For most of us, we can only imagine what it must feel like to stand face-to-face with death, and how this would change our perception of the nature of reality. For an artist to overcome a confrontation with their own mortality, therefore, likely opens many new avenues of expression. The sheer relief of surviving their affliction may spark a new-found vitality in themselves that translates into a celebration of life and living through their particular medium of artistry. This, however, is not the approach taken by Japanese pianist and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto on async, his first solo endeavour following his battle with, and triumph over, cancer. The stylings of Sakamoto have varied drastically across the span of his career. Having worked in the music industry as a musician, composer and producer for over four decades now, Sakamoto’s solo undertakings have encompassed many a point on the stylistic spectrum, ranging from pop to classical music and from electronic to world music, whilst pioneering the development of synthpop, techno and house music as one-third of the Japanese electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra. Sakamoto has also been closely connected to the film industry for much of his career, ever since he starred in, and composed the score for, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, alongside pop luminary David Bowie. The artist has continued contributing soundtracks to films, having supplied the scores for The Revenant and Nagasaki: Memories of My Son since the announcement of his recovery in 2015. async, therefore, whilst not the musician’s first musical venture since his confrontation with cancer, is his first solo studio effort, and is thus his first chance to freely explore his run-in with his own mortality, which is an opportunity that Sakamoto takes full advantage of. The composer’s minimalist marrying of contemporary classical, ambient and electronic music serves as a fitting environment in which he ruminates the urgency and finity of life, whilst also involving the listener in these confrontations with mortality.
Upon first listening to async, it becomes evident that the mindset Sakamoto employs when composing scores for films has translated onto this new solo record of his. All of these 14 pieces display many recurring musical and broader conceptual themes, but are largely focussed around crafting a certain ambiance through the utilisation of mesmerising melodies and hypnotic rhythms, unravelling slowly and subtly as to reflect the gradual changing of mood and emotion that the composer wishes to convey. Given that Sakamoto has claimed async to have been conceived as his imagined soundtrack to a non-existent film by late Soviet film director Andrei Tarkovsky, such an approach makes sense, and shines a much more detailed light on the underlying concepts of the album. The very context of the record is itself a reflection of the metaphysical themes recurrent across Tarkovsky’s filmography, just as the extensive beauty of async mirrors the imagery of the Russian writer’s work. Even the compositional attitude employed by the artist exhibits musical parallels with the filmmaking stylings of his muse for this endeavour, with the protracted, understated and intricate progressions of these pieces being reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s routine application of long takes. The smooth and subtle soundscape of a track like ff perfectly exemplifies this. The humming synthesizer chords and ambient drones steadily quiver throughout the entirety of the composition, in an almost lightly competitive fashion, as the myriad whispers of harmony intertwine and overlap, regularly shifting the listener’s focus to one particular sound over another. It’s instances such as this at which point Brian Eno comes to mind as having a profound influence on Sakamoto’s approach to many aspects of this record, not that this is anything new for an ambient project. However, rather than the anxious atmospheres of Eno’s looped sound installations on his seminal ambient album Ambient 1: Music for Airports, which is used as a stylistic touchstone for many an ambient artist, Sakamoto seems to be pulling from the vibrant sonic palettes of a record like Music for Films, which would explain a lot, considering this 1978 release was intended by Eno as a soundtrack for a selection of imaginary films. The diversity of Eno’s ambient soundscapes is referenced as the dying whispers of ff lead off into the closing track, garden, wherein Sakamoto applies a similar blueprint of softly drifting synth drones, once again alluding to Tarkovsky’s use of long takes. This time, however, the musician makes use of a rougher aural aesthetic, as exhibited in the occasional bubbling of a groaning, bassy buzz and the more varied dynamic range of the piece, which mirrors the more urgent and tense side to Eno’s ambient works. Indeed, Sakamoto effectively, and with great prowess, interlaces his musical and cinematic influences as to create a wholly unique listening experience.
