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LA Ethnomusicologist Brings Otherworldly Sounds to Biggest Motion Picture of All Time

February 2nd, 2010 · 65 Comments

avatar-film-james-cameron Monday, January 25th marked a milestone for the movie business. A mere six weeks after its debut, James Cameron?s sci-fi epic, Avatar, passed Titanic to become the biggest grossing film of all time.

And while many members of the film?s creative team?director James Cameron, actress Sigourney Weaver, film composer James Horner?are familiar names in the upper echelon of Hollywood?s elite, perhaps one of the unsung heroes of the film just may be Los Angeles ethnomusicologist Wanda Bryant.

On Saturday, January 25th, students from Tom Grasty?s UCLA ?Internet Marketing & Publishing for Musicians? class sat down with Dr. Bryant to talk about her role on the film and what it was like to work side by side with James Horner, one of the industry?s most prolific and successful film composers.

By the time the interview concluded, it was evident that her knowledge and insight into myriad of cultural musical landscapes did more than simply help Horner shape the mesmerizing musical world of Avatar?they defined it.

So how did you get involved with Avatar? That?s probably the funniest story of the whole thing. In May of 2007, I decided it was time to clean out my junk e-mail folder. I started looking through just casually to make sure I wasn?t throwing anything important away. And one of the e-mails?I didn?t know this person?said ?feature film consultation.? And I thought, cynically, ?Oh yeah right, they?re coming to me.?

But you opened the e-mail? Something piqued my curiosity. So, yes, I opened the e-mail, and I started reading. I didn?t recognize the sender?s name. But the e-mail said they were working on the new Jim Cameron film, and James Horner would like to work with an ethnomusicologist. Would I be interested? So I looked down at the bottom of the e-mail and I recognized the name of the production company?Lightstorm?so I thought, ?This actually sounds legitimate.? And so I called the phone number, and within two minutes I was talking to Jon Landau, the producer of the film.

How long was that mail in your junk mail before you found it? Luckily not very long, maybe two days. Life lesson: Don?t just empty your junk e-mail folder without checking every single message.

So how does Hollywood find an ethnomusicologist, anyway? They found me through Cal Arts, where I teach the world music series. Cal Arts has a big world music presence. So they went to Cal Arts and said, ?We want the ethnomusicologist who has the broadest background.? That was me. So Cal Arts gave them my e-mail address and it ended up in my junk e-mail folder.

And how long before you were actually working on the film? I think I read the email on a Tuesday. Friday I was in Santa Monica watching early footage of the film with James Horner.

And what was the first thing they showed you? A promo reel. It was really rudimentary at that point? just the motion capture images, and some of the early computer-generated images. But the one thing that really knocked me out was the little seeds that float down out of the trees. That was the first thing that was really true 3-D in the film that I saw. And it was like, ?Wow, you can reach out and touch them like they were just going to land on your hand.? All of us were watching it in amazement, asking, ?How did they do that?? It was obviously 3-D, but it was so much different than the 3-D we were used to seeing with spears and rocks coming at you out of the screen. This was just all encompassing. You just forgot that you were in a theatre.

Another thing that was all encompassing was the music. Talk a little bit about your contribution. Well, James Horner has an extensive background in world music. And after talking with him, I was actually very surprised that he wanted to consult with someone because he knew so much already. But they were looking for someone with a really broad knowledge of all different kinds of cultures.

A ?broad-minded? ethnomusicologist, so to speak? That?s right. Most ethnomusicologists tend to specialize in one small area? a genre of music or a specific geographical area. The producers didn?t want that. They wanted someone who could bring in really unusual sounds. James [Horner] told me he wanted ?music that no one had ever heard before,? music that would not be easily recognized by the average movie-going audience. And in today?s world that?s difficult. We all know what a gamelan sounds like and we?ve all heard music from China. They were looking for a generalist with broad knowledge. I teach very specific seminars on geographical locations which has led me to delve more deeply into certain cultures, especially into minority musics, but I also teach a survey course, so I?ve got a really broad knowledge. Not to mention a very extensive CD collection. Ask me for unusual sounds and I can find them. In fact?

