If Ryuichi Sakamoto had been born in 16th century Italy, we'd know what to call him: a Renaissance Man. But since he was born in Japan in the mid-20th century, we have to string together words like composer, musician, producer, actor, and environmental activist. It's a diverse résumé, but there are two things that match it: one is Sakamoto's music – pioneering electronic works, globally-inspired rock, classical scores (including a massive opera) and of course those familiar soundtracks. The other is the list of awards on his mantle – among them an Academy Award, two Golden Globes, a Grammy, the Order of the Cavaleiro Admissão from the government of Brazil, The Silver Lion award (Venice Film Festival) and, in July 2009, he was named an Officier of the coveted Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the government of France. Perhaps most prized of all, was the UN Environment Programme's Echo Award, for his innovative and groundbreaking work in eco-friendly touring and music distribution.
Though born in Tokyo, Sakamoto has been a true citizen of the world. He has written music inspired by the traditions of Okinawa, Indonesia, and Brazil; has reinterpreted the songs of Brazil's late songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim as a kind of world/chamber music; and has collaborated with David Bowie, David Sylvian, dramatist Robert Wilson, author William S Burroughs, the Three Tenors' Jose Carreras, and His Holiness The Dalai Lama, among many others. He has written music for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona and for the 400th anniversary of the city of Mannheim, Germany.
As a child Sakamoto fell under the spell of English rock - the first record he ever bought: was "Tell Me" by the Rolling Stones - and then French Impressionism. "Debussy was my hero," he says, and acknowledges that echoes of his teenage idol can still be heard in his new piano disc. "Asian music heavily influenced Debussy, and Debussy heavily influenced me. So the music goes around the world and comes full circle." playing the piano does indeed come full circle, offering a new, reflective take on some of Sakamoto's "greatest hits." His best-known film scores began life at the piano, so these versions are very close to the way Sakamoto himself first heard them. Songs like "Thousand Knives" and "Riot In Lagos," on the other hand, are dramatically different from their original electronic selves.
Being a citizen of the world means more than just hopping from studio to studio working with an international cast of musicians. Sakamoto has devoted much of his time in recent years to environmental concerns – to turning Ego into Eco, as he puts it. "I felt really scared in the 90s thinking about our children's future. I imagined my youngest son at my age, and wondered what the world would be like then. That was scary!" And so Sakamoto, who is somewhat reserved by nature, found a way to turn his fame into something useful. He began assembling various colleagues to work first on the Zero Landmines project; and then, faced with the enormity of the global threats to the environment, he hit upon a simple idea: moreTrees. Protecting existing forests and planting new ones could strike a natural way of balancing human carbon emissions. "A simple idea, but difficult to do!" he says ruefully. Still, within a year, his moreTrees foundation had a lease on two forests in Japan, and a third on the northern island of Hokkaido followed last year. Now, a fourth forest in the Philippines is being added. moreTrees leases the land for 50 or 60 years, planting seedlings and maintaining the forests, and offering carbon offset credits to corporations and individuals looking to reduce their carbon footprint.
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