Ryuichi Sakamoto has nothing to prove. He didn’t 20 years ago, either.
In 1999, the Japanese composer boasted a sprawling, diverse body of work that would leave any artist envious. He’d first began to make his mark as a part of Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978, an electronic music outfit whose work would become definitive of the genre. Among the group’s many accomplishments, they were the first group to use a Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer – the 808 would later become a crucial fixture of both hip-hop and electronic music.
The same year YMO released their self-titled debut record, Sakamoto released his first solo record as well: the feverish, electronic mind warp that is Thousand Knives. Belaboring each of Sakamoto's accomplishments would take a book of its own. But after releasing these two musical touchstones Sakamoto’s prowess and influence continued to grow through a litany of solo releases as well as scores and starring roles in films like Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and the Academy Award-winning The Last Emperor.
While he’d recently rearranged some of his popular works for the piano with the album 1996 two years prior, it was in ‘99 that he finally decided it was time to strip back his process and create an entirely new body of work exclusive to the instrument. The result was BTTB, an acronym for ‘Back to the Basics.’ The album is now being revived for its 20th anniversary and compiling tracks from both its original version in Japan as well as the international release.
As the name implies, BTTB finds Sakamoto limiting himself in his resources. Though Sakamoto is the sole performer, alone at his piano, the recordings find him at his inventive. He revels in the limitations and the recordings do well to exemplify some of the composer’s greatest strengths.
Being a piano collection, it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that BTTB is filled with blissful, delicate arrangements brimming with classical whimsy. The sparse and soft sounds of songs like “aqua” or even opener “opus” fall within this category; dazzling the listener with their restraint and powerful precision.
While Sakamoto has always sought to experiment and push sonic ideas to their brink, it's his sense of melody and tasteful arrangements that takes his work from “interesting” to masterful. With BTTB, we see this genius in action. The music is simplistic in format, but vivid in performance. It’s easy to understand how he became such a powerful presence in the world of film with compositions like “energy flow,” which invoke a sense of searching with his fluid rhythmic changes. There’s also closer “Reversing,” with its stuttering chords that invoke the sense of time slipping backward.
Yet “Sakamoto: the experimentalist” is not forgotten in this collection. He finds use under the hood of the piano, brashly plucking at the instrument’s strings on the tense “sonata.” He pulls off a similar feat with “prelude,” a foreboding number that feels akin to Fumio Hayasaka’s score for the Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai. He does forgo the piano once on the album with the aquatic interlude “uetax” – a watery soundscape swishing back and forth in the listeners’ ears. He even ventures into ambient territory with the mystifying “do bacteria sleep?”.
These thoughtful experimentations against his meditative piano numbers paint an intimate look at Sakamoto as a musician. BTTB isn’t proof of Sakamoto’s genius – he has an entire body of work to vouch for that. But what it does do is gives us a fuller portrait of where that genius stems.
Another 20 years out from BTTB and Sakamoto is still actively bewildering our aural senses with new, innovative works. In revisiting this quiet work in his impressive catalog, we get another chance to quiet ourselves and appreciate this immense talent.
The host of KEXP's Sunday Soul feels the fire on this final release from Charles Bradley, who passed away from cancer in 2017.