[Spoiler-Free:] This weekend, audiences have the chance to experience my music on the big screen, with the theatrical release of “Europa Report.” My original score for this daring little science fiction film is available now from Sparks & Shadows, on iTunes, Amazon and other digital retailers. I’m also thrilled to announce that it is available on CD, the first such physical release for my label.
Ever since scientists began to speculate that there is a liquid water ocean beneath Europa’s icy crust, one of my life goals has become to simply live long enough to witness the moment when we finally drill through the ice and explore the murky, unknown waters. From the moment this film was announced, I followed it closely, hardly daring to hope that I’d have the chance to actually score it. When I initially saw the rough cut of “Europa Report,” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: a realistic and detailed depiction of space travel, telling the moving story of the first manned mission to Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. Unlike most speculative fiction, looking ahead to the future, this film plays so much like a documentary that it feels like it already happened.
I have always adored science fiction. As a kid and even as an adult, I have always been captivated by the genre’s tales of exploration. I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to write music for some of the most important recent entries in the genre, including “Battlestar Galactica,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” and “Caprica.” Then, in 2011, I had the opportunity to write the official fanfare for the final shuttle launch in NASA history. Suddenly, I was writing music for science fiction and science fact.
Spaceships, it would seem, have always been my destiny.
“Europa Report” is obviously fiction, yet it still has one foot planted firmly in fact, and therefore presented numerous creative challenges. The science depicted in the film was researched more meticulously than any film in recent memory. The filmmakers chose to set the story in the near future, so the technology, rockets and spacesuits are all recognizably plausible. Even the narrative method is rooted in fact. The film is told entirely through mounted on-board cameras and microphones. Ostensibly, the company Europa Ventures has re-assembled this footage into a documentary to show the world what actually happened on their mission.
From the beginning, the filmmakers and I were asking the same question: does a film with an emphasis on science, told in a documentary or ‘found-footage’ style, require music at all? ‘Found-footage’ is a genre that famously requires no score whatsoever. The reason, I believe, is that adding music suggests a level of post-production that destroys the audience’s belief that the footage has been found and simply cut together.
As I began working with director Sebastián Cordero and the film’s producers, including Ben Browning, we realized quickly that “Europa Report” is not a typical ‘found-footage’ film; it could not function without a score. The tension in moments of despair, the adrenaline-pumping pulse before the landing, the relief and joy of discovery, and the emotional bond between our characters all required musical threads to bind them together.
But, why would this ‘found-footage’ film have a score? I couldn’t begin writing until I answered this question for myself.
I thought about the contract we unknowingly make with filmmakers when we watch a ‘found-footage’ film. We agree to accept the footage as being presented as honestly as possible. Typically in ‘found-footage,’ the editor is unknown. We are to believe that the footage was recovered somehow (often revealed in the film’s closing moments) and assembled. But, who cut it together? And why? What was their agenda? What did they cut out? Are we seeing everything? To even ask these questions is to second-guess the entire film we’re watching. Instead, we trust we’re getting the complete story and pretend there is no biased, narrative perspective, as if the film were a news report. (By contrast, in a traditionally narrative film, we subconsciously understand and accept that we’re seeing the story from the filmmaker’s viewpoint, so these questions don’t arise.)
Of course, there is no way to edit footage together without adding perspective. “Europa Report” embraces this fact. By including interviews with Dr. Samantha Unger and other employees of Europa Ventures, the film suggests that it has been assembled with the full cooperation of the company. That, in turn, implies that this film is part of the company’s PR campaign to publicly apologize for the disastrous mission. Every piece of footage has been selected to present heroism, build emotional connections with the audience, and depict a mission that had an ultimate success. These qualities make Europa Ventures look less accountable. In a way, the editing itself is a character commenting on the film.
This revelation was my creative path in. If Europa Ventures hired an editor to assemble their footage to maximize emotional impact, they could have certainly found a composer to do the same. Yes, the music is pulling on your heartstrings, raising the tension and underscoring the triumph. That’s because Europa Ventures wants you to feel that way. (And, not coincidentally, this approach creates a better cinematic experience at the same time. It’s a win / win.)
