Ryuichi Sakamoto - "Hibari" (Playing¬Ýthe Piano / Out of No)
The release of the "deluxe edition" double-disc package in anticipation of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s solo North American tour bundles two albums, Playing the Piano and Out of Noise (in Japan, both were released separately in 2009). In Playing the Piano, Sakamoto creates solo piano versions of his earlier compositions that include a handful of greatest hits. Soundtrack themes from Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) and The Last Emperor (1987) will be familiar to many. Out of Noise employs field recordings that Sakamoto made during his trip to Greenland as part of the Cape Farewell Project, a program that brings "artists, scientists and communicators" together to respond to climate change. In keeping with the album’s theme, Sakamoto has also made it a point to widely announce that a carbon offset will be made for all carbon dioxide emissions resulting from his tour. "Turning ego into eco," he says. Then again, it seems like it could just as well be the other way around.
Concepts behind his latest release feel gimmicky, contrived, noble, touching, awesome and super cheesy to varying degrees. In many ways, this fits right into Sakamoto’s resume: art school brat; member of YMO; electronic musician; award-winning film composer; environmental activist. He’s full of contradiction, which makes listening to Sakamoto both enlightening and really annoying.
Perhaps part of what makes Sakamoto difficult to listen to from a critical perspective is his masterful artistry in the realm of emotional manipulation — enough to melt any curmudgeonly heart. In this arena, it’s hard to surpass Sakamoto. Listening to his wistful acoustic pieces is kind of like watching a Hollywood flick where you know exactly when they’re going to make you cry because you know the tricks they’re pulling to tug at your heartstrings. You can either let go and be moved, or, get pissed that you’ve succumbed to finely orchestrated pathos.
On his latest album, the distinction between lyricism and romanticism separates the successful pieces from the cringers. Of the arrangements recorded for Playing the Piano, the unplugged solo piano versions strip away some of the melodrama from tunes such as “A Flower is not a Flower” and “The Sheltering Sky.” On piano alone, these sound sleek and modern compared to their predecessors. In other instances, such as “Riot in Lagos,” the piano versions sound like remnants of big, fat YMO-era electronic sounds reduced to cater to the desires of some young piano wunderkind. The new compositions for Out of Noise have more consistency. Framed by multi-tracked piano pieces with a nod to minimalist composition, the central tracks on the album are evocative, ambient pieces that make use of field recordings. Technical precision is no less, but in Out of Noise, Sakamoto produces a music that might be modern day extension of Erik Satie’s "furniture music." That is, something present and magical, but barely noticeable.