SakamotoWHILE FAR FROM A HOUSEHOLD NAME ON OUR SHORES (and I should add—being an admirer, with chagrin—despite an Oscar, Grammy and two Golden Globe awards), Japanese composer-performer Ryuichi Sakamoto holds a globally prominent position when it comes to the mutually beneficial collision of art and ecology, having recently been honored with a UN Environment Programme Eco Award in 2009.

Sakamoto’s been involved with green pursuits since at least 1994, when he first moved away from plastic-jewel-case CD packaging to biodegradable paper sleeves. And he’s traversed some mighty terrain since then—as he puts it, “turning ego into eco”—which includes his latest release, Out of Noise, featuring two haunting tracks (“Ice” and “Glacier”) inspired by a Cape Farewell Project trip to Greenland viewing imperiled arctic glaciers.

Sakamoto—whose music encompasses classical, experimental, film scores, ambient, pop, jazz and electronica—is at the forefront of a larger movement that’s afoot. The vibrant relationship between the worlds of music and that of environmental concern has unquestionably gained momentum of late, and has seen genuine far-reaching and -ranging adoption (and not mere feel-good, get-on-the-bandwagon lip service to sell more tickets and product) by artists as diverse as Willie Nelson, Radiohead, Melissa Etheridge, the Roots, Pearl Jam, Moby, Bonnie Raitt, the Dave Matthews Band and Green Day. Good for the Earth? Absolutely! Good for your ears? Ditto that, and perhaps coming this summer, in a carbon-neutral manner, to a concert venue near you.
ecomainRETURNING TO SAKAMOTO’S ACHIEVEMENTS, before widening the gyre to include larger industry eco-trends and best practices, it’s easy to be inspired by his actions. Consider the following: In 2001 he used a small windmill and solar panel—both portable, of course—to generate energy during a tour; by 2005 he had completed two 100-percent carbon-free tours of Japan. He also used biodegradable cups, plates and garbage bags; set up flyer kiosks where patrons could choose the materials they wanted rather than be presented with a bundle that would end up in the trash; he also requested upcoming concert attendees to utilize as much public transportation as possible. What then remained of carbon emissions were offset with carbon-credit purchases from alternative energy companies. In 2006 his Japanese record label, commmons (the extra m is for music), became the nation’s first green label, operating its administrative activities using alternative, renewable energy, with all packaging completely carbon-free the following year.

outfnoiseAnd there’s more: Sakamoto established moreTrees in 2007 as a means to conserve and plant trees in Japan and abroad. Audi Japan sponsored his fall/winter 2009 European tour, in support of Out of Noise, to offset carbon emissions (the just-prior Japanese tour even included a carbon-offset cost in the ticket price). Out of Noise, as mentioned earlier, includes two mesmerizing compositions inspired by his Cape Farewell Project trip. Sakamoto includes ambient sounds recorded both above and below the sea—you discern the cry of seabirds and dripping of meltwater within a gently cascading soundscape of acoustic and electronic instrumentation: it’s both ominous and soothing/meditational in an Enoesque “music for …” kind of way, a musique concrete decrying cataclysmic climate change. (Read PopMatter’s insightful review of Out of Noise.)

But Sakamoto can’t do it alone. Other artists (those listed above and many more) and organizations are hoisting high the green banner when it comes to music. Reverb, a nonprofit formed in 2004 that works with green rock tours, regularly sets up eco-villages with environmental displays and activities at shows, provides carbon offsets for attendees, displays eco-slideshows on venue jumbotrons, assists with biodiesel fuelings and waste recycling/reducing, and lots, lots more. MusicMatters, a for-profit, is another leader, practicing “Effect Marketing.” It describes this as “[g]oing beyond just promoting awareness of a cause or product … incorporat[ing] initiatives that encourage consumers to take action and produce quantifiable results on important and environmental and social issues.” MusicMatters works with musicians as well as a wide variety of companies (e.g., Annie’s, Ben & Jerry’s, Clif Bar, Nature’s Path, New Leaf Paper, Utne, Working Assets).

green-music-festivalIn the greater scheme of things (and doesn’t it always come to that?), do these ventures make a real impact on the environment? According to Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at Carnegie Institution and as reported in The New York Times, “In general, these offsets do some good, in the sense they usually help fund projects that are beneficial.” He goes on to state that the direct benefits are hypothetical as carbon offsets defer future emissions, not what’s being produced by the tour at that time. But these tours, as pointed out, are also utilizing other creative means to curtail emissions (Radiohead’s use of low-power LED concert lighting a few years ago also comes readily to mind) and their green evangelical/educational component is highly significant, which, couched in a pop-culture setting and given a grand stage, certainly doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

From “out of noise” a powerful message can emerge, turning “ego to eco”—it’s as true coming from Ryuichi Sakamoto as it is from Willie Nelson or Green Day. And the audience, potential change agents all, is listening.


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