“Alone in the Wilderness”

This is a track I originally produced for an experimental short film about a man attempting to deliver a pizza to an address that doesn’t exist. It was a blast to compose, and very different from my other work, so I thought I would share a little about how I made it.

A couple references for the track given by the director were “Hands and Feet” by Jon Brion and “Convergence” by Jonny Greenwood. The director wanted a driving, percussive track that gradually built into chaos and disorder, while maintaining a sort of dark sense of humor and quirkiness along with the suspense and tension. I incorporated chimes, claps, cowbells and other random percussive sounds (even time-stretched Vibraslap!) to add a subtle touch of humor to the soundscape.

The most important musical element is actually a repeating rhythm that the shakers introduce at the beginning – two eighth notes and three sixteenth notes – that reappears many times throughout the piece, sometimes in the foreground and sometimes in the background. Also, there’s the musical idea of rhythmic phasing: pairing two almost identical rhythms that differ slightly in their tempo, so they slowly become out of sync and then line back up again. This was an idea inspired by Convergence, which I’m sure was in part inspired by Steve Reich’s “Drumming” and his tape experiments.

I create the phasing effects in two different ways in the piece. The first, in the stick sounds that form the clock-like ticking at the beginning of the piece, I start with a simple eighth note pattern with a delay and slowly modulate the delay time until it syncs up exactly with where all of the off-beat sixteenth notes would be, and then modulate it again to throw the rhythm out of sync again. This fluctuating sensation of “wrongness” builds tension and mirrors the character’s confusion as he urgently searches for his address.

The second time I use this technique I actually apply it to pitch and tempo. With the marimbas at the end, I have a set of four notes that gradually expand outwards until they hit a perfect unison – sometimes lining up in their rhythm and sometimes out of sync along the way (as well as out of tune). The rhythmic phasing here is accomplished by having the marimbas play in increasingly large subdivisions – while one plays 8 eighth notes to a measure, the one next to it starts to play 9 in the same amount of time, etc. The pitch bend also creates an otherworldy, unusual sound – marimba is an instrument that never has the ability to bend notes in real life. The chaos resulting from these effects reflects the character’s exasperation and disillusionment as he argues with a stranger about the delivery address and even begins to doubt his grasp on reality.

I really enjoyed the chance to experiment with forgoing the standard handholds of melody and harmony – at least as we normally conceive of them. It reminded me that film scoring is, at its heart, mostly rhythm and gesture, and that all of us have a profound physical relationship with music that’s perhaps more ancient and vital than our emotional and intellectual relationships with it.

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