Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.
In Stephen Nomura Schible’s moving documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017), we are brought into the world of Ryuichi Sakamoto, an innovative Japanese composer responsible for not only a myriad of diverse compositional works, but also for the iconic scores of such films as Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), The Last Emperor (1987), and Gohatto (1999). Shot over the course of five years, Coda allows us a glimpse at the composer at work, be it through traditional means as he notates by hand on manuscript at his Steinway grand piano, or in experimental mode, recording ambient sound in pursuit of complimentary timbres to include in his compositions. We watch as Sakamoto enthusiastically records the tranquil din of rain collecting in a bucket, the crunch of his boots meeting dry leaves on a forest floor, and the strained notes of a piano ravaged by a devastating tsunami. The natural world, Sakamoto explains, is “full of sounds…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.”
Whilst Coda was being filmed, Sakamoto was diagnosed with stage III throat cancer and, for the first time in decades, the composer made the tough decision to take a break from his work. But he found it impossible to keep away from doing what he loved most. During his hiatus Sakamoto was contacted by director Alejandro González Iñárritu to score his latest film The Revenant (2015), a brutal western epic that depicts one man’s trek across the uncompromising U.S. wilderness in pursuit of a colleague who murdered of his son. Sakamoto admired the director (who had previously used several of Sakamoto’s pieces in his 2002 film Babel) and his filmography, and it proved too enticing a scoring challenge for the composer to decline. Despite his concerns that he would be unable to make the production deadline due to the discomfort his illness was causing him, Sakamoto turned out a wonderfully atmospheric score with the assistance of his frequent collaborator, electronic artist Alva Noto (a.k.a. Carsten Nicolai), and contributions from Bryce Dessner, best known for his work with rock band The National. The trio composed a trove of diverse cues (both individually and through collaboration) using an evocative sound palette that features strings (with a focus on cello), electronic pulsations, the eerie tones of the ondes martenot, drums, piano, and a variety of ambient sounds. In consultation with Iñárritu and the film’s sound editor Martín Hernández, the cues were then edited together to create richly textured pieces for use within the film.
On the surface, The Revenant’s story may focus on revenge, but it is also a film about grief and, most strikingly, the beautiful chaos of the natural world. Throughout the film we are intimately acquainted with the icy landscapes, dense forests, and tempestuous rivers of the American frontier which Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) must endure as he seeks out John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). We watch, gripped with fear and dread, as this wilderness terrorizes Glass’s body and mind as he fights to stay alive. Despite his trials, we are also made intensely aware of the untamed terrain’s captivating beauty, often through the perspective of the exhausted Glass who pauses on occasion to take in nature’s wonders, despite his travails, and such moments are heightened through the film’s score. Speaking with The Vinyl Factory about his approach to his work on The Revenant’s score, Sakamoto revealed, “It was always my intention to write something that complements the stark, cold simplicity of nature…I wanted the music to complement nature, be an extension of the cold, hard, but incredibly beautiful images.”
Sakamoto's main musical theme for The Revenant appears and reappears throughout the film, working alongside the images of towering treetops, snowstorms, and deadly rapids, to simultaneously highlight nature’s cool indifference to Glass’s plight, as well as to underscore his bereavement over his son’s death as the emotional core of the film. Centered on a two-note figure periodically performed on strings, the sparse theme is icily-detached and ominous, though lofty in its breadth, conveying the harsh winter terrain that Glass must traverse. It also allows for space to incorporate diegetic sound. For example, when Glass befriends Hikuc, a Pawnee tribesman who is also traveling alone, the theme is heard after Glass explains to Hikuc that the wounds all over his body were caused by a grizzly bear attack, and the strained, heartbroken strings punctuate the onscreen sounds of persistent wind, a crackling fire, insect and bird life, and a babbling stream, combining to create a piece that fuses the controlled environment of the recording studio with that of the untameable wild. In another scene, the theme's two-note figure appears on high-register strings when Glass dreams of his departed son amongst the ruins of a crumbling church. Here the strings fuse with what sounds like a chorus of insects keeping time, climaxing as the bereft Glass embraces the young man.
Like the endless landscape itself, Sakamoto’s main theme feels as though it could go on without end, and the space, the “breath” between tones, allows the listener/viewer time to meditate simultaneously upon both Glass’s hardships and the stunning vistas that he encounters. Listening to a recording of the theme separated from the film, one is made even more aware of the quiet that surrounds the music, as well as Sakamoto’s incorporation of the natural world. We hear inhalation and exhalation of breath, either the musicians in anticipation of their bowing or, perhaps, DiCaprio’s (his labored breathing is its own featured player on the soundtrack) and, faintly rippling in the background, trickling water that sounds not unlike the rain we see Sakamoto recording outside his apartment in Coda.