Ryuichi Sakamoto Details 'Gigantic' Score to 'Birdman' Director's 'The Revenant'

Veteran composer on his Golden Globe-nominated soundtrack

Ryuichi Sakamoto Credit: Stefania D'Alessandro/Getty

Following four Oscars for Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — and wide acclaim for its kinetic jazz score — director Alejandro González Iñárritu has tapped veteran composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and electronic craftsman Alva Noto to helm music for his highly anticipated follow-up, The Revenant.

Sakamoto is a veteran of film scoring — his soundtrack for 1983's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a pioneering work of analog synth, and he nabbed an Academy Award for 1987's The Last Emperor. However, The Revenant reunites him with electronic musician Carsten "Alva Noto" Nicolai, reigniting one of the most fruitful partnerships in his long, prolific career. Together, between 2002 and 2011, Sakamoto and Nicolai made five discs of contemporary ambient music's most intriguing tapestries: tender piano improv processed into brittle, gorgeous glitchwork. The Revenant finds them working separately, together and layered alongside chiming modern minimalist Bryce Dessner of the National. Penning music for the western thriller also marks one of Sakamoto's first projects since being sidelined with throat cancer, ending his first and only creative hiatus in a career that dates back to dance pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978.

Rolling Stone met with Sakamoto in his synth-lined New York studio to discuss bouncing back and creating the intense score — which is already up for a Golden Globe.

You were sidelined for a couple of years.
Yeah, I was diagnosed last June. So, I decided to cancel all the projects. Everything. I couldn't cancel just a few here, but still doing this. So I canceled everything. … I had plenty of time not doing anything, maybe since I was early-20s or something, when I was a student. First time in 40 years. … Of course, treatment was the most important thing and I had the most harsh, physically painful time in my life. I almost couldn't eat, or I almost couldn't swallow my own saliva.

What was causing that in the treatment?
It was kind of a side effect. Is it really side? It's the effect. It broke the cancer cells. Of course the healthy cells got a really huge reaction obviously.

When did you get the diagnosis that you were cancer free?
Um. Well. That's the thing. Right now I'm good. I feel better. Much, much better. I feel energy inside, but you never know. The cancer might come back in three years, five years, maybe 10 years. Also the radiation makes your immune system really low. It means I'm very welcoming [of] another cancer in my body. So I have to be very careful. I'm reinforcing my immune system right now. Special diet, lots of supplements and yoga, exercise.

What did you do with all this spare time you had?
Every person has something in their minds: "This book, I wanted to read this book for 40 years but I couldn't find the time." So, now it the right time to do it. Old movies, or whatever. Or music also. I had never really liked the music by Gabriel Fauré, but just by chance listening to some pieces by him, I got very interested. So I listened to almost everything. All the pieces written by him. I was digging deeper and deeper. I'm not sure I still like his music or not, but it's interesting.

The first project you did after your hiatus was a soundtrack to a Japanese movie, Haha to Kuraseba. What did it feel like to jump into something?
I got this offer before I was diagnosed last year. Since I recovered now I have to do that. [Laughs.] They'd been waiting. This director is 83 years old, one of the Japanese film directors who knew the golden age of the old Japanese movies. The Ozu, Mizoguchi era. So I had to do that. Also, the main character, the actress is Sayuri Yoshinaga. She is the national treasure of Japan since she was a teen. She's like a queen of Japan. So there's no way to reject the offer, really. [Laughs.]

How did you find out Alejandro Iñárritu wanted you for The Revenant?
Alejandro used two pieces of my music in Babel. At that time I had a phone conversation with Alejandro. Didn't meet him, but the way he used my music in the end of the film was very, very good, very impressive. Cinematic. I was so moved. Then, 2010, when I had North American tour just by myself on the piano, we did a concert in L.A. So I invited Alejandro and finally we met. He was very handsome. [Laughs.] Then, this year all of a sudden we got a phone call from his office saying almost like, "Come to L.A. tomorrow." [Laughs.] "We need a layer of sounds!"

