async by Ryuichi Sakamoto: Appreciating Differences in the Face of Death

Humanity has a tendency towards seeking comfort and stability. Every day (at least in the Before Times), we wake up, we eat, we work, we hang out with friends, we watch funny videos on the Internet — we make ourselves comfortable in a certain niche, we derive our enjoyment from what we already find pleasant, and we talk to people who also fit in that niche. We often don’t get to appreciate the world outside of what we’re used to, and interact with voices and opinions from different origins than ours.

And in our warm whirlpool of comfort, we often never think about all the limitless things we can do, even as we come closer to the end of our lives every single day. Many of us have a fear of death — after all, we won’t be able to see the people we love or carry out the activities that we’ve grown to enjoy — but we don’t act on it in the end. Why seek differences and potential discord when we can spend as much time as we can on our hobbies and on talking to people who think very much the same way as we do?

This attitude is what Ryuichi Sakamoto thinks must be changed. His 2017 album, async, is an expression of his belief that individuals of different views should break out of their separate social circles, come together, and learn to appreciate each other’s opinions and presence. In a world where each individual can tailor their information input to their own tastes, and where social groups (in-person and online) often tend towards a state of groupthink, async is a powerful album that reminds us of the vast, diverse world beyond our eyes and begs us to explore that world while we still can.


The name Ryuichi Sakamoto almost needs no introduction. Having made his name as co-founder and keyboardist of Yellow Magic Orchestra — the great Japanese electronic group that has influenced developments in synth-pop, techno, and electro — Sakamoto has also been involved in the music world as a film score composer, known for his work in films such as Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, The Last Emperor, and The Revenant. Concurrently, he has created a large collection of solo albums — beginning with his debut, 1978’s Thousand Knives — which serve as a creative outlet for his ideas in electronic music, ambient music, and the avant-garde.

Ryuichi Sakamoto in 2013.
(Photo credit: KAB America on Wikimedia Commons)

async, Sakamoto’s 16th solo album, was his first since 2009. Following the release of his previous album, Out of Noise, Sakamoto found himself in a creative block, unable to compose new music towards his solo output. Instead, he focused on scoring movies, including 2015’s The Revenant. Although he had begun plans for a new solo album in 2014, these were then put on hold following a diagnosis of throat cancer the same year.

Yet the cancer subsided after a year, and Sakamoto allowed himself to resume composing music. This recovery marked a change in plan for his next solo album: instead of continuing forward with what he had already jotted down and envisioned, he started anew. It was back to the drawing board for Sakamoto — and he gradually began to gather new inspiration and formulate the first ideas for a completely new album.

Sakamoto’s very first inspirations came from the various objects and environments that he encountered in his daily life. Take, for example, his piano — a well-tuned machine, crafted to perfection by fellow humans. However, if left untouched for a period of time, it would gradually become detuned. It would become, in other words, asynchronous. This asynchronicity would serve as the piano’s natural state, marked by a freedom from outside interference.

As time went by, Sakamoto took in more inspiration from various sources, both from existing work and from the world around him. He took to the streets of New York City, Paris, Tokyo, and Kyoto, as well as upstate New York, to gather snippets of sound that could elicit an emotional response and serve as small bursts of creative fuel. At the same time, he was also taking influence from the sound sculptures of Harry Bertoia, an Italian-American sound artist.

Harry Bertoia’s “Textured Screen.” Sakamoto was inspired by Bertoia’s sound sculptures in making async.
(Photo Credit: Dfwcre8tive on Wikimedia Commons)

Sakamoto envisioned async as a soundtrack for an imaginary film by the Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, known for his focus on spiritual and metaphysical topics, as well as on nature and memory. Although Tarkovsky had died in 1986, his influence could be found in Sakamoto’s emphasis on time and silence, both qualities that the filmmaker had also emphasized in his work. Like Tarkovsky, Sakamoto preferred to incorporate space between elements to allow for a deeper understanding of each individual element. For Tarkovsky, this could be the story or the cinematic language of the film; for Sakamoto, this was the depth of sounds and the intricacies of the notes that formed those sounds.

While developing the album, Sakamoto was also informed by another permanent fixture of nature: mortality. He had just survived a year-long fight against cancer, and the memories of that ordeal were still fresh on his mind. Moreover, he had seen both an earthquake and a tsunami devastate the north-east of his native country in 2011; this experience made him realize and revere the prowess and potential that nature still possessed, even as humans continued their activities. Despite everything that humans could create, they would always be subservient to nature, and the almost-miraculous achievements of humankind could always be destroyed by natural phenomena.

