REVIEW. Ryuichi Sakomoto and Alva Noto at Sydney Opera House

This week’s Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alvo Noto’s show at Sydney Opera House was challenging yet beautiful, and the perfect music for our times. Read my review below, originally published at the Double J website.

Ryuichi Sakomoto and Alva Noto’s Sydney Opera House show was brilliantly uncomfortable

The first of many things that surprised me at Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto’s Sydney Opera House show is the age diversity.

I did stop for a moment and ask myself “am I in the right place?” But given Sakamoto’s backstory, it shouldn’t have been that surprising. His career spans over 40 years, with genres, collaborations and alliances shifting continually along the way.

With so many jumping-on points, the impetus for attending would have varied wildly from person to person.

I first came to Sakamoto through the 1983 film, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, in which he plays a Second World War military officer opposite David Bowie. Sakamoto also wrote the soundtrack, including the exceptional David Sylvian collaboration, ‘Forbidden Colours’.

It was only later that I discovered Sakamoto’s profound influence on electronic music, as co-founder of Yellow Magic Orchestra. The late ‘70s and early ‘80s trio took Kraftwerk’s blueprint and ran with it, redefining the zeitgeist through a hybrid of technology, wit and captivating aesthetics.

These brushes with mainstream pop are however the exceptions that prove the rule.

Sakamoto is first and foremost a composer; and a highly experimental one at that. His ongoing collaboration with German musician Alva Noto is testament to this.

Throughout his career, Noto has forcibly bent electronics towards art, presenting work at renowned international exhibitions such as Documenta and the Venice Biennale.

When the duo appears, they are separated on the far extremes of the stage; the gulf between them filled with hypnotic generative visuals, looping geometric shapes that weave and pulse around the music.

They spend the first section facing away from one another, Sakamoto picking alien, broken notes and Noto playing a series of tiny cymbals with a violin bow.

They don’t need to look each other in the eye; they understand each other’s moves implicitly. Forged for an award-winning 2002 album, Vrioon, their 16-year partnership spans across six studio albums; cemented with the innovative score for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film, The Revenant.

Whilst Sakamoto sorts through some papers during the breaks between pieces, nodding to some form of pre-determined structure, the performance appears to be predominantly improvised.

Sakamoto moves from synth to piano to guitar, but none of them produce their customary tones. The piano has been altered (or ‘prepared’) to shift the timbre and pitch, and the guitar is played by picking at the bridge with a metal tool.

In exchange, Noto delivers a combination of drones and textures that act as the support mechanism; it’s only when his output shifts into crisp, upfront drum patterns that the balance between the two evens out.

Occasionally, Sakamoto floats in short yet beautiful piano pieces; a move that feels luxurious in the overall minimalism.

Across 90 minutes, it’s often a difficult performance to grab hold of or settle into, but I adore it all the same.

Sakamoto and Noto never allow us to get comfortable, instead they force us to question what’s in front of us, to think twice about what we are hearing; and in this day and age, that’s the greatest gift that music can offer.

Image: Prudence Upton