A wordless opera, freed from time
A dreamer sits by the grave of a deceased woman and loses all sense of time. Only when she turns into a white lily does he realise a hundred years have passed. Inspired by the surreal first story from Soseki Natsume’s collection of short stories Yume jūya (‘Ten Nights of Dreams’) from 1908, the composer and Holland Festival associate artist Ryuichi Sakamoto teamed up with director and visual artist Shiro Takatani to make a wordless opera. Taking inspiration from a Mugen Noh – traditional Japanese dance theatre with magical elements – Sakamoto explores the phenomenon of time and the relationship between humankind and nature. Against a dreamlike backdrop that seems to go on forever, the dancer Min Tanaka portrays ‘humanity’, and shō player Mayumi Miyata represents ‘nature’ through movement and sound/music. Sakamoto: ‘We live and we die. And after we die, our body becomes part of the next being. This is samsara itself, the life circle of life on earth. In dreams, those temporal structures are not linear. Everything is condensed’.
‘In dreams, time can pass exceedingly fast or seem to take forever. Time can jump, and elements from different periods can exist side by side perfectly well. But in everyday life, humans are trapped in time’.
Ryuichi Sakamoto is intrigued by humans’ limited experience of time, which in his view means music is also ‘trapped.’ In past years, this inspired him to read up on philosophy – from Confucius and Lao Tse, to Henri Bergson and Carlo Rovelli – and look into the possibilities for freeing himself and his music from time’s constraints.
‘Humans invented time, just like they invented numbers. These concepts have only existed for the past ten thousand years or so. They didn’t exist for early Homo sapiens and still don’t exist in the same way gorillas, or chimpanzees experience things. Even though humans are part of nature, they have divorced themselves from nature through logic and concepts like time. So humans are trapped in this time they invented themselves’.
Freeing music from time
Sakamoto chose to dispense with all central rhythm in his work to break out of the ‘imprisoned’ structure of timekeeping music. Instead, he makes ‘asynchronous’ music: music that isn’t confined to strict organisational patterns, leaving more room for suggestion and experimentation. By extension, the composer takes an interest in different sounds from outside the realm of music. Following, among others, the composer John Cage, Sakamoto feels everyday sounds are just as deserving of careful listening as the sound of instruments. The influence of such ideas can be heard on the album async (2017) as well as in the soundscapes the composer made for the film The Revenant (2015), in which music and other sounds blend into a seamless whole.
Sakamoto first became interested in the conflict between humankind and nature in the early 1990s, when he became increasingly concerned with the environment. He also began to focus on the subject in his work. In 1999, he made his first opera, LIFE, which premiered to seven sold-out shows in Tokyo and Osaka. The work, an attempt to examine the music and events of the 20th century with a macrocosmic/microcosmic view of the entire flow of art and civilization, was an unconventional opera without a libretto. The production featured contributions and performances by over one hundred performers such as Bernardo Bertolucci, Salman Rushdie, Pina Bausch, His Holiness Dalai Lama. It spanned nearly all forms of media, including live performance with a full orchestra, soloists, choir, musicians from different musical traditions, human voice & other samples, and live global internet relay. It was also Sakamoto’s first collaboration working with the visual artist and director Shiro Takatani as the opera’s visual director.
Afterwards, Sakamoto and Takatani would go on to create many more installations together, reflecting the state of the world. In water state 1 (2013), for instance, water droplets represent nature and the climate, serving to raise awareness of people’s living environment. TIME can be seen as a spiritual successor to LIFE. It’s an opera without libretto once again, eschewing words completely this time, in which humankind and nature are central. Takatani designed a set where water (once more) plays a leading role and where endless reflections mirror the complexity and experience of time live, looking back and forwards.
Sakamoto was first exposed to traditional Japanese Noh theatre late in life. The genre wasn’t very popular during his youth and was deemed too old-fashioned for the modern age. But when he was almost fifty, the internationally successful composer began to explore it anyway. There was a clear link with the ideas about music Sakamoto had himself developed at that point: ‘There’s no conductor for the music in Noh theatre, and each musician plays at his or her own tempo. Additionally, everyday sounds - like raindrops - and the sounds of musical instruments are essentially treated the same way. This gives tremendous freedom. It’s in line with my own ideas about music and helped further develop my ideas’. This form of theatre was a major inspiration for his album async and now for TIME as well.
The surreal sense of time in the first story from Soseki Natsume’s collection of stories Yume in which a hundred years pass and a human life turns into a flower, echoes Sakamoto’s new perspective on music: ‘To think about dreams is very helpful to break with our normal concept of time. I try to create music based on a different idea of time or even without the idea of time’.
