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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

As Ryuichi Sakamoto returns with '12,' fellow artists recall his impact

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Here is some pop music trivia. When producer Quincy Jones was making Michael Jackson's album "Thriller," he happened to hear a song by the Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA SONG, "BEHIND THE MASK")

KELLY: Jones played it for Jackson. The King of Pop liked it, wrote some new lyrics and recorded it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEHIND THE MASK")

MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) All along, I had to talk about it. But, like a two-edged sword, it cuts you, and it stabs me.

KELLY: Because of legal disputes, Jackson's version of "Behind The Mask" never made it onto "Thriller," though it was eventually released a year after Jackson's death. We tell you this because one of the co-founders of Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ryuichi Sakamoto, died last week. He had cancer. He was 71 years old. Sakamoto was a widely respected artist across genres, from film scores to techno, hip-hop. He was an Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer. He was also a highly sought-after collaborator. In January, while undergoing treatment for cancer, Sakamoto released his 15th solo album. He was not able to record an interview, so instead, we talked to some of the artists he worked with about his career.

ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU: My name is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. I vividly recall the emotional experience I have when I first listened to Ryuichi Sakamoto.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE")

GONZALEZ INARRITU: I was in a car, in traffic. I was in Mexico City with a friend of mine. And we put a pirate Japanese cassette. At that time, this was 1983.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE")

GONZALEZ INARRITU: And I heard the song piano notes, and I felt as if the fingers were penetrating my brain and giving me a cranial cosmic massage. And it was "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence."

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE")

GONZALEZ INARRITU: With some little notes and drops, he can create huge emotion.

KELLY: Ryuichi Sakamoto studied classical music in Japan before making a name for himself in pop and electronic music. Hip-hop producer Flying Lotus says one of the first pieces that turned him on to Sakamoto is called "Rain."

FLYING LOTUS: It's still the beautiful and classical vibe. It still had this kind of hip-hop sensibility to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "RAIN")

FLYING LOTUS: If you want to talk about his history and what he's done in the past, there's a lot of stuff from, like, "Thousand Knives."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THOUSAND KNIVES")

RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: (Singing in Japanese).

FLYING LOTUS: That was, like, some really early stuff, but if you play it up against something today, you know, it still sounds like the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THOUSAND KNIVES")

SAKAMOTO: (Singing in Japanese).

FLYING LOTUS: He came to LA to work with me for a little bit. It was very magical to have him here. He had this kind of childlike curiosity about all the potential for sounds that we could come up with. You know, he would look around and tap on surfaces to get some tones out of them or, you know, tinker around with my ceiling fan above us so we can hear what that sounds like. He found the beauty in all the little things.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALVA NOTO AND RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "TRIOON II")

HILDUR GUDNADOTTIR: When did I first come across Sakamoto's music? Ryuichi's music - it's so timeless. It feels like you've almost always known it. There's such deep listening in the way that he works.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "THE REVENANT MAIN THEME")

GUDNADOTTIR: My name is Hildur Gudnadottir, and I am a composer and musician. He invited me to work with him on the soundtrack for "The Revenant."

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "THE REVENANT MAIN THEME")

GUDNADOTTIR: It was very interesting to interpret how he was explaining his music. Like, it wasn't so much with words, but it was with the gestures of his wrists and of his eyelids and how he physically embodied his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "THE REVENANT MAIN THEME")

GONZALEZ INARRITU: It's a film that is about loneliness, silence and a space, you know, through this character that is left out in the middle of nowhere.

KELLY: Here's Alejandro Inarritu again, the director of "The Revenant."

GONZALEZ INARRITU: So I wanted to have somebody who was able to understand silence. And I think the greatest musicians ever understand that silence is the source of music. And I think that's Ryuichi.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "20211201")

KELLY: This is from Sakamoto's new album, "12," released on his 71st birthday. He made it while undergoing treatment for cancer.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "20211201")

CARSTEN NICOLAI: I was very touched by this album because I can hear so much in these 12 tracks of this current state of him and his kind of sensibility, the fragileness, the weakness. My name is Carsten Nicolai. I recording under the name of Alva Noto. And I met Ryuichi many years ago. Probably we recorded eight albums together. It is strong and fragile in the same moment. It has this incredible beauty of not being too complex.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "20220307")

KELLY: Ryuichi Sakamoto recorded this album in March of 2021, not long after an operation and long stay in the hospital. In his artist's statement, he wrote, I had no intention of composing something. I just wanted to be showered in sound. Sakamoto continued, from now on, until my body gives out, I'll probably continue to keep this kind of diary. Ryuichi Sakamoto died on March 28 of this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "ENERGY FLOW")

KELLY: This segment was produced by Elizabeth Blair, edited by Rose Friedman and mixed by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "ENERGY FLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.