Taking Action Through Film Scoring
Music Theory and Digital Composition
In Music Theory and Digital Composition, we thoroughly investigated the relationship between music, our identities, various spaces, and social issues. Developing our own notions of how music could create change, we each set out on our own expeditions to develop a piece of music to catalyze change.
I wanted to combine my interest in film scoring with my interests in environmentalism. Searching for an intersection, I remembered watching the documentary Virunga. This movie tells the story of a group of park rangers protecting UNESCO World Heritage Site Virunga National Park from poachers, the M23 rebel group, and oil companies. It is a riveting, inspiring story, a testament to the power of human will. It causes us to ponder for ourselves the question “What would you risk your life for?” It caused me to think more about the way I treat the environment and inspired me to the actions I have taken in this project. If you would like to watch Virunga on Netflix, it can be found here.
I wrote a score for the movie’s trailer because I was interested in how music can enhance a film’s emotional appeal and meaning. The two hardest parts of scoring a film are creating music that can be shaped and quickly changed to follow the editing process of a movie and capturing the emotional essence of a film. I knew that writing a score for the Virunga trailer would challenge me to do both. Moreover, it was an excellent opportunity to catalyze change in my community by using my musical project to publicize the issue of environmentalism.
Composing For Change: Musical Breakdown
Here is the trailer for Virunga with the original score replaced with my music. Instead of using the original music for the trailer, the below video contains music that I wrote during the Music Theory and Digital Composition course. In my composition, I attempt to capture the emotions and general ambiance of the trailer.
My score can be broken down into three parts (like a sonata, except that the themes do not repeat): A, B, and C. Each has a different sound, quality, emotion, and message. Below is graph of the emotional feel of the piece over time.
Part A sets the scene. The images are of children, gorillas, and beautiful landscapes. I wanted to mimic this in the music with light, pleasant music. Thus, I chose instruments like the bongos and the ukulele to achieve this sound. I also used bright electronic patches to give the music a slight shimmer here; a nod to the shimmering allure of nature.
Part B follows a strong argument made in Virunga about the influence of corporations on Virunga National Park. The British Oil Company Soco International can be seen throughout the film using extortion, bribery, and violence to obtain profit. Throughout the world, the corrupting influence of money often drives industrialization, excessive environmental destruction, and other horrifying sins against the environment. The second part of the trailer depicts this, and my music is composed to support this argument. Part B begins with the sample of a helicopter rotor, and other industrial sounds abound to represent these pervasive influences. Additionally, the music is dark and uses a lower register to further the trailer’s point.
The message of Part C in one word is “hope.” It begins with a simple marimba playing a short motif. The later repeats of this theme have other instruments layered on top, all playing a variation of that theme. Not only does this create a warm, wholistic sound, but the layering of musical voices is supposed to represent the power of cooperation, working together, and multiple voices. As people, when we band together and take action, we can preserve what ought be preserved.
What is most powerful for me about the interaction between my score and the trailer is that I am able to convey a message without any words. Originally, I doubted that film scoring could have as large of an impact as music with lyrics, but this project has shown me the immense power of simple notes and images.
I composed in Ableton, which means my score is not in traditional musical notation. However, I wanted to post it for anyone wanting to look at the piece in more detail. Here is a picture of the Ableton piece I was working on.
Additionally, for any Ableton users, the Ableton file is below. It can be downloaded at the following google drive link.
Explanation of the Issue
Virunga explores a number of issues, all regarding threats to National Parks. The first is the threat of poaching. In addition to the poaching detailed in the film, there is also rampant poaching of animals–especially rhinos and elephants–in other developing nations. For example, Mozabique lost half of its elephants in the past 5 years, Zimbabwe has had elephant killings from cyanide, and Tanzania and other countries in central Africa have an abundance of elephant poaching (National Geographic). As elephants have become sparser in these areas, poachers have started to move south, and now elephant poaching is on the rise in South Africa (National Geographic). In addition to elephants, rhinos are another major target for poachers. The first wave of rhino poaching in the 1990s brought the population down to 20-50 (Save the Rhino). A second wave is occurring right now, as since 2008, almost 6,000 rhinos have been poached (Save the Rhino). Poachers are specifically targeting areas like Kruger National Park (National Geographic). However, poaching is not just a problem in developing nations. All over the world, poachers target different types of animals. In Virginia, USA, poachers target the black bear for its prized gall (University of Miami). Poachers continue to spread and become more professional; these atrocities cannot be allowed to continue.
