If you stop to think about it, it isn’t hard to come to the conclusion that Ryuichi Sakamoto has gotten lazy with age. The thing is that except for the failed “Chasm” (2004) - an album that failed both in its efforts to reclaim the colourful pop of the Yellow Magic Orchestra period and its attempt to move closer to the electronic vanguard of the moment (and which may have been a spiteful response to the success of Sketch Show, the project that his old buddies in the YMO had set up behind his back) - almost everything that he has released in the last ten years are albums of piano alone, in which he dedicates himself to revisiting his overwhelming catalogue over and over again. And if we say “almost everything”, it’s because there are exceptions: a soundtrack here and there, that impressive collection of piano improvisations that is “Out Of Noise” (2009) and, above all, the albums that he has recorded with Alva Noto, Fennesz and Christopher Willits.
Even so, the latter aren’t titles that can help him to shake off that reputation for laziness, because in general the Japanese musician has limited himself to recording some piano improvisations, which he then sent to the young squire in question to be slaved over and manipulated in the studio until the fragments of sound were turned into albums of great beauty. Then later, since they had to tour, he took advantage of the situation to plot more recordings to feed the legend and beef up the aura of the “artist who’s in shape in spite of his age” - that was a piece of cake for him. It’s true that in the albums that have arisen from these alliances, Sakamoto has acted as an interpreter and muse, and perhaps as a draw (it is very possible that Alva Noto wouldn’t be who he is today without “Vriooon”, the album they released together in 2002), but he has never wanted to assume the role of producer. So each of the collaborations has had its own personality, in which the style of the mate on board has been more decisive than his own.
In Willits’ case, this style involves dipping layers and layers of guitars into a sea of effects and digital processing. In the twosome’s first collaboration, “Ocean Fire” (2007), these guitars embraced doodling on the piano and (somewhat unusually) Sakamoto’s improvisations on the laptop to construct a meditation on the power of the sea: of a dark, terrifying sea, on the brink of collapse, with bottom-dwellers gliding by and death lurking behind every treacherous wave. Uncomfortable and full of tension, it was an album that played with dark ambient, electro-acoustic, and even noise, and it didn’t make anything easy for the listeners. That is why it went almost unnoticed when it was released, and it was only appreciated by the most adventurous ears - a destiny that also seems to await “Ancient Future”, an improved and refined version of its predecessor.
The plot line, in this case, revolves around “the creation, acceptance and completion of one's fate and all of life's experiences, following a trajectory through inner conflict, resolution and, ultimately, acceptance”. This is a trajectory that for Willits and Sakamoto - and according to what you can hear on the album - has much more to do with crossing a vale of tears than enjoying the green pastures and pleasures offered by nature. At least that is what one gets from the timid piano arabesques featured in “Reticent Reminiscence”, the initial piece. These arabesques are drowned under waves of expansive sound, under the continual melancholic tones that Willits lays out around them. The air of melancholy is amplified in “Abandoned Silence”, which adds timid guitar flourishes and rainy field recordings to the equation, while “I Don’t Want To Understand” hits atonal figures and textures of earthly nature hard, which clash into each other while a strange rhythmic pattern leads the songs with a hypnotic cadence.
The most abstract moment of the album comes with “Levitation”, a wonderful exercise in thick-grain ambient, which gives way to the brilliant melodic progressions of “Releasing”. The latter is the only piece in which the couple allow themselves to leave behind the grey, melancholy tone that dominates throughout “Ancient Future”, letting themselves be caressed by rays of sunshine. But it is a short recess, because the melancholy returns for the closing, for that ocean of serenity that is “Completion”, which ends the trajectory majestically, barely thirty-two minutes after its beginning (brevity that accentuates the album’s many virtues). It leaves in the air the idea that after a life dedicated to contemplation, full of privations, it is possible to look back and rejoice in what you have achieved. It’s a sort of gentle Zen philosophy that fits this small jewel of contemplative ambient like a glove; one can tell it has been done with care and a love for detail, and it confirms that the collaboration between Willits and Sakamoto can reach great heights.