With a title like ‘Esperanto’, you’d have expected Ryuichi Sakamoto’s 1985 studio album to have been a universal affair, though it was only initially released in Japan. Excellent French legacy label Wewantsounds, who have reissued other solo Sakamoto records from this fertile period, have done us all a service by bringing this brilliantly abstract tapestry of music to wider attention, more than three-and-a-half decades after it first came out.
In 1985, Sakamoto had done pretty much all there was to do in an international pop career. Aged 33, he was very famous and becoming somewhat jaded by the experience. The Tokyo-born composer had sold millions of records with pioneering electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra, charted internationally and influenced the nascent hip hop scene coming out of New York. He’d won a BAFTA for his soundtrack to 1983’s ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’ and co-starred alongside David Bowie in the lauded film. He’d also collaborated with Japan and art-pop legend-in-the-making David Sylvian, and was just a few years away from winning an Oscar alongside David Byrne for ‘The Last Emperor’.
Sakamoto never shook his avant-garde roots and, like Jean-Michel Jarre, had no problem with crossing over and making art that was popular, but it was clear that his focus was outside of the mainstream, and any success would merely be an adjunct as he explored various musical fields.
Few artists bridge high and low culture as fluidly as Sakamoto, who is as comfortable working with DJ Spooky as he is the Dalai Lama. While Sakamoto’s soundtrack work was a diversion from his pop career, a project like ‘Esperanto’ was a diversion from the soundtrack work, which was unexpectedly turning him into a household name. But ‘Esperanto’ is more Gesamtkunstwerk than just a mere album.
It was written for a contemporary performance staged by New York choreographer Molissa Fenley. In 1986, the Los Angeles Times ran a portrait of Fenley asking whether she was a “futurist” or an “egotist”, to which she retorted, “The trouble with critics is that they think I think I know what I’m doing”. The 30-minute show was performed in Tokyo and then later back in New York, while Sakamoto further collaborated with experimental Korean-American video artist Nam June Paik on an arty visual album, which over-elaborates on some of the most cutting-edge on-screen techniques of the day (a course of action that they must have known would date delightfully).
There’s little information about the hardware Sakamoto uses for ‘Esperanto’, though it bears many of the same sonic hallmarks as 1984’s ‘Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia’ album, which was recorded almost exclusively with a Fairlight CMI. The digital synthesiser, of course, was the first of its kind to make sampling and looping a cinch, and Sakamoto was one of only a handful of musicians to own one of these eye-wateringly expensive machines. He makes good use of it here, building tracks like ‘A Wongga Dance Song’ around the rhythmic repetitions that can easily be manipulated on a computer screen. As an album, it’s a less melodic experience than its 1984 predecessor – and given its functional purpose, that’s hardly surprising. But one suspects these stripped-back loops are as enjoyable to listen to and get lost in as they are to dance to.
‘The “Dreaming”’ lurches in a more abstract and indefinable manner than the opener, with sounds that don’t ordinarily fit together, taking the listener on a three-legged race. Japanese composer Yas-Kaz is credited as providing additional percussion for the album, with Arto Lindsay chipping in with guitars, though the synthetic tapestry is such that it’s impossible to decipher what’s directly human and what’s been regurgitated through the computer.
‘A Rain Song’ is more composition-based, with shimmering piano loops undercut by a slow, doleful left hand, and ‘Adelic Penguins’ is driven by a propulsive sequencer and busy percussion, with a distinctive melody made all the more appealing by the deft use of a pitch bend. The latter is certainly the most immediate track on the album, a trip into avant-pop that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 1984’s ‘Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise?’.
If this is all music made to accompany performance, Sakamoto can’t help himself from interjecting a pop element and the odd bit of humour, a habit that is often detectable in his work, no matter how sober the production. ‘Esperanto’ proves that even at his most left field, this revered composer somehow knows how to speak the language of the everyman.