Bryant reaches into her bag and pulls out a CD.

I have few of those sounds right here. These are just a few of the examples that I took to him [Horner].

The first track on the CD begins. As Bryant speaks, she speaks over a series of tracks, forwarding them so that other tracks accentuate the music style she is referencing.

Some of the examples I brought in were from a woman named Susanne Rosenberg who does these beautiful Swedish cattle herding calls that are phenomenally gorgeous. I took in South African mining songs, girls? greeting songs from Burundi, Bolivian aerophones, singing from Comoros Islands (between Madagascar and Mozambique), V?rttin?, which is a Finnish female singing group, voices from the Naga culture in Northeast India.

So you have all these wonderful musical cues? how did the selection process work with James Horner? I would just play examples. I?d hit track one, and James would sit there with his eyes closed. After five or ten seconds he?d say, ?No.? I?d go next track. ?No…no….aww, I like that. I like that. What is that? Where?s that from? Save that one.?

James Horner?s been doing film music composition for a long time, not mention won a lot of awards in the process. How was he to work with? I got along beautifully with James. We?re very close in age; we have very similar kind of taste; and we have similar sense of humor. Let me tell you, long about 10:00 o? clock at night, after you?ve been there since 8:00 am, if you don?t have a sense of humor, boy, you?re in big trouble. Yeah, some very long days but very eye opening.

And when did you involve the director, James Cameron? Through the process of elimination we came up with this CD I?m playing you, which contained 25 examples. We then gave the CD to James Cameron. He is one of those directors who really wants to be involved with the music. A lot of directors will just say, ?Here?s the film, you go do it and come back to me when you?re done. But Cameron wants to be involved every step of the way. So we bounced ideas off him constantly.

And what was his selection process? From these 25 examples, he narrowed it down to six. He?d say things like, ?That?s too weird, or that?s too recognizable, or no, that doesn?t fit.? Then based on those examples we started to talk about different song structures, ways of not using the exact recording, but using it as an inspiration to create something new.

More like something out of this world, really. Or from another world, right.

So how did you create those otherworldly sounds? We played around with different vocal timbers. So when I called singers in, I called them specifically for their vocal timbre and for their vocal agility. Because we were looking for some really unusual ornamentation, and the ability to sing microtonally, we wanted specific timbres, specific ranges, and things like that. James then blended them all.

Sort of like a global ?mash up?? He didn?t want any one particular vocal timbre, because that tends to be a little bit more recognizable. Here?s an African singer? yeah obviously. Here?s a Chinese singer? heard that before. So when he hired the singers for the final sound track he had a chorus of people with African sounding voices; he had a chorus with very European sounding chorus; he had a very Asian sounding chorus. And then he blended them all together so there?s no one specific timbre that sounds like anything you hear normally.

But the voices came from somewhere. How?d you get them? For our demo recording sessions, I called the vocal coaches at Cal Arts, told them what I was looking for, and they recommended certain singers. Once in the recording studio, we played various recordings for them. Then I said, ?Can you sing like that?? A couple of them turned pale, but we gave them about 10 minutes to work things out on their own. Then we said, ?Ok, let?s hear what you got,? hit the Record button and they started doing all this interesting stuff.

And did that surprise you? That they were so improvisational? Not really. You know, a lot of studio musicians will come in and say, ?Where?s my music? Where?s the notation?? So we went for kids who were really on the cutting edge and very open to unusual things like that. They loved playing around in the studio, they loved to improvise, and they were thrilled to be involved.

So are those the voices we hear in the film? No, those recordings were done very, very early in the process. What we recorded became the source of inspiration for Horner. Only a couple of pieces ended up in the film intact. Almost everything was manipulated in some fashion. Even the orchestra?s timbres were altered. And it?s not just James Horner [doing that] today. Most film composers today are playing around with their sounds.

