Composing the score for The Atom Smashers
Last fall I composed a feature-length film score for the first time called The Atom Smashers. The film is a documentary about scientists at the Fermilab, particle physics, and the decline in scientific research in the United States. This is an exciting time in Physics; the general consensus is that scientists are on the cusp of discovering a new theoretical particle, which they are calling the Higgs Boson. The discovery of the Higgs could change our understanding of the composition of the universe and perhaps unlock mysteries of the Big Bang theory.
The Atom Smashers peeks into the work and lives of a group of scientists at the Fermi Lab, the sole particle accelerator facility (called the Tevatron) in the United States, located in Batavia, IL. For decades the Fermilab touted the largest and most powerful particle accelerator in the world. However, last week marked the opening of CERN, the European particle-physics laboratory in Switzerland whose particle accelerator is much more powerful. If the Higgs Boson does exist it will most likely be discovered at CERN, although Fermilab scientists were still optimistic at the time of The Atom Smashers filming a couple years ago.
The process of composing the score for The Atom Smashers began by examining the temp music and brainstorming ideas with Clayton Brown, one of the film’s directors. The temp music Clayton chose was mostly Jan Jelinek and Sufjan Stevens, both very tasteful composers. It was an exciting challenge to create music in this vein.
Clayton and I went through the scenes in the film together and he provided poignant adjectives to describe the mood in each scene. For example, one of my favorite compositions, which we called “Tevatron Dream,” was described by Clayton as, “the tevetron having a dream. slightly surreal; waiting, peaceful intermission; rye sense of humor, dreamy, wink in eye, half asleep, kicking back, relaxing after hard work; not dark, emotionally neutral.” After understanding the underlying mood in each scene, I started collecting timbres, textures, and modeling synths that I thought might fit. In the end I used quite a bit of highly-effected acoustic accordion samples to create a lush, gritty feel.
The final edit of the film has nineteen musical cues, each reflecting the subtleties of each scene. The composition I’m going to share is called “Spiritual Airport.” It’s a somber moment in the film when a physicist from Fermilab is waiting for his wife at the airport. He talks about how scientists in the United States are concerned that there will be no high energy particles being produced in the United States after 2009. Funding has been cut drastically at Fermilab and the entire facility is set to be shut down in 2010. In a moment of self-reflection, the scientist explains that he sees physics research as a continuation of the main line of rational thought that started in Greece 2500 years ago. He sees research at Fermilab as the extension of humankind searching for answers – looking for the truth.
The music in this scene reflects the organic feel of nature, randomness of the universe, and the human emotions of the physicist. It’s an attempt to portray, as Clayton put it, “The spiritual side of the Higgs.”
More information on The Atom Smashers is available on their website.
The film will air on PBS national television November 25, 2008.