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Living Death Valley
"Sunrise" Film Production Notes:
While dawn itself is an eternally awe inspiring phenomenon wherever you may be, the dawn in Death Valley is truly magnificent.
It’s when the valley’s famous extremes collide, dance and transform. Dawn breaks with a fury of light, color, heat, movement and music.
The clarity of desert skies allows a glimpse into the eternal depths of the cosmos. The silhouettes of stone and tree stand as quiet sentinels while stars carve brilliant arcs. Save the lonely howl from coyote or wind, it is perfectly quiet. An indigo stripe spreads in the East, a rogue cloud blushes and the land begins to reveal its form. In the predawn, everything is sweetly jostled by the promise of day but when the sun spills over the mountain ranges and into the valley’s shadowy pools, Death Valley combusts.
It’s interesting to see a number of sunrises in quick succession. It is then we gain a sense of just how unique each day is: how varying combinations of atmospheric conditions change the hue and clarity of light, how the sun’s angle changes with the seasons, how the qualities of cloud and peak and shadow enliven one another and give character to the day. This section is more than sunrise. It’s tracking the valley’s process of awakening. It happens in the mornings and it happens in the spring. It’s when the desert awakens into its full glory.
Composer notes:I built the first part as a long expanding ma13th chord, then back-cycling 4th down to minor on sunrise . It was an interesting challenge to medley 4 themes from the film (climax, wildflowers, epilogue, ghost-towns) and make them work with the visuals.
"Canyons" Film Production Notes:
It never ceased to amaze just how colorful some of the canyon walls in Death Valley can be. The bluest of blues occurs in the narrows of Marble Canyon.
The video features Golden, Fall, Titus, Mosaic and Sidewinder canyons. The arch over the canyon is at a place known as “Natural Bridge” and the hillside with mounds and valleys of myriad colors is at the Artist’s Palette.
The final shot was taken near Steel Pass. After many hours of scrambling and hauling equipment through a labyrinth of steep, sandy washes, we arrived at a marvelous vantage point. From this point the dunes of Saline and Eureka Valleys are clearly seen. The Inyo, White and Sierra Nevada ranges are all clearly visible as well.
Composer notes:I was looking for a sound that had blues elements but with more colors. The piece is built on a D drone (dig) using lydian b7 scale (sometimes b2 & b3). There's a call response between slide guitar & chinese ruan guitar. I derived the rhythmic feel of a North African rhythm hinting at 6 against 4.
"Wildflowers" Film Production Notes:
Each spring brings about a fleeting and beautiful sight. The desert is blanked with wildflowers. Born out of the rains of winter, they bring life and color to the landscape.
The density of flowers is dependent upon how much rain Death Valley received over the previous winter. Some years are better than others. After a winter of plentiful rain, even at Death Valley’s arid standards, the wildflower bloom is truly inspiring.
Composer notes: I guess my years of having my nose buried in the scores of Debussy & Ravel probably rubbed off a little. It was fun to keep enough melodic room to allow the harp to be exposed while the cello and woodwinds are doing their dance together.
"High Desert" Film Production Notes:
Sometimes “high” is a sensibility, a style that transcends elevation. Death Valley National Park covers many acres of high desert. While not as well known as Death Valley’s deep valleys, the high desert contains many of its most surprising gems.
Joshua trees. If they’re not dendrological jesters I don’t know what is. Their namesake comes from pioneering Mormons who thought they appeared to be raising their arms in supplication but for the modern visitor their anthropomorphized gestures and interpreted in endlessly varied ways.
The Charcoal Kilns. A character that shows up a number of times in the video. Being the charismatic subjects they are, we spent quite a bit of time there. It’s hard to believe all the nutty things people do inside those kilns when they think they aren’t being watched.
Scotty’s Castle. A major part of its ongoing allure is the oddity of its very existence. Its architecture is unusual and its interior design highly eclectic.
Composer notes: This is a very nice tune written and performed by Bruce Kaphan. It stands alone as the only piece not specifically written for this film, but it worked so well we just had to use it. I expanded it to surround sound, cut out the bridge, spliced it together and wrote an intro and an ending to make a smooth transition from and to the next piece. Hope you like it, Bruce!