Why do you think that is? A lot of it is because we?re at a point in history where there?s been so much that has been done. So many films have been scored; so many melodies have been written. James worries about this issue constantly. You run a real strong risk of plagiarizing, whether it?s someone else or your own stuff unthinkingly. So composers are now beginning to manipulate things because they know they can come up with an unusual, unique sound.

You spoke a moment ago about the integral role of bringing together seemingly disparate voices. Can you talk a little bit about the words? The words came from [USC professor] Paul Frommer and Jim Cameron. Paul Frommer?s the guy who created the language. So when we were singing words, we were singing Na?vi words. We were singing in that language. It?s really hard to sing because it has glottal stops and ejectives and really unusual ways of making sounds. So Paul actually taught the language to the singers. And Jim Cameron wrote the words. He wrote a poem for song lyrics and Paul translated them to Na?vi, then we sang them.

Wait a minute, back up?us? [laughs] I sang on a couple of little places, but luckily my voice was well-hidden behind the ?real? singers!

If we can return to James Cameron?s involvement for a moment. Were you familiar with, or were you introduced to any philosophy Cameron may have incorporated into the story? For Cameron, it?s really an expression of trying to be in touch with the environment. That?s his whole thing. He doesn?t really have a political message in there that was intentional. It grew out of his respect for the environment. That was his philosophy, that we should all be that connected with the environment? and to show how greed can totally destroy something that is beautifully balanced.

You talked about how technology is such an integral force in creating the music we hear today. However, the Na?vi society is very primitive. How did you reconcile that? That?s a great question. We always wanted to keep the people grounded in their world, so what that meant is we had to understand the way they live. [With regard to the Na?vi] we thought about aboriginal cultures here on earth.

How do primitive societies create music? Well, to begin with there?s no metal working capabilities for most of them. So their gear, tools and weapons are constructed from natural elements in the environment. That means there aren?t going to be very complex instruments, nothing that would require metal or a long period of time to create. Vocal music is central to most aboriginal cultures, and so it is with the Na?vi.

So is that why you spent so much time developing a Na?vi vocal tradition? That?s correct. And my task was really researching vocal qualities and different kinds of song structures that would work with this kind of culture and would work in their environment.

Like vocal calls? Vocal calls are good because they carry a long distance in the forest. People can be a long distance apart and still hear each other. So that rooted the musical structure in the way this culture and the environment of Pandora works.

There are, however, some very distinctive instruments. The drums are particularly memorable. Drums are often one of the first instruments to come about in a culture. You can make them out of trees or almost anything you have. Drums work perfectly for the Na?vi because the language that Paul Frommer created has these really cool ejectives and glottal stops that translate perfectly into drumwork.

But the drums served another purpose, too, didn?t they? Ah, the drum signals, based on African talking drums. Such a neat concept. So I sketched out all these drum patterns and rhythms based on Na?vi words to be used as warning rhythms. This was one of the concepts that did not make it into the film, but was fleshed out for the book James Cameron?s Avatar, a tangential project on which I worked directly with writers Dirk Mathison and Maria Wilhelm, and Jim Cameron.

How did you go about creating the ?Na?vi music?? Did it just happen? Was it something that you had planned before the fact? James and I definitely discussed song structures and modal possibilities. Do you know the concept of ?music of the spheres? [from Pythagoras and Plato, concerning theoretical sounds created by the movements of bodies in the universe]? We transposed this to the moon of Pandora and the all-encompassing force that is Eywa, the Na?vi divine spirit. We recorded men singing this moving, oozing, flowing microtonal drone, representing Eywa?s spirit. Then over the top of that, the women have these beautiful, really high soprano cascading vocal lines that are sung in heterophony.

It sounds like so many of your initial ideas made it into the film. What there anything that didn?t make in? Actually, the majority of our work did not appear intact, but the essence of those sounds were utilized to create the lovely colors of Pandora. Partly because the film was initially very long, many scenes of Na?vi life (including music) had to be cut. The Na?vi culture emphasizes visual arts over music, especially woven things. Weaving is really big in their culture, [as well as] an important artistic expression for them. The Na?vi have big looms, which are tree size and that 5-7 people work on at time. We did record a weaving song, specifically at the request of Jim Cameron, but unfortunately, it got cut too. I knew when we were in trouble when I heard the movie was over 3 hours long. You can?t have a film that?s 3 hours long. It?s not commercially viable. And there were parts that, while crucial to the culture of the Na?vi, were not crucial to the plot of the film.

