Humankind’s story of space exploration is inexorably entangled with our story of global warfare. The early space race was primarily an arms race. NASA was born in the heat of the Cold War in 1958 under President Eisenhower and the noble goal of putting a man on the moon wasn’t the first considered course of lunar activity for the US. Recently declassified documents released by the NSA reveal that the Air Force procured serious exploratory research into detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon, producing a feasibility analysis in 1959 — two years before President Kennedy’s moon speech to Congress — innocuously titled A Study of Lunar Research Flights and with acknowledged contributions by a young Carl Sagan. The top secret “Project A119” only came to light after a 1999 Sagan biography broke the story, eventually leading to a FOIA request and the declassified first volume of the study; the other volumes have reportedly been destroyed or remain classified.
Why nuke the moon? According to the report, “specific positive effects would accrue to the nation first performing such a feat as a demonstration of advanced technological capability.” It would be the ultimate display of American military prowess and would presumably serve as a nuclear war deterrent. Scientific reasons for (and against) the proposal were also given, but it appears that the primary motive was military and political in nature, as if the plan had already been hatched and the lines of scientific inquiry were manufactured ex post facto. It was the Cold War’s underlying doctrine of self-defense via mutually assured destruction made manifest, or as President Kennedy later stated in his 1961 speech to Congress seeking funding and approval of the Apollo mission, “we will deter an enemy from making a nuclear attack only if our retaliatory power is so strong and so invulnerable that he knows he would be destroyed by our response.”
In 1957, there were multiple news reports and swirling rumors citing government sources that the Soviet Union was going to nuke the moon on November 7, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution as well as a lunar eclipse for maximum effect. American astronomers watching the moon didn’t see a lunar mushroom cloud that night, but it has since been confirmed that the Soviet Union was running a classified project under the codename “E” that involved several phases, including stage E-4: detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon. As Boris Chertok told Reuters in 1999, “the plan was to send an atomic bomb to the Moon, so that astronomers across the world could photograph its explosion on film.” The Soviet project actually progressed one step beyond the US project and reached the prototyping stage with a full-scale mock-up of a lunar nuclear bomb in the shape of a naval mine covered with detonator rods.
Both projects were fortunately scrapped for various reasons. Reportedly, the US feared a negative public reaction and came around to the idea that putting a man on the moon would be a more surefire way to win over the public, while the Soviets acknowledged more practical concerns such as the inability to guarantee the armed bomb wouldn’t land anywhere on Earth and the high likelihood that the lunar explosion’s visibility from Earth would be less than impressive due to the moon’s thin atmosphere. A decade later, the idea still held currency among some members of the military and scientific community. In her 1969 paper for the RAND Corporation, Creation of an Atmosphere for the Moon, Leona Woods Marshall Libby described a method for creating a lunar atmosphere similar to that of the Earth by using nuclear bombs to create a thin atmosphere, followed by a massive injection of plants and bacteria “to produce atmospheric gases faster than they could escape.”
Under the Eisenhower administration, the birth of NASA was an attempt to balance the competing interests of scientific exploration and military dominance. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 created NASA as a civilian agency and declared, “it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind,” while leaving less-publicized military space programs under the auspices of the Defense Department. In the following decade, a series of international treaties — the Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 — further defined “the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes” by banning weapons of mass destruction in outer space and prohibiting weapons of any kind on the moon and other celestial bodies. Both treaties built upon and were modeled after the world’s first nuclear arms agreement, the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which was the first time that science was used both as a primary rationale for establishing nonarmament regions and as a tool of diplomacy for the benefit of all humanity. Non-weaponized satellites used for military purposes such as communications and reconnaissance were included (or grandfathered) within the definition of “peaceful purposes,” but weaponized space defense systems have continued to be proposed and debated to this day.
There are still many classified secrets of the Cold War era, including many of the sites and equipment around the world that remain off-limits to the public. There are countless memorials and museums for every other major American war for the public to encounter and gain a better understanding of our history, yet there are remarkably few such cultural sites for the Cold War, a “war” which is arguably the most expensive global conflict to date. Estimates for US military expenditures during the Cold War range from $5.5 trillion to $8 trillion; for comparison, the US spent $4.1 trillion on WWII and is currently spending between $4 trillion to $6 trillion on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
One such site preserving some of these historically significant artifacts and at least partially open to the public (with security clearances and group reservations made in advance) is the Vandenberg Space and Missile Heritage Center, located at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, California. The museum is housed at Space Launch Complex 10, or SLC-10, a National Historic Landmark and the best surviving example of a launch complex built in the 1950s at the beginning of the American effort to explore space during the Cold War. Originally built to launch Thor intermediate-range ballistic missiles, SLC-10 was repurposed over the years for anti-satellite weapons and meteorological satellite launches up until its decommissioning in 1980. Jay Prichard, an Air Force veteran and former missile maintainer, now serves as the director and curator of the Vandenberg Space and Missile Heritage Center on a journey that began with a crowbar in 1992 when Prichard first discovered a room full of vintage equipment behind a door that was “literally rusted shut.”