An aerial view of the damage caused by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Sendai, Japan. This disaster partially inspired the fear of mortality and respect for nature’s prowess on async.
(Photo Credit: the United States Navy)

async, the final product, is a combination of all these considerations that influenced its creation. As its name suggests, a predominant theme of the album is the asynchronization of sounds, melodies, and rhythms, corresponding to the differences in concurrent opinions in our world. This is first felt in its second track, “disintegration,” in which multiple elements — the raindrop-like pounding of the piano, the shrill, high-pitched clanging, and the periodic waves of electronic sound — are layered on top of each other, going about on their own rhythms without conforming to the other sounds. This produces an effect that is quiet but also slightly unsettling — perhaps an indication of the human aversion to exploring differences for fear of discord.

“tri,” a later track, features three triangles being played in a machine-like manner, giving off an advanced, almost electronic texture. Each triangle is played at its own pace and rhythm, creating a highly dissonant mix of sounds that is reminiscent of the competition inherent in modern society. This track makes us realize that, even in our advanced, 21st-century lives — where we can pick and choose what information to consume and which groups of people to associate ourselves with — asynchronicity is still very much part of the world around us, and that there will always be a variety of viewpoints coexisting in our environment.

Yet it’s in the title track, “async,” that Sakamoto presents this idea to its fullest extent. As its name suggests, the piece is highly asynchronous and dissonant, with different sounds crashing in from different places. Every element comes together and interacts with one another in its own way, at its own pace. In the middle of the track, most of the elements disappear for a moment as the track focuses on what sounds like two balls bouncing on a court. The balls speed up and slow down on their own; independent rhythms overlap. “async” depicts natural competition at its most powerful: from the species of the various natural kingdoms to the opinions that each group of individuals may hold, there will always be differences in our world. Although the interaction of these independent entities often causes discord, it ultimately makes up our environment and our society, just as the overlapping of sounds in the piece creates unique, albeit dissonant, music.

Two balls bouncing on a court, seemingly at their own pace, and creating dissonant but complete music.
(Photo Credit: Freepik)

At the same time, Sakamoto inputs his personal fear of death at various points on async. The album opens with “andata,” a piece that is equal parts serene and funereal. It begins with a calm but melancholic melody that is first played on the piano and then repeated on the organ; throughout the piece, electronic distortion joins the organ in bursts or waves. This track sets the mood for much of the album, being a comment of the ever-present feeling of imminent death even in the comfort of one’s life.

In “ubi,” we see this fear of death manifest itself further. The chord-driven melody draws parallels to Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 in E minor, sometimes known as the “Suffocation” prelude; this establishes the track as funereal and expressing powerful emotions of hopelessness and sorrow. In the background is the regular beeping of a life-support machine, keeping itself in pace throughout the entirety of the track. And in its maintenance of a regular rhythm, the beeping is keeping a person alive, even as the funeral march continues on the piano — even though it’s time to move on. The funeral march fades shortly before the end of the piece, leaving the beeping to slowly continue until it also fades. Here, Sakamoto tells us that although we may wish for life to last forever, death will always befall upon us at some point — often not with a bang, but with the whimper that we hear on this track. This is the reality that Sakamoto fears, largely because he knows how inevitable it will be.

“fullmoon” features several voices reading a quote from the American writer Paul Bowles’s 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky (whose 1990 film adaptation was scored by Sakamoto), each in a different language, over a sine wave and a series of piano chords that help set the track’s sombre mood. The overlapping of voices in different languages, reciting the same passage about humans’ tendency to “think of life as an inexhaustible well… because we don’t know when we will die,” reminds us that the unpredictability of death, as well as the feeling that everything seems “limitless,” is something that all humans experience, regardless of origin. Our desire to prolong life is natural, but so is the inevitability of death.

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well… How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.” – Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, on “fullmoon”
(Photo Credit: Matthew Paulson)

Towards the end of the album, Sakamoto revisits the distressing imminence of death on two tracks: “honj” and “ff.” The former track features the plucking of strings on an ancient Japanese instrument — which invites connotations of tradition and nature — as well as the sounds of flowing water. However, the piece then gradually slows down, and the introduction of dissonant chords brings about an increasingly eerie sensation. It’s almost like death is creeping up on the calm life that we try our best to enjoy. No matter how much we try to fight back, every element in nature will fall victim to mortal forces. “ff” features percussion against a shrill, dissonant musical texture that may be representative of death and emptiness, before transitioning into almost heavenly musical scenery. In this track, we hear the weaving of nature and the inevitability of death with a needle of introspection; it almost feels like being up at night, thinking about the dynamism of life against the emptiness of death.

Despite this fear of approaching death, Sakamoto still invites us to contemplate and appreciate nature’s prowess. In “walker,” he overlays a synthesizer melody over traditional instruments and the occasional gong, giving the piece a meditative quality. It’s as if the listener is walking down a forest trail and taking in the essence of nature; considering the asynchronicity and feelings of death that permeate the previous tracks, “walker” brings about a much-appreciated return to serenity. The next track, “stakra,” is driven by arpeggios played by synthesizer, giving it an almost cosmic sensation reminiscent of a kaleidoscope. Here, Sakamoto reminds us that we are all part of one ever-magical cosmos, and inspires in us a sense of wonder and appreciation of life.

