This is a track I contributed to Ridley Scott's amazing 2001 film 'Black Hawk Down' that Hans Zimmer scored so brilliantly. Though the film centers around actual events of American intervention in Somalia in 1993 that was in many ways very unsuccessful, the film is stylized in numerous ways.
This track, one of a few I did, was designed to move away from the core of the score and explore some new sonic worlds. This track accompanies the shooting down of a Black Hawk helicopter (and thus the film's title) and the immediate aftermath. The track is mainly electronic, and I think it has the distinction of being among the first ever film cues for a major film done 100% "in the box". In 2001 we were still using external samplers, effects and mixers. But this track was done entirely with plug-in synths, samples and effects. My first track done without a single wire! It pushed my computer of the time about as hard as it could take it. Now it probably could be done on my phone!
A lot of the drumming rhythms are actually done with an early version of Native Instruments' Absynth plug-in synth. A fave even back then, and still one of my regular 'go-to' instruments. The bass pattern was done in Reaktor, and the shrill and breathy ethnic flute is me playing a real Turkish ney flute and cranking the EQ to make it as piercing and unpleasant as possible. The director loved it while it often sent the producer of the film running out of the room!
Beyond the new flute, the only other acoustic element in the track comes as it builds to the climax just before the helicopter hits the ground (having been hit by a Somali RPG). An orchestra was brought in to improvise a large suite of aleatoric elements for the score. Those recordings were chopped and put into samplers - and I put them into a plug-in sampler in my DAW. The one used here is actually the orchestra playing some clusters, then flipped backward in the sampler. I sequenced the pitch wheel to make the tension grow.
It's not all that layered a track. Each sound is fairly complex, so there wasn't the need for a lot of discrete parts. I gave the scoring mixer each element separately in order to allow for a better mix. This version is straight from my computer.
This was my first significant solo outing on a feature film and a case of very much being thrown into the fire. With only three weeks to go before the film's mix, the director Ridley Scott made the tough decision to toss the original score, which had been written and recorded by a superlative (Oscar winning) composer. I never heard it, but it wasn't what Ridley wanted (no electronic demos!), and he reached out to Hans Zimmer with whom he had done a couple films already. But, Zimmer was on a tight deadline himself and very kindly recommended me. That night the three of us went to dinner and Scott explained what he wanted and why he was not happy withthe first score. I expressed confidence that I could find what he was looking for, but this was a complex and very emotional film, made by one of my favorite directors. By the end of the evening I was truly wondering what I just agreed to do. With roughly three weeks before the film’s final mix was due (and the score to be composed, approved, orchestrated, recorded, mixed and delivered) there wasn't time to wonder if I was in over my head. I wrote a few themes at the piano. A couple days later I ran them by Hans before sending them to Ridley, since he had a good sense of what Ridley liked. One theme stood out to Hans and with that I crafted my first sketches and even one scene. Two days later Ridley came to my studio to listen, and thankfully was very happy right out of the gate! A massive relief, nothing left to do except to do it!
The score itself is fairly simple - a folk-like melody over some simple chords that might express the somewhat childlike feelings of the characters - the true story of a group of young delinquent boys on a sailing “school on the sea” run by a strict disciplinarian captain played by Jeff Bridges. Although the story primarily takes place in the Caribbean Sea, I felt it would be interesting to include sounds from a number of sources - Balinese gamelan (before it was cool); Celtic instruments such as fiddle, penny whistle, guitars, bodhràn, Uillian pipes; voices (featuring composer Harry Gregson-Williams multitracked); orchestra (recorded in London at Air Studios); and my typical electronics. I featured a piano in scenes on land - but never for the scenes on the water. Piano stood for ‘home’ to me. As things got darker, the electronics took over more and more from the orchestra until the film’s finale, which is quite emotional. The collaboration with Ridley was wonderful. Very supportive, very focused and rarely if ever changed his mind. He certainly brought out a better score than I thought I could do.
I finished the score on the 18th day, packed up a massive rig, and flew to London to record and mix. I had the good fortune to have the LSO along with the wonderful cellist Tony Pleeth (on one of the few remaining Stradivarius cellos), trumpet soloist David Mason (of 'Penny Lane’ fame), and engineer Haydn Bendal (former staff engineer at Abby Road Studios and engineer for Kate Bush, one of my musical idols). I wrote a couple source cues that we recorded at Angel studios with a small band. We mixed everything at Air before heading to Shepperton Studios for the final mix. The final mix went smoothly with only a few small changes to the music. Ridley was concerned that during a key scene, where a massive wave (spoiler) destroys the ship, we had no music to build tension. Our music editor couldn’t find anything to hit the right feeling. I noticed an Eventide H3000 Harmonizer in the studio rack - which can sample a few seconds of sound and then do truly bizarre things to it. I asked the mixer to locate a spot in the score with some loud voices and sampled a single chord into the H3000. I had them play back the scene and record the output of the device, and as the scene played I manipulated the voices in real time from the front of the machine to make them bend and moan in a very disturbing way that built up and up. The first take worked perfectly, and I still get compliments on that ‘cue’ being a favorite from the score (it’s not on the album).
I hope you enjoy this early work of mine. I remain very proud of this score.
I recently recorded the orchestra for a small film called The Chosen One. The film was released on DVD and is likely to come out in limited release either late this year or early in 2011. The score is a blend of lush orchestra with some great solo work from guitars and flutes from South America. It’s a more traditional style score for me, as the themes of the film makers really wanted a score to carry real emotional weight. You can listen to the entire score here and it is available on iTunes and Amazon as well.