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Sakamoto Ryuichi at the Vic

Posted in Classical,J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the October 26th, 2010

Sakamoto Ryuichi played a stunningly beautiful one-man show earlier tonight at the Vic here in Chicago. It was mostly solo piano, although he used a number of electronic effects to add layers of complexity to the music.

The evening opened with an atmospheric number in which Sakamoto strummed directly on the strings inside the piano in accompaniment to a prerecorded quiet soundtrack–something like crickets chirping on a summer night. This was followed by “Hibari,” the first of three duet numbers. There were two pianos on stage, one played directly by Sakamoto, the other played indiirectly–often via prerecorded tracks, but sometimes it seemed as Sakamoto was feeding his own live playing into a kind of sequencer that immediately transferred the pattern to the second piano. “Hibari” is a hypnotic, captivating track from Sakamoto’s latest album, a fine instance of musical minimalism, and it worked wonderfully live.

The set also included a number of Sakamoto’s hits, all rendered solo on the piano — “Amore,” “A Flower is Not a Flower” (also a “virtual duet”), “The Last Emperor,” and (closing the main set) “Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence.” Sakamoto is an expressive player: he brought a delicate touch to the numbers, highlighting the details of their musical texture in strikingly beautiful ways. The stage was sparse; there were constant images, mostly abstract, projected on the screen in back.

The audience didn’t quite know how to react to the show at first, and the first several songs were greeted with silence. It was finally after the fifth number (“Amore”) that people started clapping between songs. By the end of the encore, though, they knew what to do: give Sakamoto a rousing standing ovation. Sakamoto loosened up a bit on the three-song encore: he put his body into his playing more than he had in the main set, and it probably helped that the songs were some of his best-loved compositions.

We got to go backstage after the show and chat briefly with Sakamoto. He joked about all the incidental noise from inside and outside the theater. I asked him how conscious he was of, say, the sound of the El trains that rumbled the theater, and he replied that he certainly heard it, but like John Cage he thinks noise is music too.

I’d seen Sakamoto perform earlier this year with Yellow Magic Orchestra in a huge outdoor rock festival in Tokyo (where the set included a couple of the numbers that Sakamoto played in his Chicago gig: “Tibetan Dance” and “Thousand Knives”), and I asked him about the difference mentally for a performer in that sort of event versus the more intimate show he had just played. He said it was much more nerve-wracking to do a solo show: with more players on stage, there is a sense of safety in numbers, but when you’re out there alone, there’s no place to hide.

A few weeks ago, on his Twitter account, Sakamoto responded to a query from a fan, asking how the fan could become a great pianist like Sakamoto. His response: “Don’t practice!” The man, in other words, has a sense of humor on top of being a gifted composer and performer. He heads for the West Coast next; it’s a show well worth seeing if it comes to your town.

The full set list (from Sakamoto’s homepage)
1. glacier
2. improvisation
3. hibari
4. improvisation 2
5. amore
6. a flower is not a flower
7. tango
8. bibo no aozora
9. high heels
10. loneliness
11. the sheltering sky
12. the last emperor
13. merry christmas mr.lawrence

encore 1
14. tibetan dance
15. happy end
16. thousand knives

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