 It was in the middle of the first year after the treatment. So I was not really recovered, my energy level was maybe 60 percent or something. I felt really weak. But working for Alejandro was maybe a once in a life thing. Maybe twice. [Laughs.] So, I had a lot of talk with my manager-slash-partner. She pushed me a lot. So, okay, let's go to L.A. 

So you went to L.A.?
Yeah. In May. Then we saw the film. It was a very early version of the film.

Do you know what the temp music was?
He used a lot of my music. That's good. Carsten's music, our collaboration too.

You and Alva Noto, did you think your music together was done? After you released five records they were tied up neatly in an actual box. It made it seem like, "Okay this is done now."
Yeah, we felt … it's done. I mean, five albums is a lot. … And then suddenly we got this offer and what reason I called Carsten was simply, physically, the amount of music for this film is just gigantic. Gigantic. And naturally Alejandro wants acoustic music, like strings or whatever and very, um, edgy electronic music. Processed music. So it seemed very naturally to call Carsten you know? And also we have the third person, Bryce.

And Bryce is working with you guys or is he doing stuff separately?
Yeah, by himself. But you know, Alejandro combines three different pieces into one. Even for us, it's very hard to recognize which part is mine and which part is Carsten. … Some parts are a very complex combination of the three of us.

Did Alejandro give you guys instructions?
Alejandro has an amazing sense of audio/visual. He has a great ear and an amazing memory too. Memory of sounds and movements and colors and everything. That first day we went to the stage for the final film with the gigantic screen and big speakers with maybe 20 people working on computers. And so we watch 10 minutes, 15 minutes, and after that Alejandro was so precisely like, "The level of that wind, the level of that guy's shouting … replace it." Like, 50 notes. Amazing memories and senses. So he does that about music too. And uh, just the tiny, tiny detail of the difference between the temp of music that he liked and the music we made, he gave us comments. So precise, amazing.

Do you like getting instructions like that or do you sometimes feel like, "This is my stuff, don't touch it"?
Sometimes, we don't understand what he wants to hear. He's trying to explain, but he's not a musician, so he doesn't have the language of music, but he's really trying to express what he needs — but sometimes we can't satisfy him. It's very challenging. Challenging is good. You know, at this age, you know, you need a challenge. But, on the other hand, you know, "Come on, this is my music, let me do it." And I, actually, about one piece of music in the middle of the film, we had a serious argument. I literally wrote an email to him, you know, "Trust me, trust me, my music is better than this temp music. Let me record it with real musicians, you'll hear it." And I won. Yes! I won. [Laughs.]

So many movie scores right now owe so much to what you were doing 30 years ago. Do you ever watch a contemporary movie, and then feel like, "Oh, that guy has clearly heard my stuff?"
Mmmm, not really. Just recently we went to see The Martian and I was almost going to leave the cinema because the loudness is amazing and just the sequence of the toms or big drums — "Paaah!" So much reverb, so much; deep, deep reverb. So loudness and the percussion, very similar percussions everywhere — "Pah! Pah! Pah! Brrrgh! — some very similar phrases from that library which anyone can buy. I'm sure they are doing drag and drop. I was fed up.

The hip-hop community has embraced your stuff so deeply, do you have a favorite song that sampled one of your songs?
Actually, the piece Alejandro used in Babel is called "Bibo No Aozora," in short "Bibo." This piece, "Bibo," has been used by the R&B guys a lot, so this piece of music is working very hard for us. I had never thought … Well the original piece is very kind of melancholic, but sweet music. Maybe sweetness is related to R&B, I don't know, but somehow those guys really like this piece. The other thing that I liked was somebody covered the piece I composed for the Barcelona Olympics, which happened in 1992. It was kind of a symphonic piece, covered by one of the Flying Lotus label guys. I think he's very talented, maybe a bass player?

Thundercat ...
His way of covering this piece was very unique and very good.

Do you have any memories about appearing in Madonna's "Rain" video in 1993?
Yes, yes, I remember everything vividly. I thought Madonna was a fan of mine. "Wow! Really? Madonna listens to my music?" I was really — wow — happy. I found out that, it was the director of the video, Mark [Romanek]. I introduced myself, "Hi, Madonna, it's Ryuichi, thank you for calling me." And Madonna [is like], "OK."