Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda

"Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda" screens tonight at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. 

In the haunting opening scene of “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda,” Sakamoto, the acclaimed Japanese composer, comes across a piano that somehow survived the 2011 tsunami that ravaged his country.

He sits down to play it, and it still works, although the tuning is unnatural to Sakamoto’s trained ear. He fears the piano is ruined, saying the experience is like “playing the corpse of a piano who has drowned.”

Mortality, both his and his country’s, is very much on the mind of Sakamoto. The 66-year-old composer survived a bout with Stage 3 throat cancer and is unsure how much time he has left. “Coda,” directed by Stephen Nokura Schible, is an intimate documentary that follows Sakamoto as he creates new work (including the 2015 score for “The Revenant”) with the shadow of his own fate.

The film screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 201 State St., as part of the Spotlight Cinema series. Tickets are free for museum members and $7 for all others. 

For inspiration, Sakamoto turns to nature, a lifelong inspiration. He heads deep into the forest or up to the Arctic Circle, where he lowers a microphone into a crevasse to record the sounds of ancient ice melting due to global warming. He jokes that he’s “fishing for sound.”

Sakamoto said that he’s spent his career chasing a natural sound that he describes as “a sonic blending of the chaotic and unified,” and cites filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky as a major influence for his use of natural sounds and images.

He recalls a long career that starts with the influential Yellow Magic Orchestra, a sort of instrumental New Wave ensemble. From there, he moved into movie soundtracks, most notably working with director Bernardo Bertolucci on “The Sheltering Sky” and the Oscar-winning “The Last Emperor.”

Schible teases out some of Sakamoto’s insights into his life and his art. But he’s also content to just sit back, watch and listen as he works at the piano or at the computer on his music.

Sakamoto's brush with death has re-energized him. He wants to make music in whatever time he has left, be it a year or 20 years. And he wants to make music that will resonate after he’s gone.

By the end of the film, Sakamoto revisits that piano, and now hears its odd tuning with fresh ears. He says it’s as if, when the piano was swept up by the tsunami, it retuned the instrument and returned it to its natural state. "Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda" is a fascinating look inside Sakamoto's process for creating art, and his humility in the face of nature's own creative process.

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