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Ryuichi Sakamoto's '12': A Subtle, Haunting, and Beautifully Controlled Album

Photo by Joi Ito via Flickr (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Ryuichi Sakamoto has had a long and successful career in music as a composer, musician and recording producer. He first gained fame in the late 70s as a songwriter and keyboardist of the synth-pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra, led by Haruomi Hosono, which was at the forefront of electro-pop movements in Japan. YMO’s globally-acknowledged innovations in music inspired many genres like house and techno, and the band has often been understood as having produced the Japanese counterpart to Kraftwerk’s legacy in Germany. Yukihiro Takahashi, the vocalist and drummer of the band, said that the formation of YMO “felt like destiny”, and it’s evident from listening to their music that the trio’s creativity burned brightly. Since then, Sakamoto’s solo career has further embraced experimentation with new-wave electronic instruments and global genres. His sonic path constantly changes, be it shaped around his interest in Classical Impressionism or his contribution to cinema, such as his soundtracks for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

Unfortunately, Sakamoto has struggled with cancer since 2014; he was first diagnosed with throat cancer, which was cured after six years of treatment. Recently, he was again diagnosed with rectal cancer and in June 2022, he announced that his cancer had spread and was now Stage 4. Milan Records thoughtfully released A Tribute to Ryuichi Sakamoto - To The Moon and Back on December 2nd 2022, which collected songs from Sakamoto’s oeuvre that were reworked and renewed by contemporary artists like Thundercat and David Sylvian. The tribute album reflects how Sakamoto’s legacy continues to live on and impact people today, conflating the past and the future. Furthermore, he accommodated his musical performances to his compromised health by recently recording an hour-long online concert which was streamed internationally. The tragic news of Yukihiro Takahashi passing away last week, and the present thought of Sakamoto’s declining health, has really shown that the timing of the world is relentless.

Sakamoto’s newest album, 12, was released on January 17th — his 71st birthday — marking the first original album he has released in six years. The 12 songs included are musical sketches recorded during his struggle with cancer between 2021 and 2022. All songs are titled according to the dates on which they were written, like an intimate glimpse into Sakamoto’s life. The creation of 12 started in early March 2021 after a draining operation, which was when he found himself reaching for the synthesiser. Even when he barely had the energy to listen to music, he found that playing the synth had “a healing effect on [his] damaged body and soul".

The textures in the tracks are generally very bare, but the skeleton of Sakamoto’s signature strong melody lines, harmonies and rhythm are unmistakably there. He doesn’t need to rely on excess noise in order to express very powerful sentiments and distinctive musical features. The minimal layers work very effectively in the first track, “20210310”, because the drift between the high and low registers creates a very expressive gap, like an abyss. Another example of this expressive simplicity occurs in “20220201”: the melodic idea is repeated incessantly, as if he couldn't get the idea out of his head. That the track ends halfway through this melody line offers no consolation.

It’s also worth noting that many of the tracks purposefully keep the sound of his breathing and the movement of fingers on the board, which gives a very natural human performance, unlike the antiseptic trend of editing out any sign of effort or mistake. It’s evident that his breathing is strained and laboured, which reflects his state of fragility. This atmosphere of softness, and musical elements stripped to the bone, contrasts his previous works. Compared to the way that synthesisers are used in YMO's 'Behind the Mask' with its mechanical precision and energy, or the hyperactive synths in 'Technopolis', the use of synthesisers in '12' is slower and, undeniably, more haunting.

My favourite tracks from the album are 'Sarabande' and '20220302'. Firstly, 'Sarabande' is a piano piece, which reminds me of the simple beauty in his previous piano piece 'Amore'—one of my all time favourite pieces. A sarabande is a sixteenth-century Spanish dance in triple metre, and often the second beat has more emphasis, giving the dance a more weighted quality. This drawn-out feeling is appealing when applied to Sakamoto’s piece, as it draws more attention to his harmonies. Written on the same day, '20220302' is a faster piano piece which epitomises Sakamoto’s strong and simple melody-writing, involving rich harmonies with minimal notes. The simple melodic idea, based on intervals, is sequential, descending throughout the piece. In the distance between the intervals, Sakamoto emphasises the gap, and this beautiful strain is reinforced by his harmonies.

Sakamoto once said in an essay speaking about his Stage 4 cancer, “I have just turned 70, but how many more times will I be able to see the full moon? But even thinking that, since I have been granted life, I am praying that I will be able to make music until my last moments, just like my beloved Bach and Debussy.” This, evidently, implies an awareness that his latest album “12” might be his last. Sakamoto's album perfectly encompasses the feeling of fear and gratitude that accompanies the thought that a particular instance may be the last time we get to experience something forever. The romantic idea of composing until the very end shows how music stands against oblivion; even in his state of weakness, we see how music can reignite people like Sakamoto’s energy and appetite for life. His references to Bach and Debussy place him alongside classical luminaries, where many would argue he belongs.

Lots of musicologists say that an artist’s last work is their most prominent because it concentrates a lifetime’s worth of joy and sorrow in a final effort, as seen in the analysis of figures from Beethoven, to Brahms, to Bowie. I don’t want to pigeonhole Sakamoto’s album into this concept, nor do I want to undermine the rest of his life’s work. But it’s interesting that Sakamoto’s latest album doesn’t dramaticise the narrative of his life; rather, it’s powerful in an understated way. It reminds me of a conversation I had with my own mother, who introduced me to Sakamoto’s music, about the song 'Castalia' by YMO. The song is very slow and ethereal, its melody one of my all-time favourites. When my mother first discovered the song, she misheard the title, and thought that it was called 'Catastrophe' for decades. I joked, “Why did you think such a calm song would be called 'Catastrophe'?”. And she told me how she thought that the sound of the song reflected how calm you were meant to be when facing something catastrophic, like the very end of the world. Ever since that conversation, when I listen to 'Castalia', I picture a scene of acceptance amidst the apocalypse. I get a similar feeling when I listen to Sakamoto’s latest album.

To keep up with Ryuichi Sakamoto, you can find him on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.


Edited by Talia Andrea, Music Editor


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