We Create Music Blog
November 23, 2012

J. Ralph on Chasing Ice

J. Ralph (at the piano). Photo by C. Taylor Crothers

J. Ralph (at the piano)
Photo by C. Taylor Crothers

National Geographic photographer James Balog traveled to some of the most remote corners of the earth to capture the astonishing footage seen in the new documentary Chasing Ice. He emerged with undeniable evidence of climate change, and a stunning visual backdrop for the music of ASCAP composer J. Ralph. We spoke with this self-taught composer about his mesmerizing score and song for the film.


More than most movies, the visuals in Chasing Ice are so crucial to its impact. Did you approach your score any different than you would've normally, knowing that James Balog's photography and footage had to take center stage?

My job is always to distill the images, however powerful they may be, into a musical form. The score always has to support and can never overtake the images.

So you saw your function as the same as any other project you'd be working on?

Yeah. It's about creating a symbiosis of the music and the images so they become one. When it's done correctly, you hope that 1+1=5, not 2, you know? In the sense that you're trying to create a perfect marriage of the sound and the images.

A lot of what you do with your company The Rumor Mill is to build sonic identities for artists and brands. How did you come up with the sonic identity for Chasing Ice?

I wanted to create something that had a kind of repetitive, immediate and urgent, insistent, unrelenting propulsion. And so that's where this arpeggio came in, so that it gave this cyclical force that kept happening. And then the melody line is this kinda fractured harmonic tone that's generated by this little magnetic device [an EBow - ed.] that you can hold against the strings which vibrate the strings almost violently out of control. Then you can kinda try to wield it. I wanted to have some of the thesis of the film telegraphed into the score, and by using this magnetic device to generate the string movements and make it vibrate in such a fractured way, it kinda felt like it was emblematic of the film's whole core ethos.

Tiny little changes that amplify into much greater effects than you could've expected.

Yep, totally.

To my ears, your score sounded like it was built less on traditional themes and more spontaneous impressions. You're saying you did have very specific melodic themes that you created for it?

Oh, 100%, yeah. In these movies, you have to distill the narrative into a musical form, so you're referring to instrumentation and melodic themes to help tell the story, then varying that as you go through the different scenes, keeping a through-line and helping to reinforce the ideals of the movie - ultimately ending up in the song that was written for the end titles.

The most stunning part of Chasing Ice to me was watching that gigantic slice of glacier calving after the Extreme Ice Survey team spent more than two weeks waiting; it's such a dramatic moment, and there's no music behind it at all. How did you decide where not to use music?

I felt that that was the most accurate, real part of the film, and I felt that putting music under that would detract from the magnitude of what it is. Sometimes, it's what's in between the music that can help give more profundity to the heart of the film. Jeff [Orlowski, director of Chasing Ice] and I talked about that a lot, and it was my belief that no music under that critical scene would be the most impactful. It's really just about telling the story here, and moving the story along. I think music is greatly overused in films...Jeff and I also talked about that, too. There's nothing that screams that the filmmakers are insecure about the story or images that they're showing [than] when it's wall-to-wall music everywhere.

For the most part, [music is] something to help create an immersive experience. That's the main thing; the music can help create an immersive experience that helps take you to another plane when you're watching it, and I felt that the natural sounds were so profound and transportive that the music would have detracted there.

Were there times where Jeff didn't totally jive on something that you wrote, and you ended up revising it?

The initial pass is the most critical, because that's the first distillation of the visuals into a musical form. Jeff was very interested in hearing that unencumbered or uninhibited perspective, because usually, the music is the last thing to come on to play in a project, and everybody else has lived with it and formalized opinions and perspectives on it, of how things should be. So this is a new perspective of somebody that's not involved with the project for so long. It's also an outside perspective of the project as a whole, 'cause the editor has his specific things inside and the director's focused on minutia, so you can forget the overall effect of what it's like to watch the movie.

So the first pass of the music I generally don't want any input, because I want that to be a pure distillation, a pure translation of what I feel the narrative to be. Then we go from there, and listen to where Jeff and Paula [DuPré Pesmen], the producer, think that modifications should be made. If I've missed something or if they wanna explore different things, then we can go from there, because every step after that initial one they're either being brought into my perspective or I'm being brought into theirs. Then you get into the familiarity of it.

Let's talk about "Before My Time," the song you wrote for the end credits. Whose decision was it to get Scarlett Johansson and Joshua Bell to perform it? Were they both receptive to it immediately?

Oh, yeah, 100%. It was my decision, and Scarlett is a world-class voice; she could have been on her way to being equally as impressive a singer as she is an actor. And Josh is one of the greatest violinists ever. The songs that I choose to record are always about capturing a moment of truth and pure honesty, just as James's images do. My production aesthetic is very reductive, trying to figure out the least amount of things [such that] you can cut away all ornamentation and still make it be compelling. That was a live recording, pretty much. Josh overdubbed the violin after, but there's no editing tricks, no production tricks. That's just her singing the song.

If you notice, the vocal's at least 50% of the sonic space; that's how I like to work with singers. So then two things really need to be the main driver of that. First, the person has to have a really compelling, master voice. Because if you put something that's at least 50% of the sonic space, it would be completely foolish to do if the person is anything less than stellar. Then because the voice is so up front and present, they have to be saying something that they believe in. It can't just be random lyrics and stuff, so that's evident. I thought that Scarlett's voice was so commanding and so earth-shattering, so obviously that was something that I felt had relevance to the film. From a conceptual level it was very surprising, because people don't expect her to have such an incredible voice, just like they don't expect the water to come smashing through your front door. I wanted to add an element of sheer beauty and fragility, and that's kinda what we were going for.

From a very literal perspective, the lyrics of "Before Your Time" seem only tangentially related to the themes of Chasing Ice. Can you talk about how you feel the lyrics tie into the movie?

It's a complete embodiment of all the themes of the film and the perseverance of the film. It's not tangentially related - it's a complete distillation of every theme of the movie into the musical form. It's a conversation between humans and nature, about what has transpired, and a person's quest to make it right and to travel to the ends of the earth to try to make it right.

What personally resonates with you most about Chasing Ice as an endeavor, as a film?

It's that someone's real risk is taken to help right this wrong and help bring awareness to the seriousness of this issue. The fact that James and Jeff are out there risking their lives to help bring awareness to this is astounding, and these places are so transportive and critical for the world that it was an honor to work on it.


Chasing Ice opened in Los Angeles on November 23rd, and is now showing in select theaters nationwide. Find out more about the film at www.chasingice.com.

J. Ralph's score to Chasing Ice is available digitally via LAVA Music/Universal Republic. Pick it up from Amazon or iTunes.

Signed to LAVA/Atlantic records at age 22, J. Ralph has written and produced the music for numerous Grammy winning artists, Oscar-winning films and The President of the United States, Barack Obama. His career encompasses collaborations with such luminaries as Stephen Stills, Willie Nelson, Carly Simon, Norah Jones, Ben Harper, Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons), Bob Weir (of the Grateful Dead), Judy Collins, Adam Horovitz and Mike Diamond of the Beastie Boys and many others. A fellow of Yale University and the only composer ever to win two consecutive A.I.C.P. awards, J. Ralph has several works included in Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection of film and media in New York City. Visit J. Ralph on the web at www.jralph.com.