In 1991, commemorations planned to mark the 100th anniversary of The Japan Society in London grew into a festival promoting the art and culture of Japan. Celebratory events included Sumo wrestling at the Royal Albert Hall, Grand Kabuki at the National Theatre and an exhibition of Buddhist sculpture at the British Museum. On Sunday 13 October, Ryuichi Sakamoto played a one-off gig at the Hammersmith Odeon. The show began with a recording of a stirring traditional chant which reverberated around the auditorium, a piece we would later come to know as ‘Nuages’ when Ryuichi’s album Heartbeat was released in the UK the following year. His set-list included tracks from his previous solo offerings B-2 Unit, Neo-Geo and Beauty, YMO’s ‘Tong Poo’, as well as exquisite themes from the soundtracks for The Sheltering Sky, The Last Emperor (for which Sakamoto had been awarded an Oscar) and his latest film-music, High Heels.
The stage falls to darkness between songs and then, as the familiar notes of the introduction to ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’ are played on the grand piano, a long-haired figure wanders on to stage. What follows is one of my all-time favourite gig moments: David Sylvian’s vocals accompanied by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s piano, together performing the timeless ‘Forbidden Colours’. Travelling up to London that day I had dared to hope for such a guest appearance but I could scarcely believe it was happening in front of me. Little did I know that Time Out magazine had hinted that Sylvian would appear in their feature leading up to the concert.
To experience that song live and in full was quite wonderful, especially after the teasing excerpt incorporated into the 1988 In Praise of Shamans show that I had witnessed at the same venue, when after the first line the musicians plunged immediately into the doubt of Backwaters. The crowd erupted into applause as ‘Forbidden Colours’ came to an end, Ryuichi and David embracing during the ovation.
Before the night was over Sylvian would return to the stage with white acoustic guitar, familiar from the …Shamans tour, this time for a rendition of ‘Orpheus’ to be accompanied by the full band including a rhythm section of Pino Palladino on bass and Manu Katché on drums. The evening was a touching episode in the history of a special musical partnership. More than that, it would be the catalyst for a series of events that, without any exaggeration, changed the course of the singer’s life.
‘Well, Ryuichi was in London for a performance at the Hammersmith Odeon that I attended,’ Sylvian would explain the following Spring, ‘he had just finished the Heartbeat album and gave me a copy.’ Sylvian was entranced by the final track – and immediately had an idea for an alternative melody line. ‘He called me the next day,’ said Sakamoto, ‘and said that he really liked ‘Tainai Kaiki’. He really wanted to remake it with his words and voice, and he got the ideas so quickly I was amazed.’
Sylvian: ‘I wrote lyrics around that melody and I said I’d like to record a single version, maybe a fairly different version – musically different – for myself because I was so in love with this piece of music.’ The ideas were quickly committed to tape and sent on to Sakamoto, who ‘liked it very much.’
The Japanese version of Heartbeat was released just a week after Sylvian’s guest appearance in London. In its original form, ‘Tainai Kaiki’ carries a much simpler vocal performed by Arto Lindsay with words on the theme of ‘returning to the womb’ (the translation of the song’s title): ‘repeat my heartbeat/slowly, deep within the ocean/hearts beat together, before your eyes open’. The familiar melody is already there for the ‘Tainai Kaiki’ refrain.
Beneath the pulse of the rhythm there are murmurings from what are said to be African pygmy tribes, and even the ‘song’ of a whale. This creates an aural undercurrent rooted in the mysterious heritage of life on the earth. There too is a voice. It’s generally incomprehensible but occasionally recognisable words break through.
That voice belongs to John Cage, taken from his piece Mureau. Snippets from a 65-minute performance he gave in 1972, Cage then describing his creation as follows: ‘The texts are letter-syllable-word-phrase-sentence mixes obtained by subjecting all remarks by [nineteenth century naturalist and philosopher] Henry David Thoreau about music, silence, and the sounds he heard…to a series of I Ching chance operations. Personal pronouns were varied according to such operations. The title is the first syllable of the word music together with the second syllable of the word Thoreau.’
