Ryuichi Sakamoto scored films just as masterfully as he composed the extreme highs and distressing lows of life. Ruminations of his battle with cancer, twice, were carefully penned in a monthly column for the literary journal Shincho, in which the late pianist also vowed to keep making music until he died, following in the footsteps of his heroes Claude Debussy and Johann Sebastian Bach. While reckoning with his own mortality, he put together a collection of ambient etudes for piano and synthesiser in what would be his last album, 12, a sparser work than the previous sombre and introspective async that became his greatest opus. In his musical epilogue, each song was untitled and bore only the date it was written, like an open diary entry that chronicled his day-to-day encounters.
Last December, fans had one final chance to watch this Japanese titan sit behind his favourite instrument. As Sakamoto no longer had the energy for live concerts, he recorded a few individual pieces over the span of a week in his favourite NHK studio in Tokyo, which were edited into a single, hour-long broadcast. Shot in cinematic monochrome and pervaded by a wistful undertone, the emotive performance was tinged with the knowledge that the end was nigh. A genteel grace enveloped the prolific musician, who seemed to be playing his own elegy — which, in effect, was exactly it. The godfather of techno had given us the perfect Coda.
Sakamoto, who died at the age of 71 earlier this year, left a void among millions of adoring listeners who are still enamoured of the pop excursions of Yellow Music Orchestra (a band he co-founded with songwriter Haruomi Hosono and lead vocalist Yukihiro Takahashi) or the playlist he assembled for Kajitsu restaurant in Murray Hill, New York, where he loved the food but “hated the music”. But not all hope is lost for those who wish to meditate on the legacy of the poetic artist or bask in his reckless romanticism once more. Technology has long proven that it is capable of summoning musical deities, whether in the present or from the past.
To honour the extraordinary craft, precision and passion that Sakamoto brought to all his projects, avant-garde cultural space The Shed in Manhattan and tech developer Tin Drum will be bringing the Oscar-winning musician back on stage through a blend of physical and digital media. Titled Kagami, or “mirror” in Japanese, the new-age concert closely reflects Sakamoto’s ideals to create a mixed-reality presentation that stays true to his expansive oeuvre. A virtual figure of the wry and genial icon, complete with his signature wispy crop of white hair, can be seen playing the piano when the audience puts on their optically transparent devices.
Dimensional moving photography is fused with advanced tech wizardry to conjure up a lifelike representation of Sakamoto, be it in his gait or gesture. Every time his fingers draw out a tender note from an intimidating Steinway or blur over the keys in a rhapsodic flight, visual effects pass through the optical lenses viewers wear, creating a theatrical experience accompanied by, say, fluttering petals or changing lights. Ten original compositions, including the well-known Energy Flow and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, along with rarely played pieces such as The Seed and the Sower will be presented in surround sound. Although concertgoers may view the show in a seated format, they are more than encouraged to wander and interact with their surroundings during the hour-long event.
Kagami joins a technological race that has stepped up a gear to bring the most realistic live experiences to music crowds. It all started with departed artists receiving the hologram treatment as incarnations of much-missed idols such as Tupac Shakur (whose replica appeared in front of an 80,000-strong crowd at Coachella 2012) and Michael Jackson (revived at the Billboard Music Awards 2014) sustained their reputation and allowed people to keep hearing their music. Concert producers have predicted that, in the not-very-distant future, live performances would evolve to the point at which a puppeteer sitting in the wings with a laptop could pull the digital strings instantaneously, enabling the avatar on stage to react to the crowd or even jam with a member of the band.
Holograms, whose popularity vaulted from comical, Star Wars-seeming technology to podcast ubiquity, have further amplified the appetite for interactivity, prompting more tech outfits to push the envelope and experiment with newer formats such as augmented reality (AR) or mixed reality. Just a few months ago, Gorillaz, the alt-rock cartoon band conceived by English songwriter
Damon Albarn, took over New York’s Times Square and London’s Piccadilly Circus for two larger-than-life AR concerts in celebration of its new single Skinny Ape. Hundreds of fans gathered to watch 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel leap from their fictional universe onto two of the world’s most iconic skylines, projected from an app that could be downloaded on one’s smartphone.
The jury is still out on whether a posthumous encore of a musician’s repertoire or an entire digital concert is worth the time and investment. One cannot help but wonder aloud whether fans may find the shows unsettling, or in the case of Amy Winehouse’s cancelled hologram concert, disrespectful, as it glossed over her public struggle and presented a side of what others wished she was. It would seem almost farcical to suggest the virtuosic Back to Black singer, a diva constantly wrangling with her demons, would have appreciated her image superimposed over a backing tape. Because the real Amy would never sing the same thing twice note for note.
At least, attendees of Kagami — also slated for the 2023 Manchester International Festival, UK, before continuing in 2024 at the Sydney Opera House, Australia, and the Big Ears Festival, US — should be fairly pleased as Sakamoto played a hand in curating the show before his passing. The maestro extended his welcome with a parting gift:
There is, in reality, a virtual me.
This virtual me will not age, and will continue to play the piano for years, decades, centuries.
Will there be humans then?
Will the squids that will conquer the earth after humanity listen to me?
What will pianos be to them?
What about music?
Will there be empathy there?
Empathy that spans hundreds of thousands of years.
Ah, but the batteries won’t last that long.
'Kagami' plays at The Shed’s Griffin Theatre, New York, from June 7 to July 2. Additional ticketing info at theshed.org.
This article first appeared on May 29, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.