Japan, who were toying with queer symbolism as well as hip Japanese and Chinese aestheticism in their image.
Sakamoto did more beautiful collaborations, with Sylvian and others, and he continued making soundtracks for movies like Bertolucci ‘s The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant.
Swiss-Georgian composer Alexandre Kordzaia a.k.a. Kordz (b.1994) studied in Basel and at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague (with Yannis Kyriakides). In Georgia Kordzaia made a name with dance music and collaborations with the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra. Here he worked with Asko|Schönberg, the Nieuw Ensemble and the Residentie Orkest in The Hague. Recently he wrote an adaptation of for Dutch dance ensemble Club Guy & Roni.
Kordz x Sakamoto is a collage of material mostly originating from Sakamoto’s early years, including the theme song from Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. We hear modern electronics, plus vintage electronic instruments, plus the acoustic instrumentalist of the ensemble, with Kordzaia behind the piano. Most of the music flows like a smooth machine, but sometimes disruption occurs, like drum rolls that go against the metre, and a long virtuoso and in this context deliberately alien, ‘dirty’ clarinet solo, by David Kweksilber.
The result sounds like Sakamoto embedded in an idiom that ASKO|Schönberg is so much at home with, of for instance Louis Andriessen. “Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence meets Andriessen’s De Staat.” Imagine the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra playing Bert Kaempfert, including of course masterpieces like Strangers in the Night and Living it Up (alias Theme from Kapitein Zeppos), paying homage to the tone colouring of Bruckner and Debussy at the same time. Something I would not want to miss.
Kordzaia emphasised that some of the music of the Yellow Magic Orchestra in their early years has inspired the later pioneering American techno and hiphop musicians, by interweaving techno- and hiphop-beats at certain points and making the ensemble-members rap and cheer as if they are in a houseparty.
I listened to the radio broadcast of the performance the next evening and it became clear that the music, somewhat against my initial misgivings I must admit, stood the test of being consumed as music as such. While another strong point of the live performance, which I had not yet mentioned, was absent, namely the wonderful visual installation by the Dutch light artist Boris Acket.
From back to front the cut parts of a single tree are fixed to the ceiling, its branches arching over the musicians. Above the tree, a set of LED-light screens, a metre wide, thirty metre long, stretches along the middle of the ceiling of the hall. The LEDs initially show black and white light patterns, resembling the patterns of early computergames, or white on black stripes of a highway, but soon the images become coloured, resembling landscapes gliding by in high-speed, as is we were riding the Maglev, the Japanese magnetic levitation train, the fastest in the world, with the Milky Way above us.
This association with high-tech urban transport could stand for how Sakamoto might see his evolution from emulating one of his first main influences, the 1974 LP Autobahn by Kraftwerk, to becoming an artist on his own, with the German Autobahn, the German highway, with what drives on it, German cars, once the pinnacle of Western technology, in a few decades gradually being replaced by technology often coming from the Far-East, much better suited for modern metropoles, like that of the clean and smooth Maglev. Tree-friendlier, even though for this event a tree had to be felled.
Could the tree stand for Sakamoto himself, the giant who recently was diagnosed with recurring cancer, the reason he could not be present at the festival?
The Autobahn is there itself as well.
The Asko|Schönberg ensemble performing adaptions of Ryuichi Sakomoto’s mysic by Alexandre Kordzaia, conducted by Kordzaia.
Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, June 15th 2021.
Pictures of a rehearsal by Ada Nieuwendijk.