"Heat" Film Production Notes: We shot most of the heat sequence in 120 plus degree temperatures. Not only was it hot enough to make Dante squirm, but a hostile wind was omnipresent. The wind was hard, dry and full of minerals, desiccating anything unlucky enough to be exposed to it. We could only be out for a few hours at a time before the headaches and dizziness brought about a hasty retreat.
Composer notes:Composed in 3 sections. First a long relentless intro that doesn't seem to go anywhere and only hints at a direction when the violin enters. It builds into a quirky little world music ensemble and finally into a other-worldly percussion dance in 7/8. I loved this section as I had a lot of freedom to play with sound textures. I even employed a 43 note Harry Partch scale on a warped Pianoteq piano. I appreciate the foresight some of these plug-in makers have in incorporating micro-tuning possibilities (also big thanks to the SCALA folks and whoever took the time to input that scale)
Composer notes:The petroglyphs piece was inspired by a recording of a native american stick song game, by "The Bad Canyon Wellspring Singers" off of "Voices of Forgotten Worlds". A very lovely 2 disc set with real indigenous music from around the world.
"Ghost Towns" Film Production Notes:
It takes only a scintilla of imagination to be completely transported while ambling through one of Death Valley’s ghost towns. The winds are forever moaning as they pass through the splintered boards and rusted iron that once composed so many mills, mines and slapdash settlements. It’s easy to see, there more than anywhere else, how easily the land can consume someone.
Even though it’s technically just outside park boundaries, the town of Rhyolite is included a number of times. Because many of the buildings were built with cement, which was fairly novel at the time, they decompose slowly. These gray, teetering skeletons are reminiscent of so many stone ruins from ancient civilizations throughout Europe and Asia. The wooden grave marker of Val Nolan is, without a doubt, among the most aesthetic and provocative historic gravesites around. In its own eerie way, it tells eloquently of man’s plight in Death Valley.
Composer notes:This piece is very eclectic and features tidbits I recorded at various times & places and collaged into this piece.The rhythmic center of this piece was beatmapped to a solo morchang performance by Umesh Jadia which I recorded in India for the making of "The Rhythm of the Rann", a documentary film for which I co-produced and recorded, mixed and mastered the music back in 2003.
"Thunderstorms" Film Production Notes:
Chasing these kinds of storms sometimes feels like trying to capture smoke with chopsticks. After a while, planning where to successfully set up for a thunderstorm became less about rational strategy and more dependent on trusting the whimsical nudge of intuition and serendipity.
The big lightning was caught from atop Agueberry Point during a particularly ferocious storm. It involved aiming cameras at particularly angry clusters of clouds while we cowered below in areas promising less conductivity.
Composer notes:I settled on brass and percussion used in a very open way to leave room for the sound effects (thunder and rain). This was a little challenging to create the space needed, build the tension and resolve into the rainbows. The brass did the trick as they can be soft and lyrical or majestic and loud.
"Water" Film Production Notes:
The first couple of shots in this section are of a flooded Panamint Valley. It’s a magnificent spectacle to see these arid valleys transformed into the massive lakes not too different from how they might have looked tens of thousands of years ago.
The bifurcated water fall is lower Darwin Falls. It’s where the shot of the duck parading about and the shot coming out of the pool, underneath the waterfall, were taken. It was a very cold, winter day and we were without wetsuits.
The other featured streams, flows and mini falls were shot mostly in the Darwin Creek and Surprise Canyon drainages.
Composer notes: I love writing for string quartet and when I saw the visuals for the water sequence this ensemble called out to me. I also knew it would fit well between the brass and full orchestra. I want to thank Steve at macpromedia.com as his use of midi delay and arpeggiators inspired me to create a surround delay with a different instrument in each speaker. what fun!
"Living Death Valley" Film Production Notes:
This section of the video is a synopsis of sorts. At this point we return to a variety of locations throughout Death Valley and introduce a few new ones. We return to many of the areas visited earlier in the film to reveal their more volatile moods.
In December 2008, a massive winter storm moved through the park. It was cold enough to snow abundantly on every mountain range. It even snowed significantly in Vegas, a rare occurrence. During this week or so every corner of Death Valley was a furious fugue of light and movement. Most of the snow covered peaks featured in this section were filmed during this storm.
From the beginning we felt it important to include elements that existed at the extremes of the Park. The bristlecones up near Telescope Peak and the peak itself were among these elements. Furthermore, we decided the majesty of these two things would be best demonstrated in a winter environment.
