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From Whale Songs To Clarinets: Heitor Pereira’s Score For “Sonic Sea” Earns Emmy Nom

Composer Heitor Pereira used recordings of whale songs within his score for “Sonic Sea.” Photo courtesy Imaginary Forces.

By: Marjorie Galas

Some artists get to weave their personal passions with their professional works.  Take, for example, composer Heitor Pereira.  When he’s not creating innovative music, he’s engaged with nature.   He’s an avid birder who’s spent years recording the calls of many species.  He was able to take his knowledge of the feathered community and work the recordings he’d made of birds into the score of “The Angry Bird Movie.”   Released the same year, “Sonic Sea” featured a Pereira score that found sounds of nature stitched throughout his composition, creating a tonal tapestry that resulted in the composer’s first Emmy nomination.  Variety 411 recently asked Pereira to talk about his experiences composing “Sonic Sea.”

Variety 411:  You’ve created the score to documentaries before. Did you enjoy having the opportunity to return to this style of storytelling?

Heitor Pereira:  In 2007, I scored the documentary ” Running the Sahara,” for award winning director, James Moll. Moll directed the film “Inheritance” based on S.S. Captain Amon Göth. Ralph Fiennes portrayed Göth in Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” I love doing animated films but doing the music of actual stories in real life, I really enjoy that too.

V411:  “Sonic Sea” has a number of story threads that are merging into a 60-minute documentary. How did you first approach establishing the direction the score would follow? Did you have a fair amount of conversation or direction from the directors or were you able to be very creative in the selection you made?

HP:  I had total freedom to work with the music. Having said that, what’s the point of collaborating if you’re not listening to your collaborators. I would say that it was a group effort.

V411:  I recall when you composed the score for “Angry Birds”, released the same year. You used samples of bird calls you recorded yourself that you were able to manipulate and infuse throughout the score. How did you select the natural sounds you used in “Sonic Sea,” and where did you obtain them?

HP:  As it’s a scientific documentary, we had access to a huge amount of sounds. The sound mixers and the sound editors, such as re-recording mixer, Jonathan Wales, gave me access to a lot of the sounds that the sound team recorded. I also had a lot of sounds myself, for example, I recorded the whales’ songs so I didn’t need to manipulate those sounds. Then I used some of the whales’ songs as cords. I used a group of cords that I could use to write a melody. I knew with that, I had a proper beginning for the score.

V411: How did you modify them and create a balanced harmony with the other instruments you selected for the score?

HP:  At places, I add a clarinet and multi-phonics because that sounds like whale songs. I also played the Moog synthesizer and guitar and I (frequently) added those under the whale harmonies to guarantee extra notes for those whale cords. When needed, I turned the terrible sounds of the shipyard into a big drum kit. I turned the horrible sounds of cavitation, which is the sound of millions of bubbles created by the propellers of ships, into many analog effects in sequences. The same way that I use the natural sounds of the whales to create the whale harmony, I looked into ships and created harmony from those ship horns. So there was the beauty of the whale sounds with violins, always fighting with the sound from the ship’s hull, the sonar and the cavitation.

The singing in the ocean is a constant. It’s communication, it’s migration, it’s procreation. I’ve been to Big Sur and you can hear the whales at night and it’s just such a beautiful sound.

V411: How did you collaborate with the sound department and coexist with the soundscape they were creating?

HP:  The same way that a composer has to work with dialog and coexist with dialog, I also had to coexist and work with the sounds in the documentary. The whales were constantly singing and I wanted to make sure that my music complemented that. So I would try not to step on those whale sounds, but when it was necessary to elevate those emotions, then the music would come up and the sounds effects would take a secondary place. We were in constant communication, always making sure that we were working with the right sound in the right place.  They left a lot of space for the music. I’ve known Jonathan Whales for many, many years, and it was a pleasure to work (together) on a project that really marries music and sound together.

V411:  Heitor, you have a love for nature, and have explored much of the environment.  Did you learn anything personally from this documentary – perhaps some aspects about the ocean you were unfamiliar with?

HP:  I learned a lot from this documentary. This was an area I wasn’t familiar with and I learned so much, it’s such an important documentary. These animals cannot protect themselves.

You know, the visibility in the ocean isn’t that great. The most is maybe 100 meters. So fish and mammals see under the water by these sounds. It’s sad to think that those whales can’t put their heads out of the water because they’re hearing those constant noises from the ships and from sonar.

V411:   You received your first Emmy nomination for the score you created for “Sonic Sea.” What was it like to learn of this nomination and what does it mean to you?

HP:  I couldn’t be prouder of the whole team. I’m so proud I got to work with a team of sound manipulators to come up with this sound and music for the documentary including the sound mixer, the editor, the sound editor, the supervising sound mixer. All people who work with sound like myself, as a composer on this more than ever you have the world of sound at your disposal. It was a pleasure to work with a subject matter that deals with sound, beautiful and horrible, with a group of people that are really good at what they love to do. Like myself, they really care about the outcome of what this documentary is actually aiming at; which is to educate people on the condition of these animals, and also to show it’s not only about terror but it’s to show that man is capable of changes.

Click HERE to watch a video featuring Heitor Pereira and “Sonic Sea” director Michelle Dougherty.