Phil Aaberg on Scoring Shape of the Land

An Interview Phil Aaberg by Robert Hershon
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson

Phil Aaberg

Phil Aaberg helped coordinate his own original compositions along with the performances of other Windham Hill artists in creating an outstanding score for the film, SHAPE OF THE LAND (released in the US in 1986 as LOST IN THE WILDERNESS). This Japanese picture, which documents the exploits of Naomi Uemora, explorer extraordinaire, is due for release in the U.S. in early 1987. Phil has spent time developing his skill with such diverse artists as Rudolph Serkin, Peter Gabriel and Elvin Bishop. Included in his musical credits is the Leonard Bernstein Musical Scholarship to Harvard University which Phil received at the tender age of 16.

What circumstances drew you and the Japanese film company together for work on SHAPE OF THE LAND?
I had an album called High Plains that came out on Windham Hill last October [1985]. I was out on the road touring with that in Butte, Montana, when I got a call from [Windham Hill producer] Will Ackerman saying that they had a Japanese movie to do and wondered if I would be interested in doing the sound track. I said sure. He said “Well, the good news is it’s pretty much for sure that you can have it if you want it, but the bad news is, you have to have a demo done by the second week in December, and you have to have the movie done by January,” which was not a whole lot of time, in my experience. I’ve done some small film strips and so forth, and I knew Mark Isham and knew how long it took him to do a score. So it seemed like a short amount of time, but then we talked to the Japanese and they said “in Japan, a composer usually gets about eight days to finish up the whole thing. Compose it, record it, get it into the studio, everything.”
I went to Los Angeles and met with Kuni Mari, who is the music producer and past president of Alpha Records, Windham Hill’s distributor. He had been contacted by the filmmakers to get some music, and he thought Windham Hill would be appropriate, so we went down and met with them, and saw a very rough version of the film. They had a translation of the script, which I read through, and I took the film home without even worrying about where these particular things went. I just sort of took the whole movie in and got a feeling from it. It’s a very easy story to understand. I just started making musical sketches of impressions of the film, and did a bunch of synthesizer demos in a day, which I mailed to Tokyo. They said great, so we started work on it.

SHAPE OF THE LAND is full of inspirational images, such as the Himalayas and grand landscapes like the Arctic. Which scenes moved you most when you were scoring the film?
I really reacted mainly to the love story between Kimiko and Naomi. That was really strong to me, and I think I got the theme, which is a sort of six syllable theme, from his name. That seems to be a good starting place, if you are writing about someone, if it’s a two-syllable name, you’ve got a two-note theme, if it’s a six-syllable name, you’ve got a six-note theme. It seemed to work out that way.
The Himalayas and that scenery was really incredible. It was nice, because it gave me a chance to be a little more grand in my musical gestures than what I would normally do for the scope of an album. When you have got the Himalayas, you can spread things out and feel real big about it.

I found that the sound is really of very high quality. It’s crisp and had a lot of power to it, even when they are using instruments like a solo guitar.
We recorded the whole thing to a 24-track digital machine, so that is another reasons that I think it comes out well, because when you do movie music, it has to go through all these incredible Dolby matrix systems and stuff that really crunch it down, so the better quality sound you start off with, the better it’s going to sound at the end.

I guess in a sense, all piano players are arrangers. But what other arranging experience had you had with other instruments?
When I started playing with bands here, I played with Elvin Bishop and did a lot of arranging with him for his rhythm sections and different keyboards. Then I played with Peter Gabriel on his first album, and that was a fairly influential time. I think our musical thoughts ran in the same direction. I’d also done some arranging for strings, horns, and so forth. Of course, if you are a synthesizer player, unless you are a lead synthesizer player, you are essentially involved in orchestrating and arranging.

Besides scoring the film, were there are other learning experiences that you gained, such as working with new and interesting synthesizers?
I used a bunch of Yamaha DX7, a Prophet 5 and a Kurzweil. Actually, the most interesting thing to me, in terms of my learning, was using this computer, a PC, because there is some software that is written to do music composition, and it was really helpful to me, although I basically had to learn how to use the computer and how to use the software and write the music all at the same time, so it was a lot of work. But it was very helpful, because the scenes were always changing in length and timing, and although the music may have been appropriate, I always had to shuffle things around.
There were no really long scenes in the movie, it’s chopped up into a lot of little pieces. It’s not one of these great vista kind of movies with four-minute musical pieces. But a lot of times they’d send me another version of the video tape a week later, after I had already written the piece for it. Since I had it all on the computer and synthesizers, I could just go into the software and take out bars here, or speed up the tempo here, and then all I would have to do is plug that program back into the computer and play the synthesizers back in the studio. So I would write ideas in, and then I would orchestrate it.
A lot of times, I would have the screen up here, and I would be watching the movie and improvising on the synthesizer. I’d get segments that I’d really like and I would have them stored on the computer; I could go back in and change the sounds, rearrange them or do whatever I wanted to do.

Were you satisfied with the product after you saw the final edit?
Of course when you turn your music over to the sound editor (and the sound editor was very good on this movie, he was with us for the final mixing) you know that things are going to disappear. I knew that things were going to be quieter than I wanted them to be, and I knew that they were going to replace things with other sounds. There was one interesting part, where the sled dogs fell into a crevasse and were dragging the sled with them, hanging onto the harness. Two of them were left there, and he was trying to pull them up. I did a lot of that – none of it was done on synthesizer, although it sounds very synthesized. I did a lot of it just on piano, different inside-the-piano kind of scrapings and stuff. Scott Cossu, who is also on Windham Hill, was in the studio to mix another one of his albums, and he had these Chinese flutes, and we thought “well, let’s use these flutes.” But I don’t want them to sound like Chinese flutes, because one of the directives we got from the Japanese filmmakers was that they really want no indigenous Japanese-sounding themes. They wanted real American music. So we took this flute, and Scott played four notes; I took it and transmogrified it through everything. One of the sounds was almost like a moaning dog; it was very removed and doesn’t exactly sound like a dog, but it gives an incredible atmosphere to the thing. Elliot Mazer, who produced the music, said “You know, they are just not going to go for that.” I asked why. “Because the dog is there, and they are going to want it to sound like a dog. It sounds close to a dog, but it doesn’t sound like a dog.” I said “Well, it’s perfect. It really removes that scene and puts a real eerie sound in it.” Sure enough, when we got the finished movie back, they had replaced that sound with the sounds of real dogs.

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