I worked on this film for months, and probably scored it nearly twice. The picture was continually edited and refined, as I struggled to find the soul of the music. This back-and-forth collaboration allowed picture editorial and music composition to influence one another. The filmmakers and I tested the limits of what the film could support. Some of my early sketches were bombastic and more typically cinematic. But, that sound overpowered the film’s reserved action. My next ideas were cold and ambient, a modern ‘indie’ sound that would have been perfectly appropriate for a film like this. However, this style weighed the film down; it became muddy and boring.
Finally, I strove to meld the best qualities from each approach. The result is a brooding, moody score that bristles with pulsing, relentless synth basses countered by lyrical orchestral writing and strong melodic themes.
Much of the time, the colder elements in the score almost function as sound design. My favorite cue in the entire film is when they land on Europa (Track 3, ‘Landing on Europa’ on the album). As we first see Jupiter, the sound design is filled with a pulsing, pitchless motor. It sounds like a motor on the ship revving up, but is actually my score! A subtle 6/8 accent pattern is discernable, which is the only thing that gives it any musical information. The relentless pulsing adds immense tension, and our brains are especially susceptible because we don’t recognize it as music. Pounding taiko drums here (um… for example) would not be as effective in this case.
As the ship rounds Jupiter, we get our first glimpse of Europa. Here, the orchestral strings enter with a high, sustained note and building ostinato pattern. Suddenly, we recognize that the pulsing noise actually does contain pitch, because it holds down the bass for the chamber orchestra. The warm, organic sound of the chamber orchestra tells us everything we need to know about this shot: Europa is our destination and we’ve finally arrived. The terrifying synth is still there, but is now augmented by new emotion. I’ve seen the movie on the big screen a few times by now, and I must say, it still works for me. I get chills every time it happens.
Throughout the film, the heavy synthesis and cold ambient textures are offset by the warm, acoustic timbre of a chamber orchestra, solo piano and vocals. Underneath the modern exterior, the “Europa Report” score is, at its heart, a traditional, thematic score built around the principals of thematic development that I use so often. The score is built around the Main Ostinato:
First heard in the celli, this pattern is woven throughout the score as a thematic motor, adding urgency, energy and excitement.
Harmonically, this score represents unexplored territory for me. I love the relationship between the tonic and flat sixth (in this case, a D and Bb). However, I struggled to pick a major or minor mode. Both the F# and F natural have an interesting sonic relationship with that Bb, and both have emotional qualities I liked. I decided to use both the major and minor modes of the tonic key for the theme, something I’ve never done before. (At least, I can’t remember doing it. One of you guys might be able to prove this statement wrong, if you dig around through my catalog enough.)
Shifting between D major and D minor created an ambiguous emotional quality, perfect for “Europa Report.” It is somehow both uplifting and terrifying. I was so excited by this discovery that I decided to highlight it by making the shifting F# and F natural the bass notes of the ostinato, further obscuring the reference to D. The first sound of the score is a deep, pulsing bassline of F#s and F naturals:
There is no way to feel this in the key of D at all until the celli enter with the ostinato. The opening notes of the score inform you that the film is complex, emotionally nebulous, and not necessarily what it seems.
While the ostinato and harmonic progression are the foundation of the score, the real musical star is, as always, the theme. Wherever possible, I try to write memorable and lyrical themes, no matter how hard modern film and TV try to convince people they’re out of style. (They’re not.) Despite the documentary ‘found-footage’ nature of “Europa Report,” I still found that there was room for such a melody:
The Main Theme starts with two mirrored phrases, one in D major and the next in D minor, matching the harmonic shifts of the ostinato. The melody is built from the wide intervallic leaps I believe make melodies memorable.
The Main Theme is used throughout the film. It plays in an exciting arrangement when we meet our astronauts (Track 1, ‘Lift Off’ on the album). After our astronauts land on Europa, the celli and basses offer a particularly uplifting variation (Track 3, ‘Landing on Europa’ on the album). Later in the film, underscoring tragic losses, I stated the theme in a solo instrument, such as a solo flute or clarinet, and set both phrases in the minor mode (Track 11, ‘That Brings Us to Now’ on the album).
