J. Ralph Talks "Hell and Back Again"
Wed, 19 Oct 2011 15:17:22
"I've never seen real life captured like this," says J. Ralph of the award-winning documentary, Hell and Back Again.
You've also never heard a score like the one Ralph built for the film. Instead of utilizing traditional instruments or even electronic trickery, he crafted the film's score from the actual sounds that director Danfung Dennis recorded in Afghanistan. The result is a groundbreaking and haunting soundscape that's simply unforgettable. In addition, Ralph wrote "Hell and Back" the poignant closing tune sung by Willie Nelson. Overall, the film stands as a musical milestone for the composer that begs to be experienced.
For this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino, J. Ralph talked coming up with the music for the film and the story behind "Hell and Back".
How did you compose your score for Hell and Back Again?
I'd spoken with Danfung [Dennis, director] about the movie and he wasn't sure what was going to happen with the music or sound. I kept calling him every few months to check in. I said, "I'm really taken with the rough footage I saw, and I think it's really spectacular. I'd love to be involved in any way." He wasn't sure if music was appropriate though, and I was like, "Every sound tells a story. I can construct an entire score from the sound that you record there." He didn't want any sound effects or instruments used in the film to retain the authentic experience of war he encountered over there. I was all for it. Being that he had a very limited audio rig and all of those harsh conditions, the sound was intensely full of noise, static, and buzz. It took hundreds of hours to clean up this sound to make it presentable so the audience would be transported there. The audience will forgive a lot, but technically speaking there is pretty much nothing more effective at destroying the movie going experience than bad sound or dialog that is hard to hear. You have to go in, do surgery, and make sure any noise that wasn't supposed to be in the audio was eradicated. As we were intently working on the sound, it became evident that in creating this surreal environment out of the sounds of war and human cries and making a score out of that it really helped transport you to this deep place when married to the visuals.
What's the story behind your song "Hell and Back"?
This film is so viceral and real and raw that it is very arresting for people to see. Like being run over by elephants. It is the closest that most poeple will ever get to the real war. Many times after the screenings people are crying when the lights come up. I wanted the film to have an end title song that would be a warm blanket to help transition people out of what they just experienced. A warm blanket back home. It needed to be 100% factual to the story, reflective, hyper visual but still hopeful. I really wanted to try and put people right on the front lines and in the minds of these soldiers. After it was written I immediately thought of Willie Nelson to perform it. To me, there's nobody who represents the American dream, the country, and soldiers better. He's so iconically "America". After months of time spent with Danfung and the film I wrote this song very quickly almost in one shot. It came to me in a flash. It was this tragic story of fighting. There's no end in sight to the fighting. Having your beliefs or dreams shattered in an instant really makes you reevaluate everything. It makes you reevaluate all of your decisions. It has no political agenda. It's my reaction to watching that film and all of the bravery and courage with the harsh realities of war and what happens with that.
As a songwriter, is it important for you to conjure visuals?
When you're writing a song, you want to put someone in a place. You want to say something in a way that will take someone exactly to the moment. Otherwise, you want to make people ponder and think about what you said. Sometimes I'm not concerned if it doesn't make sense initially, but rather ensure that it initiates thought and potentially make someone think about things going on in their own lives.
So you didn't utilize one instrument for the score?
All of the music I constructed for the score and sound design were built out of the sound Danfung recorded in Afghanistan. The entire soundscape was built from the very specific sounds of crying, mechanical war machines, and moments of hope, and death. The director and I very carefully choose those sounds together and handled them in such a way that if you were to reconstruct them it's almost like playing a record backwards. You could hear the exact original source material in tact. I wanted to embody what really happened on the front lines and literally put that truth and reality into the actual score. Telegraph the actual emotions of fear, courage, hope, confusion, etc into the composition. Any sound can be music if you really just listen for it. One of the greatest orchestras you'll ever hear is an orchestra of crickets or the orchestra of the wind in its infinite freeform improvisation. [Laughs].
Have you seen Hell and Back Again or heard "Hell and Back"?
Find Play Dates for Hell and Back Again.
For our review of the song, click here!