An analysis of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Carsten Nicolai, and Bryce Desnner's score of the Oscar wielding frontier revenge film, The Revenant.
The Revenant (Main Theme)
Score title: The Revenant (Main Theme)
Composers: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Carsten Nicolai (Alva Noto), and additional music by Bryce Desnner (The National)
Style: Orchestral Cinematic
Score Length: 2:41
About the film
How does a film secure the feeling of an unimaginably vast, yet completely ominous landscape? Such sceneries larger than life, with dangerous ventures around every corner, should make any man feel small and alone. A challenge made tough by director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Know for his thrilling, and somewhat stunning portraits of unsettling human confrontations, he again sets a high bar with his own beautifully unique style of storytelling. The film stars notable actors, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, and deeply glorifies the grit and struggles of mankind verses the vast and unforgiving wild.
A revenge story; Whilst exploring uncharted wilderness in the search for animal hide in 1823, frontiersman Hugh Glass fights for his life after receiving life threatening injuries from a brutal toe-to-toe bear attack. He’s found by his unsettled crew, whom of which try to keep their exposition moving forward, but crew member, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) has other ideas and fears his own survival, safety, and pay check at the end of the road. In a desperate plea to ‘cut their losses’, Fitzgerald insists to put Glass out of his misery, and continue on with their search. His crew intervene with disgust in his ideals. In complete angst and desperation, Fitzgerald aims to kill Glass, lying to his crew members that he had died through the night from his injuries. Glass’ son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) finds Fitzgerald trying to bury his father alive, and reacts with a fight. Fitzgerald then murders Hawk in cold blood, and leaves Glass to fend for his broken self. Glass, grief-stricken and full of vengeance must now fight for his life, whilst trekking through the unholy wilderness of 1823s South Dakota, to track down the man who betrayed him.
The Composer: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Ryuichi Sakamoto has done it again. Known for his stylistic mastery of long displayed soundscapes, Sakamoto has built some of his most breathtaking albums on pristine, perfectly ornamented ambient drones. His score for The Revenant cemented himself as one of the world's most renowned film composers, and yet effortlessly continues to deliver such emotive and tension driven soundscapes to the film industry.
“Ryuichi’s music soul has impregnated The Revenant and the film breathes between his notes and nature sounds and silences,” writes director Alejandro González Iñárritu
Check out his website right here: http://www.sitesakamoto.com/
ARRANGEMENT & INSTRUMENTATION
The score of the Revenant — majority of which was written and performed by Sakamoto himself, alongside additional music from The National's Bryce Dessner and German electronic artist Alva Noto (Carsten Nicolas) — assists the film with an emotional foundation. Swelling, expansive, and a trance like slowness (highlighting mother nature’s heavy breaths, allowing space to showcase her ruminating vastness, making man feel small and alone.) has become the common theme for this score. It amplifies the truly scenic and meditative scenes. But with slight change to the musical content, Sakamoto and his team create a more terrifying and somewhat eerie feel to each scene.
The subliminal message: “In this realm, tension is a constant, and it's meted out in carefully calibrated degrees. No rattling drum marches are used to telegraph the drama.” — Tom Moon (First Listen, NPR.org) December, 2015
The Revenant Main Theme shows Sakamoto’s breathtaking balance between human emotion and the power of the natural world. Here we take a look at the arrangement of how Sakamoto blends an unstoppable force (human emotion) with an inanimate object (nature).
Each transient shows the seismic impact that is Sakamoto's melodic gestures. Leaving the conjuring silence of the natural world to fill the air. A truly preeminent interpretation of Man vs Wild. His melodic chordal structures and orchestrated strings swell as if you are hit with an overwhelming realisation that all hope is lost in a terrifying natural world. The score, like the film, takes the back seat of Hugh Glass’s story of survival, and it does just that. Using a slow-moving agonising chord progression starting in the sentimental key of E Minor, Sakamoto makes his way through 19 chord changes before resolving back to E. He amplifies the austerity emulated by the films setting, whilst carrying through the characters emotions and struggles at the time.
His choice of chords resonates through each character, though humans aside, Mother Nature is undoubtedly one of the leads. This is made entirely apparent with Sakamoto’s spacious and submersive soundscapes, creating a lesson in humility for the viewer and listener.
Here’s what Sakamoto’s chord progression consists of:
Em — D — Bm — D#m — A#m — C — A# — Gm — Am
F# — G — F — Cm — F#m — B — A — D# — C#m — E
A long resolution for one progression, but that’s the genius of it. Sakamoto allows for an abundance of time to let each chord breath, bringing this progression to a halt after 2 minutes and 41 seconds. Which is the entirety of the score. He tells his own story of desperation, despair, survival, loss, and emphasises nature’s own organic forces.
