Parasocial Mentorship: This Is Your Life On Ryuichi Sakamoto

Written by Max Alper

Ryuichi Sakamoto died on my birthday this past month on March 28th, 2023, at the age of 71, after a nearly decade long battle with cancer. It feels rather poetic knowing he died on the same day of the year that I was born, as for almost two decades the man’s direct influence on my life has been inescapable.

I was about sixteen years old when I first came across the work of Ryuichi Sakamoto. It was his 2005 piano and electronics duo collaboration record with minimal glitch artist Alva Noto, entitled Insen. The record acted as a conversation between the two artists, with Sakamoto gently setting reverberant consonance on the grand piano, while also providing all sampling source materials for Alva Noto to create rhythmic and granular textures. Ultimately the only sounds we hear on the record are Ryuichi’s piano, whether it be untouched or remixed beyond recognition.

It was this usage of granular synthesis in particular that stuck with me at such a young age. It most likely was the first time I had ever heard such an effect so plain and clearly. Sakamoto would play a single chord on the piano, Alva Noto would capture and freeze it digitally in time and space, playing back these micro loops of pulses and bits as accompaniment to Sakamoto’s original unprocessed piano channel. A conversation between dry and wet, clean and dirty. Not necessarily a digital delay, not necessarily a blended reverberation, something bright and present, yet repetitive, amorphous, and seemingly infinite. These conversations make up this 8 track record in its entirety, and coming in at 47 minutes it is a certified banger of an LP that holds up to this day as if it was released yesterday.

I am thirty-two years old now, and the effects of this record and other collaborative piano works of Ryuichi Sakamoto have followed me for half of my life. I mean, c’mon, I love playing impressionist ass piano improvisations with the sustain pedal down constantly through a wall of time-based signal processing, who doesn’t?! But it wasn’t until during the peak pandemic, when I just so happened to stumble across the biographical documentary on Sakamoto-san, Coda, that I truly came to the realization as to why I had such an affinity for this man and his signature sound.

About halfway through the film, Sakamoto sits in his Greenwich Village apartment in the basement studio, once again at his Steinway. He plays a single note with the sustain pedal on and says the following:

“When I think about music it is usually from a piano perspective. The piano doesn’t sustain sound. Left alone the sound attenuates and then disappears. You can still hear a little but it gets drowned out by ambient noise”

The sound of the single note continues to sustain, just ever so slightly audible.

“I’m fascinated by the notion of a perpetual sound. One that won't dissipate over time. Essentially, the opposite of the piano, because the notes never fade. I suppose in literary terms it would be like a metaphor for an eternity.”

When I tell you I jumped up and pointed at the TV like that Leonardo Dicaprio meme and audibly yelled “HE’S JUST LIKE ME FORREAL!” when I heard Sakamoto-san say these words, you wouldn’t believe me. Finally, someone had put into both technical and figurative language exactly what it is I’ve been searching for throughout adulthood in my own music. This lifelong fascination I’ve had with drone, feedback, and reflective spaciousness in music; it is a means of seeking out the eternal.

When we find these infinite moments we seek safety and warmth in the sustain, a protective shell where we don’t necessarily need to move on right away. A yearning for things to stay the same, a fear of what’s potentially to come that I feel is right around the corner without necessarily any reason. For me these sonic characteristics have an immediate healing quality, both through performance and listening to the works of others, Sakamoto-san in particular. My anxious tendencies to worry about my laundry list of neuroticisms can be put on temporary hold through a simple seventh chord, gently arpeggiating through reflections and echoing feedback. I can withstand the fear through sound, even for just a brief moment.

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s nearly decade long battle with cancer illustrated his need and ability to stare this fear in its face and to continue trucking for as long as he could, to continue this eternal sustain until no longer possible. Everything about this man’s life represented something that I just felt so deeply for. His diagnoses of both throat and colon cancer scared me deeply as an Ashkenazi Jew who likes to smoke and drink tasty beverages and eat snacks and whose grandfather also died of colon cancer. Sometimes we try to live vicariously through our celebrity idols, but for me it seems I just identified with Sakamoto from top to bottom, in music and in life, through light and darkness. And so in his memory I will try to stare the fear in the face and keep on trucking, despite my fears of my own mortality.

It hurts deeply to know he’s gone and I’ll never be able to shake his hand and thank him for an entire adulthood of parasocial mentorship, let alone even see him perform live. But through the effect he’s had on me and thousands of other musicians throughout the world, I can’t help but think this is the eternal sound in continuum he may have sought. There are only so many artists whose discographies span so many releases across over four decades and countless genres and styles. It’s hard not to hear his influence in any number of contemporary ambient, techno, or electronic pop projects. He’s not going anywhere in my life or the life of any musician, I can tell you that.  It’s impossible to escape the effect he’s had on my fingertips at the piano, my mouse in the DAW, or any reverberant sustained sound playing through my monitors. An eternal sound must be shared in order for it to succeed infinitely, it should multiply by the thousands and reflect back and forth, continuously shared as an ever expanding feedback loop. Thank you, Ryuichi Sakamoto, for sharing it with me.

Ryuichi Sakamoto
1/17/1952 - 3/28/2023

Max Alper aka @la_meme_young is a composer, educator, and writer, and is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Klang Magazine.