When you started making synthesizer music with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, did you refer to German synthesizer music? Were you inspired by Kraftwerk, for example?
There seemed to be a lot of it at the beginning. The three of us were inspired to form the group in the first place by the exotic Martin Denny style music that Mr. Hosono had been doing for a while, and we wanted to use computers and Kraftwerk-like techniques, so half of our music was German, or rather, the big presence of Giorgio [Moroder] and Kraftwerk.
When did you become interested in Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, Mr. Sakamoto?
I’d been listening to Kraftwerk on imported vinyl since before Autobahn became a hit in the US. They had only three albums out then. At that time, I had the image of them as a group that had gone beyond hard rock and were doing avant-garde, noisy and experimental music based on rock. So when Autobahn became a hit, it went commercial, but I didn’t think it was such a special technique. Compared to when I first heard Kraftwerk, I was more shocked when I heard Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, which was produced by Giorgio. Because the “takataka” chirps of the 16th-note bass and the idea of alternating out of the left and right speakers were shocking. Stuff and crossovers were in their heyday at the time, and I think the impact was so great that it reached fans of such music. It wasn’t the melody line, it wasn’t the chord progression, it wasn’t the lyrics, it was the sixteenth-note pattern of the “takataka” bass that had the impact back then.
Did you listen to German rock and pop music before that?
Before that, I was listening to records by labels like Virgin and Brain- Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Faust, Amon Düül, Cann…
You studied German classical and contemporary music as a student, does this lead to your current interest in German rock and pop music?
The classical music I learned was mainly German. In fact, in the 19th century, Germany was the center of classical music. So I listened to German music all the time. I learned it through the ages. I started with Bach, went through Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, and Wagner in the Romantic period, then Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Bartók, and after that came contemporary music. The contemporary music includes European contemporary based on academic classical music, and American experimental music such as John Cage’s, which is not necessarily based on 19th-century classical music. So I was keeping an eye for both while listening to the Beatles and hard rock. I started listening to German rock because of my interest in the connections to both contemporary music and rock.
What would you say in more detail about the connections to contemporary music?
European electronic music started from the base of academic classical music, which then led to, for example, the Tangerine Dream. At the same time, the music of Tangerine Dream also contains elements of contemporary music, especially American contemporary music of Terry Riley and others. Terry Riley was a man who was influenced early on by folk music, where there is a predetermined base sound and then he would make up a scale and play with patterns and melodies within that scale – Indian music, for example. Those elements are applied by Tangerine Dream. For some reason, German and European people are more influenced by that than those of American rock. Well, that’s how I got into Tangerine Dream, but I didn’t really enjoy Tangerine, so I started listening to Klaus Schulze, and then my interest in other German rock started to expand.
In the field of contemporary music, for example, [Karlheinz] Stockhausen started electronic music in West Germany in the 1950s. If German rock is connected to the European electronic music stream, are there musical similarities?
They are not similar at all. To talk about contemporary music, I’m going to blur the conversation a bit and go to Wagner. Wagner was a composer who used modulations very heavily, and he made music that modulates every bar in Tristan and Isolde. When there are that many modulations, it becomes difficult to tell what the main key is. It starts to lose its tonality. Pushing it forward, music without tonality from the start was created by Schoenberg in the 20th century. Without keys, however, it becomes difficult to know how to put music together within a certain period of time. So he came up with what is known as the ’12-tone technique’, in which he tried to create musical cohesion by determining and working out the order of various combinations of 12 different notes in an octave. It’s a way of managing and assembling sounds, rather than choosing them by feel. After passing through the Second World War, the idea was pushed further and electronic music was created to accurately express the sounds as concrete sounds. So it became too difficult to accurately express the logic of that music when it was played by a human body. This is where electronic music, such as Stockhausen’s, comes from.
Synthesizers back then were probably bigger devices than they are now.
Yes, they were. The sounds that came out from something so big were, from today’s point of view, simple.
Does electronic music still have a major place in contemporary music?
So-called electronic music has not occupied a big place since the 1970s. It is good to represent logic accurately, but the logic itself is too straightforward and lacks the complexity to please the listener, and it is very cumbersome to make, so it seems to have fallen into disuse.
The emergence of groups extensively using synthesizers in German rock in the 1970s coincides with the decline of electronic music in contemporary music.
It appears to be rather cross. The Tangerine people seem to have grown up listening to experimental electronic music when they were young. Unlike in Japan, there seems to be a lot of contemporary music on the radio. I read in an interview that the members of Kraftwerk also listen to a lot of it. When electronic music first came out, people said that there was no music more perfect than it and that it would all be electronic music from now on. That’s why electronic music labs were set up in universities all over the world, with lots of synthesizers and so on. As students played with these devices, it was natural to think that they could connect to the rock music that was popular in the late 60s. I’ve had that kind of experience too. There are not many examples like mine in Japan, but in Germany, I think there are many more. I listen to classical German music and learn it as an academic subject. I suppose that West Germany is a more Americanized country than Japan, and of course, they listen to American rock. And the technology is more developed and synthesizers are more accessible. With those three things, it’s no wonder there are so many people like me.
How does the music of Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream differ from contemporary electronic music?
The first difference is that music like Kraftwerk is tonal. There are well-known rhythms, chords, melodies, and forms.
Does that mean that their music originates from a place other than the extension of the music of Stockhausen and others? Or do you mean that it is a reactionary extension of Stockhausen?
It is not a direct extension. However, even in the world of contemporary music, there is a trend among young composers after Stockhausen that the emergence of music with seemingly classical melodies and phrases, and contemporary music with an emotional quality that can be compared to Kraftwerk and the like. I am sure that this is a reaction against so-called “contemporary music”. For example, there are times when people who used to play difficult fusion music suddenly listen to reggae music and are attracted by its libertinage, its power, and its various complex and pleasant qualities. I think it’s similar to that.
