Friday, October 16, 2009

Music Review: Out of Noise / Playing the Piano, by Ryuichi Sakamoto

Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s work keeps moving in an area delimited by electronic and accoustic avant-garde, Debussy-esque romanticism and outright commercialism. The latter style is used for high profile movie soundtracks or television ads, while the former two are reflected both in his studio albums and in soundtracks for smaller, independent movies. On the 2005 album Chasm, Sakamoto tried to reconcile his different composition techniques, resulting in an electronic, tension laden piece of work, his best in years. His latest solo studio album, Out of Noise, published in Japan in February of this year, and now also available in Europe (coinciding with his European tour underway right now), was created using different approach. Gone are the tensions, instead the music adopts a simplicity that Sakamoto calls "white music" (in the 2009 Playing the Piano_Out of Noise Japan tour book); while he likens his composing style to ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement - adding and removing "branches" of sounds until the result felt right.

The album opens on a piano piece, Hibari, a hypnotic, repetitive piece akin to the works of Morton Feldman and Éric Satie. The next two pieces, Hwit and Still Life, are performed on viols, played by the group Fretwork, and a shoh; a traditional Japanese wind instrument. They are a prime example of the above mentioned ikabena-style arrangements, resulting in meditative music made up of multi-layered simplicity. The same approach is then used for the next pieces, which are mostly electronic with sparse acoustic parts. Mixed in are field recordings, some from his adopted home town of New York, others from a trip to Greenland which he undertook in 2008 as part of the Cape Farewell Project, a journey which has had a large influence on him, and on this album. Three of the album’s highlights, Disko, Ice and Glacier, are directly related to the Greenland experience and reflect Sakamoto’s endeavours in support of the ecology.

The final piece, Composition 0919, departs from the simplicity of the album’s other pieces and is a highly charges piano piece on which chords bounce off each other in a liberating frenzy.

In Europe, Out of Noise comes bundled with the CD Playing the Piano, which is also available separately. This is a compilation of two recordings released in 2004 and 2005, and are solo piano pieces. Included are the tracks which made Sakamoto a household name in the West, namely his soundtracks for the Berardo Bertolucci films The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky; and of course Nagisha Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, for which he wrote one of the most iconic title tunes of all times, and which has become something of his signature tune. The renderings of these pieces on this album are intense, brooding even. Other highlights include two pieces taken from his early 1980s electronic albums, Riot in Lagos and Thousand Knives; and Bolerish, a piece inspired by Maurice Ravel’s Bolero and composed for Brian de Palma's film Femme Fatale.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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