MuseScore.com. (2016). The Revenant Main Theme (Piano). [online] Available at: https://musescore.com/brutalwizard/scores/1682561 [Accessed 20 Feb. 2019].
Sakamoto combines orchestral strings, (violins, violas, cellos) with emotive grand piano chords, as well as some underlying synthesised tonalities (thanks to Alva Noto) all coming together to produce a swell of melodrama which dissipates into a brutal silence of the natural landscape. Below is a video of a piano tutorial for Sakamoto's chord progression:
Here, we see the frequency response to Sakamoto’s seismic chordal impact. Notice the fullness in the low end, encapsulating the impact that an overwhelming feeling of betrayal can have on a man who’s been left for dead.
Then, when the transient decays, the audience is taken back to reality, lost in a vast and unholy world. Below is the silent howl of Mother Nature sitting around 100Hz.
Much of the music throughout the film unfolds according to its own clock. Transcending with a curtain-opening sense of nobility. In these audio illustrations, slight adjustments to texture and harmony allow for derivative impact. Throughout the main theme, an almost unnoticeable 80 BPM tempo holds strong, carrying each musical breath along with it.
Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and Bryce Dessner worked alongside Martin Hernandez (co-supervising sound editor and sound designer) designing sounds around the film. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, was ensuring that all the sounds were more “real world” than that of sound manipulation. With nature being a lead character, Iñárritu was elaborate in his requirements. The sound design had to be organic, real, and believable. Many of the off screen noises were created to add a sense of scenery, and to give the sense of man alone in his unnatural habitat. Moments so silent and eerie, that when Sakamoto’s score embraces our presence, and it hits hard, compelling the audience into full sincerity for the on screen character’s emotions, thoughts, and instincts.
“The challenge for Alejandro was that he found that some approaches to sound editing can be very illustrative. Like, you see the tree moving, and you put the tree sound in. He was trying to get away from that. It’s not just including the right sounds that you see, but it’s adding the sounds that you do not see.” “When the sound belongs to the picture it’s not because it’s illustrating what’s there, it’s because it has the genetics of the image, which is a very different thing. If you want to try to transmit the loneliness and the vast size of nature, those are subjective things. The loneliness and the coldness and, you know, all these things that are happening in our brains when we’re watching a film, they happen because of other very subjective elements. Sound should help tell that, very subjective, part of the story.” — Jon Taylor (re-recording mixer) in an interview with Woody Woodhall (Provideo Coalition, 2nd of January, 2016)
Perhaps Alejandro’s underlying love for music brought together his pioneering sound team. Sakamoto, long time collaborator Alva Noto (Carsten Nicolai), and The National’s Bryce Dessner, all with their innovative musicality, came together and brought Alejandro’s masterpiece to life. The sound design of Martin Hernandez, complete with the score of Sakamoto, wove together into a beautiful, aural, and wildly dynamic soundscape seamlessly drove this film to new heights. Visually, it’s spectacular, with single shot scenes and amazingly revealing visuals. Those souring dynamic scenes, matched with this breathtaking score, truly Oscar winning work. Nature is king in this film, it is rare that music will over play the audio landscape.
Corcoran, N. (2016). Ryuichi Sakamoto / Alva Noto / Bryce Dessner: The Revenant OST Album Review | Pitchfork. [online] Pitchfork.com. Available at: https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/21352-the-revenant-ost/ [Accessed 18 Feb. 2019].
Moon, T. (2015). Review: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto & Bryce Dessner, 'The Revenant'. [online] Npr.org. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2015/12/30/461409253/first-listen-ryuichi-sakamoto-alva-noto-bryce-dessner-the-revenant [Accessed 18 Feb. 2019].
Kivel, A. (2016). Album Review: Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto feat. Bryce Dessner – The Revenant OST. [online] Consequence of Sound. Available at: https://consequenceofsound.net/2016/01/album-review-ryuichi-sakamoto-and-alva-noto-feat-bryce-dessner-the-revenant-ost/ [Accessed 19 Feb. 2019].
Ediriwira, A. (2016). Scoring The Revenant - An interview with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto. [online] The Vinyl Factory. Available at: https://thevinylfactory.com/features/the-revenant-ryuichi-sakamoto-alva-noto-interview/ [Accessed 19 Feb. 2019].
Soundworks Collection (2015). The Sound of The Revenant. [video] Available at: https://soundworkscollection.com/post/the-sound-of-the-revenant [Accessed 19 Feb. 2019].
Woodhall, W. (2016). Creating the sounds for The Revenant by Woody Woodhall - ProVideo Coalition. [online] ProVideo Coalition. Available at: https://www.provideocoalition.com/creating-the-sounds-for-the-revenant/ [Accessed 20 Feb. 2019].