In “LIFE, LIFE,” a regular, soothing rhythm and pentatonic melody provide background sound for a reading of a poem by the Soviet poet Arseny Tarkovsky:

“To one side from ourselves, to one side from the world / Wave follows wave to break on the shore, / On each wave is a star, a person, a bird, / Dreams, reality, death — on wave after wave.”

Here is a contemplation of life and death, and their interaction with nature — the waves, the stars, the birds — and fate. It invites us to appreciate the beauty of nature and to see ourselves reflected in its various features. And if we view this poem more literally, we are reminded of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that partly spurred the creation of this album. Nature feels puny and calm when we approach it, but it can make or break people’s lives and aspirations.

The crashing of waves in “LIFE, LIFE” invites us to contemplate life and death, to appreciate the beauty of nature, and to understand our reflection in nature’s intricacies.
(Photo Credit: raybilcliff930305 on Vecteezy)

The final track, “garden,” is built upon a heavenly, meditative soundscape that washes over the listener’s ears, making it once again an invitation to appreciate life and enwrap ourselves in its serenity. Yet, with its somewhat funereal mood, it also sounds like an acceptance of mortality; indeed, the piece fades away towards the end, acting as a possible sign of death. Just as this gradual disappearance marks the conclusion of the album, it also serves as a portrayal of how death will act on us in an almost silent manner as our consciousness slowly evanesces. Death is inevitable; even so, we should learn to appreciate our existence and our dynamic world while we’re still alive.


As a whole, async is a beautiful depiction of the differences in our world, as well as the imminence of death and how we should nevertheless learn to appreciate our natural environment. Through the elegant interplay between melodies and soundscapes, Sakamoto provides us with an insight into how various sounds can come together and create music, no matter how discordant this music may sound at first. We see this reflected in our daily lives, in the plethora of opinions in society that are often at odds with each other, but which manage to coexist and not die out individually. If we can become aware of viewpoints different from ours and learn to tolerate and accept them, we can cultivate an environment where contrasting beliefs interact with each other to produce a wonderful harmony.

Moreover, the serene but funereal mood that permeates throughout parts of async is a striking reminder of the inevitability of death and the fears that we possess towards losing our consciousness forever. We take every single day of our lives for granted, and we seem to believe that life is endless — but we know it isn’t. We know that some day, death will take us away from everyone and everything we love, which makes it all the more fearful. Just as death has a constant presence in async, it also has a constant presence in our lives — it makes its mark at every moment somewhere on Earth, and it will hide in our shadows before holding us in its unavoidable grasp.

Regardless, Sakamoto tells us to respect the beauty of the world around us while we can still enjoy it. Not only does this include the diversity of asynchronous opinions, but also the sheer power of nature and the serenity that it instills in us as we are enveloped by its warm embrace. Life is a kaleidoscope of wonders; while it can bring destruction and ruin to many, it can also reveal much about us that we never actively seek to discover in our daily lives.

Ultimately, then, it’s up to us to break from our comfort zones, to explore beyond our existing perspectives, and to understand and appreciate the differences in our dynamic world — before we lose our special chance to do so.

References:

Beta, A. (2017, June 12). Ryuichi Sakamoto interview. Andy Beta. https://andybetacom.wordpress.com/2017/06/12/ryuichi-sakamoto-interview/

Coultate, A. (2017, May 3). Ryuichi Sakamoto: Everyday objects. Resident Advisor. https://www.residentadvisor.net/features/2983

Hadfield, J. (2017, April 26). Ryuichi Sakamoto resists the prettier path on “async” and comes out stronger. The Japan Times. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2017/04/26/music/ryuichi-sakamoto-resists-prettier-path-async-comes-stronger/

Przybyslawski, C. (2017, April 28). Ryuichi Sakamoto Survived Cancer and an Earthquake to Make His Most Personal Album to Date. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en/article/5377en/ryuichi-sakamoto-async-interview

Ryuichi Sakamoto returns to work following cancer treatment. (2015, August 3). FACT Magazine. https://www.factmag.com/2015/08/03/ryuichi-sakamoto-returns-to-work-following-throat-cancer-treatment/

Smith, K. (2017, April 27). Karl Smith On Ryuichi Sakamoto’s async. The Quietus. https://thequietus.com/articles/22297-ryuichi-sakamoto-async-album-review-tarkovsky-mortality-soundtracks

Weston, H. (2017, June 1). Sonic Memories: A Conversation with Ryuichi Sakamoto. The Criterion Collection. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4625-sonic-memories-a-conversation-with-ryuichi-sakamoto

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