The driving force behind "Neo Geo" -- a cutting-edge fusion combining Asian and Western classical music with other global textures and rhythms -- pioneering electronic composer Ryuichi Sakamoto was among the most innovative artists to emerge during the 1980s. Born January 17, 1952, in Tokyo, he took up piano at the age of three, and regularly performed in jazz bands while in high school. Sakamoto's musical tastes exposed him to everyone from the Beatles to Beethoven and John Cage, and he was also heavily influenced by avant-garde filmmaking; he went on to study electronic music at Tokyo's University of Art, and after graduating formed the techno-pop trio Yellow Magic Orchestra. Informed by the robotic iconography of Kraftwerk, the YMO became massive stars in their native Japan; their 1980 single "Computer Game" even reached the Top 20 in Britain.
While still in the Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto also issued his first solo effort, 1978's Thousand Knives Of; two years later he returned with B-2 Unit, and the vast differences between the two discs gave a clear indication of the mercurial eclecticism that would define the remainder of his work. After the YMO's 1983 breakup, Sakamoto pursued his solo career full-time, achieving his artistic and commercial breakthrough that same year with his acclaimed score to the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (in which he also acted). The soundtrack also marked one of several collaborations between Sakamoto and David Sylvian, just one of his many intriguing musical unions; other performers with whom he worked included Thomas Dolby (on 1986's Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia), Iggy Pop, Bootsy Collins, Tony Williams (on 1988's Neo Geo), and David Byrne, with whom he co-wrote the Academy Award-winning score to the 1987 film The Last Emperor.
Other works of note include the score to Pedro Almodovar's High Heels and 1990's Beauty, Sakamoto's English-language debut, which featured cameos from Brian Wilson and Robbie Robertson. In 1993, he joined a reunited Yellow Magic Orchestra to record the LP Technodon, and in 1998 returned with Discord, his first work of classical music. Pre Life in Progress followed a year later, as did The Complete Index of Gut. In 1999, he released the album Intimate and premiered his ambitious multimedia opera LIFE.
Since 2000, Sakamoto has kept busy recording and releasing myriad albums, including his reworking of Antonio Carlos Jobim's music with cellist/arranger Jacques Morelenbaum and his wife, singer Paula Morelenbaum, on 2001's Morelenbaum 2/Sakamoto: Casa. His collaborations continued next with electronic musician Alva Noto on 2002's Vrioon and 2005's Insen. Also in 2005, Sakamoto released the experimental electronic-based album Chasm. In 2009, he released the solo acoustic album Playing the Piano, as well as the more experimental effort Out of Noise. That same year, Sakamoto was named as an Officier du Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters) at the French Embassy in Tokyo. In 2010, Playing the Piano and Out of Noise were re-released as a two-disc edition. His collaborative output across 2011 and 2012 included Summvs (with Noto), Flumina (with Fennesz), and Ancient Future (with Christopher Willits). An denuclearization advocate, Sakamoto organized the NO NUKES 2012 festival which was held in Japan in July of that year. A reunited Yellow Magic Orchestra performed at the festival as did German synth-pop pioneers Kraftwerk. The year ended with the release of Three, an album featuring new arrangements of Ryuichi's works for trios. ~ Jason Ankeny