After a short hiatus from music, Ryuichi Sakamoto set himself up for quite the challenge in scoring The Revenant.
Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto has jumped out of the fire only to land in the frying pan.
Sakamoto was forced to scale back on various projects after being diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014. A little over a year's worth of treatments, he stated that he felt healthy enough to get back to work. One medium in which Sakamoto has enjoyed a certain amount of exposure is the film score, and he made a rather daunting choice by agreeing to score Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant so soon after his recovery. An ambitious project for all involved, The Revenant is a film where "Iñárritu has chosen to forgo almost all dialogue in favor of a gorgeous soundscape and a sweeping score." That puts a heavy burden on the actors, cinematographers, sound editors, and Sakamoto himself as they all work together to tell a survival story good enough to make movie-goers the world over squirm in their seats. As of this writing, The Revenant has received three Golden Globe awards and twelve Academy Award nominations. It appears that everyone carried their weight.
Ryuichi Sakamoto did not approach to scoring The Revenant alone, though. He reached out to Alva Noto (born Carsten Nicolai), a frequent collaborator of Sakamoto's in the field of electronic music, and American composer/guitarist Bryce Dessner to round out the score. The resulting product is huge in scope, with 23 tracks clocking in at an hour and 10 minutes, but is unnervingly hushed in execution. Leonardo DiCaprio's character Hugh Glass may have been violently assaulted by a grizzly bear, leading to abandonment and a fight for his life, but the music rarely approaches a forte dynamic. It's a 70-minute low boil, an astounding amount of tension that never achieves its sweet release. My guess is that Sakamoto and company were trying to tap into that blessedly rare feeling when you are in so much pain that you want to die, but can't.
Most of the score for The Revenant is made from string swells, gentle piano, and the eerie pauses between them. These are not only the defining characteristics of the lead-off track "The Revenant Main Theme", but the only characteristics to speak of. Electronic elements, courtesy of Alva Noto, are subtle enough to never become a sonic anachronism. For instance, the high-pitched squeal in "Hawk Punished" mimics tinnitus while the soft pongs just below the surface in "Goodbye to Hawk" could be mistaken for a far away noise coming from the forest. The clatter that elbows its way into "Killing Hawk", while melodic in its own right, still embodies all the chaos of a natural disaster. Those aren't authentic footsteps lurking in the background of "Cat & Mouse", but they might as well be for all the anxiety they conjure from sound alone.
When these sounds hits the screen, that's when the gravy hits the potatoes. Too many soundtracks whither on the vine when cut from their visual component, even the ones that have won Oscars. The best thing you can say about a score is that it can stand on its own, film or no film. The Revenant can not only stand on its own but can also be taken as an electro-acoustic experiment in ambient music, where the natural and the synthetic don't enjoy convenient boundaries. I won't go so far as to say that it's a whole new genre unto itself, but it represents one that isn't explored very often -- on or off-screen.