In February of last year, I was forwarded an email from the Dean of the Conservatory at my alma mater. He had been contacted by a student who was working on a documentary on the conservation of bats in the Philippines, and was looking for a composer to score his film. As I would later discover, the Dean actually first approached a good friend of mine who, busy preparing his recital and hearing the words “composition” and “bats” in the same sentence, suggested that I might be the right person for the job. Film scoring had never been a particular interest of mine, but this sounded like a cool project, and one that played so perfectly to my pet interests I couldn’t help but agree to take it on.
Of course, when imagined the final product, it had the same impossible level of polish I demand of all of my projects, a goal I’m never able to attain, even when I’m not tied to a hard deadline. For reasons that I’m sure are familiar to anyone who has ever collaborated or worked on a deadline, I had to make a number of compromises to this artistic vision, settling for something much more practical.
Ideally, I would have received the completed, unscored film at least a month in advance of its premiere, so I could sculpt each moment of the score to fit and complement each moment of the film. I realize now that that was a wildly unreasonable expectation, both in terms of the timeline of editing the film as well as the amount of power it would have given me over the final product, but it was what I thought I would have going in. In reality, the film was going to be edited right down to the wire, so I would need to be composing music for film I had yet to see. Gone were the plans to build musical moments out of and around important interview quotes or to even include much melodic material, as this might distract from what was going on in the film. Those ideas were really all I had going in — if I didn’t have the images to inspire me, what was I going to do?
The director wanted simple, loop-able tracks that would reflect the mood of what was going on on screen. He sent an outline for the film, detailing the larger sections and what subjects would be covered within them. This gave me a rough idea of what the music should be like, though without a specific duration for those sections, I couldn’t craft much of a trajectory for the music. This was precisely why he requested the tracks be loop-able — he couldn’t commit to any lengths for those sections until the film was finished — but that tied me to writing music that was cyclical. It wasn’t ideal, but given the circumstances, it seemed like the best solution.
With that stuff out of the way, all that was left to do was actually write and record the music. What does music for a documentary about bat conservation in the Philippines sound like? I wanted something that captured the exoticism of the locale, but that did so without being condescending. I first sought out traditional Philippine music for inspiration, which it turns out is so heavily influenced by Spanish colonialism to be a bit distracting in a film not dedicated to how weird that phenomenon is. Instead, I took my cues from the fantastic Planet Earth score, which manages an exotic sound without pandering by taking a more global approach (which is, admittedly, a little more appropriate for a documentary about the whole Earth than it is for this project, but I needed something). I brought in a slew of instruments (mostly courtesy of my job at the music store), and just started recording.
Having never scored a film before, I was confronted with all kinds of questions, like how do I approach scoring a sequence of footage of caves? Should I use reverb and delay to imply the space sonically, or is that corny? If I don’t use those tools to acknowledge the space of the cave, will that sound dumb? I eventually settled on a set of sounds and effects that I liked, but it required a lot of trial and error on my part.
I quickly started sending the director tidbits of what I was working on, mostly to get his approval for this or that. As the deadline approached, however, the plans for rerecording the rougher takes fell by the wayside, leaving some sloppy music in the final cut of the film. I was also occasionally disheartened by the director’s wishes. I was asked to tone down an effect I thought was particularly apt, or was asked to change the mood of this or that section.
The biggest compromise was in the final section, detailing what is being done and can be done to conserve these bats. The director wanted hopeful, uplifting music for this section, which I thought largely defeated the purpose of the film. Maybe this is an axe I have to grind with most tv shows or movies that detail ecological issues only to end with a reassuring message that everything is okay, but those all end up feeling either like a waste of time (“let me tell you a story about a problem that’s been solved”) or are being dishonest with the audience just so nobody feels guilty. To me, there’s either a problem that needs my help or there isn’t, and suggesting that things are better confuses that issue. Specifically, I don’t have a problem showing that people are working to solve these issues, I just think goosing that message with feel-good music misses the point entirely. The message isn’t “here’s the solution and everything is okay,”it’s “here’s the solution and we still need your help.”
That said, I think my score does tend towards heavy-handedness. Its oppressive, ever-present bass feels dirge-y, and it’s relentlessness is only exaggerated by the fact that every moment of the film is saturated by the score. Listening to it now, it’s also clear that I had been watching a lot of Twin Peaks while working on this score — I more or less cribbed the synth bass sounds from Angelo Badalamenti’s Laura Palmer’s Theme.
This is a bit of an unusual selection for Sharing Something, since it’s a finished project, but it’s one that I’ve been too unhappy with to really share. I imagine the types of creative compromises that chafed me here are common in the world of professional composing (and I did get paid for this, making me a bona fide professional), but I can’t help but thinking how things would be different if I had had more time and resources. This embarrassment is only exacerbated by the fact that this is clearly the work of a young composer; I made a lot of poor choices that distract from the film. I suppose those are both things I’m going to have to get over if I ever hope to, you know, be a composer. Hopefully, sharing the film here is the first step to doing just that.