The correlations between async and the filmmaking philosophy of Tarkovsky run far deeper than just surface level, with even very specific motifs of the director’s work appearing across the album, as a means of guiding the profound statements on life Sakamoto pursues on his latest project. In particular, Tarkovsky’s oft-cited themes of dreams, memories and childhood are pivotal to the musician’s meditation on the record’s metaphysical concepts. The introductory track, andata, acts as an appropriately sombre prelude to the album, opening with a soft but pained piano phrase, with the emphasis on an open and emotional atmosphere being reminiscent of impressionist composers, especially the likes of Claude Debussy. The faint addition of some gentle, fizzing noise creates an unsettling, hypnopompic ambiance, which is only fortified by the transition from a piano to a funereal church organ, whilst the white noise crescendoes and edges the piece further towards a sobering conclusion. Perhaps the most conspicuous transcription of frequent motifs of Tarkovsky’s material into a musical format is on solari, which clearly references the Soviet writer’s 1972 work Solaris not solely in the title, but also in the profound melodic and stylistic similarities between the composition and Eduard Artemyev’s score for the film, particularly its main theme. The bleak but beautiful synth melodies are recorded as if heard from a distance, thus creating a melancholic and wistful air that comes to pass like a past memory that refuses to be forgotten. Such themes, however, are referred to far more directly amongst the smattering of spoken word samples to appear across async. The title of the track Life, Life, for example, is an eponym of a poetry book by Arseny Tarkovsky, Andrei’s father, and features a reading by the frontman of English art pop band, Japan, of the poet’s “And this I dreamt, and this I dream” verse. This introspective analysis on the transitory nature of life essentially encapsulates all of Sakamoto’s salient concerns across the album; “Dreams, reality, death”, with the writer’s affirmation that he is to dedicate himself to life’s wonders likely reflecting some new-found outlook on life of the musician’s own that has transpired since his health scare. The spoken word excerpt featured on the track fullmoon reinforces this revitalised perspective of life, albeit in a much more stark and sombre fashion. The sample is lifted from Bernardo Bertolucci’s film adaption of Paul Bowles’ post-colonial novel, The Sheltering Sky, for which Sakamoto composed the score, and is of the author himself and his observations on the ephemeral world. Bowles addresses the audience as he demystifies the extent to which people take life for granted in viewing it as inexhaustible, which can surely be interpreted as Sakamoto pleading with the audience to make the most of being alive, should they die sooner than they realise. Despite not being directly connected to Andrei Tarkovsky, the director’s favoured themes are nevertheless present, such as when Bowles asks, “How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood?”. The main body of the piece is dedicated to overlapping snippets of this same spoken word excerpt performed in a plethora of languages, presumably as a means of extending the message to every member of the composer’s audience, not solely the English-speaking ones. However, the overlaid voices intermix as to create somewhat of a jarring soundscape, as is mirrored by the instrumental, with its layers of ambient tension and abrupt clangours of noise. These conveyances of the philosophical principles behind async in both a musical and verbal format detail the diversity and dexterity of Sakamoto not merely as a composer, but as an artist, with so many intricacies to be found in the album’s arc that each subsequent listen reveals a deeper level of comprehension of these existential topics.
In using his musical, cinematic and poetic influences as a vehicle for his own comments on the nature of existence, Sakamoto has compiled a compelling collection of compositions with async, that both reflect his experiences following his battle with cancer and actively appeal to the listener and incorporate them into the record’s narrative as to invoke their own introspections concerning their life and place in the world. The thematic framework within which the composer engages with such substantial metaphysical concepts is a well-assembled one, as is shown by the degree of detail that can only be unveiled and properly understood after many spins of the record. Of all the other artistic endeavours utilised as touchstones throughout async, the album doesn’t come across as if it is simply the offspring of its inspirations, rather it stands amongst them as similarly successful and definitive in its exploration of analogous motifs. async is, ultimately, an arresting attempt to make emotionally-gratifying sense of the stolidity of the real world, and is a truly enlightening listening experience as a result.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8.5/10