Eckert is sharing his story of how he initially discovered and became enamored with the music of Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. The conversation weaves through Eckert’s teenage trip to Preston, his punk rock days in Houston, Texas, and his involvement in producing the 2007 film Control about Joy Division. However, at its core, the discussion always circles back to Sakamoto’s incredible musical talent.
“He mentions, while sitting outside a cafe in Brooklyn with his bright yellow sneakers on, that ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence’ was not my first encounter with his work – it may have been ‘Left Handed Dream’ – but it was the first piece that I fully comprehended.”
In recent years, Eckert has dedicated much effort to expressing his thoughts about Sakamoto and his music. This led to the development of Kagami, a concert that combines reality and technology. It debuted at the Manchester International Festival and The Shed in New York over the summer, and will also be shown at the Roundhouse in London this December.
Kagami is a remarkable achievement for multiple reasons – not only for its impressive technical expertise, but also for its heartfelt dedication to the late creator. In 2014, Sakamoto received a diagnosis of oropharyngeal cancer. After undergoing treatment and experiencing a period of remission, he revealed a diagnosis of rectal cancer in 2021. Sadly, he passed away in late March of this year at the age of 71.
According to Eckert, Kagami is not intended to provide a comprehensive account of his career. Instead, it aims to capture the energy and essence of his persona. Eckert does not want it to come across as a praise for the individual, but rather a reflection of the present. He emphasizes the significance of presenting it as if he were there with him.
During his school days in Tokyo, Ryuichi Sakamoto would often listen to the sounds of the train during his crowded commute. He believed that anything could be considered music and encouraged keeping an open mind and ears. This mindset stayed with him for many years.
Sakamoto’s lifelong approach to sound was driven by his innate curiosity. He began playing the piano at a young age, and soon began creating his own musical pieces. He was particularly drawn to the works of Debussy and Bach in his early years. As he grew older, his influences expanded to include artists such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Kraftwerk, and John Cage. He further pursued his passion for music by studying composition at Tokyo University of the Arts, with a focus on electronic music and ethnomusicology.
In 1978, Sakamoto became a member of the innovative electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra along with Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi. Their impact could be seen in various genres such as techno, acid house, and hip-hop. During that same year, he also debuted his solo album, Thousand Knives, which incorporated elements from Herbie Hancock, synthesizers, classical piano, Chinese culture, and the works of Mao Zedong.
In the forty-five years that followed, Sakamoto’s work continued to display great variety: partnerships with David Sylvian, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, Youssou N’Dour, and Brian Wilson; a leading role in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, alongside David Bowie, for which he also composed the soundtrack; a multi-genre, multi-media opera called Life, featuring contributions from Pina Bausch, Salman Rushdie, Bernardo Bertolucci, and the Dalai Lama; collaborative projects with sculptors, mobile phone companies, and champagne brands; 21 solo albums recorded in a studio; Academy Award-winning scores for The Last Emperor and The Revenant; an auditory depiction of the passage of time, incorporating recordings from New York, Tokyo, Kyoto, and Paris, along with sounds of footsteps on forest leaves, a piano submerged in a tsunami, synthesizers, strings, and poetry by Arseny Tarkovsky.
The main task for Eckert and his Tin Drum studio was to capture the essence of this music approach. During the unveiling of Kagami, viewers used “optically transparent devices” to watch Sakamoto play 10 different compositions on the piano, including Energy Flow and The Seed and the Sower. Surround sound and a unique scent were also incorporated into the performance, allowing audience members to freely move around during the show.
However, the sophistication of the occasion did not reveal the complexity involved in its production, which entailed the use of a volumetric capture studio equipped with 48 cameras, each recording at 60 frames per second.
Sakamoto’s request for a concert grand piano added another layer of complexity. Initially, the plan was to film using a keyboard with weighted keys, which had proven successful in previous trials and allowed for flexibility in camera angles. However, the size and design of the grand piano would obstruct several camera shots. Despite this, Eckert understood the significance of the request to the composer and ultimately agreed to use the grand piano.
Upon receiving the retrieved data five months later, Eckert was dismayed by the distorted images. He compared one of the subjects, Ryuichi, to a split open chestnut. However, all hope was not lost as Eckert had the opportunity to work with skilled technologists who were able to reconstruct the images into a three-dimensional form. In the end, they were successful in piecing together Ryuichi’s face once again.
It was a great comfort in various ways. It was impossible to redo the incredible and deeply moving performance. Eckert describes how on the initial day of shooting in Tokyo, Sakamoto had gone to see his doctor, who informed him that his cancer had come back strongly. “And so all the weight of life, his career, and everything else could be felt in every single note.”
During a discussion about the musical pieces to be performed for Kagami, Eckert asked Sakamoto if he had any compositions that were unheard of. Sakamoto promised to consider it, but the topic was not brought up again until the second day of filming. Eckert recalls, “We were discussing what went well the previous day, what could be improved, and he suddenly says ‘Oh, you wanted a song that no one has ever heard!’ He then goes to his bag and returns with a sheet music that had ‘BB’ written on top. He explains, ‘That stands for Bernardo Bertolucci. He was like a spiritual father to me, and when I received the news of his passing, I went into my studio and played how I felt about him. The only people who have heard this song are his family at his funeral. Would that work?'”
They decided to conclude the Kagami performance with the selected piece. Eckert explains, “Some have suggested recording or releasing it as a single, but I declined. I want it to remain unsearchable on Google.”
I first spoke to Eckert at the beginning of the year, when he was very sick. At the time, he shared with me that his continued existence is proof of his deep appreciation for life. He has always been an inquisitive individual, as Eckert described, “He’s not someone who likes to discuss his fame, but he can spend hours talking about the echoes of a sound in a glass that he heard at a truck stop.”
After Sakamoto’s death, Eckert wishes for Kagami to embody some of the same essence. Throughout their long friendship and partnership, Eckert believes he gained insight into the composer’s motivation. He explains, “The purpose of any form of expression is to illuminate something that words alone cannot convey.” For Ryuichi, this meant using his instrument as a means to deepen our understanding of the human experience. That, to him, was the essence of music.
Kagami will be at the Roundhouse in London from December 29, 2023 to January 21, 2024. General tickets will go on sale starting November 2nd. The first round of ticket sales will be available until November 15th.