Post: 'Nostalgia'

Jan 1, 2010 12:00 PM, By Arlan Boll



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Director James Bartling, left, and author/composer Arlan Boll in Boll's composition studio

Director James Bartling, left, and author/composer Arlan Boll in Boll's composition studio

As an advocate of newness in sound and film, I am constantly looking for art that has no repetitive boundaries. We are bombarded today with the same old thing. There are pointless film remakes and sequels, CDs that are mastered at 0db by default, and the total abuse of Auto-Tune software on vocals, which will date most music created in 2009. My feeling is that we should mix things up and seek creativity that challenges our being.

In an article I wrote for Mix a few years ago (“Surreal Sound, Toy Cameras,” January 2002, available at, I told the story of using the sound from a toy camera to score a film titled Killer Me. A director happened to see this film (I'll admit, it wasn't easy to find), and he was interested in having the score of his own movie be completely different than what he saw as “the norm.” I'm glad he called.

As a film composer, I have always had the idea of creating an entire vocal score, just to see if it could be done. Finding someone who would be willing to fund me to do so, and put that in his or her film, was the proverbial needle in a haystack. James Bartling from Twilight Child Productions Corp., the director of Nostalgia, had seen Killer Me and asked later if there was anything I had ever wanted to do differently regarding the scoring of a film. When I told him about the vocal score, he was apprehensive to say the least, but after several conversations, we agreed to move forward.

Nostalgia is a very different sort of film in that the dialog was recorded beforehand with a micro-recorder and put directly into the non-fiction script. Everyone from the movie's events plays themselves, and many of the actual locations were used in re-creating particular moments in time as specifically as possible after the fact. Bartling has told me more than once that “Nostalgia is a movie about human connections,” so it made sense to extend that theme to the score. Musically speaking, it doesn't get any more human than the larynx.

As we all know, music can certainly change the viewers' experience of a film. But if you bring human voice as the only musical instrument, it can have both an enormous impact and introduce countless challenges. I now know why nobody scores film in this manner — because it's harder than hell to do.

Hundreds of individuals contributed vocally to the Nostalgia score. The vocalists and compositions are from numerous ethnic backgrounds; the genres range from classical to tribal. The recording of the music involved everything from one-take solos to quarter-second edits. Some pieces practically wrote themselves. Others were painstaking to assemble. I know it's a cliché, but you really have to hear it.

One piece in particular, titled “For You,” was composed for the end credits, and it is the culmination of the soundtrack album. Because lyrics tend to fight with dialog in film, this is one of the only pieces that has lyrics in its composition. “For You” comprised about 40 vocalists, with 128 tracks total in a Pro Tools Mix Plus session. Because I run a recording studio [AB Audio Visual], I have many vocal clients. “For You” included a country-western artist, an opera singer, a gospel vocalist and a crooner, to name a few. There was also Susaye Greene, an ex-Supreme.

Most Pro Tools users are familiar with Beat Detective, which sees transients in the music file and cuts before the transient. For example, if you had a file of a bongo hitting 10 times, you would have 10 cuts. If you put a vocal line through Beat Detective, it sees the consonants and cuts there. I used this to define notes in the lyrical lines of “For You.” I took one line from one client and one line from another until I had a potpourri of different voices. Then, within Beat Detective, I got a potpourri of vocal notes times a thousand.

With those notes, I was able to create patterns and harmonies, layer upon layer, until I had a full canvas of new music. In some ways, it wrote itself: There is a lead instrumentation bridge in which vocals are reversed and panned left and right. In the verses of the song, there are layers of notes. The menagerie of the piece as a whole is very hypnotic. The only effect used was reverb. Nothing else was necessary because the voices themselves were the effects.

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