on life, music etc beyond mainstream

2023 19 Jan

Ryuichi Sakamoto – 12

von: Brian Whistler Filed under: Blog | TB | 8 Comments


I’ve been listening to the new Sakamoto release all morning on repeat. It’s an ambient music release of the highest order. I understand that at first it wasn’t meant for release, but were intended as a series of diary entries which were made while he was undergoing cancer treatments between 2021 and 2022, part of his ongoing 10 year battle with the disease. He describes these recordings as a casual way to release himself into the peaceful worlds of his synthesizers and piano playing: “I had no intention of composing something; I just wanted to be showered in sound.” Lucky for us, in the process, an album was created.

12 is a series of pieces whose titles are dates. The first seven pieces are dronal, employing highly processed synthesizers and ambient piano to create peaceful sound sculptures that drip with gorgeous reverberant spaces. Indeed, space is one the main ingredients in these immersive sound baths. When I first put the album on, so convincing were the sonic dimensions that seem to hang in the air and fill the room, I almost thought it was in surround sound.

Some of the tracks remind me of Brian Eno – with their drifting ambient piano in gauzy washes of spacious synth pads, all drifting in cosmic trails of reverb, how could they not? Some of the tracks seem almost to have had a mic on the maestro and if one listens carefully, one can hear his actual breathing. It make sense, because these tracks are felt with the breath; most have no discernible pulse.

Something changes when we arrive at track 8. Out of the ambient world we been engulfed in, comes a Satie-like Sarabande. It’s a beautiful miniature solo piano piece, with more than a hint of Sakamoto’s long term love affair with the music of Tom Jobim. Satie meets Jobim – what a lovely marriage.

The album holds its gaze on a couple more piano pieces that feel more compositional than their predecessors, then goes out quietly in one minute of soft bells. And once again, this listener is called to take the journey again.


This entry was posted on Donnerstag, 19. Januar 2023 and is filed under "Blog". You can follow any responses to this entry with RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. Jan Reetze:

    Brian, you were faster than I, and I don’t have much to add to your review. As the tracks are in chronological order (given, the dates are correct, and I don’t doubt that), this album can be listened to as a sort of acoustic diary.

    The whole album is very quiet, you can indeed hear Ryuichi’s breathing sometimes, also the piano pedals can be heard a couple of times. It’s interesting how the piano mingles with electronics, especially the way Ryuichi follows the overtones of the piano strings by pumping up their volume when their sound decays. It might be ambient music, but it has an emotional depth that no Eno record reaches. The piano motif in Track 6 (20220207) indicates the Dies Irae, and very unpleasant sinus tones evolve from it — a very strong moment.

    This record is not background music, it needs to be listened to carefully. And after its end you will be not in the mood to listen to something else for a while. A great work from a great musician.

  2. Brian Whistler:

    I agree this album isn’t background music, although I’m sure some people will view it that way. I find it engaging and compelling. I’m literally listening to it right now. Lovely.

  3. Michael Engelbrecht:

    @ Jan: „ It might be ambient music, but it has an emotional depth that no Eno record reaches.“

    I kindly disagree. Around 20 Eno records come to mind:) Well it’s up to everybody’s own perception. A music that can be used as foreground or background – that even works with On Land – can be, in the best cases, as deep as deep can be.

    12 surely has its moments. *** stars from my side. That said, my two favourite Sakamotos will always be Lefthanded Dream and Async. The other ones are of quitebdiverse quality, to be polite – and sometimes close to pretentious like BTTB.

    And i am a true admirer of the Alva Noto – Sakamoto – collabs.

  4. Jan Reetze:

    @ Micha: Meine Anmerkung bezog sich auf Enos Ambientproduktionen. Die sollen nach meinem Verständnis per definitionem eine gewisse Neutralität bewahren. Bei anderen Produktionen Enos sieht das anders aus. Aber natürlich sind die Ambientscheiben offen für jede Interpretation.

  5. Michael Engelbrecht:

    Meine Antwort bezog sich AUCH zum Grossteil auf Enos Ambientproduktionen. Sie sollen adaptierbar sein für Vorder- und Hintergrund, nach einer frühen Definition. Da ging es aber nur um ein Musikkonzept abseits purer Autonomie. Das schliesst aber Tiefe in keiner Weise aus.