The effect of threading excerpts from this recording into the musical backdrop is to add to the sense of reality shrouded in the mysterious. We connect with it as a human voice, but we don’t understand it. Here is a brief excerpt from Cage’s reading, ending with the phrase that also closes the song:
Years later, Sakamoto was asked how that sample came to be used. ‘I don’t remember!’ he said. But he was clear about the influence of the man: ‘Obviously I have been all the time a big fan of John Cage, since I was a teen. He is always my hero – although on the surface my music doesn’t sound heavily influenced by John Cage…Probably the most famous piece by him, ‘4 minutes 33 seconds’, I thought he brought music down at zero point. The foundation of nothing. So, since then, everybody started building somehow, making music again. Restart. I think that’s revolutionary, definitely.’ (2016)
Cage himself was questioned about the ‘collaboration’ in an interview broadcast on Italian TV in 1992 (the year of his death). The bemused composer had no idea that his voice had been used, his interviewer quickly realising that this must be a sample. ‘What do you think of sampling? Do you think it’s a fraud?’ the conversation continued. ‘No, we can do it with technology, there’s no reason why I should control it. I look forward to the time when everything is free rather than forbidden.’
Following Ryuichi Sakamoto’s appearance at the Japan Festival in London, the Winter 1991 edition of Bamboo magazine carried readers’ reviews of the event, and the following story under the heading Miscellaneous. ‘Prince’s latest protégé Ingrid Chavez (who played the female lead in Graffiti Bridge) was interviewed on [TV Programme] Rapido in November. The closing question was who else would she like to work with. Without hesitation she answered, “David Sylvian!! I’m calling him! I’m sending out vibes to him!”’
Very soon, Chavez and Sylvian would be in touch, with ‘Heartbeat (Tainai Kaiki II)’ providing the catalyst. ‘She was asked on numerous occasions by journalists who she’d like to work with in the future and my name came up from time to time,’ explained Sylvian later. ‘She was in Paris, and my name came up again in discussion with a journalist – and he happened to know me. He said, “Well I can arrange an introduction when you go through London,” which she was about to do. She came to London, I happened to be in Paris at the time, so we never met. But she left a CD and a note for me, which I picked up on my return. Now, prior to flying to Paris to work with Hector Zazou, I’d written a track with Ryuichi Sakamoto called ‘Heartbeat’ and I’d written a section in that piece of music for spoken word, female voice. And, I hadn’t decided who would be the right person for the role, so it was this synchronicity that there was this album waiting for me. And, as soon as I heard it, the voice was entirely appropriate for the composition I’d just completed. And, this allowed us to meet and it went on from there.’ (1999)
The CD that Ingrid left for David was her debut album entitled May 19 1992. The tracks were based around readings that she had performed at Paisley Park studios, Chanhassen, Minnesota around December 1987, shortly after she and Prince had first encountered one another. ‘Prince and I were into the studio and I laid down a vocal track, all spoken word, for about 21 poems,’ Ingrid recalled. ‘And at the same time Prince was recording his initial response to those songs on a synthesiser…He had not read the poems, he didn’t know what they were. I would just give him a title and he would play around with some sounds and then say, “Go”. And I would start reading and he would start playing.
‘Prince went on to do the Lovesexy tour and I went on to form a band called Skyfish,’ Ingrid continues, ‘and about a year and a half passed and I’d recorded about five songs, six songs with Skyfish, and they were on a cassette because we didn’t have CDs back then. So I got one of the cassettes to Prince and a few days later I came back to my tiny little apartment on Nicollet and it was completely filled with white flowers. And then I got a call from him later that day and he asked me did I want to get back to the poetry album? And he said, “I want you to hear ‘Heaven Must be Near’, it sounds like Paris in the spring time.” So, I listened to it and fell in love, and we got back to the poetry album.’ (2019)
Credited simply as Paisley Park, Prince re-recorded backing music for many of the pieces before the album was finally released on his label of the same name in September 1991.
‘Heaven Must be Near’ was the first of Ingrid’s performances that Prince revisited to add new accompaniment and, as the opening track, would have been the first that Sylvian heard of her work. ‘As I placed the CD Ingrid had left me into the machine, bells sounded, lights flashed that even the virtually blind man I was had no difficulty in seeing,’ said Sylvian (1998). The song would be released as a single in Spring 1992, by which time David and Ingrid were very much a couple.
Right Track studio had been booked for December 1991 to record Sylvian’s re-imagined version of ‘Tainai Kaiki’. ‘I went to New York a couple of weeks prior to recording, just hanging out there,’ said the singer. ‘I’d never met Ingrid but we spoke to each other on the ‘phone a lot, because she was in Minneapolis. We were getting on really well, so I asked her to come to New Orleans because I’ve never been there. We started travelling together, finally did the recording together – and fell in love in the process.’
