The Shed’s ‘KAGAMI’ Gave Us Enchantment Without Empathy

The month-long event resurrected composer Ryuichi Sakamoto for an experience as uncanny as it is enchanting—and one that makes an argument for letting the dead stay that way.

I sit in a circle of strangers with a headset over my face, waiting for a dead composer to play the piano. Before Ryuichi Sakamoto appears via the augmented reality device, I stare at a square taped to the floor, which outlines the boundaries of our star and see the bewildered faces of the audience members across from me, anxious for the virtual performance to begin. Sakamoto fades into view and begins playing “Before Long” immediately. Digital sakura blossoms fall from the ceiling.

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One view audience members see during ‘KAGAMI’. Courtesy of Tin Drum

What I’m experiencing is KAGAMI, a mixed-reality concert that premiered at the Shed in New York City. Made in collaboration with Sakamoto before his passing in March of 2023, the show digitally revives the Oscar-winning composer for a ten-piece set. The setting is intimate, and the audience is encouraged to leave their seats. I stand up early, no novice to virtual art and entertainment, to encourage others to do the same. We stand over Sakamoto’s shoulder, catch frozen raindrops that float above our heads, and pace through narrow corridors carved by swirling photographs of the city. KAGAMI shows the future of concerts as foreseen by the metaverse, but as of now, is trapped by the limitations of death.

Before entering the concert hall—I use this term loosely, as the space is more like a high-tech black box theater with a circle of stage lights, a sound system and sturdy armchairs—the audience reads a greeting in Sakomoto’s own words: “This virtual me will not age, and will continue to play the piano for years, decades, centuries.” The Sakamoto fossilized for this performance is in his seventies, white-haired and still healthy. Even his voice is preserved. He addresses the audience just twice during KAGAMI, once to explain his final piece, a tribute to Bernardo Bertolucci, his longtime friend and director of The Last Emperor.

The legendary composer Ryuichi Sakamoto was resurrected (sort of) at The Shed. Photographed in 2022 by Luigi and Iango

While Sakamoto’s music is enchanting, the technology, which should elevate the concert experience, ultimately hinders it. Sakamoto, whose avatar is constructed via the 3D scanning that captured his essence, is still clearly a CGI projection. His piano is more jarringly situated in the Uncanny Valley, more of a video game set piece than a physical instrument. The animated elements that are supposed to make the experience more magical, like snowflakes and a tree that grows roots and changes colors, shake, glitch and disappear when you get too close. The headsets frequently disconnect, and people frantically whisper to technicians, trying to resurrect the composer again and again. Because the headsets place the Sakatomo’s projection closer to your eyes than the physical world, other audience members become translucent figures. KAGAMI becomes a concert for and by ghosts.

More jarring than the augmented reality challenges, however, was the audio. Given that the Shed poured $475 million dollars into the arts center, I expected a robust, realistic sound that would vibrate through my bones as if I were at Carnegie Hall. But the audio was amplified gently, as if Tin Drum was afraid too much sound would disrupt the visual experience. The headsets also had a loud fan, which dangled from my neck and produced a whirring that was a constant distraction. It caused KAGAMI to lose the viscerality that makes live music so enjoyable. The metaverse is so fascinated with its own optical abilities that it forgets about the other somatic sensations that make a world real: ears ringing, fingers trembling, legs touching the floor.

Hindered by parlor tricks, Sakamoto’s performance was overwhelmingly sad. Here is one of the greatest composers in the world, rendered unconvincingly, and limited to ten songs, looping infinitely. One day, we might have 8K headsets that can bring Sakamoto to life (Apple’s new AR/VR headset, Vision Pro, brings a little over 4K resolution to each eye) and with artificial intelligence, which has been able to generate convincing covers by Ariana Grande and Michael Jackson, Sakamoto could even begin to compose new works.

That, of course, raises another concern. Sakamoto was involved in KAGAMI, but extending concerts without the composer’s creative input is questionable. Who’s to say the Shed’s Creative Director couldn’t pivot in a direction that did not align with Sakamoto’s vision? I think of what happened to soft-spoken Bob Ross, who became a brand through his PBS show The Joy of Painting, and how his likeness was monetized after his death. As told in the documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed, a happy little business partnership soured when Ross’s posthumous intellectual property holders, Annette and Walt Kowalski, prioritized profit over reputation. Ross’s heir, Steve, fought to gain the rights back, hoping to honor his father’s vision, but the Kowalskis remain in control to this day.

People in VR headsets in a dimly-lit space
‘KAGAMI’ in the Griffin Theater at The Shed. By Ryan Muir

. With a living artist, there is collaboration and creative control, and less ambiguousness about how a project might evolve over the years. When life ends, we need not demand that artists continue to make content. We should cherish Sakamoto’s oeuvre and what he contributed to the world, then close the piano lid and remove the headset.

The Shed’s ‘KAGAMI’ Gave Us Enchantment Without Empathy