Whitehot Magazine

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Immortal Performance at The Shed

Audience members wearing the Magic Leap 2 mixed reality headset. Photo: Marissa Alper for The Shed.

By J. SCOTT ORR, June 2023

There is, in reality, a virtual me.
This virtual me will not age, and will continue to play the piano for years, decades, centuries.

—Ryuichi Sakamoto

As he predicted earlier this year, Sakamoto, the legendary Japanese artistic polymath, has indeed stopped aging, virtually as well as actually.

The composer, artist, record producer, actor, environmentalist; Oscar, Grammy, Golden Globe, and BAFTA winner; and electronic music pioneer and evangelist stopped aging in the real world on March 28 when he succumbed to cancer.

He stopped aging virtually on June 7 with the opening of KAGAMI, an extraordinary, ground-breaking achievement that shatters 21st century perceptions of how humans interact with performance, art, and each other. The show, produced in collaboration with the mixed-reality wizards at Tin Drum, is at The Shed’s Griffin Theater on W. 30th St. in Manhattan until July 7.

The one-hour performance opens with an audience of 150 people seated in the round, each wearing identical bug-eye goggles that allow a hazy view about the room. Then, Sakamoto appears center stage, seated at a Yamaha concert grand piano. Sakamoto is dressed in a dark suit, his head prominent with its tuft of obedient white hair and conspicuous tortoise framed glasses. Without a word, he peers down at the keys and offers the opening notes of his 1987 piece Before Long. 

And, before long, the audience stands, unsure at first of its place in Sakamoto’s virtual world, to take the measure of the spectral figure seated at the piano before them. Soon, they are engulfed in a swirl of falling snowflake-like light. Emboldened at the start of the second piece, Aoneko no Torso, the group approaches the phantom Sakamoto, looking over his shoulder as he plays, examining the piano’s hammers as they strike the strings, sitting below the piano, walking through it.

A look at the collaborative process behind KAGAMI: Ryuichi Sakamoto, director Todd Eckert, and the Rhizomatiks Tokyo capture team on the final day of dimensional photography. Photo: Tin Drum.

It seems audience members could sit on the piano bench next to the performer, except that neither he, nor the bench are actually there. Soon, other images appear as Sakamoto works his way through a marvelously curated selection of 10 works including familiar ones like Energy Flow and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, along with rarely played pieces, such as The Seed and the Sower. At one point a tree begins slowly growing from the piano until it nearly touches the ceiling some 30 feet up, then the tree grows down an equal distance into a virtually vanishing floor. Soon, giant screens begin displaying vintage video images around the periphery of the stage. Later, the floor becomes a space-scape as performer and audience appear afloat amid planet orbs and starlight. 

An extraordinary feature of this mixed-reality show is that, unlike VR headsets, viewers can see the performer and the real-life set around them, but not the other humans in the room. Walking about requires frequent glances below the goggles to avoid collision with fellow viewers, especially those who may be sitting on the floor. 

"This,” The Shed's Artistic Director Alex Poots says, “is one of the first fully staged concerts in mixed reality, and it’s no surprise that the uniquely inventive Ryuichi Sakamoto was working on this new interdisciplinary show in recent years." 

Sakamoto’s remarkable career spanned decades, beginning with his 1978 album Thousand Knives. His diverse résumé includes pioneering electronic works in the legendary techno group Yellow Magic Orchestra, producing globally inspired pop albums and numerous classical compositions, two operas, and nearly 45 original film scores which yielded an Academy Award, two Golden Globes, and many other honors.

Kagami Sakamoto at piano. Photo: Tin Drum.

Sakamoto’s activism included various efforts toward environmental conservation, denuclearization and world peace. He was a strong voice of support for the victims of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.

Sakamoto made considerable contributions to the art world with both solo and collaborative installations and multi-piece exhibitions presented in galleries and museums worldwide. Most recently, Beijing’s M WOODS presented the largest and most comprehensive collection of his artworks in various media, centering around eight large-scale sound installations. 

He released his 15th and final solo album in January, just two months before his death. The album is a collection of 12 songs selected from musical sketches Sakamoto recorded like a sound diary during his two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer.

“I don’t think there was ever so complete a relationship as that between Ryuichi Sakamoto and the piano,” said Todd Eckert, the founder of Tin Drum who worked with Sakamoto as KAGAMI’s director.

“It began traditionally enough, but through his relentless curiosity, it resulted in decades of redefining what sound can mean. Electronics and sonics and all manner of compositional elevation formed a body of work elementally human and monumental in both breadth and scale. But in the end, it all came back to his relationship with those 88 keys, and KAGAMI is just that,” he said.

KAGAMI, which translates to “mirror” in Japanese, began production in 2019. In December 2020, Eckert and Sakamoto used a unique four-system capture process to record the piano performance in Tokyo. Those recordings became the centerpiece of KAGAMI. 

Reflecting further on the immortality he achieved through KAGAMI, Sakamoto completed his thoughts about the decades and centuries ahead:

Will there be humans then?
Will the squids that will conquer the earth after humanity listen to me? What will pianos be to them?
What about music?
Will there be empathy there?

Empathy that spans hundreds of thousands of years. Ah, but the batteries won't last that long. WM


Scott Orr

Scott Orr is a career writer, editor and a recovering political journalist. He is publisher of the East Village art magazine B Scene Zine. He can be reached via @bscenezine, bscenezine.com, or bscenezine@gmail.com.

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