The first two phrases of the Main Theme are heard the most often, but structurally, the complete theme features two other lines that are rich with beautiful harmonies:
There is also a Secondary Theme, featured primarily in the End Credits (Track 14, ‘Theme from Europa Report’) and Solo Piano piece (Track 06, ‘Europa Report For Solo Piano’):
The harmonic progression here is one of the most beautiful I’ve written in a good long while. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t bring myself to give it to any other performer, so I arranged it for solo piano. This way, I could play it myself on a Steinway grand piano. (I’m greedy like that.)
Two other themes have significance throughout the film. The first is a layered string orchestra ostinato that makes two appearances in the film, the Secondary Ostinato:
We first hear this ostinato in the exhilarating scene where we land on Europa (Track 3) and it returns in a new meter, during the climactic third act (Track 12, ‘Airlock’). Both scenes involve our crew dealing with a dangerous situation, and both feature heavy propulsive synths in the bass frequencies underlining the tension. The ostinato itself, however, is elegant and beautiful, built from the same major / minor modal transitions as the Main Ostinato. In both scenes, the Secondary Ostinato sits above the tension and adds a strange tranquility. I strove to suggest that something important is going to happen, without undercutting the immediate danger to our heroes. Though only heard twice, the Secondary Ostinato makes a strong impression, and was actually featured in both trailers for the film.
Lastly, I used a simple chord progression to create the Sacrifice Theme:
This dirge is featured in places where I wanted to underscore the idea that people have to make tremendous sacrifices for great discoveries. It can be heard most prominently in Track 10, ‘Hydrazine,’ and Track 11, ‘That Brings Us To Now.’ Interestingly, a variation of this melancholy theme actually begins the film, during the extended montage where we realize that a crewmember has been lost (Track 04, ‘Mausoleum’). The theme is dark and melancholy, but the constant ascension in the chords actually creates an unexpected sense of peace. I was very careful in this score to try to always layer in an emotional quality to the tension, to bring out the thematic depth.
The score also features the vocals of Raya Yarbrough. Ultimately, in the film mix, the vocals were tucked back into the texture of the strings and don’t have a tremendous impact on the viewer. I restored them for the album mixes, however, to create a better listening experience.
This film is about the search for life on alien worlds, and I was excited about using the text for the vocal pieces to connect to the earliest known humans to speculate about other worlds. The best source I could find was Anaximander of Miletus, one of the world’s earliest scientists, who lived in the 6th century BC. Sadly, all his known writings were destroyed in the library of Alexandria, but his quotations survive today through other scholars. For translations and proper pronunciations, I collaborated with Matthew Dillon, with whom I also worked on “Caprica” for various Tauron language songs.
I found several lines of text that I felt were perfect for “Europa Report.”
“Water” (Track 8)
These principles of individual things he believed to be infinite,
and to give birth to innumerable worlds and whatsoever arises in them.
Those worlds, he thought, are now dissolved, now born again.
“Airlock” (Track 12)
Anaximander said that the first living creatures were born in moisture.
Collaborating with Sebastián Cordero, Ben Browning and the rest of the team was exhilarating and challenging, as we found our way through uncharted cinematic waters. Without any real example to look to, we strove to find a score that would simultaneously heighten the film’s emotional arc and support its searing, documentary-style realism: two tasks that inherently pull in opposite directions.
“Europa Report” also presented me with the rare opportunity to contribute in a very small way to something bigger than entertainment. I hope that the film can contribute to a greater public awareness of Europa as an eventual destination for discovery. The film may inspire new people to ask: what is under the ice up there? “Europa Report” has the potential to ignite public fascination about visiting the world in our solar backyard most similar to our own. If my musical training and experience can contribute something small to that end, to help ignite the imagination in those who watch this film, that is a contribution I am honored to make.
PS: Speaking of rare opportunities, last week I got to perform “Europa Report For Solo Piano” live at the film’s premiere, inside the Hayden Planetarium in New York! What a dream come true.