Ryuichi Sakamoto is an experimental classicist, a classical soundtrack composer with experimental and minimalist background; or, maybe, an experimental composer with a sentimental heart. Either way, that gives an idea of the disparate effect of the two albums on his fall release, and of the difficulty such a composer might have in marrying these two styles in concert.
In general, Sakamoto carried it off at his Tuesday, Oct. 26 appearance at the Vic. He began the evening with the most aggressively experimental composition of the first half of his new release, out of noise, featuring melting glaciers, faux grasshoppers, and what sounded like whales keening, ships lurching. Hunching over the piano and playing the strings directly, he made barely a movement in the darkness, and we in the audience held our breath, marking the abnormal stillness in a usually raucous room. The music/noise was beautiful and delicate, but so restrained that it was easy to lose focus after awhile.
As if understanding this, Sakamoto gave just a sampling of his newer work before launching into the more traditional compositions of the second album, playing the piano. He revisited several “hits” from his soundtrack work over the years, including The Sheltering Sky, The Last Emperor, and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.
He added dimension using a player piano and looping machine while accompanying himself. But at times the stoic attitude felt claustrophobic, the repetition insistent, the variation marginal. The experimental work lacked the climactic, stirring moments that elevated the soundtrack compositions, which formed the high points of the concert.
Ryuichi Sakamoto’s twitter feed read that he was pre-warned that the Vic had subway noise. “Noise is music!” he wrote cheerily. The Vic is a nice venue, but it isn’t a chamber. The old theater is ill-fitting for such quiet, pensive music. Not just subway noise, but people walking in back, hand dryers, interrupted the experience. Only those seated in the first ten rows were properly engulfed in the music. Let us hope that Sakamoto will grace Chicago again with his presence despite these hiccups.