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Scoring the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Into the Deep Exhibit

Douglas Morton - Composers Story, Into the Deep
Opened April 9, 2022

Press Release from MBA
Long before I composed music for the Monterey Bay Aquarium I remember walking around in wonder, as a guest. I never dreamed that a decade or so later, I'd be writing music for exhibits here. In 1995, I met some folks from MBA on a scuba diving trip off Santa Barbara around the Channel Islands. We all thought it might be cool to score the exhibits. I started to send music to them and the next thing I knew, I was scoring music for Mysteries of the Deep in 1999. Now, here I am, 23 years later scoring Into the Deep, opening April 9, 2022. I’m so grateful for this inspiration and opportunity to compose music.
My Process
Composing this music for Into the Deep has been a fantastic journey for me as a composer.
The composing process starts with some of the exhibit designers saying, ”here’s what we’re thinking about the new exhibit…” These ideas then get refined over time. Graphics and other design ideas start flowing amongst the designers, video artists and producers of the various media displayed in the exhibit. I ask a lot of questions during this development time: “how do you want the guests to feel as they walk through the exhibit?” “What are the messages and feelings you’d like them to leave with…” “What does it sound like deep under the ocean’s surface?” The feedback i receive from these questions is critical to where I start and which modalities I use to express the music. I also ask for musical examples, film soundtracks, anything that can act as a starting point. Sometimes, the exhibit designers are hearing something in their heads and other times they’re not hearing anything in advance.

The Sounds and the Music
There’s actually lots of sounds going on in the ocean all the time. Blue whales emit sounds at over 130db, as low as 5hz, and broadcast for thousands of miles. Because of human-made sounds, the blue whales have changed their pitch to make it though the noise. They are having conversations on ? Where’s the kids? I’m hungry! Let’s swim over there!
I spend about half of my studio time choosing the right instruments. I have several versions of most instruments available, so it’s a matter of what instruments sit well together in the mix and speak to the emotions I’m trying to convey.
I look at the blueprints, sketch-ups of the space and listen to the playlist of songs the team has offered of the vibe they’re hearing in their heads and I’m off!
I start by collating the instruments that I think will fit this deep vibe, low gamelan, Indonesian bell like instruments in the lower registers are on my first choices. Soft attacks with nice long and low resonant tones. After about a month, I have first set of ideas to present. We do several zoom calls to review the songs set up in a private Souncloud channel.
Many of my clients feel sometimes awkward trying to find the vocabulary to communicate their opinions about music. I always say, “use whatever words are in your head and I’ll do my best to convert this into musical terms.” This can be, make it bluer, make it wetter! Lighter! It’s very important to me for everyone to feel comfortable expressing their feelings on the music. My feelings aren’t hurt if some of the songs aren’t liked.

An important aspect of the musical score is the various galleries must co-exist while taking the guests on a journey through the different areas. So, as you stroll through the galleries, you enter a new and different experience in each one. Each gallery has a new piece of music. As you leave one gallery and enter the next, you’ll hear the previous gallery’s song. So, I used harmonic “partners” like zone 1 will be in C major which crossfades into Am thus having a seamless crossfade between the galleries while introducing a new song.’

The crown jewel of Into the Deep is the bioluminescence gallery. This area features a 4k video wall of high def visuals of bioluminescent animals from the deep. Most of these animals have never been seen before. They are psychedelic and beautiful. I sound designed this area to be not too musical, but more impressionistic in nature. We configured the audio playback speakers in an immersive way called Dolby Atmos. This arrangement offers the most immersive surround system available. This enables me to track the animals as they journey across the screen with audio events.