Yoko Ono’s Meltdown: Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto

A unique collaboration in the world of music, Japanese pianist/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and German ‘sound artist’ Alva Noto, performed Wednesday night at a packed Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre in London, as part of Yoko Ono’s Meltdown festival.

The darkly-lit stage featured only a large black piano and a kind of futuristic white DJ booth that you might see in an expensive club- but Sakamoto is not your grandfather’s pianist, nor is Noto your average DJ. The philosophy of Sakamoto and Noto’s music and visual aesthetics seem to be built upon minimalism to a certain extent, which may be the only obvious influence from Japanese (and perhaps German) culture. The overall sound, however, leans more towards Western classical on Sakamoto’s side (with a few nods to his most famous tunes), mixed with digital-synth reverberations on Noto’s side. The mood is quiet and restrained for the majority of the night, aside from a long rectangular screen on the back wall which is constantly illuminated with shifting shapes, lights and colours, and responds in some way whenever a piano key is struck.

Sakamoto from time to time leans over the open piano to prick or scratch an exposed string with a guitar pick; at other times, he hits the strings with some kind of stick, producing certain kick-back effects from the glowing LCD panel behind him. I was not always impressed by these seemingly non-musical notes, or the off-key ones put out by Noto, particularly on the earlier tracks. The impressive hypnotic experience that is created by the collaboration of the performers with the background imagery, however, more than makes up for the post-modern art feel of the irregular distortions which were sometimes slightly off-putting.

The whole show lasted less than an hour and a half, including two welcome encores, but this seemed the appropriate length of time for such a specific and unique type of performance. I can say without a doubt that I have never seen or heard anything like it and – although I have said this before about other performances – it would certainly lose something if it were only heard on CD. While we are on the subject of CDs, though, I feel I must mention that this concert comes just ahead of a much-anticipated release of Sakamoto’s new album, entitled THREE, which does not feature any contribution from Alva Noto but includes new subdued takes on most of Sakamoto’s classic songs, including the themes from films ‘The Last Emperor’ and ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’. This reporter received a review copy of the disc and can assure you that it is up to Sakamoto’s highest standards of quality. It will be released by Decca records on July 1.

This is the 20th Anniversary of the acclaimed Meltdown festival and it continues until the 23rd of June, closing with a performance of Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s last album, Double Fantasy Live. It has also been a great month for Asian music in London, with the K-Music Festival still ongoing, and a performance by Hyelim Kim & others earlier in the month.

By Tim Holm

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