In September 2008, a crew of 40 artists, poets, architects, actors and musicians boarded a science vessel and set sail for Greenland. Their destination -- apropos for the musicians, which included Laurie Anderson, Robyn Hitchcock, Jarvis Cocker, Martha Wainwright, beatboxer Shlomo and others -- was Disko Bay.
The journey was part of the Cape Farewell project, an organization that puts artists and scientists together, hoping the latter will be inspired by the out-of-the-box thinking of the former. Really, though, the goal is to get the artists to "communicate on a human scale the urgency of the global climate challenge."
"What I saw was a gigantic world of ice and water," says Ryuichi Sakamoto, another participant in the Greenland voyage and a pianist who operates in both rock and classical worlds. "The landscape, the wild nature -- it just blew my mind. Giant chunks of ice crashing into the sea. We saw much, we learned much.
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"I'm still concerned -- climate change is going to be even more harsh in the future -- but on the other hand, I'm kind of calmed down. This nature, this planet -- it will be OK whether we are concerned about it or not. The planet will be here. Maybe some ice will be melted, but it will be back in 200 years. You get to see the big picture of it. It's gigantic. The way we talk about it -- the problem of global warming is not nature's problem, it's our problem as human beings. What I'm concerned about is not the planet or nature but the harsh environment for my children and grandchildren. Nature will be OK, just fine. We're hurting ourselves, not nature."
Sakamoto, 58, is the first artist from the trip to express his Greenland experience through his music. (KT Tunstall claims the voyage inspired the "nature techno" approach of her new album, "Tiger Suit," released a month ago.) If the others get around to doing the same, they'll likely make more of a racket than Sakamoto. His two new albums are ambient, delicate affairs.
"Playing the Piano" features solo piano re-readings of some of his own greatest hits: pieces of music from his days in the Yellow Magic Orchestra (once hailed as the Kraftwerk of his native Japan), his solo albums (particularly from the early '80s, when he was collaborating with pop figures from David Byrne to David Sylvian) and film music (the title theme from "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," in which he starred alongside David Bowie, and the Oscar-winning music for "The Last Emperor").
But it's the second of the two new discs that features sounds drawn, sometimes directly, from Disko Bay. The dozen compositions on "Out of Noise" blend soft melodies and manipulated noise to create some very discreet music. Sakamoto's career has drawn as much inspiration from Brian Eno and Alva Noto (with whom he's collaborated on three recent CDs) as from Steve Reich, John Cage, even Debussy or Satie. Here, Sakamoto turns a piano phrase into a chopped-up round ("Hibari"), weaves stringed instruments over an electronic piano background that sounds like Eno's Bloom iPhone app ("Still Life"), rings Asian bells alongside electronic transmission noises ("Tama"), even employs recordings he made of the environment itself in Greenland ("Ice," "Glacier"). It all sounds chilly and cold, icy and isolated.
"I was inspired by the sounds I captured there," Sakamoto says. "The sound of the water, of the glacier, of the ice -- they are used on this CD. ... There were hours sitting in front of the computer, listening to the recordings of the ambient sound from the Arctic Sea. Hours and hours and hours, carefully listening. I found some good moments. Then I repeated them, looped and looped. Then I started trying to find the nice musical elements on top of it, going along with those ambient sounds. That's how I designed the tracks. Sometimes it was a guitar sound or a piano sound -- whatever spoke from the water or the ice."
"Hibari" from the album "Out of Noise"
He had hoped to include native music from the arctic island, he says. To his dismay, he found none.
"I asked the local people, the Inuit, to give us a chance for us to hear their music," he says. "They arranged a party, and they started singing. I was blown away. I was sad. It's almost church music. I expected something maybe a little bit Asian. Those Inuit people came from Siberia; we Japanese and Inuit are brothers and sisters genetically. But the music they sang was almost pure church music. That was sad. Their culture -- at least their musical custom -- is totally Christianized and Westernized."
Sakamoto's first musical inspirations came from another island. Growing up in 1960s Japan, he was captivated by the wild, hyper-ethnic instrumental sounds of lounge musicians like Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny -- the ones based on or frequenting Hawaii.
"Martin Denny was big in Japan," Sakamoto says, remembering that the first piece of music YMO tackled was Denny's broadly drawn "Firecracker." "He kind of imitated Japaneseness, and it was easy to imitate him." He laughs. "In a way, [the Yellow Magic Orchestra] kind of followed his method of imitating the image of Japaneseness. That might have been the wrong image. It's like you see in old Hollywood movies, that in-between Chinese-Japanese-Vietnamese, mixed image of the Asian person. We loved it at the time. Misunderstanding is always interesting. It's good, funny and fun. Creation is always misunderstanding, maybe."
He says he experienced similar feelings of misunderstanding when going back through his own catalog, selecting pieces for "Playing the Piano."
"Every time I listen to an old song, I'm surprised at how wild or powerful it is. I don't always understand it, or at least how to recreate it. Most of it I'll never be able to do again at this age. It's the youth. Youth has its own character, in a way. I'm getting older, so there's something I can do now which young Sakamoto couldn't."
He pauses for a moment, thinking.
"One clear example is, I play piano much more festively, more carefully, more deeply in a way. I was much more technical when I was young. And stronger, more powerful. My piano playing is much more delicate now and in a way more deep."
In concert on this tour of American theaters, Sakamoto is alone -- but with two pianos. Often, he plays a segment on one of the pianos, which a computer records and plays back at intervals while Sakamoto continues on the other.
"It's a duet with myself," he says. "I wish I could add a 3-D image on the second piano, a hologram of myself. ... After the ice melts, maybe that will be all that's left of me, a hologram playing the piano."
"Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence"