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As Ryuichi Sakamoto returns with '12,' fellow artists recall his impact

Japanese musician, composer, record producer, pianist, activist, writer, actor and dancer Ryuichi Sakamoto, photographed on June 30, 2016 in Paris.
Joel Saget
AFP via Getty Images
Japanese musician, composer, record producer, pianist, activist, writer, actor and dancer Ryuichi Sakamoto, photographed on June 30, 2016 in Paris.

Ryuichi Sakamoto has been an enormously respected artist for decades, starting with his work in the '70s and '80s as a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra in his native Japan to his deeply affective, Grammy and Oscar-winning scores for film and within his numerous avant-electronic solo experimentations. Those experimentations continued most recently with the Jan. 17 release of 12, his latest solo album – created in March 2021, while Sakamoto was undergoing treatment for cancer.

Unfortunately, Sakamoto wasn't able to record an interview about his new release, so we spoke to some of the celebrated artists he's worked with to discuss and explain his impactful career.

To hear the full broadcast version of this story, use the audio player at the top of this page.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, film director

"I vividly recall the emotional experience I had the first time I listened to Ryuichi Sakamoto," explains Alejandro González Iñárritu, lauded director of films like the Best Picture-winning Birdman and The Revenant, for which Sakamoto composed the score. ("I wanted to have somebody who was able to understand silence," Iñárritu explains of his selection, "and that's Ryuichi.")

"I was in a car, stuck in traffic in Mexico City with a friend of mine, and we put a pirate japanese cassette on – this was 1983. I heard some piano notes and I felt as if the fingers were penetrating my brain and giving me a cranial cosmic massage... and it was 'Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.' "

Carsten Nicolai/Alva Noto, artist

"I can hear so much in these 12 tracks of his current state of him and his kind of sensibility, the fragileness, the weakness," says Nicolai, who has recorded and performed with Sakamoto many times, of his friend's newest album.

"It feels strong and fragile in the same moment. It has this incredible beauty of not being too complex."

Hildur Guðnadóttir, composer

"When did I first come across Sakamoto's music? Ryuichi's music is so timeless, it feels like you've almost always known it. There's such deep listening in the way that he works.

"He invited me to work with him on the soundtrack for The Revenant –it was very interesting to interpret how he was explaining his music, like it wasn't so much with words, but it was with the gestures of his wrists and the movements of his eyelids – he just physically embodied his music."

Flying Lotus, composer and producer

"If you want to talk about his history and what he's done in the past, there's a lot of stuff from Thousand Knives ... that was like some really early stuff," the LA-based, jazz-leaning experimental producer tells All Things Considered of Sakamoto's 1978 synth exploration. "But if you play it up against something today, it still sounds like the future."

"He came to LA to work with me for a little bit ... he had this childlike curiosity about the potential for sounds that we could come up with. He would look around, tap on surfaces ... tinker around with my ceiling fan above us. [Laughs]

"He found the beauty in all the little things."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.
Rose Friedman is an Associate Editor for NPR's Arts, Books & Culture desk. She edits radio pieces on a range of subjects, including books, pop culture, fine arts, theater, obituaries and the occasional Harry Potter-check-in. She is also co-creator of NPR's annual Book Concierge and the podcast recommendation site Earbud.fm. In addition, Rose has edited commentaries for the network, as well as regular features like This Week's Must Read on All Things Considered.