Nuclear Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto performs at Hertz Hall

Ryuichi Sakamoto/Courtesy

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Ryuichi Sakamoto is an artist who serves as much more than just an idol of perpetual creativity. The acclaimed 61-year-old year old musician has cultivated an extensive career as a concert pianist, film composer and founding member of the popular early 1980’s group Yellow Magic Orchestra, the latter of which served as a pioneering, synthesized influence on what would later become known as techno-pop. For his scoring work on the dramatic emotional epic “The Last Emperor,” Sakamoto received an Academy Award, Golden Globe and Grammy.

Last Saturday night, Sakamoto graced Hertz Hall to give an intimate, sold-out performance and offer an opportunity to witness in person a modern musical legend. But the concert wasn’t the only thing that drew Sakamoto from his New York home to the Bay Area. On Friday he was awarded the prestigious UC Berkeley Japan Prize. Only given twice before, the award honors the lifetime achievement of a distinguished individual who has made great strides in furthering the international understanding of Japan. Previous recipients include acclaimed novelist Haruki Murakami and the filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki.

“I wonder if I have done enough (to receive this prize). I am very humbled by those who have received it before me,” confessed Sakamoto, as translated from Japanese by Beth Cary. During a small award ceremony at the Berkeley Women’s Faculty Club, Sakamoto shook hands with the chair for the university’s Center for Japanese Studies, Steven Vogel, and warmly thanked those gathered in his honor. After earnestly expressing his gratitude, Sakamoto concluded with a vehement, “Go Bears!”

But instead of enjoying some downtime between the award ceremony and the Saturday night concert, Sakamoto kept himself engaged with the campus and helped lead a panel on eco activism in the Alumni House earlier Saturday afternoon. The main topic of the discussion was the environmental impact of nuclear power, a topic in which native Japanese citizen Sakamoto is well-versed. During the devastating earthquake and consequential meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor, Sakamoto was on the island in the process of recording his latest album. No stranger to activism, Sakamoto has since passionately advocated the phasing out of all nuclear power in Japan.

“I’m really disappointed,” explained Sakamoto in response to the fading media coverage on the negative effects spurred by Fukushima and the demonstrators devoted to alerting the public of the dangers of nuclear power. “It’s interesting that recently, in early February, there was a survey. If you ask people separately, 70 percent of the Japanese population wants to have Japan phase out nuclear power.”

Sakamoto’s background in political and environmental protests has always paralleled his career in music. While studying music composition —  a field that would eventually win him his most notable awards — Sakamoto was also attending protests against the Vietnam War as well as many other demonstrations for other timely causes. If asked today how his passion for the environment relates to the music he prolifically creates, he casually counters with the question, “In ancient times, wasn’t the role of art and music to listen to the message of nature?”

It is this profound quality of simplicity that spills its way into both Sakamoto’s political activities and his music. His performance at Hertz appeared an effortless affair, with Sakamoto taking the stage and performing several pieces in a row with only a quick smile and bow to the audience between performances. The only aberration occurred in the show’s opener, wherein Sakamoto used several different tools, including wood blocks, to play every inch of the piano except the actual keys. For this, he was accompanied by a fellow musician who commanded guttural throat singing, which vibrated against Sakamoto’s banging.

The rest of the performance was easier on the ears. Sakamoto played many of his well-known piano compositions, each brilliantly hypnotic with just a note of melancholy. Among these included his famous soundtrack motif used in “The Last Emperor.”

The energy used for this performance appears to derive from the same bottomless well of focus that Sakamoto applies toward writing music for studio albums, films and video games. While the bureaucratic waters surrounding the nuclear policies he seeks to reform may be muddied, one thing is clear: He is always working. Among his other eco activism efforts, Sakamoto helped create an annual music festival. Held last summer in Japan, No Nukes 2012 was highly successful, boasting many acclaimed performers including Sakamoto himself. Another festival will be held this upcoming March in Odaiba, Japan.

With his gaze constantly turned toward the future, Sakamoto also holds great hope for what technology can offer with regard to music creation. “I think that there’s a lot that we can gain from using new technologies —  there’s a lot of advantages and there will be further advantages in the future that are unimaginable now,” explained Sakamoto who, while performing with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, predicated his career on music infused with technology.

When listening to the soft, dreamlike melodies that cascade from the keys of his piano, it is not hard to imagine the peaceful world that Sakamoto believes in. It is one without nuclear accidents. It is an environment unencumbered by man’s footprint. It is a world where Japan thrives.

Contact Ryan at [email protected].