'Ryuichi Sakamoto: async Live at the Park Avenue Armory': Film Review | Berlin 2018

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Autumnal musings from a minimalist maestro.

The Oscar-winning Japanese composer performs his latest album live in Stephen Nomura Schible's intimate concert film.

In April 2017, Ryuichi Sakamoto gave a live U.S. premiere performance of his first new nonsoundtrack album in eight years at the Veterans Room of the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. The album, async, was conceived around the time the Oscar-winning avant-classical composer was undergoing radiology treatment for throat cancer, which may explain why much of it is preoccupied with themes of mortality and finite time. Director Stephen Nomura Schible was on hand to capture the performance for this crisp concert film, which serves as a companion piece to Coda, his recent documentary profile of Sakamoto.

Live at the Park Avenue Armory is a straight audiovisual record of the concert, low on frills but shot with the kind of forensically crisp production polish that this absorbing, immersive, intricate music deserves. Clearly pitched primarily at fans, Schible's film has just premiered at the Berlinale, where the 66-year-old Sakamoto is serving on the international jury. Beyond further festival berths, it should find eventually find a natural home on home-viewing formats.

Playing solo in front of a select, hushed, reverential audience, Sakamoto alternates between grand piano, vintage synthesizer keyboard and laptop computer. His professorial appearance is as formal and impeccably tailored as the music; his expression furrowed, his silver swoop of hair swishing gently as he bows in concentration. This is a concert movie, but unusually intimate and intense, with ultra-sharp high-end acoustics to capture every textural glitch and microtonal quiver in Sakamoto's deluxe minimalist sound paintings.

The musician describes the async album as "an imaginary soundtrack to a film Tarkovsky never finished," and there are artful allusions to the Russian movie maestro in this performance. The symphonic synthesizer piece "Solari" pays homage to Tarkovsky's philosophical sci-fi classic Solaris, while the various pre-recorded vocals submerged within the ambient piano ripples of "Life, Life" are based on a poem by the legendary filmmaker's father, Arseny Tarkovsky.

The async pieces also reflect elliptically on Sakamoto's own film work. Probably the most moving track is "Fullmoon," which features the voice of Paul Bowles reading a celebrated passage from his novel The Sheltering Sky, taken from the 1990 Bernardo Bertolucci film that Sakamoto scored. "How many more times will you watch the full moon rise?" Bowles muses. "Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless." These somber sentiments have inescapable extra weight in this context, given the composer's own recent brush with serious illness.

Sakamoto's solo album have always leaned more toward the avant-garde sonics of John Cage or Terry Riley than his more conventionally melodic, accessible film scores. At one point in this performance, he leans into the guts of his piano and plucks pizzicato notes from the interior strings with what looks like a chopstick. Later, he abandons conventional instruments altogether and generates sound from a cluster of modernist sculptures, bowing a curved set of chiming metal rods before teasing out ghostly squeals by scraping microphones across a sheet of glass. These experimental digressions may sound almost comically pretentious on paper, but the effects they create are often sublime.

Using eight cameras, most of them static, Schible captures this concert with cool-eyed exactitude. In his sole concession to cinematic grammar, he sporadically fills the full screen with the bespoke monochrome images that wash across a giant video wall suspended over Sakamoto's piano: drifting snow, watery ripples, heavenly cloudscapes, whirling murmurations of pointillistic dots and other more abstract fare. This is pure visual poetry, as quietly hypnotic as the music. There are few concessions to nonfans in Live at the Park Avenue Armory, but neutral newcomers to Sakamoto's brand of high-art music may find themselves captivated by its exquisite beauty and understated emotional force.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Special)
Production companies: Cineric, Borderland Media, Documentary Japan
Director: Stephen Nomura Schible
Cinematographers: Tom Richmond, Neo S. Sora
Editor: Hisayo Kushida
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Producers: Eric Nyari, Stephen Nomura Schible, Yoshiko Hashimoto
Sales company: Doc & Film International, Paris
65 minutes