While composing the score for Through a Portal to the Mind, I found myself working within a tremendous creative space.
First, I was scoring a film on hearing, which prompted me to reach for an outrageous tonal palette, conjuring all the wide-ranging tones that our hearing can sense, from bells to floating tones, whispers to rasps, flutes to chimes—even never-before-heard tones dreamed up with synthesizer wizardry. The score began to rise in my mind like a celebration of sound, a bountiful potpourri that teases, tickles, and wakes up our hearing sense all over. Lighting up our hearing sense with a rich tonal landscape would not only allow the score to help engage the mind, but also contribute directly to the film’s meaning: It could become a heightened example of the subject.
Further, I was taken with the structures of the ear—the inner ear, especially, which has recurring forms in tremendous symmetries and patterns—waking up a startling correlation: In both music and the inner ear, we begin with a single structure; we repeat that structure; we elaborate on that structure; and we follow with great interest this repetition with variation and elaboration that unfolds throughout the remainder. Could the structures of music reflect the structures of our hearing? I also thought that not only did this pattern resemble the structures of the inner ear, but also the structures of DNA, where the base letters—only four of them—repeat with variations and elaborations among the long sequences, ultimately making up the wide variety of living systems. If music emerges from the structures of hearing, could perception itself emerge from the tell-tale symmetries of life, which in turn emerge from DNA, all in isomorphic relationships?
With these ideas in mind, I wanted the music to mirror the structure of the inner ear, which has many patterns, but only one fundamental form, persisting through the entire inner ear. This meant producing many tone colors, but only one fundamental form repeating with variations and elaborations throughout.
When I wrote Through A Portal to the Mind, I was struck by the elegant solutions built into our hearing—solutions that aren’t obvious to the uninitiated, the audience for this film. In the words and imagery, I decided to use heightened contrasts to help explain and highlight their elegance. I invited the viewer to pretend that we are going to design our own hearing and to ask ourselves where we would start. What might we do with a blank drawing board? What would occur to us? After posing such questions, we then venture into a series of thought experiments, imaginary flights where in the script I invite the viewer to think logically about what we might expect or how we might reason from something we know. After each reasonable-sounding thought experiment, we examine problems it still does not solve. We then transition from this incomplete solution into the reality of how hearing actually solves the problem far more elegantly and completely than our thought experiment, bringing into relief and clarity the special solutions of hearing.
I wanted the music to help these transitions, initiating the thought experiments with different timbres, different exploratory tonal moods, allowing the tonal landscapes to expand richly and the harmonies to diversify in ways that open the mind, while still repeating and varying and elaborating the same theme. Then, when the topic returns from the thought experiments to the realities of how hearing actually works, I wanted the music to return to a crisper and more defined tonal landscape.
I also wanted the music to draw the emotional contours of the entire piece, pacing the flow with peaks and valleys that enrich the mind while learning. While focused on learning and understanding, I nevertheless wanted to arouse sensations of wonder, curiosity, movement, excitement, floating, dreaming, even melancholy. Because music speaks so deeply to our emotional centers and because the film is about our hearing, I wanted the score to communicate at a different level the same message about how much our hearing shapes our emotional contours—a double-layered, isomorphic story told in the text as well as in the music. In other words, while the words tell the story about the portal through which emotional ribbons slide in from the outside deep into our inner world—the experience of each iPod user—I wanted the viewer to experience these strands at the same time as learning about it.
While composing this piece, I ended up with many layers of sound, which overwhelmed the computer system, bringing it to an absolute halt. We ended up with workarounds that allowed me to sketch musical material, but not allow me to see and hear the film and the score until several steps later. At some times, I couldn’t even hear the musical material until several steps later. Given that I wanted to integrate the film and score tightly, it was quite a challenge, but many magical, serendipitous connections found their way from score to film anyway. For example, at the time I composed the musical material for the coda, the piano and cello duet during the credits, I didn’t know how how many frames the music should span. I just began with some ideas, and in the flow of composing, put the musical material together, having the expectation that I would need to re-do it once I put it to the film. But when I finally connected the coda music to the film, I was startled: the music fell within one-quarter note of a perfect match. I simply extended that final note by one beat and the whole was complete. The events in the music matched up perfectly with the events in the film.
I noticed many such serendipitous surprises, where one event in the music crisscrossed another event in the film, the music leading on the animation and the animation riding on the music, all in tight integration, even in places I hadn’t thought of, and it made me wonder about the creative processes that lie deep within us. In this particular and unusual effort, where I had written the words, drawn the storyboards, designed the spreadsheets and work flows in my studio for the animators, guided the cameras and the camera angles through the direction, and composed the score, I realized connections between these separate efforts sprouted deep in my unconscious—perhaps like cypress roots in a swamp, inching their way, root by root, one finally touching and overlapping another, growing and expanding, deep in the night, night after night. I wondered about the process itself, about how working intently on one set of distinctions like drawing or modeling or animating or programming, and working on another set of distinctions like composing and creating wide ranges of sounds and rhythms, and working in yet another layer of writing, and yet another on managing—I wondered how being saturated in these multi-layered efforts can build a rich world for our creative processes far below our conscious abilities and how much, like underwater springs, they emerge from flows out of our awareness.