Ryuichi Sakamoto How cancer changed the composer’s relationship with music

Cover Image - Ryuichi Sakamoto
WordsAlex Kahl

You might not know Ryuichi Sakamoto by name, but it’s very likely you know his work. He’s the man behind the brilliant soundtrack of The Revenant which sits on his impressive roster of composing credits with films like Women Without Men and Call Me By Your Name.

But the Japanese musician has much more up his sleeve; he’s released 19 albums over the course of his career, moving between electronic, classical and hip-hop like flitting through a phonebook.

In 2014 though, Ryuichi was diagnosed with throat cancer and took a year-long hiatus for treatment. Unsurprisingly, this experience grounded him, leading him to approach his work differently than before. The outcome is his latest album async, meaning so much to him that for the first time he wishes to stay on course and cultivate a single sound.

A documentary released this summer - RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: CODA - follows Ryuichi's journey, capturing the many shifts and turns in his career. Below, he talks about overcoming illness, his approach to film music and the making of his latest album.

On emotions and music

I don’t know why but sometimes I am caught by this melancholy. A feeling of sadness about human beings and the struggle between us and nature — even when I was a teen. This was influenced by listening to the music of Bach, which was the very first music I came to like. I was forced to play Bach’s inventions from the second grade and I really loved it. Every time a very tragic event happened like 9/11 or 3/11 in Japan, there were periods where I could not listen to nor think about music. Then, the first music I started listening to again was Bach’s Matthew Passion.

On his illness and recovery

Being diagnosed with cancer was a huge moment for me. At that point I was closest to death — I had to think about life and death so much. The treatment was so harsh that I couldn’t listen to or enjoy music at all. So I watched DVDs instead. I felt reborn after I recovered.

Then I had to work on The Revenant, and working with Iñárritu was a huge deal for me.

Before the sickness I had lots of sketches and memos and ideas but I trashed everything. I really wanted to start over, from scratch. So I was ready to start making completely new music. I didn’t know what to do. I was listening to the sounds of nature. I really wanted to make the music I wanted to listen to. It’s like searching for the meaning of my own life again. Or maybe not again, maybe for the first time.

On finding the right balance in film music

The very first film music I remember was when I was four or five years old sitting on my mother’s lap. I heard the music of Nino Rota, the theme of La Strada, and I really loved it. Some time after that I heard the same music but from the radio, and I was jumping like, that’s the music!

This shows what little knowledge of film music I had when I started. In the beginning I was not interested in the quality of the film or the relationship between the film and the music. I was just focused on making good music, making my own music and making my music stand out. Looking back I think it was bad film music. The music shouldn’t stand out from the movie. Sometimes I’m annoyed by listening to very strong music, since I understand music so well it dominates the images I see. I want to blend my music with the other sound effects and images.

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At that point I was closest to death — I had to think about life and death so much.

On improvisation

Recently I tried to make my music by improvising. Improvising is a very simple thing – chance, or even an error, can trigger new ideas and new inspiration. You have to be very careful all the time. You have to open your ears all the time, because anything can happen unexpectedly.

For instance, you accidentally hit something and you hear a very new sound. You have to be fresh about that. Anything can be music. Often I go abroad. Even with the big cities like Paris, New York, Tokyo; every city has a different sound. For example, each city has a different ambulance siren. I really love that. Each city is full of sounds.

On his latest album async

If you know my past albums, I’ve been jumping from one place to another all the time. For instance in the early 1990s, I made an album heavily influenced by house. And the next one was influenced by hip-hop. And the next one was a piano trio. But this time, the meaning of the album is so important to me, so I don’t want to let it go. I want to look after, take care of and grow async to another level. I’m planning to make a theatrical piece with performers, lighting, images, sound and music. Maybe water or land. Wind or fog.

On the current state of the world

I don’t feel very optimistic about the present and the future. Today it was like 85 degrees here. I was so sweaty when I arrived. Today five people passed away in Japan just because of the heat. Over there it was 20 degrees hotter than here.

I think we’re witnessing global warming and it’s happening at a much faster pace than was predicted. I don’t think I can survive global warming. Maybe it’s caused by human activities. Economically the class divide is getting wider and wider every year. I’m lucky I’m not a politician, because I don’t know how to solve it. The day after the current US president was elected, a female American artist friend of mine came to my studio and she was literally crying. I said to myself and to her that we need art and music more than ever at a time like this. I strongly believe that. But I don’t have the answer for political and social issues — it’s too much for me.