I think it’s good that the German rock – or rather pop – people are now making pop music using the skills they acquired in the 60s when they were recovering from the avant-garde mania. I think that German pop music is being created in a way that is not superficially related to academic contemporary music.
I used to listen to American and British rock and pop, so when I first heard Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, I had a strong impression that it was heady music with classical elements.
Klaus Schulze is a bit like that. It has a feeling close to the Romanticism of contemporary music. But in his case, it’s not logical music.
David Bowie recorded the album Low in Berlin in 1976, which became a hot topic. On the B-side of that record, he made music with synthesizers, such as Warszawa. Was that influenced by German synthesizer music?
I think that could have been done without Germany. It could be considered the sound of Eno. I don’t think ambiguous music like that is suited to Germans. What Germans are good at is that, if there is a phrase A, they tend to turn it over and use it diagonally in a thoroughly economical way. It’s more economist or logical. That’s the kind of German music I know, so I don’t think the ambiguous sound of the B-side of Bowie’s Low, where nothing happens, is German.
I wonder if we are misled by Bowie’s looks on the album jacket or the fact that he went to Berlin.
I think he’s making use of those images as well.
There is an image of what you get from the sound of a synthesizer.
It’s true that synthesizer sounds are cold, constant, precise, and have little noise. But the music on the B-side of Low is quite noisy.
When I think of Germany, perhaps because of the limitations of the time period, I reflexively think of Nazism during the Second World War and the cities industrialized by the phenomenal post-war recovery, or films about the decadence of the upper classes under Nazism. This may be a similar aspect to the way foreigners imagine Mount Fuji and Geisha in Japan.
I’m sure there is such a tendency, but I think we also need to try and take as much unnecessary cover as possible. Kraftwerk achieved commercial success with Autobahn. The Autobahn (highway) is like Mount Fuji, Geisha, or Sony in Japan, but they took it in reverse. It’s a good image, more like a crystallization of the technology of modern civilization than Mount Fuji or Geisha, and they combine that with synthesizers to create a strong impact. It’s a problem that we couldn’t do Mount Fuji or Geisha with the Yellow Magic Orchestra. (Laughs)
I remember that during an interview of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, Mr. Hosono said that he felt a strong will like steel in Kraftwerk’s music, something like that.
I feel that kind of steel-like will that objectifies music, cuts through the sounds on the operating table with a scalpel and creates an artificial robot. In our case, we have an emotional attachment to each sound- it’s very gentle, and we can’t just throw the sound itself out with a bang. Even with detailed synthesizer techniques, it’s hard for us to be blunt and throw out a sound when deciding how the sound will decline after the attack. I think we can’t go about it mechanically. (Laughs) We need to be in harmony with nature. Isao Tomita’s music may be the crystallization of all these things.
So Kraftwerk is using Disco rhythms these days, and Giorgio Moroder had success from Disco. Yellow Magic Orchestra also uses Disco rhythms.
For us, the way we use the rhythms and chord progressions of current world pop music makes it easier to be misunderstood. It’s a source of misunderstanding. Even if the melody is oriental, it can be understood by rock fans in Los Angeles because the external style is disco. I don’t think they would get into it if we play the melody of Tong Poo on shakuhachi, same for the success of the Munich disco. Music that is almost American yet has a clear distinction can be accepted if the timing is right. You could do an ordinary arrangement of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, for example, then it would be nothing but a disco song. The only difference is that it used computer synthesizers.
Do you think it’s because it was born in German after all?
I’m sure Americans could have done it, too, if they’d have realized it. I think there are differences in the role of technology in the music industry. In West Germany, there’s a thorough way of thinking that whatever can be done by machine, it should be done by machine, while there is a sense of handwork in the US.
Are the sounds created by Giorgio Moroder technically advanced?
I don’t think it’s that difficult. But he seemed to be doing some pretty complex stuff in Donna Summer’s new album Bad Girls.
Sparks went to Munich and made an album produced by Giorgio Moroder, and Japan was also produced by Giorgio, although recording in Los Angeles.
That’s the kind of sound that can be done in Tokyo if you have the right equipment, without having to do it in Munich. The sense might be different, but it’s practical from a technical point of view. I think the fact that it was done in Munich is also a selling point.
You earlier mentioned the music that is “almost American”, so after excluding the Americanized parts, is what remains the German stuff?
It depends on the group. For example, in the case of Kraftwerk, they seem to be doing frivolous things, but I think they are people who are thinking about quite difficult things. I’ve mentioned it before.* It’s like that the album Human Machine inherited the Russian formalism and had quite an art-like orientation. Just as the formalists tried to come up with simple art for the people during the Russian Revolution, I think Kraftwerk is also seriously trying to make music easier for the people (the record-buying public) to understand.
*Notes by Kitanaka: See the conversation between Sakamoto and Keiichi Suzuki on the December Issue of NMM, 1978.
It’s often said that enka uses the pentatonic scale, but is there such a characteristic scale in German music?
If I had to answer, I would say the major and minor scales. Also, there is fewer blues influence than in British rock. Even in the UK, I sometimes feel a whiff of German classical music in the guitar phrases of Queen’s Brian May. Even speaking of the British classical, its foundation was laid by Handel, the German who was invited to their court. I also think that the British tend to enjoy their personal taste, whereas the Germans put the image of their country itself first. There are people in the UK like Ian Dury, who completely Britishized American rock, but not in Germany. In that sense, I feel that Germany is good at using rock to create something different, but rock has not taken root there yet.