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Asynchrone: Meet the French collective honouring the music of legendary composer Ryuichi Sakamoto

Asynchrone, a collective of Parisian musicians with backgrounds in free jazz and electro, were formed in 2021 

The Japanese pianist and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto died in March after, in his words, “living alongside cancer” for several years. Two months before he passed away he released an album called 12, his 12th solo studio recording, a collection of minimalist etudes poignantly accompanied by the sound of his own occasionally laboured breathing.

Sakamoto once said that the “piano symbolises interiority”. This startlingly intimate record marked the end of a decades-long career exploring the spaces between distant poles of genre and sound, from trailblazing technopop in the late 1970s with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, to his 1978 debut solo album Thousand Knives, mixing modern synths with classical piano, to brushes with funk, afrobeat and hip-hop on 1980’s B-2 Unit to his Oscar, BAFTA, Grammy and Golden Globe award-winning scores for films like The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, The Revenant and Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, in which he starred opposite David Bowie. 

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Sakamoto grew up listening to contemporary pop and rock’n’roll. He cited The Beatles and The Rolling Stones as influences alongside Bach, Stockhausen and Debussy, whom he once called “the door to all 20th-century music”. His cultural curiosity was also piqued during his teenage years by Andy Warhol and New York’s avant garde, and his own music came to straddle a similar line between pop and esotericism. Since the 1970s his influence has quietly begun to show up in jazz and classical hip-hop, film scores and in the contemporary charts; everyone from the Ragga Twins to Jennifer Lopez, Burial to Beastie Boys have sampled Sakamoto, with artists as disparate as Massive Attack, Questlove and Johnny Marr acknowledging his impact on their work. 

The latest seed of Sakamoto’s influence to germinate comes from Asynchrone, a collective of Parisian musicians with backgrounds in free jazz and electro, formed in 2021 specifically to explore and honour his music. 

Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Ryuichi Sakamoto. Image: Andrea Raffin/Shutterstock

Far from a staid, deferential tribute, the band’s declared purpose is to continue a conversation that Sakamoto started, using his back catalogue as a bedrock for improvisation and experimentation. The group comprises award-winning electronic musician and producer Frédéric Soulard (also a member of the French post-rock group Limousine and Franco-Scottish duo Maestro), cellist Clément Petit – who has previously worked with Romane, Ben l’Oncle Soul and Blick Bassy among others – along with clarinet and saxophone player Hugues Mayot, flautist Delphine Joussein, pianist Manuel Peskine and Vincent Taeger on drums.

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“I really got into Sakamoto’s music properly from working with producers and DJs because they really know his work,” says Soulard. “He’s been sampled a lot, especially in hip-hop and electronic music. People know Sakamoto mainly for the big soundtracks, but we wanted to take a varied selection of his music in a direction where free jazz meets electronics, with this sense of liberty and just mixing it all together.”

“Our desire was above all to create a real group with material that can lend itself to jazz, improvisation and groove,” adds Petit. “The compositions are wonderful, and the experimentation and discovery that he made with synths and drum machines is still very exciting. The end of the 1970s was the beginning of purely electronic pop and we feel this freshness in the earlier albums of Sakamoto and YMO.”

Asynchrone’s debut album Plastic Bamboo, named after the Sakamoto song from Thousand Knives and featuring their own cover as the title track, is released at the end of this month. In affinity with its musical hero, the record pinballs frenetically between genres; the uplifting, Coltrane-tinted Once in a Lifetime, the electronic art-pop of Neue Tanz and the white-knuckle sonic adventure of Expecting Rivers, which puts butterflies in my stomach on a par with looking down from a great height. 

As a whole, it’s a remarkable debut, fizzing with energy, anxious to share a million different ideas and somehow making them all work in tandem. It concludes with a darkly optimistic take on the title theme from the BAFTA-winning soundtrack to Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence; a perfect dose of warmth, familiarity and tenderness to close an album which otherwise favours invention over sentiment. 

Covers, tributes and dedications are common after an artist of such renown passes away, but what Asynchrone have done is to take Sakamoto’s musical dialect and create their own poetry with it, perpetuating a living archive which will no doubt influence other artists to grab the baton and run. When Sakamoto passed away on 28 March this year, the official announcement included his favourite quote from Hippocrates – “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Art is long, life is short. 

Plastic Bamboo is out now on Nø Førmat!

Deb Grant is a radio host and music critic

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

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