Sylvian’s memory is of an intense time in which the pair ‘fought tooth and nail for the two weeks that we were initially together, because I think we felt that something was about to happen; the forces drawing us together and we fought like crazy. By the time we headed into the studio to record the track we had totally succumbed to one another.
‘And I just remember the two days of session work that we did on the ‘Heartbeat’ track and it fell together so beautifully. The backing track was already there, Ryuichi had already recorded it, and I just brought in Frisell and added my own and Ingrid’s vocal. I had written a part for spoken word but I hadn’t found the right artist to perform the part and this was the story that brought us together. She sent a copy of her album to me and I had just completed writing the song. And so to hear that voice was to know immediately who the appropriate person was for the song. And that’s what drew us together. Or one of the many things that appears to have pulled us together.’ (2000)
Bill Frisell’s guitar is a magnificent addition, providing an energetic focus in the mid-section of the song.
The theme of Sakamoto’s album had been inspired by the sounds of urban America. ‘When you walk anywhere down in New York, you hear dance beats all over, from the cars, from the radio, from… how do you call it? radio… these [boom]boxes. Obviously in the dance clubs, those dance beats go mainly bfff bfff bfff bfff [imitates the sound of a four-on-the-floor bass drum]… or from somebody’s headphones passing by.
‘First of all, those dance beats sounded similar to heartbeats to me. Then I wondered why people wanted to hear these dance beats so much. My answer is that they want to go back to their mother’s womb, because we were hearing similar beats inside our mother’s bodies for nine months. We all did. But why this desire to go back to the womb?…My answer is that the world isn’t very nice. The environment is being destroyed. Human society is very uncomfortable, because of the many wars. I started recording this album just around the time the Gulf War was going on. People were upset. I was upset. And there was not only the Gulf war, but also the changes in Eastern Europe and Russia, plus many conflicts in the Third World. So we cannot be happy anymore. The world has become a very uncomfortable environment, so people want to be somewhere else. And I think that our mother’s womb is the best environment we’ve had so far.’
‘I see the lines on the palm of its hand now
I listen hard but no words spring to mind
And it sounds so sweet, listen to its heartbeat
And I’m drowning in its sea, falling at its feet
Listen to my heartbeat baby’
Sylvian’s new lyric took inspiration from Ryuichi’s thoughts. ‘The theme of the song is very very simple,’ he said, ‘it’s just about the essence of life. The spirit which keeps everything alive – the heartbeat being symbolic of that. It was also very much about mother and child, the child and the mother’s heartbeat being as one – and the heartbeat of the world if you want to go that far, or whatever, but it’s a very very simple song. Very simple.’ Recently he reflected that the song ‘anticipates the conception and birth of my eldest’ (2022).
The spoken word section expresses the mystery of nature and the nurture of our mother’s womb:
‘It speaks to ghosts and souls alike
Springs to life, doesn’t think twice
Wrapped in the blood-sail, bathed in snow
Nailed to the source and it won’t let go
Fed on the Bible, grown from trees
It opened the mind and the heart was free
A home in the silence safe from sound
Where trouble sleeps and the light is found’
On 6 and 7 February 1992, in a parallel to events in London less than four months earlier, David again joined Ryuichi and his band onstage – this time it was in Tokyo and he was accompanied by Ingrid – the song performed being the as-yet-unreleased ‘Heartbeat (Tainai Kaiki II)’. By the end of that month, the couple were reported to have married in a private ceremony in Minneapolis, Ingrid famously describing how ‘David flew into Minneapolis for one day from London. We got married in my apartment with just my two cats as witnesses. And then he had to fly back in the morning.’
In May, London was the venue for press activity promoting the release of the Sylvian/Sakamoto single and the European release of the Heartbeat album. On the latter, the original ‘Tainai Kaiki’ was gone and in its place was the new version. ‘It got such a positive response from everybody that it finally ended up on the album,’ Sylvian explained. Alongside it was an additional track also featuring David and Ingrid – ‘Cloud #9’. No doubt this was how they felt when on 11 May there was a civil marriage ceremony at the Registry Office in Chelsea.
