SATO Naoki: Meet the composer of the Tokyo 2020 Games victory ceremony music

SATO Naoki composed the music for the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 victory ceremonies that will be played when medallists take their place on the podium. Sato, a decorated composer, has created numerous pieces of music for TV dramas and films, but composing for a victory ceremony was a new experience for him. Tokyo 2020 asked him how he felt about the composition.

"Exhilarated to be able to contribute to the rare occasion where music meets sports"

Could you tell us how you felt when you received the commission? How was the process of composition?

"I’ve always loved sports. Whenever the Olympic Games were held, I would have the TV on all day and cheer the athletes on. So when I was commissioned to compose a piece of music for the victory ceremony, I felt exhilarated and greatly honoured to be able to contribute to the rare occasion where music meets sports.

"Before composing the music, I listened to the victory ceremony music used at past summer and winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. Many of the pieces featured musical instruments and melodies symbolic of the host country, which was fascinating. However, I decided not to employ any elements distinctive to Japan. My composition has turned out to be the most traditional of all the music used in victory ceremonies at recent Olympic and Paralympic Games."

Why did you decide not to employ any distinctly Japanese features?

"The answer to that question is, "because victory ceremonies are for athletes from around the world." Athletes of diverse cultures, languages and aspirations stand on the podium, so I considered that music with prominent Japanese features would get in the way of the ceremonious moment. I didn’t want athletes from any country to feel at odds with the sound they hear, so I intentionally avoided all Japanese elements and composed music with which all athletes, regardless of where they are from, would feel at ease when rising to the podium."

You have composed many pieces of music. What are the greatest differences between music for TV dramas and films, and the music you composed for the victory ceremony?

"The greatest difference is whether the music is for fiction or non-fiction. Music for TV dramas and films aims to guide viewers to feel in a particular way as intended by producers, whereas the Olympic and Paralympic Games are documentaries featuring athletes as the main characters, with no element of fiction. When athletes take to the podium, their minds are occupied with their own thoughts, perhaps reflecting on their challenges and difficulties they tackled before finally reaching their goal. I didn’t think it would be right for background music to guide their sentiments in a certain direction, get ahead of their emotions or overly dramatise their reality. Neither would it be right for the music to be too unobtrusive, to the extent that it would go unnoticed in that moment. So, I thought very hard about how I can aim for the right balance."

What did you attribute the most importance to?

"First and foremost, the melody was the key. I spent a lot of time deciding how much of an expressive singing element should be included. An overly dramatic melody can transcend the sentiments of the athletes, while a quick tempo could turn the music into an action scene. Victory ceremony music is a song for commending the winners for their feat. I took great care in every aspect not to lose sight of this premise.

"Then came the musical arrangement. I had assumed that the music would be played at a venue full of spectators, so I focused on ensuring that the melody was simple enough to stand out amid cheering voices reverberating from all angles as the athletes took their place on the podium. The music was an orchestral composition, but if the arrangement was too complex it would be difficult to recognise the highlight, so I arranged it into a simple unison, with multiple instruments and voices playing the same notes and melodies simultaneously. I arranged the music into a piece that would be heard clearly, however loud the crowd was and wherever the venue was."


A sense of scale was needed to express honour to the athletes

When did you actually record the music?

"As the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were postponed, the recording was also put off from the spring of 2020 to September 2020, when the number of new COVID-19 cases was relatively low. The recording was conducted with a full orchestra and a choir, and performed with meticulous care to prevent the spread of infection. I wanted the music to exude a sense of scale that befitted a ‘song of commendation’ for athletes, but we couldn’t assemble the entire group of musicians all at once, so we performed section-by-section to ultimately create a sound of an orchestra comprising more than 250 members.

"This was one of the most extravagant musical recording configurations I have ever experienced and we were able to produce a piece of music well-suited to express respect for athletes."

What is the composed music like?

"I wanted to make sure that athletes would feel at ease regardless of which passage of the music the medal-receiving moment fell on. The time it takes for athletes to take to the podium after entering the ceremony venue will depend on the number of medal recipients at the time (whether it is an individual or a group event), and the size of the venue. I asked for all the necessary information to deal with the issue, and ultimately came up with a piece of music that lasts four minutes and 10 seconds which will, regardless of the venue or event, produce an effective sound that harmonises with the sentiments of all athletes from around the world."


What are your most memorable moments from past Olympic Games?

"YAMASHITA Yasuhiro and KOGA Toshihiko [receiving their Judo medals] are the most memorable for me. I was touched to see each of them on the podium with their gold medals, especially because they had both persevered through the yawara-no-michi, or the “way of judo,” as they both suffered from injures throughout the competition."

What are your thoughts about the Tokyo 2020 Games?

"The Tokyo 2020 Games will be very special, different from past Olympic and Paralympic Games.

"I feel tremendously honoured to be able to support, from a musical perspective, the special stage for athletes from around the world, who have given their all to overcome all kinds of adversities and ordeals to compete at Tokyo 2020."


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