How Champagne Inspired Oscar-And-Grammy-Winning Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Latest Symphony

Ryuichi Sakamoto Photo Credit: Krug

Best known for his original scores for Oscar-winning films such The Revenant and The Last Emperor, Ryuichi Sakamoto has been a monumental figure in the music and art world for more than five decades, winning an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Grammy, and two Golden Globe Awards for his work. But his newest symphony was inspired by something totally unique. One might even say it’s an unprecedented expression of taste through sound, an exploration of synesthesia. His inspiration: Champagne.

Sakamoto, who is known for incorporating nature into his eclectic soundscapes, was inspired by the 2008 harvest of Krug in Champagne, France, and the sensations he felt when tasting the resulting wines. Sakamoto spent 18 months with Julie Cavil, Krug’s Chef de Caves, tasting the different cuvées and exploring their respective vision, craft, and sensations. He then sent his close-knit team to Reims to record sounds from the vineyard to the cellars, incorporating these impressions into a symphony that translates into music a unique proposition in Champagne —  three creations from one single year. Here, he spoke to us about his journey.

Ryuichi Sakamoto Photo Credit: Krug

How was this journey of co-creation with Krug born?

Long story short, it all started in NYC in 2019. I of course have known Krug for decades, as the Champagne is well received by champagne lovers, but I had never known or met who produces Krug. I was invited to experience an immersive music pairing with a glass of Krug Grande Cuvée. To be honest, I was surprised to learn that a Champagne House can create music pairing experiences while also leveraging new technologies. It is astonishing. Leaving behind my preconceptions, it was fascinating to discover the story of its creation through the angle of music. I learned how important music is to the House. I was immediately impressed by Krug’s authentic and humble music approach – the creative passion and drive to experiment. The pandemic delayed things but also enabled us to take our time and get to know each other better.

Do you see parallels between Julie Cavil’s creative process and your own?

Our jobs are radically different at first glance, but the more time passed, the more I saw that things were quite similar. Like Julie Cavil, who does not have a recipe for Krug Champagnes, I don’t have a particular method. Melody and precision are key, and each creation is a new challenge. I start with notes and/or timber, and she works with wines. We have a common vision to create something unique that, once it is born, no longer belongs to us.

Ryuichi Sakamoto Photo Credit: Krug

What did you observe during your dialogue with Julie?

It has been two years in the making. During the pandemic, we shared ideas remotely via video, and I learned about her craft, shared thoughts, and vision of creating the three cuvées of 2008, called “From Soloist to Orchestra in 2008”. Not only the pandemic prevented me from traveling to Reims in person, but I was on hiatus from my illness, so I sent my team to Reims to record the sounds of Krug. With microphones, we captured the sounds of each step of creation and even the silence of the cellars. We wanted to understand how Champagnes are created at Krug and see the parallels between this art and mine. While I took in Julie’s words and tasted the cuvées, I immediately understood the great care that goes into each bottle of Krug. Because they used a music analogy and vocabulary, everything was easy to understand: we share a similar language. And that was the genuine experience of “Seeing Sound, Hearing Krug.”

The experience you have co-created with Krug is called ‘Seeing Sound, Hearing Krug.’ Can you explain it?

Seeing Sound is an idea I shared many years ago in the 80s. I like the concept of making the impalpable tangible. It is well said that we are “touched by music”. I deeply believe in the sensory power of music which provokes emotions in us.
At Krug, it is the opposite: the champagne is palpable in your glass and also provokes emotions. I like the idea that Krug wants people to listen to its champagnes. I listened to Krug’s champagne, and it led me to where I should land musically.

Why did you compose a symphony in three movements?

Krug approached me to create a composition around the exceptional 2008 harvest that was coming to fruition. After learning about Krug Clos du Mesnil 2008, Krug 2008, and Grande Cuvée 164ème Édition, three unique creations around the same harvest, they said it had to be one symphony in three movements, and I agreed.

Ryuichi Sakamoto Photo Credit: Krug

What was your creative process? Was the translation into music challenging?

We tasted the champagnes and spent a long time sharing about music. During the tastings, I began to have a clear idea of what these Champagnes would sound like. Firstly, I mean to say, I wanted to translate the flavors and aromas into music. A very didactic approach, maybe. But when I sat down to compose, I placed a bottle of Krug in my studio where it would catch my gaze. Its elegant shape and color also inspired me. And my inspiration was driven more and more by sensation.

Can you describe Movement 1, created to be paired with Krug Clos du Mesnil 2008?

I strongly believe less is more. The first movement is a Solo, echoing the purity of Krug Clos du Mesnil 2008. A single grape variety. A single year. A single parcel. A soloist. I was inspired by the Champagne’s minimalist aspect, excellence pushed to its extreme with great precision. A piano solo was an obvious choice, but when I considered the system of natural exchanges that give birth to this Champagne, I wanted to add another voice and accents supporting the solo piano.

Can you describe Movement 2, created to be paired with Krug 2008?

The second movement brings a small ensemble together around Krug 2008, performing the music of the year 2008. The objective was to compose the story of 2008. Krug nicknamed this Champagne “Classic Beauty”, and I thought about how to convey this in my music. I think it means both timeless and elegant. Not too disruptive to break the rules, not revolutionary, but enough to be in the annals of history. For this balanced and elegant Champagne, I chose an ensemble of violins, cellos, and other stringed instruments but also added woodwinds for depth.

Ryuichi Sakamoto Photo Credit: Krug

Can you describe Movement 3, created to be paired with Krug Grande Cuvée 164ème Édition?

In the last of the 3 movements, I wanted to express the generosity of Krug Grande Cuvée 164th Edition, performed by a full symphonic orchestra. I actually composed this third movement first as it best expressed the raison d’etre of Krug. To translate into sound the most generous expression of Champagne, I was on a quest for harmony, intensity, and generosity from multiple sounds, both instrumental and electronic. The fullness of Krug Grande Cuvée means that everyone finds something in it that strikes them in a personal way – each experience is unique. My third movement is the same, each listener will take away something different.

How did you approach these compositions?

This is funny because Julie Cavil introduced me to the three Champagnes starting with Krug Clos du Mesnil 2008, then Krug 2008, and finally Krug Grande Cuvée 164ème Edition, but I completed the third movement first in order to approach the most complex and work backward towards simplicity. I later discovered, once I shared my symphony and creative process with Krug, that Julie Cavil also always starts with Krug Grande Cuvée when she composes her champagnes, so we shared the same order of the creative process. You will actually find fragments of the full orchestra piece in the first and second movements. My idea was for the third movement to build upon them but have some commonalities.