‘In nearly every music genre, from pop to classical music to jazz, there’s a central tempo that all musicians must keep. While every person naturally has his or her own tempo, the moment you let go of the central tempo, there’s this enormous space and freedom’. This is why the tempo in TIME will be set by two prominent Japanese performers: the experimental dancer Min Tanaka and the well-known shō player Mayumi Miyata (the shō is a traditional Japanese mouth organ made of bamboo). Once freed from time, the music, Sakamoto hopes, will be endless and free as well.
Ryuichi Sakamoto (Tokyo, 1952) has lived many musical lives in his nearly 70 years. As a keyboardist and songwriter in Haruomi Hosono’s Yellow Magic Orchestra, he helped set the stage for technopop. His solo experiments in fusing global genres and close studies of classical impressionism led to him scoring nearly 40 films in as many years, including Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987) and The Sheltering Sky (1990), and the Academy Award-winning film The Revenant (2015) by Alejandro González Iñárritu.
In the past 20 years alone, he’s written a multimedia opera, turned a glass building into an instrument, and travelled to the Arctic to record the sound of melting snow. That exploratory spirit runs through Sakamoto’s 2017 album, async, which paints an audio portrait of the passing of time informed by his recovery from throat cancer. ‘Music, work, and life all have a beginning and an ending,’ said Sakamoto in early 2019. ‘What I want to make now is music freed from the constraints of time.’
Since the mid-nineties, Sakamoto has devoted much of his time to environmental and activist causes, also reflected in his work, as in the opera LIFE (1999). He has launched charitable organisations and beginning in 2012, organised the yearly ongoing music event NO NUKES, which many well-known artists, including Kraftwerk, took part in to protestnuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster. His accolades include an Academy Award, two Golden Globes, a Grammy, the Order of the Cavaleiro Admissão from the Brazilian government and the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government.
Internationally acclaimed visual artist Shiro Takatani (Tokyo, 1963) graduated in Environmental Design, Kyoto City University of Arts. In 1984, he co-founded the artist collective Dumb Type. Dumb Type began touring around the world and got recognition with their multidisciplinary shows, such as OR (1997-1999), Voyage (2002-2009) and MEMORANDUM OR VOYAGE (2014).
Takatani has also created many installations and performances under his own name. Since his first installation frost frames (1998), museums, festivals and theatres worldwide have invited him. The past two decades Takatani has created many ambient art projects in collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto. For the Valencia Biennial in 2001, Takatani created the video installation IRIS in collaboration with fog sculptor Fujiko Nakaya, and in 2005, the Natural History Museum of Latvia commissioned two video installations: Ice Core and Snow Crystal / fiber optic type, as part of an exhibition dedicated to Ukichiro Nakaya’s scientific work on snow and ice.
His more recent creations include the large-scale fog installation CLOUD FOREST (2010), one of the first animation artworks for the 3D WATER MATRIX (2014) at the Cité des sciences et de l’industrie in Paris and the performance-installation ST/LL (2015), a reflection on human perceptions of time and space. The performance has been restaged many times and was last presented during the 2019 Singapore International Festival of Arts.
Projects by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Shiro Takatani
2005 Garden Live in Kyoto
2007 LIFE - fluid, invisible, inaudible...
2007 Garden Live in Kyoto
2010 Mallarmé project I
2011 Mallarmé project II
2012 silence spins
2013 water state 1
2014 Forest Symphony
2016 PLANKTON: A Drifting World at the Origin of Life
2017 async - drowning
async - Live at the Park Avenue Armory
2018 dis•play - Live
IS YOUR TIME
2019 Fragments - Singapore – Live
- sound, concept
- Ryuichi Sakamoto
- visual design, concept
- Shiro Takatani
- Min Tanaka
- shō player
- Mayumi Miyata
- lighting design
- Yukiko Yoshimoto
- media authoring/programming
- Ken Furudate, Satoshi Hama, Ryo Shiraki
- Sonya Park
- production manager
- Simon MacColl
- stage manager
- Nobuaki Oshika
- front of house engineer
- sound engineer
- Takeo Watanabe
- lighting assistant
- Kazuya Yoshida
- manager to Min Tanaka
- Rin Ishihara (Madada Inc.)
- additional audio engineer
- Alec Fellman (Kab America Inc.)
- additional assistant audio engineer
- Maria Takeuchi (Kab America Inc.)
- additional support
- Mai Yuda (Kab Inc.)
- English translation of Dream #1 from Ten Nights of Dreams by Natsume Soseki and KANTAN
- Sam Bett
- Modern Japanese translation of KANTAN
- Rurihiko Hara
- Special thanks to Dr. Shin-Ichi Fukuoka for his advice during the conceptualization of the project.
- Richard Castelli, Norika Sora, Yoko Takatani
- Holland Festival, deSingel, Manchester International Festival
- developed in collaboration with
- Dumb Type Office, KAB America Inc., Epidemic
- production & tour management
- Richard Castelli, Florence Berthaud (Epidemic)
- This performance was made possible with support by