    Hört ich jene Alben bewusst statt unbewusst (und das ist meistens so), entfalten sie eine enorme Deepness. Und als Hintergrund interessanterweise auch:))

    Da kommt 12 für mich lange nicht ran. Ich glaube, die Umstände der Entstehung von 12 sorgen noch für etwas mehr „Tiefeneindruck“.

  6. Brian Whistler:

    I don’t listen as rule to much ambient music. I have all the essential Eno stuff and smattering of things that fall into this category, but generally it hasn’t been in my wheelhouse.

    Because of this new age of anxiety and some personal stress I’m dealing with , this album came along at the right moment and I was quite open to it. It doesn’t make much in the way of demands on the listener, which is probably why I resonated with it so much. YOu hear it and immediately, you know what it is. Is it”great music?” No, I wouldn’t categorize it as such. But then, there is very little ambient music I would label as truly great.

    But it’s a different strokes matter; I have always gravitated to harmonic rather than drone oriented or static music. The records that get played around my home are things that intrigue me on that level as well as move me emotionally. But in contradiction to that statement, I’m also a sucker for textural music. I have a become an obsessive collector of virtual instruments that solely create pads.

    Maybe it’s age, but I find myself needing calming sounds that remind me to breathe and find my center in these troubling times. In truth, I listened to way more ambient when I was a young hippie and Hearts of Space was on Pacifica radio. Not exactly the same thing but there were artists back then that transcended the schmaltz and made nice sounds.

    Incidentally, Brian Eno’s On Land is still my benchmark for great textural ambient. I also like most of the Atmospheres collaboration on ECM, which walks the line between several experimental genres and intersects with ambient. But I am no expert in the field.

  7. Jan Reetze:

    Maybe we shouldn’t latch too much onto „ambient“. For me this would go for „Music for Airports“, „Apollo“ or „Thursday Afternoon“ (I still love it) — music like a decorative mobile, they have a basic idea to give them a start, but then they go their own undesigned way. When they are well made, this is an interesting and nice to watch process. I always see these works connected to Eno’s light sculptures, maybe because I once saw this stuff at an exhibition.

    „Music For Films“ is not an ambient album, I think of it as a collection of short instrumentals. „On Land“ is a completely different beast. I always saw it as a complex work, made for concentrated listening, even more as Jon Hassell plays in it.

    „12“, for my feeling, falls in a different category. It uses ambient elements, but it tells a story, it follows a dramaturgy.

  8. Michael Engelbrecht:

    I would never say about Music for Airports or even Discreet Music or Apollo or Thursday Afternoo, that the sounds go their undesigned way from a certain point on… it suggests a kind of functionalism that is not as deep as „complex composing“.

    Here my thoughts:

    On Land was conceived as AMBIENT 4 / PLATEAUX OF MIRROR with Budd / ENO AMBIENT 2 and surpasses 12 imo in every way.

    Sakamoto even regarded 12 as a kind functional music in the way to surround himself wirh sounds in hard times: a ritual to feel alive. Music For Healing. Some of these pieces verge on the trivial and their simplicity and all are imo overestimated because of their relationship to severe crisis. Async is far more complex. 12 very much relies on projecting one‘s own feelings and thoughts into the sounds…

    i listen to Apollo as concentrated as i listen to On Land… it is timeless and unique.

    80 percent of the „heavily composed“ new classical music is boring as hell. Imo. Some of them would win when losing their mind and coming to senses:)

    To call a music decorative is a way to give it less value. A long time ago Kandinsk‘s „decorative works“ for rooms was looked at as minor art, because of being functional and not existing for itself.

    Werch ein Illtum, würde Ernst Jandl sagen.


    Wie man eines dieser Alben von Eno hört, hängt weniger vom Werk ab, und vielmehr von dem eigenen Wunsch: auch On Land lässt sich hintergründig hören, und music for airports komplett „immersiv“, hellwach, mit ganzer Aufmerksamkeit.

    Music for films per se is functional / ambient meaning adaptable to backgrounds. But how rewarding to give it your all – the deepness of the discreet.

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