The last time I saw Ryuichi Sakamoto he was jumping about on the stage of the Paradise, tweaking and twiddling synthesizer knobs, wearing a Devo-esque, red pseudo-Chinese worker's uniform, and striking a pose as an annoying, in-your-face Japanese tourist by incessantly popping flash cubes at the crowd. The audience bopped along joyously as Sakamoto and his new wave band Yellow Magic Orchestra churned out quirky electronic rock. Among the songs: a mechanized version of the Beatles' "Day Tripper." They were a glorious flash in the pan.
His post-YMO career took quite a radical swerve away from pop. Sakamoto, who studied classical music as a youngster and graduated from the University of Art in Tokyo in the early 1970s, became known, primarily, as an evocative soundtrack artist. He scored numerous films, among them "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," in which he also starred; "The Sheltering Sky"; and "Little Buddha." His score for "The Last Emperor" earned an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Golden Globe. He has completed the score for an indie film based on the life of painter Francis Bacon, "Love Is the Devil," and will soon start scoring a crime movie, "Snake Eyes," for Brian De Palma.
But soundtracks have limitations. You're working in synch with someone else's images; another person has final approval of your work. And Sakamoto wanted to write symphonic music to stand alone. As a youth he loved the minimalism of John Cage and then became enamored of Stravinsky and Bartok, enjoying the discords in their music. But when he moved into soundtracks, he had to leave much of that dissonance behind. With "Discord," a new CD consisting entirely of the four-movement piece "Untitled 01" (out Tuesday on Sony Classical), Sakamoto mixes it up both in the ensemble -- it's a concerto for orchestra, piano, guitar and DJ -- and in the music. It's stately, somber, and graceful in places, flat-out gnashing and careening in others. It closes with spoken-word meditations on the concept of salvation by the likes of Laurie Anderson, David Sylvian, DJ Spooky, and others.