Q+A: Composing a Soundtrack For the Sun

Two progressive piano notes might make you think twice about going in the water. A standard march is the harbinger of all things evil. Chirping violin strings still send chills down the spine. The soundtrack of a motion picture often does as much to set the mood and tell a story as the images on the screen. John Avarese, an assistant teaching professor in Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, has created soundtracks for more than 3,000 cinematic works in his 30 years as a composer. He recently gave the Drexel News Blog a look at his process in the lead-up to the release of a planetarium feature called “Solar Superstorms.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 1.56.35 PMNarrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, the film takes viewers through the volatile interior of the sun. Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute will screen “Solar Superstorms” on July 28-30.

When you’re composing the sound to accompany something as epic-looking as this film, what elements of the cinematography do you take your cues from? How much do you get into the subject matter when you’re scoring a film?

I rarely do research into the content of these. My primary job is to make the audience feel a certain way. And these planetarium shows take you for a ride while educating the audience about the science.

In the case of “Solar Superstorms,” we need a massive, hot feeling in the score with elements of impending doom that another solar event could wreak havoc on our infrastructure—fear. That’s my job. But I can’t deliver 25 minutes of fear. There have to be periods where the audience can take a break, so whenever the show talks about how the Earth protects us, a tender melodic score is used.

I did do some research about how the sun “sounds.” NASA and a few other places actually have audio recordings of the sun, so I used these concepts in the sound design of the show.

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 2.05.08 PMWhat is your favorite sequence in the film that the audience definitely shouldn’t miss?

I like the scene where, in 1859, a journalist steps out of his tent somewhere in the Midwest United States, to see an Aurora Borealis. The camera comes out of the tent to view the spectacle. I tried to build tension, and then release in a majestic way. These planetarium show are a 360-degree image. When the camera steps out of the tent, you feel like you’re outside. I added some wind effects and some bug sounds and it’s pretty convincing—a very immersive experience.

For a piece like this, that has such an otherworldly look to it, the music behind it plays such an important role in how it is perceived (Let’s be honest, some of this footage looks like it’s straight from Hades…but I’m guessing you didn’t want the audience to feel like they were in the Inferno the whole time). How do you create that feeling/perception of wonderment and awe, rather than fear and anguish?

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 1.57.00 PMWell I actually do want them to feel like they are in Hades, but I avoided using big loud drums, or anything that is very harsh sounding. Instead, I kept it very orchestral. Big low brass, muted strings, pipe organ, and when we are submerge in the sun, I used samples of a Tuvan throat singer. So it’s all very organic and not sci-fi at all.

As a composer, are there advantages to pairing your sound with visuals—in terms of how it is perceived by an audience? Or do you find it limiting by comparison to composing a piece that will be performed on its own?

I have been writing to picture for so long. It takes a lot of effort to write music for music’s sake and it’s very intuitive to me to let the film tell me a story. I play while watching the story unfold. It doesn’t happen often, but I recently scored a film while watching it for the first time. It took about six weeks to write the score and I didn’t know what was going to happen next until I got the end of scoring it. In this instance, I got to be the audience. They don’t know what’s next, so all of those feelings get converted to music.

I’ve spent my time in the record business. I guess I am a film guy. I don’t feel limited at all. The dialog on the screen is the lyrics of the song. Every now and then, I get to know a movie score very well by playing it often before I see the movie. When I do finally see the movie, it’s a totally different experience.

You’ve composed more than 3,000 scores—how do you avoid falling into a rut or becoming formulaic in the process? From where do you draw the inspiration to keep the creative juices flowing when you approach a new project?

That has always been the biggest challenge. Like most creative people, inspiration comes from everywhere. Recently, I started listening to classical music again, and I listen to a lot of movie scores. A lot of times, new sounds inspire the writing process. It takes work. You have to do it every day. Every morning, I get up and write while the world is still asleep. It seems that before I’m bombarded by the world’s media, and if I trust my instincts, even before I’m fully awake, there might be something, however small, that’s new and interesting.

With these planetarium shows, I’m always waiting for the images to render. Sometimes it takes months, so, I am still writing with nothing but a script to find a sound that could work. When the picture finally gets to me, I can sift through the pile of themes and sounds and match what works best, then I rewrite from there.

How has technology changed the way you compose a piece?

It hasn’t changed the way I work, but technology has made it easier to realize what is in my head. I have been writing with the same software for thirty years, and I know it very well. If I can think it, I can make it come out of the speakers. As I tell students, you have to know the technology so well that you can forget that it’s there. Also, being a classically trained pianist helps a lot. I can play what I’m thinking.

Another way that technology has made the process easier is the sound possibilities it presents. I tend to write scores that are a hybrid of synthesizers and symphonic orchestra. The synth world has always been with me since I bought my first Moog [synthesizer] in 1976—I still keep it in my classroom. But the orchestral sounds today are so good, it is difficult to tell the difference between the samples and the real thing. Real instruments and always better, but with compressed timelines and budgets, I haven’t recorded ensembles like I used to. As part of mentoring, I score a lot of student films every year and I really want to incorporate Drexel’s orchestra into a student film.

“Solar Superstorms” will be screened at the Franklin Institute as part of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. It will run from July 28-30 with public screenings at 4:15 p.m. each day. The screenings are free with general admission to the Institute.

For media inquiries, contact Britt Faulstick, news officer, Drexel University, at bef29@drexel.edu.

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