Hey everyone! Sorry for the delay, but I've been incredibly swamped in the last half of the year. I just completed the soundtrack for an incredible documentary last month, called In the Land of Canaan. Directed by Joey Papa, the film takes a personal look at the lives of parents with special-needs children.
While discussing the stigma of developmental disability and the hardships of socializing families who deal with that stigma, it (more importantly) challenges us to look at the world from the eyes of those children themselves, who bring nothing but optimism and hope to their environments. All of this is framed by the life of the late Canaan Papa, Joey's infant daughter, who passed away last year.
It was a heartfelt honor to work with Joey on such an inspiring tale
In the Land of Canaan is framed by Canaan's own cycle of life. And while the majority of the film takes the shape of a traditional documentary, there are five segments (Conception, Birth, Life, Death, Rebirth) that delve into the abstract and philosophical, accompanied by monologues from Joey narrating.
I've received a lot of positive feedback about my short blog series last fall while I was scoring "Wonderkind" in 72 hours to meet a Cannes deadline, and I'm a huge of fan of Bear McCreary's blog where he takes in-depth looks into the cues he writes for his shows and films.
So, I'd like to start doing the same!
Sit back, fuel my egotism, and take a look at my breakdown for the score to In the Land of Canaan!
Canaan's theme is the first thing I wrote before starting the movie -- Canaan was the heart and soul of the entire film. I wanted to write something that could be both small and large (given context) as all great melodies will. More specifically, the melody had to be both a gentle lullaby for Canaan as a person, and a reoccurring leitmotif for the story.
This is the first taste the audience gets of the beautiful and abstract imagery that frames the documentary. The first version, a simple synth progression with an emphasis on sound design, was the version that ended up making it in the final cut of the film. However, the most elaborate version I wrote, with full orchestra and choir erupting out of the electronics, is what we kept on the soundtrack. I wanted people to grasp the gravitas of the concept of "conception" just from hearing the music, absent of Joey's monologue.
The first thing you hear is a shifty oboe solo, played by the incredibly talented Clayton Williams, who's still at UNT in Denton. I wanted to pay homage to one of my favorite composers, Thomas Newman. Who, as the master of all things abstract and ambient, frequents this texture in films like Finding Nemo and Skyfall.
I was also inspired by the infamous bassoon opening of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring -- the nasally reed sound dancing around grace notes just felt primordial, like the beginning of something mysterious. But (since we're talking about the beauty of life and not sacrificial Russian peasants) I felt the oboe gave the licks a bit more grace and finesse.
I wrote the string section that enters to sound like an orchestra tuning up, and you may think that I sampled a real group tuning before a performance -- but you would be wrong, because that would be easy.
I accidentally wrote that point of the cue in Bb, a half step above where most string sections tune to at A440. So the big "G quintal" chord is actually an "Ab Quintal" chord that Clayton, myself, and my friend Alex Moreno reconstructed ourselves: Clayton giving a "tuning Bb", me tuning my garage-sale violin incorrectly up a half step, Alex faux-tuning his viola with a finger on the bridge, and me again with my equally-low-quality cello that was pitch-shifted up in the software. Amazingly, this all came out sounding incredible without losing any richness or organic quality to that timeless sound that graced both Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the startup screen for the PlayStation 3.
"But Brandon," you're asking me after reading that esoteric nonsense "why didn't you just take an orchestra tuning and pitch THAT up from A to Bb?"
And the answer is, because I'm not smart and I didn't think of that until after the cue was done, that's why.
Meet the Parents
Which unfortunately has no relation to the lukewarm 2000's Ben Stiller comedy. This was my first sequence where we transition back into the documentary realm. So I wrote a theme that served as a "response" to Canaan's theme, specifically for the adults. The parents of these kids, despite the joy and wonder the children brought, still had to endure the insecurity and anxiety that came with their life. The theme itself serves to be anxious -- to be happy but never quite comfortable. The "parents" theme came back in most of the soundtrack, never far from Canaan's theme.
What made In the Land of Canaan the hardest musical project I'd ever worked on was this:: the narrative was incredibly precise, while the emotional level of the film existed on multiple planes.
There are interviews dealing with incredibly sad things, where the parent is trying to convince us that there is a bright side. Then, there are portions where a parent recounts something incredibly happy, and breaks down in to tears. And the music could only serve to accent or destroy those moments - very rarely augment them, because they were such pathological powerhouses on their own.
So the two parts to the "Parents" theme were the happy "A" section, the want for joy:
And the "B" section, the response of reality:
For the first three abstract segments, the music that ends one connects the following one. So we hear the gently chord progression and floaty vocalist that ended "Conception" beginning "Birth". The marimba pattern, played by my dear friend Rebecca Villarreal (who commissioned dreamcatcher) is actually based on the opening bars of the second movement of Ravel's String Quartet, for no reason other than I'd always wanted to play around with remixing those chords. So, you actually hear a pattern based on the third and fourth beat of bar 1, and the first and second beats of bar 2, written out for percussion ensemble.
