Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
Monday, October 18
Better Than: The soundtrack to An Inconvenient Truth.
Ever the educators, NYU prefaced Ryuichi Sakamoto’s sold-out evening at the Skirball Center with a physics lesson of sorts–a necessary step, considering the Japanese composer would occupy two places at once, like Schrödinger’s more virtuosic cat. The venue’s projection screens, lowered behind a single piano marooned onstage, detailed the aural set-up of the evening: Sakamoto would be performing on Yamaha’s computerized Disklavier system, which loops previously recorded MIDI signals to his hand and feet movements. What this meant compositionally? As the stark white script explained, “Ryuichi will perform ‘virtual duets’ with himself in this way.”
This seemed an apt technology for Sakamoto–a method that could easily contend with itself but, in his hands, became elegant communication. The modern Renaissance man of electronic music has built his four-decade career on unlikely alchemy. As the main proponent behind the “Neo Geo” classical movement of the ’80s, he melded Asian and Western influences with other world polyrhythms for a broadly encompassing genre that remains influential today. (Beauty, his heart-rending 1990 album, was absolutely that, and featured a remarkable cameo from Brian Wilson.)
On Monday night, he greeted the austere Skirball hall with predictable far-sighted solemnity. Much of his hour-long performance was culled from out of noise, the ambitious latter half of his recently released dual CD set (with playing the piano, his compilation of solo piano revisitings of earlier works). An emotional response to climate change, out of noise was partially inspired by his trip to Greenland with the Cape Farewell Project and it brims with the found sounds of the churning Arctic Sea and ominously dripping glacial ice. In concert, Sakamoto opened with “Glacier,” reproducing the many atmospherics via Disklavier while frequently reaching over his piano to pluck jarring glissandos from the internal strings. Under a dramatic lone spotlight, his double-tracked ivories seamlessly resonated his agitation, as text about shrinking icebergs flashed across the projection screens. (All New York classical audiences are unerringly unsure when to applaud and just as reliably decide to during the most indecorous moments–and sure enough, the Skirball attendees started clapping mid-set after a lengthy period of perplexed, crashing silence.)
But Sakamoto is not just a harbinger of sodden news; he is an instrumentalist of deeply inscribed, pensive optimism. And this is what has truly propelled his 50-plus studio albums (and even that Academy Award for The Last Emperor‘s score). As he continued through out of noise, he embellished the longer refrains with unexpected, fun flourishes of crisp arpeggios and swift mellifluous dalliances. His triple encore was even lighter, buoyed by an especially effervescent take on his pop composition “Thousand Knives” as harmonious musings from Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, whispered well on the receding screens, asking for more perspective and shared beauty. Sakamoto afforded New York both.
Critical bias: Neo Geo > electroclash
Overheard: “___” (Sakamoto does not address crowd once)
Random notebook dump: Stand-by crowd shivered in cold for five hours before the show.