My friends Shawn and Kim release their first official soundtrack today; it’s from the indie sci-fi movie, Embers (trailer here!), which has spent the last few years touring the film festival circuit, winning awards – most recently the ‘Best Science Fiction Feature Film’ at the Trieste Science+Fiction film festival. It has also just been released on Netflix this week.
Kim and Shawn spent eighteen months recording sounds in a variety of areas around Portland, Oregon, where they live and work, building up their recordings into a number of themes for the movie, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where everyone has lost their memory and are trying to reconnect in someway with the devastated world outside.
The Embers soundtrack is a mixture of manipulated found sounds, orchestral cues, and other minimal sounds, drawn out over space and time like glass or ‘ice’ clinking, and then reverberating across a wide open landscape.
One of the things that Kim and Shawn singled out as a visual metaphor for their work for Embers is the element of ‘Fordite’ where layers of different coloured paint collected in the gutters of American car manufacturers over time, ‘excavated’ by collectors and polished up into decorative stones and jewellry.
“We used these recorded snippets we had collected, wind-chimes, foot-steps, voices and birds as sampled loops, stretched, reversed, broken and distorted, piled up then compressed like layers of old paint like Fordite.”
They wanted their score not to be the usual ‘themes for characters’, but instead, a theme for the dominant action of the movie, that of ‘forgetting’. So what you hear in their score are many everyday audio elements, hidden in a fog of sound, which both Kim and Shawn have had a long track record of doing in their regular music work.
As a counter-balance, the album also includes a beautiful performance of ‘Solveig’s Song’ from the Peer Gynt Suite by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. This is sung by soprano Barbra Hendricks, with the San Francisco Symphony orchestra.
The Companion Album
As I’ve partly mentioned, Shawn and Kim went through a particular process with this soundtrack, collecting sounds from the area they live in, building them up into a number of preliminary pieces for the score, the same way a visual artist might make sketches in preparation for a larger work. These sketches have been collected together in a separate companion album to Embers, called Kindling, where they have been mixed down, expanded, and given a life of their own as a much more experimental work.
However, Kindling is more than simply unused cues, which you sometimes get with soundtrack albums; these pieces have been reworked by Kim and Shawn into a stand-alone album, showing how important their initial field recordings were in developing their overall score for Embers.
Kim and Shawn discussing their soundtrack at the Ashland Independent Film Festival in May 2015
My own connection with Cathedral Sounds is that I have come to know Shawn as a friend for about five years now, even though we have never met, living in opposite corners of the world. We bonded over the movie Creepshow, a childhood favourite, when Shawn wrote to me asking about my long-term research project about the movie’s soundtrack. Since then, he and Kim have become regular creative collaborators on many of my audio projects, including a doco ‘The Icy Winds of Lovecraft’; a recent promo video for my annual Halloween radio show; and a couple of audio stories that I now have in production.
Like many composers working currently in film, both Shawn and Kim have a varied musical background. A qualified sound engineer, Shawn started out in producing Hip-hop, leading to remixing singer-songwriter Mirah, the band LAKE, who do the music for Adventure Time, and Calvin Johnson, owner of K-Records, a Washington label that Shawn has had a long connection with. Working directly within the music industry, Shawn has also written press sheets for a number of Pacific Northwest record labels as well as conducting interviews for magazines like Tape-Op. Kim has a history in the visual arts, but she has also had a strong interest in field recordings and experimental music, and has sung for the Detroit black metal band .NEMA.
These divergent backgrounds make Kim and Shawn a good musical combo, particularly when it comes to working in more offbeat film genres like horror and science-fiction, where this kind of wide experience really helps in breaking new musical ground, and evolving the overall sound pallette available to filmmakers.
Interestingly, the release of these two albums Embers and Kindling, whose central themes are remembering and forgetting, have coincided with ‘Remembrance Day’, which honors the victims of the First World War. The connection between the two I only noticed while writing this, hearing the TV news running in the background; and although the two things are unrelated it is still a nice and poignant coincidence.