Composer Josh Urist is delving into mind-bending territory with the release of his latest original project, a soundtrack for an imaginary film.
The Cold Equations brings a story to life in sounds, following the journey of a worker drone on a distant planet who hunts down the corrupt officials responsible for his little sister's death. Although he's not the first musician to create a soundtrack to a movie that doesn't exist, Urist is successful in creating a lush sonic landscape that speaks for itself, painting a colorful picture and pulling listeners on an emotional voyage through sweeping string-driven melodies and a unique blend of acoustic and digital elements. "I wanted to try to put my own mark on the fake soundtrack idea and take it as far as I could. I tried to push the cinematic element of the project in the music, of course, but also in the broader presentation," he said. "From the start, I knew I wanted to write a mostly instrumental record with unconventional instrumentation and an uncommon blend of acoustic and digital voices. By the time I had a few ideas in process, there was a strong sense that we were creating something emotional with a narrative behind it. Stuart Bogie, who produced the record with me, was the one who first suggested making the record a soundtrack to a fake movie. I loved the approach."
The soundtrack's narrative was informed by a 1954 short story of the same name by American science fiction author Tom Godwin, which Urist read while writing his compositions. "The story is dark, but there is a certain beauty to it," he said. "Godwin writes about a Hobson’s choice. A heartless decision between two unacceptable options where an impossible decision must be made based on rigid rules and data, removed entirely from human emotion. But the body of the story focuses intently on the emotional elements of the situation, and that resonated with me. I imagined a new story inspired by Godwin’s. I drew my inspiration for the music from that new imagined storyline."
Indeed, the soundtrack tells its story in a thought provoking way, stirring up visual snapshots of an abstract fictional world. "Thinking in terms of soundtrack was a useful creative constraint to start developing cinematic narrative ideas and using the mindset of writing to picture," he said. "I let story ideas take the lead in the process. I had the concept of a lone hero in a western hat traveling across an alien landscape (Marilyn Lee; track 1). I wanted a chase scene, so Stuart and I wrote a chase scene (Gerry’s Escape; track 9). I wanted a somber vocal song that would play while the closing credits rolled (You Told a Lie; track 10), so I did that."
Even though the film they belong to is imaginary, the 10 songs Urist composed are not and the collection was assembled just like a soundtrack to a theater-released film through all stages of production, from the music to the artwork. "We set out to dress the record in all the trappings of a real film soundtrack—the artwork, and the trailer that we shot for the nonexistent film," Urist said. With the help of a stunning team of accomplished musicians, which includes some long-time friends, they were able to bring the composer's ideas to life. "My first call was Stuart Bogie," he said. "He and I are old pals but we hadn’t collaborated on a musical project for many years. I knew I needed Stuart to produce this record. In addition to being one of my favorite sax players in the world, Stuart is a genius as a producer. I am really lucky that Stuart agreed to take the project on. We co-wrote one of the songs, 'Gerry’s Escape.'"
"John Leamy’s name should really be on the front cover of the record in large letters," he continued. "John plays drums on several of the tracks—most of the ones where we didn’t use Stuart’s old Univox drum machine. John also did all the album artwork and he directed and edited the movie trailer that we made. John and I are frequent collaborators in the studio, and I’ve worked with him as a touring member of his band, Masters of Reality...this record is very much about connecting with old friends."
It is also worth noting that the arrangements featured on The Cold Equations indirectly reflect inspiration from one of the greatest film score composers of all time, legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone. "I used to play a game with my kids on road trips when they were little," Urist explained. "We would put on Morricone, and the kids would describe what they imagined was happening. The kids hadn’t seen the films, they just created their own mental imagery. 'A lion climbing up a mountain in a lightning storm,' 'a flock of chickens doing a choreographed dance.' Morricone, for me, is emblematic of the composer’s ability to conjur narrative and imagery, leaving aside the fact that Morricone wrote for film. In that way, Morricone was the inspiration for this record. I wanted to create something that sounded plausibly like a real soundtrack, and try to tell the story even though no real movie exists."
Curious? The Cold Equations will be available on 180g vinyl and digital download February 1. Listen to an extraction, "He Meant It The Way It Sounded" featuring Urist's friend and violinist Sarah Neufeld, here.