There is a moment during this performance when projections – astral projections that give you the feeling you are floating in space – when I catch myself thinking … this is wonderful, but I need to focus on Ryuichi Sakamoto. Only… not only am I not in space… it’s also not Sakamoto. Remove the glasses and I am in a darkened room, in Granada Studios; a space empty save for other audience members, moving around the room, equally lost in this strange sculpted moment. Rarely have I been so joyously dislocated from reality.
Ryuichi Sakamoto was a founder member of proto-electronic Japanese outfit Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) and latterly composer of music such as the soundtrack for the movie Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, in which he also acted, along with David Bowie. I say “was” because Sakamoto died in March of this year, a huge lost to world music. However, before he died, the mixed reality artist Todd Eckert worked with the composer to create the performance show Kagami. Sakamoto was filmed playing a final performance of some of his best-known compositions, using technology that then brings him back to life in holographic form, enabling him to perform his music to future audiences, notwithstanding the small matter of no longer being alive.
The technology for doing this is only slightly more complex than finding the building where the event is actually taking place. Next year the Manchester International Festival will have its permanent home at the Factory – or rather, Aviva Studios (but let’s not get diverted into that discussion). At the moment, along with the bits of Factory that are open, the Festival is taking places in various settings, including Versa Studios, a Granada ghost in Goods Yard Street, which I only find by getting lost and eventually bumping into a very nice lady from the Festival, who walks us over. Give yourself plenty of time.
Kagami is that joyful intersection of culture and technology. In terms of the set-up, you first enter a reception area with large projections of stills from various stages of Sakamoto’s life, along with videos of the composer at work, finding sounds. It’s here where you are fitted with your glasses, and bespectacled punters such as myself can have their lenses tested and adapted glasses arranged. But it’s in the actual performance area where tech turns transformative, where the mundane becomes magical.
We sit in a circle of about 80, as though in a ceremony or some kind of addictions meeting. Put on the glasses and a red cube slowly spins in the centre area. It is this area, marked off merely by lines on the floor, that Ryuichi Sakamoto then appears, in a smart dark suit and tortoiseshell glasses, sat at a grand piano. The performance begins, with ‘Before Long’ – a beautiful, elegant sweep of piano – and if it’s not enough to watch someone play from beyond life’s low notes, fog then swirls around us and moves towards Sakamoto, to envelop him. The brief recorded intro informs the audience that they can move around Sakamoto, as long as we keep out of the marked off area. No-one dares… at first… and then one, two, three and then more of us leave our seats and move. Some sit at his feet, watching him work the piano’s keys and pedals. Others move around, divining different angles. Someone even dances, slowly, to his precise notes, his crafted melodies. Still sat down, I wonder how I am going to see the performance, with everyone moving around and then the strangest thing happens… whenever someone walks in front of me… I see through them, through their bodies, now outlines only… to the man at the piano, beyond.
And then I, too, get up and circuit slowly around, marvelling at the way Sakamoto’s grey fringe moves gently in a breeze. (What breeze? A breeze from somewhere other). The music moves through important sonic moments from his career – his Japanese number one (he tells us, in useful spoken interludes), ‘Energy Flow’ – and the more recent ‘Andata’. Between each track the hologram disappears, only to reappear, piano and all, for the next performance. Were only life and death so easily navigable. Each performance is accompanied by a different visual experience – rain falling in ‘Aqua’, snowflakes dancing – and projections of historical images from Japan. When Sakamoto plays ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence’, his collaboration with David Sylvian (of the band Japan, rather than the nation), a root system develops beneath our feet, which turns into the constellations of stars and galaxies that totally transports me, and connects us all, to something altogether larger. The performance ends with the composition ‘The Last Emperor’ from the film of the same name and then a track titled ‘BB’, which Sakamoto explains is for the director of that film, Barnardo Bertolucci. He wrote it as soon as he heard of Bertolucci’s passing, which is by turns both gracious and beautiful, when you consider Sakamoto knew his words would also be received, like this music itself, when he was no longer here.
And then the performance is over. At least… this particular performance. As I step back into reality I have the strangest sensation, for a while, of seeing through people, as I did within the performance. And the music is still playing in my head. As Sakamoto himself writes, “This virtual me will not age, and will continue to play the piano for years, decades, centuries’, proving there is life beyond life, and melodies beyond the bounds of the piano. An eternal, recurring, encore.
Kagami is at Versa Manchester Studios, as part of the Manchester International Festival, from 29 June to 9 July 2023. Age Guidance: 14+, under 16s to be accompanied by an adult aged 18+