During one of the trips to film those wintery elements, Jonah had quite an adventure:
“During a break in one of the winter storms, I decided to haul up some gear the eleven or so miles to the peak. My plan was to camp out and get some good shots of the sunrise the next day. Plowing through huge snow drifts wasn’t a big deal until I hit the ridge. The full brunt of a low pressure system was raking the top of Panamint Range’s peaks with gale force winds. Staying upright was barely possible; setting up a camera was not. I staggered in funky diagonals for a couple of miles until it got dark.
The snow on the ridge was not deep enough to dig an enclave and too dry to stack a burm so the only choice was to set up the tent in a very exposed ridge. It was a relatively stout 3-season tent. I moored each corner with rocks, each weighing one hundred pounds or more. Anyone who’s ever been there knows that setting up a tent in that kind of wind is, at best, a maddening exercise.
As I huddled in my bag, toes and fingers tingling back to life. I cranked up my stove to melt some drinking water. Just as the pot’s contents turned liquid, a titanic gust of wind ripped the tent free of its anchors and off over the lee side of the ridge. I landed in a Juniper about twenty yards down as the still burning stove began to melt my sleeping bag. It was when I saw plumes of goose down begin to eddy in the air before they got sucked out into the night that I began to get worried.
I wrapped up what was left of my sleeping bag in what was left of my tent into a sad bivy burrito and burrowed into that Juniper’s nook for the night. It was hard to sleep for the next ten hours as frozen nylon whipped my eyes and ears while I inhaled feathers into my nasal cavities. At first light I was very moody. In a final fit of insanity, as I jogged down the mountain through snow drifts, I decide to break out the camera just for a few minutes. I soon discovered the tripod wouldn’t stand in the wind on its own. So I wrapped my arms and legs around it and hugged it and began filming. I cursed at the forces that were conspired against me.
Those are the series of events that took place before I took the shot of the bubbling clouds on Telescope Peak and the fair bristlecone bustling in the breeze”.
Composer notes: This was a real challenge as It was the second to the last sequence given to me and I had less than a week to write and perform every part. I usually don't like midi very much as it generally feels stiff and lifeless, but considering our budget and time constraints I had no choice. I spent a lot of time tempo mapping for fluid timing, and using a wide variety of note articulations and a lot of cc11 for expression. When you do this for every note of every instrument it is quite a process But it is absolutely necessary if the orchestra is to sound realistic. Hopefully the result works.
"Epilogue" Film Production Notes:
This last section takes us back to the depths of night. We complete a cycle as we move through hypnotic snowfall, waning light, moonrise and, finally, back to stars. It’s the cycle of seasons and cycle of a day. It’s a return to dormancy, when movement slows and light dims, when things sink into their sleepy, amorphous state. It’s back to the cusp of rebirth.
The snowfall shots were taken on Hunter Mountain and Lee Flat during a sneaky November storm that deposited six plus inches in about an hour. A majority of the day was spent digging tracks in the snow so our two wheel drive truck could crawl yard by yard toward freedom.
The Rhyolite bank building in the starlight time-lapse near the end is not superimposed. No clips in the video were superimposed. Its odd green cast is from a distant halogen security lamp that glows with long exposures.
The starlight time-lapse with the ghost-like creatures in the foreground is also at Rhyolite. It's a sculpture of the “Last Supper” done by draping wet plaster blankets over people in poses. The night that shot was taken was quite cold with a lot of ambient moisture. Early in the night condensation built on the lens of the camera and as temperatures dropped the condensation froze. That’s what creates the hazing effect of that particular shot.
Composer notes:This last piece was the first written. I wrote it before I got the visual. I did know it was after the climax and was going to have snow, sunsets and star time lapses. It was really a mirror of the beginning of the sunrise opening. I choose piano and classical guitar as they were good clean sounding instruments to enhance the delicate nature of the sequence and clear the ears out after a full orchestral climax. We felt the sound of the reeds was a good intro. It, of course, ends into the night sounds reminiscent of the beginning.
Composer notes:I originally wrote this for the ghost-town sequence. But, after seeing the visuals, I realized it was a little too whimsical in nature. So I put it away as one of those themes that ended up in the unused bin. Later, as I was thinking about the music for the credits I realized this haunting little tune was a perfect fit. I can't help but smile watching the ravens as they perform to the music.