Had anybody other than Ryuichi Sakamoto released Playing the Piano/Out of Noise, I’d probably call it “an ambitious piece of work that spans genres effortlessly.” But as it is, this double album comes with the territory for one of the world’s most exciting, stimulating, captivating composers and musicians.
Sakamoto is probably known to most as the composer of film scores like Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, The Last Emperor, High Heels, Women without Men, The Sheltering Sky, and any more. Others recognize his work from the Yellow Magic Orchestra, one of the pioneers of electro-pop music.
Regardless of how one has come to know Sakamoto, there’s no questioning his skill as a musician. With this release, he expands on his musical vision and takes us to some thought-provoking places as he explores the opacities between melody and sound.
The first disc is a collection of lovingly-rendered classics. Sakamoto performs solo piano versions of many of his early works, pulling us into his pool of film pieces with familiar grace. “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” and “The Sheltering Sky” take loving shape with Sakamoto’s tender flourishes and elegant sensibilities.
Sakamoto is particularly adept at controlling the tempo of his pieces, engaging the listener with his cadenced keystrokes while letting the composition flow gradually. His soft, minimalist work on the brief “Tamago 2004” is a striking specimen of his control and “Thousand Knives” showcases his facility for working through intricate arrangements as re-imagined works of art.
The second disc, Out of Noise, is somewhat of a departure from Playing the Piano.
Sakamoto, along with musicians like Skuli Sverrisson, Fretwork, Christian Fennesz, and Keigo Oyamada, explores sound in consciousness-expanding fashion. The composer and musician even went to Greenland with the Cape Farewell Project and recorded under the surface of the biting ice. The thin, perplexing mood is palpable, as is the bleak chill.
Tracks like “In the Red” reveal the meagreness of location recording, while “Hibari” outlines an exploration in pattern and repetition. “Disko,” meanwhile, allows pulses of noise to wash over like tranquil waves.
Sakamoto’s double album is a truly amazing piece of work. As an examination of sound and composition, it’s a colourful stroke of genius. His playing is fiercely fluid and his mentality for constructing and deconstructing is unsurpassed.