The second is the influence of corporations and foreign businesses. Businesses and “progress” often come into conflict with the rights of the people or the environment, and National Parks are no exception. In Virunga, Soco International is attempting to use bribery and other illegal methods to gain access to the land they want, and this problem is much more prevalent than the singular example provided in the movie. The Dakota Access Pipeline has displaced many people who rely on the land and has destroyed the natural environment (Sierra Club). Another example of corporate interests harming the environment is solar energy companies attempting to take land from the Mojave National Preserve (Los Angeles Times). Even more interestingly, even if corporations are not directly taking land from National Parks but instead are surrounding them with developments, this can also be extremely harmful. As the Los Angeles Times explains, “biologists studying islands discovered that isolation weakens ecosystems: the smaller the island, the fewer species it supports. As development surrounds the parks, they become more and more like islands” (Los Angeles Times). Companies are continually lobbying for their financial interests, which often mean disregarding the rights of the earth.
Although these are the problems explored in Virunga, National Parks face all sorts of different problems. As we take action in our communities, it is important to identify what problems are affecting our local National Parks and address those. Military force protects Virunga National Park from corruption and poachers, but local activism and protests may be the key to preserving our local National Parks. The most important thing is that we protect National Parks.
My Plan For Change
I think it is extremely important to bring light to the way that globalization and corporations affect our natural environment, and my aim is to spark critical discussion at my school about this issue. I have started small by showing small groups of students at my school and in my community my scored trailer to both get feedback on how my music can compliment the emotions in the trailer better and to raise awareness about environmentalism.
My next step for catalyzing change is to do a school-wide screening of Virunga (or at least my scored trailer) at my school. I am currently in the process of figuring out the logistics for this project.
Call to Action
Mahatma Gandhi’s oft-cited quote, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world” is only cited so often because of its truth. If you would like to see change around issues of environmentalism, I would recommend the following steps. First, I would greatly appreciate it if you would take the time to watch Virunga. It is available here on Netflix and is a very powerful work. Second, I would bring this work to your community. Organize screenings, setup clubs, and try to organize community action or fundraisers. Third, take action on similar issues of environmentalism. Within the United States, there are numerous National Parks at risk. In Latin America and Africa, the entities defending National Parks are often even worse-off (Participant Media). According to Penn State, “One study showed that only 1% of parks in Africa and Latin America have adequate enforcement” (Penn State). Causing discussions about these issues in your community and raising money or taking action within the physical parks themselves is of utmost importance. Here are some great organizations if you want to volunteer to help protect National Parks.
I would encourage you to take action right now by placing a pin on the map below and adding the name of a nearby National Park that is at-risk. This could be due to any number of factors: poaching, deforestation, cutting governmental funding, corporations and industrialization, or anything else. Click on the large plus icon in the upper right-hand corner of the map. This should open up a window. Please put the city you live in in the “Location” box, the name of the National Park in the “Entry Name” box, and a short description of what threats exist to the National Park in the “Details” box (URL citations would also be greatly appreciated).
Other Artistic Connections
Another powerful form of art is literature, and there is some excellent environmentalist literature. One of my favorite environmentalist poets is Gary Snyder. I also very much enjoy writings about deep ecology (philosophy revolving around the importance of the earth). If you are interested in reading more, I would suggest reading George Sessions and Bill Devall’s Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered.
The music of a movie is extremely powerful, and this is very true in the case of Virunga. If you want to listen to the original Virunga soundtrack, a link is below.
Virunga. Prod. Orlando Von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara. Dir. Orlando Von Einsiedel. N.p., n.d. Web.
Cruise, Adam. “Elephant Poachers Take Aim at South Africa’s Famed Refuge.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 14 Apr. 2017. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.
“Poaching Statistics.” Save the Rhino International. Save the Rhino, n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.
Swensen, Krysten. “Hunting Prohibited, but Poachers Try.” Our National Parks. University of Miami, 04 Jan. 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.
“Stop the Bakken Pipeline.” Sierra Club. N.p., 17 Mar. 2017. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.
Leslie, Jacques. “Can America’s National Parks Defeat the Developers at Their Gates?” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.
Foller, Max. “Virunga.als.” Take Part. Participant Media, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.
Tschakert, Petra. “Globalization of Biodiversity Concerns.” Globalization of Biodiversity Concerns | GEOG 030: Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems, 2011. Penn State, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.