Three days later, on 14 May, there was a showcase event held at Smith’s Galleries in Covent Garden. Ryuichi played two pieces on piano and then was joined for ‘Heartbeat (Tainai Kaiki II)’ by David and Ingrid, who sat on high stools alongside to perform the song. I’ve only ever seen a short, grainy, video snippet of the performance.
The three performers were interviewed individually and the clips became familiar from various subsequent airings on MTV. ‘It’s the beginning of a great union between two people, which is David and I,’ said Ingrid. ‘But I’ve always wanted to work with Ryuichi and David, so to think that we’ve created something so beautiful is special in itself, you know.’
On the same day, the photographer Kevin Westenberg met up with Sakamoto, Sylvian and Chavez at the Pembridge Court Hotel in Kensington. Earlier in the year he had taken pictures of Robert Fripp, Trey Gunn and Sylvian ahead of the trio’s debut shows in Japan in March. Now the assignment was different.
‘I was asked by the amazing Catherine McRea at Virgin Records to direct a video for the newest single collaboration of Sylvian/Sakamoto called ‘Heartbeat’ featuring the new couple also of David and Ingrid Chavez,’ Kevin remembers. ‘Catherine and I went for a meeting with everyone to confirm the concept and say hellos etc., etc. I had never done a big budget video before so new territory. Tons of prep and sh*tting myself. Above all as a fan, I had purchased ALL of their previous collaborative singles and EPs so the ability to contribute was quite an honour. ‘Bamboo Houses’, ‘Forbidden Colours’ from the Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence soundtrack were both mainstays in my life then. Still sound great now.
‘I also need to mention being a huge Ryuichi Sakamoto fan and still have every YMO release since the beginning. This would be the first day to meet Ingrid and I only knew a bit about her and the ‘Prince’ connection. We would go on to cross paths much more after this.’
Kevin took the stunning portrait below in the hotel gardens.
‘I was experimenting with different types of colour films and processes and here a single flash set-up that was a quick set but usually had various degrees of success. To 1992 eyes it was a victory. After this photo was taken we all got horribly drunk in the bar to the point where David actually had to go pass out.’
‘That was one of the best nights of my life,’ says McRae. ‘Tequila slammers, all on the Virgin tab. Hilarious!’ As for David, Kevin concludes that the ‘poor guy was clearly not used to that level of abuse! A day and night to remember with the video shoot day looming a week from today… Good Times!
‘It was an honour to be involved with that video. Sakamoto has to be one of Japan’s most enduring and accomplished artists for sure.’ (2020)
Whilst Westenberg has photographed many iconic names from the music world, this remains his only music video. Its saturated colours bring to mind some of his most distinctive portrait work, a golden orange infusing proceedings with a sunshine glow.
There are images from nature – the bird of prey summoning primeval forces, the pure white doves of love and peace, and a butterfly whose full glory emerges from the unlikely sanctuary of the chrysalis.
Most enjoyable for me is the interaction between the performers. As Sylvian and Chavez incant the spoken word section, they face one another, eyes closely examining one another’s expression, and then a smile gives way to a kiss. A time, a place. Art expresses life.
‘Heartbeat (Tainai Kaiki II)’
Talking by John Cage from Mureau
Words by David Sylvian & Ryuichi Sakamoto. Music by Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Sylvian & Arto Lindsay.
Produced by David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Mixed by David Sylvian/Ryuichi Sakamoto/Lolly Grodner. From Heartbeat, Virgin America, 1992.
Recorded at Right Track Studios, New York.
lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
‘Heartbeat (Tainai Kaiki II) – live’
Victor Bailey – bass; Manu Katché – drums; Everton Nelson – violin; Prabjote Kaur Oshn – violin; Scott Roberts – percussion, trumpet, vocal; Ryuichi Sakamoto – keyboards, piano, computer, vocal; Vivian Saunders – vocal; Derek Sivers – guitar; Satoshi Tomiie – keyboards, piano, computer
Guests (Tokyo shows on Feb 6 & 7, 1992): Ingrid Chavez – vocal; David Sylvian – vocal
All quotes from Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Sylvian are taken from interviews in 1992 unless stated. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
My thanks to Kevin Westenberg, and to Marta Roia for translations from the MTV Italy broadcast.
Interviewer: ‘Can you recall any personal favourite recording sessions or appearances where something ‘clicked’ and made it particularly rewarding?’
‘‘Heartbeat’ comes straight to mind. Because that was the piece that brought Ingrid and I together. So that piece is immensely important in my life.’ David Sylvian, 2000