Through music, Ryuichi Sakamoto built worlds where change was eternal and exploration critical, writes Prahlad Srihari.
Ryuichi Sakamoto; 1952-2023. Image via Facebook/@ryuichisakamoto
Last Updated: 05.12 PM, Apr 04, 2023
“I'M FASCINATED by the notion of a perpetual sound,” says Ryuichi Sakamoto as he plays a note on his Steinway and holds the key till the sound fades into nothingness. “One that won’t dissipate over time”.
The scene arrives halfway into Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, a moving chronicle of the Japanese musician coming to terms with his mortality and reflecting on art as a finite representation of the infinite. In 2014, Sakamoto had been diagnosed with throat cancer. The enforced creative hiatus, as he recovered from the illness, allowed him a chance to look back on his legacy as a composer and electronic music pioneer. In the wake of his passing, the film therefore plays as a fine tribute to Sakamoto the man and the musician.
Archival footage of live performances with the synth-pop band Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) and clips from the films Sakamoto scored take us back in time. But what stands out most is the private footage of him travelling, experimenting, composing and preparing for the future. We meet a restless artist eager to keep creating even in remission. Form and content come together sneakily in the making of a film about an artist’s drive to create. Watching Sakamoto walk us through his creative process is endlessly fascinating. He fishes for sounds and ideas in the melting glaciers in the Arctic, in the rain falling into a bucket, in a piano that barely survived the devastation of the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami. When he hits the keys on this “corpse of a piano that drowned”, there is a dissonant ring. But the piano, he claims, isn’t out of tune. Rather, the tsunami, acting as “a force of restoration”, has brought the piano back to its natural state. “Matter taken from nature is moulded by human industry, by the sum strength of civilisation,” he says. “The piano is tuned by force to please our ears or ideals; it’s a condition that feels natural to us humans. But from nature’s perspective, it’s very unnatural”.
This tension between nature vs humans/civilisation/technology is conveyed in the spacey piano chords and breezy synths of Sakamoto’s music. It’s the same tension that lies at the heart of his score for Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s wilderness epic The Revenant. We can sense it in the pause between the two chords of its very title theme. Sakamoto was still recovering from his 2014 diagnosis when he got the call from the Mexican director about the project. We in fact see the musician work on the score in Coda.
The score accompanies Leonardo DiCaprio’s real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass on a most miserable trek through the uncharted wilderness of 1820s America. Glass is mauled by a bear, left for dead by a fur trapper who goes on to kill his son right before his eyes, is chased off a cliff, swept downstream in a frozen river, and reduced to a broken shell. As he drags himself back on a quest for bloody vengeance, the music deepens the poignancy of a one-man battle against the elements. Sakamoto provides a pulse to Innaritu’s rugged survival story that becomes a bit of an endurance test, reminding the film to breathe every now and again.
Elegiac strings and a gentle piano are the stars in a layered soundscape that capture the push-pull between beauty and brutality in the natural world. Recognisable earmarks of Sakamoto’s work carry over: there are meditative stretches; there are ambient passages; there are disquieting pauses. His cues complement the visuals without ever trying to overexplain, stay in tune with the desperation DiCaprio externalises via physicality or the rage bubbling underneath without telling us how to feel, and inform the film’s themes without burrowing too deep into them. Pauses weaved into this rich sonic tapestry lull viewers into a false sense of security, before the next act of brutality curdles the blood.
Traditionally, the frontier is positioned as a world meant for man to conquer and bend to his will. The Revenant suggests man must work with or around nature and respect its laws if he wishes to survive. Glass learns to take what nature gives him: he sleeps inside the carcass of a horse to shelter himself from the cold; he eats whatever he can forage, from the raw liver of a dead bison to raw fish from a mountain stream. If he is to survive, he must become an unstoppable force of nature himself.
Sakamoto’s sparse arrangements reinforce the cold bleakness of the frontier. Just listening to the score, even if you may never have seen the film, will conjure images of snow-covered mountains, icy flowing rivers and frigid vistas. “I always thought the real main character in this film is nature,” he said in an interview. “Not only the images but the sounds of nature act — including the sound of the bear. So, to respect the sounds of nature, I thought the music shouldn’t be too narrative. I wanted my music to be like a part of the sound of nature.”
A two-note phrase followed by a three-note phrase on strings is used as a plaintive refrain. Sometimes, it takes on a forboding quality. Sometimes, it counterbalances the unremitting grimness of the film. Sometimes, it adds texture and shade from the periphery. A mournful cello plays as Glass dreams of his past life — like a requiem for those lost and the humanity lost in the face of unforgiving conditions. Orchestral chords convey his determination to survive so he can exact revenge. The theremin-like tones of an ondes martenot act as accompaniment to the scene where Glass slices open his own dead horse and crawls inside to keep warm.
Sakamoto composed the score in concert with long-time collaborator Carsten Nicolai (as Alva Noto) and The National’s Bryce Dessner. What the trio cooked up together represents a strain of composition seldom heard in today’s films, as they pull off a tricky balancing act between expressing too much and too little, between being too ornate and too subtle, with their music. Cues were composed individually and as a group, then layered and mixed. One of the musicians Sakamoto had brought on for the orchestration has since grown into a more familiar name: the Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir. Indeed, it’s the strange collaborative nature of the score that rendered it ineligible for Oscar qualification. The Academy could not figure out a way to separate each musician’s contributions.
For those with a keen ear for music, recognising Sakamoto’s contributions should not be as hard. Over a career of five decades, his music has always stayed loyal to an electronic spirit while being grounded in melodic traditions. We hear it in his debut effort: the simple yet sublime score for Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (in which Sakamoto starred opposite David Bowie). We hear it in his YMO compositions. We hear it in The Revenant. There is a versatility to his music, no matter the pet themes and personal stylings of filmmakers: he feels just at home composing for the melodramas of Pedro Almodovar as he does for the neo-noir mysteries of Brian de Palma. There is a tangibility to his music: listening to his score on Bernardo Bertolucci’s desert odyssey The Sheltering Sky is enough to make you thirsty.
Through music, Sakamoto built worlds where change was eternal and exploration critical. Eastern and Western sounds, Debussy and the Beatles, noise and melody, avant-garde and pop, all co-existed in harmonious discordance. Somehow, the music felt both crystalline and formless in its beauty. “The world is full of sounds. We don’t normally hear them as 'music',” he says in Coda. “I have a strong desire to incorporate them into my work, mix them with instruments into one soundscape. A sonic blending that is both chaotic and unified.”
Among his lesser-known works was the score he composed for a 2002 documentary about Jacques Derrida. As befits a subject considered the father of deconstruction, the film attempts to deconstruct the French philosopher just as he deconstructed language, history and cinema. The portrait that emerges is of a man who never stopped questioning, and changed how we look at everything. Sakamoto shared a similar eternal inquisitiveness and expanded how we look at music, by deconstructing sounds and mixing them to atypical but always tuneful results.