I spent much of the nineties living in Tokyo, but it wasn’t until I had left that Ryuichi Sakamoto’s(1) music began to inform me about its complex environments.
His album, somewhat ironically (I think) titled BTTB, or, Back to the Basics, came out way back in 1999. Though post-dating my Tokyo Period, it sonically completed my memories of that city. Having leapt through time, it resolved my incomplete Tokyo soundtrack.
BTTB tries to be minimal, but, like the city it came from, struggles with complexity(2). Its opulent density made it seem like the piano had been miked on the inside, my ear forced down to the machinery of strings. The tension between richness and absence I perceived reminded me of trying to find my way in and around all of Tokyo’s jumbled systems.
Listening more, I was struck by the realization that Tokyo, this maximalist Akira-like(3) city, is best conveyed by stripped-down, minimalist music. One man and a piano(4) could defy the city’s ceaseless rhythms and discordance more than OK Computer(5), Dog Man Star(6), Middle Class Revolt(7), or whatever else I had been listening to when I lived there(8). All such music formed a sort of protective shield between me and my new environment(9).
When I lived in Japan I had heard some R. Sakamoto, but was a failed listener—a different listener. It had been David Bowie(10) who first introduced me to his music. Then going through a musical discovery period(11), I acquired a couple R. Sakamoto CD’s. Sadly, deep in Tokyo neophyte sensory overload, they did not resonate. Much to the dismay of the used record store clerk, I traded them in for Saint Etienne(12).
BTTB led me to Mr. Sakamoto’s collaborations with German sound artist, Carsten Nicolai, aka Alva Noto(13). This, again, and surprisingly, sonically held me in the memory space of my personal Tokyo. In these compositions, Sakamoto’s restrained John Cage-like playing, interlaced with the Zen of Noto’s clicks, buzzes, chirps, and beeps, seemed to reconstitute my first days in Tokyo, days that ultimately stretched into three years of spatial and personal explorations—one and the same.
The spatial extremities of Tokyo can trigger things, can shift consciousness in weird directions—especially in the universe of another language, another culture, with nothing but time, a bicycle, and the unrelenting unknowns of streets and buildings. Even though life there quickly became normalized, routines established, patterns put in place, Tokyo never lost its novel intensity. For the entire time I was there it held me enthralled like no other city has. I was a Tokyo addict.
In my own mythology, this may have marked the beginnings of architecture for me. Having travelled to many cities, Tokyo, the city of endless more, of profound densities of excess, then marked a sort of spatial and perhaps spiritual culmination. Cites do not automatically lead to architecture or determine an architectural path, but the timing of this city, its position in my life at that time, may have nudged me in this direction. Then, and now, it seems more future than any possible imagined future. Did Japan affect Bruno Taut in similar ways?(14)
My first sense of Tokyo emerged from my tiny rented room in what was called a “weekly mansion”, an unremarkably beige, low-rise plaster building in one of Tokyo’s more crass, ramshackle (in the Japanese sense) environments: Ueno.
My lovely mansion was the result of a careless glance at a guidebook and with no real understanding of where I was going or where I should stay. Initially, Ueno felt like the back end of some nicer place that you just couldn’t get to. It was like the neglected back yard in the center of Tokyo. It seemed all the more so because it rained constantly(15). But there was more to it.
Though Ueno was not the glossiest section of Tokyo, it turned out to be a fortuitous pick for a landing place. Its jewel was Ueno Park, one of the city’s most magnificent and transcendent open spaces. This is where my explorations began. The contrast between park and everything else ultimately set the tone for the rest of my stay.
Ueno was a gift because it had a multitude of small alleys and lanes that led you deeper into unexpected hierarchies. Where pathways would have ended back home, in Tokyo they just kept on going, getting denser and tighter, revealing more.
Ueno’s twisting back lanes presented old and somehow incongruous wooden houses, temples and shrines with their smoking incense, bizarre little noodle shops, dry cleaning slots, love hotels, pachinko parlors, broken shutters and flimsy doors. In this vertigo world of balconies, power lines, and flapping laundry, I floated in a floating world. BTTB took me back to that.
(1)Ryuichi Sakamoto (b. 1952, Tokyo) is one of Japan’s most well-known and respected musicians. He is known for his work with the pioneering electronic group YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra), his solo electronic and piano work, as well as a range of creative collaborations with musicians such as David Sylvian, David Byrne, Iggy Pop, and the artist Nam June Paik.
(2)Of course, minimalism makes room for this. It allows everything else to be truer, more complete. Just more more. The power of the minimal is that it clarifies everything that exceeds it.
(3)This animated science fiction film, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, depicts Tokyo in the year 2019. It is regarded as one of the classics of Japanese anime and had a profound influence on the look and tone of subsequent anime and comics.
(4)And of course not all such music—solo piano—can be termed minimalist. I’m not implying that all of Mr. Sakamoto’s solo piano work is minimal. Thelonious Monk isn’t minimal either. His attack, though contemplative and thoughtful, isn’t intellectual that way. Some of Bill Evans might be lumped into the minimalist camp. But who really cares about reductivist designations, anyway?
(5)Radiohead, of course.
(6)A band called Suede, whose front-man, Brett Anderson, has gone on to do some intriguing acoustic work.
(7)The Fall. Always constant.
(8)Remember, this was the nineties. There was a lot of Brit-pop floating around Tokyo and a general British inclination in the numerous record stores I patronized. I also had a Q magazine problem. I clearly needed help.
(9)Like the characters in Sophia Coppola’s film, Lost in Translation, I was the quintessential alienated gaijin. It was as if the city whispered to my subconscious, “Walk through me with headphones on.” So I did—real cans, not those tiny tinny ear-buds. In fact, I saw lots of people doing this. Designed to alienate, they allowed me to remain connected to the familiar, or to familiarize the unfamiliar, especially during my first weeks when everything was fluid and uncertain.
(10)Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.
(11)Tokyo was a place of intense musical discovery for me. I found more new music and unearthed more overlooked music when I was there than in any other place I’ve lived in. When I was there the Internet had not yet arrived so I found music by walking around the city and bumping into record shops. I read somewhere that there are more record shops in Tokyo than in any other city. I’m not certain if this is true, but it seemed like it at the time.
(12)He couldn’t believe that I would trade in Ryuichi Sakamoto. He probably concluded, correctly, that I was just an unenlightened foreigner, best ignored and not spoken to.
(13)As it turns out, Alva Noto studied architecture before pursuing music. There are definite spatial qualities to his compositions. They push the boundary of music and verge on environmental experiments designed to transform spaces.
(14)The German architect, Bruno Taut (1880-1938) lived in Takasaki, Japan for three years (1933-1936). Japan had such a profound influence on him that he wrote three books on Japanese culture and architecture. I might return to this in a future Indicator. It is partly through his work that Japanese aesthetics and spatial strategies found their way into western modernism.
(15)I had arrived during the monsoon and it did indeed remind me constantly of Blade Runner. It couldn’t be helped.