By Douglas Morton
June 28, 2022
Long before I composed music for the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA), I remember walking around in wonder, as a guest. I never dreamed that a decade or so later, I'd be writing music for MBA’s exhibits. In 1995, I met some folks from MBA on a scuba diving trip around the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara. On one memorable dive, I had a revelatory experience: I could assign musical instruments, tempi, melodies and textures to these fish, currents, kelp and pinnacles I was seeing. I ascended back to the boat and told everyone what had just happened. This was the beginning of my inspirational musical journey scoring music about the ocean and the life it contains. Building on this fresh inspiration, I began composing music to send to the exhibit designers and the next thing I knew, I was scoring music for Mysteries of the Deep in 1999. Now, here I am, 23 years later, having scored Into the Deep, which opened April 9, 2022. I’m so grateful for this inspiration and opportunity to work with MBA and the amazing exhibit design team.
Composing this music for Into the Deep has been a fantastic journey for me as a composer. The composing process starts with meeting with Christy Chamberlain (MBA producer) and the exhibit designers. “This is what we’re thinking about the new exhibit…” These ideas get refined over time. Messaging, graphics, video and other design ideas start flowing amongst the designers, video artists and producers of the various media displayed in the exhibit. I ask lots of questions: “how do you want the guests to feel as they walk through the exhibit?” “What is the messaging you’d like the guests to leave with?” “What do you think it sounds like on the ocean floor?” The feedback I receive from these questions is critical as to where I begin and how I select modalities and instruments to express these ideas. I also ask for musical examples like film soundtracks, anything that can act as a starting point. Sometimes, the exhibit designers are hearing something specific in their heads and other times they’re not hearing anything in advance. I create “reaction cuts” enabling them to comment and offer direction. 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!
sounds and music
There’s an orchestra of sound 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 cut through the noise. Perhaps they’re conversing about, where are the kids? I’m hungry! Let’s swim over there! I used some of the hydrophone recordings of the Monterey Bay Canyon recorded by MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) in this score.
After about a month of working up the sketches, I present the first set of ideas. We do zoom calls to review the songs in a private Soundcloud channel.
Many of my clients feel sometimes awkward trying to find the vocabulary to communicate their comments on the music. I encourage them to use whatever words are in their heads and I’ll do my best to convert this into music. I’ve heard it all: make it bluer, wetter, lighter, darker. It’s very important for everyone to feel comfortable expressing their opinions on the music.
As the musical sketches get accepted, I work on refining the score. 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 model the score with samples. For some instruments, I bring in session musicians to enhance the score with their musical personalities.
For Into the Deep, I chose instruments that fit this deep vibe: low gamelan, Indonesian bell like instruments in the lower registers, soft attacks with nice long sustains, low string sections and pedal steel guitar that I’ve sampled and transposed down for nice long ambient sustains.
An important aspect of the musical score is that the various galleries must co-exist. As you stroll through the galleries, you experience a new consciousness in each one with a new piece of music and different visuals, however, you’ll hear the previous gallery’s song. So, I used harmonic “partners” for example: zone 1 will be in C major which crossfades into A minor thus having a seamless crossfade between the galleries while introducing a new song. Using relative majors and minors is a great tool to accomplish this.
The crown jewel of Into the Deep is the bioluminescence gallery. This area features 18 4k video screens playing high-definition visuals of bioluminescent animals from the deep. Until MBA and MBARI filmed these animals, most of these animals have never been seen before by human eyes. They are psychedelic and beautiful. I sound designed this area to be not too musical, but more impressionistic. We configured the audio playback speakers in state of the art 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. There are speakers in front, side and above the listeners. We brought in film mixer Jim McKee of Earwax Productions and American Zoetrope in San Francisco to mix and encode the audio which plays from a BrightSigns system.
I had the privilege of working with amazing people on this project: Christy Chamberlain, Beth Redmond Jones, Eric Nardone, Scott Webster, Presley Adamson, Jim McKee, Nathan Hyde, Craig Mink and all of the technicians, contractors that brought this exhibit to life! Scoring MBA’s Into the Deep: Exploring Our Undiscovered Ocean has been so inspirational. I’m grateful for this opportunity to score this amazing exhibit.
I hope this exhibition inspires and enlightens the millions of guests that will visit in the coming years.
My signal path at Q Up Arts Studio in San Clemente, California is a combination of high-end analog and digital gear: Manley Massive Passive EQ (mastering version), Manley Vari-Mu Compressor running through Universal Audio Apollo X8. My controllers are the Native Instrument S88 MkII and Williams Symphony Grand II. I monitor through Adam Audio A77X while recording in Apple Logic Pro X. Virtual instruments, samples and loops are in endless supply from my company, Q Up Arts (www.quparts.com) catalogue that I’ve been building over the last 40 years from my sampling and sound design work with EMU Systems, Optical Media International, Guitar Center Private Brands, Williams Digital Pianos, Simmons Drums, UVI, Akai, Roland, Yamaha, Camel Audio and Korg Japan.