A man who knows the score; Ryuichi Sakamoto got his start as a pop star, but the Grammy Award-winning musician found his true calling as a soundtrack composer for movies.


What does reincarnation sound like? A difficult question, to be sure, but it was one Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto had to answer.

It was 1993, and he was composing the score to the Bernardo Bertolucci film, "Little Buddha." Bertolucci had a sequence at the end of the film in which he tried to convey the cyclic nature of human existence. So he wanted Sakamoto to whip up some music that would convey the idea of reincarnation to the viewers.

Sakamoto found the task more than slightly daunting.

"It was very abstract," he says. "It's hard to understand the concept of reincarnation [as it is], and harder still to express the concept or philosophy by music."

Sakamoto was no cinematic novice. Not only had he written music for more than half a dozen films by that point, but he had worked with Bertolucci before, on the 1987 film "The Last Emperor." Sakamoto (who also acted in the film) earned both an Oscar and a Grammy for the score.

Still, evoking the sound of early 20th century China is easy compared with conveying a concept as abstract as reincarnation. There are many albums available of Chinese music, after all, but nobody has ever recorded a reincarnation.

So what did he do? "Well, partially, I used sort of the influence of Gregorian chant," Sakamoto says during a phone interview. "It's sort of my secret. I didn't even know that the melody was similar to Gregorian chant when I got the idea. But soon after, I recognized it was very similar."

It was an ingenious solution. Even though there is nothing Buddhist about Gregorian chant, the fact that listeners associate that sort of music with timeless spirituality did the trick, and evoked the ineffable. Jokes Sakamoto, "My instinct caught the relationship between Christianity and Buddhism."

That sort of instinct has made Sakamoto, 47, a successful soundtrack composer. In addition to the two Bertolucci films, he has scored "The Handmaid's Tale," "The Sheltering Sky," Pedro Almodovar's "High Heels," Peter Kosminsky's "Wuthering Heights," Brian DePalma's "Snake Eyes" and "Love Is The Devil: Study For A Portrait Of Francis Bacon" (which just opened at the Charles). A collection of his film music, titled "Cinemage," is due in May from Sony Classics.

But Sakamoto didn't start out writing soundtracks. He initially made his name as a rock star, fronting the Japanese trio Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Formed in 1978, YMO turned the notion of the rock power trio on its head, using Sakamoto's keyboards instead of guitars and openly embracing the robotic regularity of computer music. Leavening its overtly electronic sound with puckish wit, YMO paved the way for the synth-pop boom of the '80s, and enjoyed worldwide success. Its 1980 single, "Computer Game (Theme from 'The Invader')," was a minor hit in the U.S, and went Top 20 in Britain.

However famous YMO became elsewhere, the band was always bigger in Japan. YMO, says MTV Japan correspondent Mami Shirakawa, "made a new trend among Japanese youth," popularizing the concept of techno-cool, and having a major impact on fashion, thanks to the group's distinctive haircuts and attire.

Sakamoto, in particular, was hailed as a pop culture visionary. So even when YMO disbanded in 1982, Sakamoto remained a significant presence on the Japanese scene. He played opposite David Bowie in Nagisa Oshima's film "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" -- Sakamoto also wrote his first movie score for that film -- and enjoyed considerable success as a solo artist, working with such stars as Thomas Dolby, Robin Scott and Iggy Pop.

Even now, Sakamoto's albums and singles still grace the Japanese Top 20, and despite the fact that he lives eight months of the year in New York, his face remains so familiar in Japan that he often does television commercials (he was the focus of an Audi campaign last year).

Moreover, he's been remarkably pro-lific in recent months. Last year, he had three albums released in the U.S. -- a symphonic recording called "Discord," and the soundtracks to both "Snake Eyes" and "Love Is the Devil" -- and three more in Japan, including the solo piano album "BTTB."

All that work hasn't thinned Sakamoto's inspiration. If anything, his work has grown more diverse over the years. Not only does his pop work draw on everything from samba and soul to reggae and drum 'n' bass, but he has also written everything from avant-garde electronic music to lush, romantic orchestral scores.

"It's sort of my problem, doing many [styles] at the same time," he says. "i'What is Sakamoto's main thing?' People might be confused. But everything is from my inside."

In fact, there's so much music inside Sakamoto that, lately, he has found himself avoiding the stereo. "I don't listen to other people's CDs so much," he says. "First of all, I don't have much time to listen to those CDs, because I'm busy working on my own projects. [But] I don't have a strong desire to listen to other people's music. I don't know why.

"I always have some kind of music or sound going on in my mind," he adds, then laughs. "Maybe it's too crowded."

Although Sakamoto made his name in pop, his background was almost entirely in classical music. He studied composition at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, later earning an MFA with a concentration in electronic music.

In the early stages of his career, Sakamoto saw that classical training as irrelevant. "I kind of repressed myself, and did not use my classical background," he says. "There's not much space [in pop music] where I could use that. It was a little frustrating to me."

As he began to do more movie work, however, his background began to pay off. In addition to being able to use his orchestration skills, his knowledge of electronic music also came in handy when preparing a soundtrack.

"Before I record the music with human players ... I make simulations of the music with samplers and synthesizers, so that the director and producer get the whole picture of the music," he says. "Because once the music is recorded onto the tape, it's hard to change the length or mood of everything."

Just because a director says he likes the simulation, it doesn't mean the score is set. "Once, the director liked the simulation, which sounded very real, very similar to the final recording," Sakamoto recalls. "Then, on the next day, we started the recording session with the players, and he didn't like the music. He wanted me to change the music in front of the players. So I jumped onto each part of music, and changed it, rewrote some notes.

"That was very ... embarrassing."

Even under the best of circumstances, scoring a film is high-pressure business. Music is generally the last thing finished in a film, and as such, must be written to fit the on-screen action exactly. This requires close cooperation between the composer and director.

Typically, says Sakamoto, the process starts with reading the script. "Then I watch the rough edit. Then the director and I sit together, to talk about the direction of the music. We sit in front of the editing machine, and watch the film frame-by-frame, very carefully, to determine from which frame the music starts, and at which frame it ends, for each piece of music."

At the heart of every soundtrack is a main theme, and generally, Sakamoto will offer several ideas to the director and producer. Once the main theme is agreed upon, Sakamoto will write variations on the melody to suit specific scenes.

"Usually, I need melodic input if I want to have any hint of cultural background or historical background [for a score]," he says. "For instance, before I worked on the music for 'The Last Emperor,' I didn't have much knowledge about Chinese music. So I got a 20-record anthology of Chinese music, and listened to very ancient Chinese music through modern Chinese music."

Because the film focused on a specific historical era, Sakamoto knew that he needed to play off the music of the past. "At the same time, that film was an '80s film, so the music shouldn't be too old," he adds. "It must have some kind of influence of '20s music, but at the same time, it should be modern music. And it should be Chinese, but also Western, since it's a Western film."

He chuckles. "A very difficult composition."

Pub Date: 01/17/99

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