Eventually, in homage of it's origins, pizzicato strings carry on the pattern as well.
He's Not a Diagnosis
So the footage for this cue actually got trimmed down significantly by the end of production, so we cut it. But it's still one of my favorite pieces from the soundtrack.
Some astute classical music fans may recognize the cello's pattern as being similar to the famous Bach Cello Suite No. 1 in G, which is no accident. This especially heartbreaking moment showed the care and love two parents had for their son, who's routine had permanently altered their relationship and everyday schedule.
I was one of many children who grew up listening to Mozart, because my parents wanted me to be smart and cultured (joke's on them though, I hate Mozart and love the movie Amadeus.) And many parents, even those who debate the results of "the Mozart Effect", still resort to classical music to both physically calm and intellectually stimulate their infants.
So I made a grand homage to one of my favorite piece as a kid, the Bach Cello Suite, that stood to represent the concept of a parent wishing nothing but wellness for their child -- but always unsure of how to do so. The piece was knocked OUT of the park by my good friend Will Hughes, who I can't brag on or recommend enough.
"Life" also became one of my favorite cues, because it culminates in elements from "Conception" and "Birth" merging together. The washy vocalist has warmed up, and "breathes" her notes over the marimba pattern, which has expanded for full string orchestra. Then we have the cello and oboe swirling in and out towards the end, reminiscent of those first trills in "Conception".
In The Real World
I first learned to write music in the mid-2000's on a garage-sale Casio from the early 90's (it taught you how to play the hit single "My Heart Will Go On" from the recent hit "Titanic"!) and a karaoke microphone from Target. I would borrow my mom's work computer and track myself on free programs like Audacity.
So this piece in particular was a fun throwback to my DIY days -- I built a "bed" of myself playing the acoustic guitar, a slightly out-of-tune electric guitar, a broken acoustic guitar's strings from behind it's broken nut, some harp patches from my old Casio, my violin, my cello, and some very nice "Bartok pizzicato" patches from the new EastWest Composer's Cloud Library.
You can tell I'd been listening to Radiohead's "Burn the Witch" while writing it.
"Death" broke the cycle that I'd established with the other abstract movements of musical continuity. It stands strikingly different and unanticipated from "Conception", "Birth" or "Life". Instead of wordless vowels, the choir now sings a requiem. In order to foreshadow the topic matter ahead, I had the vocalists (which actually consisted of myself, one or two singers, and -predominantly- my talented friend Jared Cobb) sing the text "Requiem fillia lucem."
Which roughly translates to "Rest, daughter of light."
Born Into Eternity
This was by far, the hardest cue to write.
The emotional crux of the film.
How was I to write the soundtrack for the end of a life of such a beautiful little soul? That I'd felt I'd grown to know from watching her home movies and parent's interviews a hundred times, over and over, but that I'd never actually met myself?
We begin with Canaan's theme playing gently on the piano. Steadily, a toy drum comes in, a dinky Fisher Price instrument that added just that little touch of childlike aesthetic. My dear friend Andreas Alexander provided the crushing violin solos. I was initially hesitant, as the MIDI strings did nothing to make the passage sound genuine. I had considered cutting that violin solo all the way down to the deadline, but once I got Andreas's mixes in, and heard the note seemingly cry themselves, I knew it was perfect.
The track builds as Canaan's theme itself breaks down gently to the wave of static, white noise and cluster chords. The beautiful voice at the end is of my friend Erin Matthews, who took one watch of the scene in question, and knew exactly what to do -- she gave a pure and angelic lament as we hear the celesta play Canaan's theme one last time.
The breathtaking flute work here is done by my friend Katherine Copeland. Not only does she do the solo line, but multi-tracked herself to provide the ethereal flute trio at the very end!
The texture here is similar to the washy, reverb-heavy orchestra from the previous tracks "Life" and "Conception", but with the minor gravitas of "Death".
"Rebirth" serves to sort of tie all those abstract tracks together, and give them finality.
A Place We Found Through Her
The chord progression from the previous cue "Rebirth" blossoms into a driving track with electric guitars and hand percussion, written so that the audience, as Joey put it, "...feels like they can do anything!" The end serves to segue into the final track by using the ascending C-Major scale that typically follows Canaan's Theme.
Welcome to Canaan
The final cue is a culmination of all the textures from the previous pieces of music, over Canaan's theme. The ending is framed by a simple ascending C-Major scale, providing an air of tranquility and child-like simplicity.
This was actually a polished version of the first demo I wrote for Joey in May!