What kind of drums were used? There were numerous drawings and ideas for drums. And there was this one really cool one modeled after Taiko drumming. It?s a spherical set of drums that literally is in a ring, and each of the drums represents one of the planets in Pandora?s solar system. They?re all different sizes and are in the exact position in relation to the others. The drums are suspended high in the air from the trees, and there?s a guy who hangs in the middle and swings around and plays all these drums. Another set of drums was constructed with gigantic drum heads attached to the sides of trees, several feet in the air. The Na?vi swing back and forth on trapezes or swings between the trees and use the trapeze itself as the drum stick: ?boom? on this side and ?boom? on that side.

Speaking of ?working,? how does someone get a job as a music consultant on a feature film? Is there any training for that sort of job? Did you train for it? There was no relationship whatsoever to my dissertation, [except] that it taught me to do very thorough research and look in every corner. Don?t overlook something because you think it?s only tangentially related. If you think it has even a shred to do with what you are looking at, go look at it. It might take you to a whole different world.

Like the world of Avatar, perhaps? Exactly.

It sounds like a fantastic experience. Just the opportunity to get to work for those people, to get to go inside the film world, was such a delight! I?ve taught about music and film for so long, but this was the real thing.

Sounds as if jobs like this don?t come along that often for an ethnomusicologist? No question, composers probably have more of an opportunity.

Why do you think that is? Because composers can create something that reflects a particular culture. A composer can say, ?Ok, we?re dealing with Native American tradition. I understand Native American tradition. I know the musical elements that make up their music. I can write something that replicates that sound.? As far as someone like me going out and saying, ?Ok, I have an ethnomusicology degree. I am going be a film music consultant??no, that?s not going to happen. The reality is that there really isn?t a job description for a film music consultant. It?s not one of those things that come along regularly enough that you can focus on it as being a career goal. It?s one of those things that if you are in the right place at the right time, it?s great. But don?t focus your curriculum on becoming a film music consultant.

But if you can do it, I guess there?s nothing like starting at the top, right? I?m still in shock to think that my name will forever be linked with probably what will be the biggest movie of all time. How bizarre is that? Pretty astonishing that a girl from Iowa who moved to California to study Peter, Paul and Mary, ended up on Pandora.

Any final thoughts? I guess if I had to sum up my role, I?d say I?m the muse. Because I?m not a composer, it was my job to bring the ideas. And what?s really gratifying now is when I listen to the soundtrack, I can say ?A-ha! That?s where it came from!? I know where that sound originated, where the idea for that sound came from.

And now, so do we. Thank you for your time, Dr. Bryant.

Wanda Bryant earned her Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from UCLA in 1995. Her dissertation, Virtual Music Communities, was the first in the field of ethnomusicology to utilize the internet as a research site. Her areas of interest include the music of China, Indonesia, and the Balkans; organology; and popular music culture. She earned her Bachelor?s degree in Music Education from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and has taught at all grade levels, from kindergarten to graduate seminars. She currently teaches the World Music series at CalArts and is an adjunct assistant professor in the Performing and Communication Arts Department at Pasadena City College. She is a contributor to James Cameron?s Avatar: A Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora, which is available at

The students of ?Ethnomusicology 188: Internet marketing & Publishing for Musicians? are: Joseph Buchanan, Ryan Guffey, Mia Kagaya, Ji-Won Kim, Lauren Michelle, Aditya Prakash, Parviz Rahmanpanah, Dan Shimizu and Carlos Toro.

This interview was conducted by: Joseph Buchanan, Mia Kagaya, Lauren Michelle and Parviz Rahmanpanah. Edited by Tom Grasty.

Tags: Ethnomusicology · Students

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