My recent visit to VAFB this January was made possible by the NASA Social Program. Thanks in part to the music videos I had created using NASA footage, I obtained social media accreditation and an invitation to attend the launch of the SMAP satellite (more on that later) along with a tour of VAFB and SLC-10. This is where I first met the enthusiastic Jay Prichard and where I first learned about VAFB’s role in the Cold War and in the history of space exploration. I’ve lived within a few hours driving distance of VAFB for almost 12 years but never fully appreciated or understood its historical significance until this eye-opening trip.
Nearly 100,000 acres in size, VAFB is the third largest Air Force base after Eglin AFB in Florida and Edwards AFB in California. A long bus ride took us deep into the base and as we approached SLC-10, some of the nondescript buildings began to emerge above the horizon of native coastal vegetation.
There is nothing particular about the buildings that indicate anything about their contents or purpose, save for a plain numerical sign in a non-threatening Helvetica font.
Decades of salty and wet conditions on the coast have left their mark on the surfaces of the structures and any equipment left outdoors.
Once inside the Vandenberg Space and Missile Heritage Center, the equipment and its functions become immediately apparent. Thousands of buttons and indicator lights labeled in mid-century fonts with ominous phrases like STRATEGIC ALERT, WARHEAD ALARM, LAUNCH IN PROCESS and MISSILE AWAY convey the unmistakable.
This is just a small sample of the instrumentation that sat between military personnel and a nuclear WWIII, the grim buttons and warning systems at the very edge of an ever-possible global annihilation. The “sea green” color was specifically chosen for much of the equipment based on psychological studies of which colors had the most calming effects on people working in “high stress” environments.
It’s one thing to see this kind of equipment as a prop in a movie, but it’s a whole other experience seeing it up close and touching it with your own hands. It’s more visceral, more heady, equal parts awe-inspiring and revolting. It touched a deep nerve for me and stirred some of the same emotions from my memory of the first time I ever handled a gun, but this was the technology of killing on a much larger scale.
Automotive designers, product engineers and user interface experts speak of the “faces” of technology. I was struck by the calm and orderly faces of this Cold War equipment with its muted colors and unassuming typefaces that stood in contrast to its powerfully devastating functions.
I couldn’t decide whether fifty years of decay made the technology appear more or less menacing. On the one hand, it seemed quaint and antiquated, impotent and unable to be reactivated without major repairs. On the other hand, it hinted at the more troubling thought that this equipment has been retired and replaced with something else, something newer and shinier. Does the new technology look the same? Is it also painted in pastel colors and adorned with polite fonts? Or does it look more sinister? It’s all classified, of course, and even if I had the security clearance to see it myself, I’m guessing I probably wouldn’t be allowed to talk about it or take photos of it.
The same technology and the same rockets that can carry payloads of mass destruction can also carry the keys to unlocking secrets of the cosmos in the form of scientific instruments designed to collect data and test hypotheses and to see all the things we are unable to see from our earthly prism. In his 1962 moon speech at Rice University, President Kennedy delicately explained this duality as follows:
For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours. There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.
After our tour of the Vandenberg Space and Missile Heritage Center, another bus trip took us to the launch pad of the SMAP satellite at Space Launch Complex 2, or SLC-2. The Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite will orbit Earth for at least three years and will provide unprecedented global measurements of land surface soil moisture and freeze-thaw state using radar and a unique AstroMesh rotating reflector antenna system. The data collected and made publicly available will help scientists better understand and predict floods, droughts and carbon cycles. This was as close as we were allowed to get to the SMAP launch pad the day before the planned launch.
Although the Bush administration quietly removed the phrase “to understand and protect the home planet” from NASA’s mission statement in 2006 — the first time since NASA’s founding that the mission statement doesn’t explicitly mention Earth — and cut funding respectively, NASA has continued to promote Earth sciences. Earth was added back to the NASA mission statement under the Obama administration, but the debate about whether Earth sciences should be included in NASA’s mission is ongoing and politically charged.
With global weather patterns becoming more extreme and no serious proposal on the table for any other organization to take over the Earth science programs from NASA, I don’t see the logic behind the efforts to shut it down. Providing more data and gaining a better understanding of how our climate is changing and what factors are causing those changes is a good thing. It may very well be the greatest challenge facing humanity.
This is where I find fault with the “screw this planet and escape to another planet” narrative that’s been popularized in movies like Interstellar. The cost, effort and technology required to relocate our species and/or our ecosystem to another hospitable planet — assuming another hospitable planet can be found or built — far exceeds that of fixing and protecting the one hospitable planet we already have. Instead of building a mythical ark destined for an unknown land, why not just stop the flood? With all of its “scientific inaccuracies,” at least Gravity got the most important thing right: life on Earth may be hard, but outer space is significantly more brutal, harsh, indifferent and unforgiving than any other environment we’ve explored. Take away the incredible cinematography and Gravity is just a slasher flick with outer space as the relentless killer. It’s a miracle that a hospitable planet like Earth has even been able to develop and to become a safe haven for the evolution of life as we know it, and it is therefore our duty to recognize, honor and protect that miracle with the best possible stewardship.
Attending and documenting the SMAP launch was more than just a scientific excursion and a chance to cross off “NASA rocket launch” from my bucket list. It has been a direct political action. At the SMAP launch coverage, social media persons and “citizen journalists” outnumbered traditional press by more than ten to one, and two press members told me that has been the general trend for some time now. If traditional press revenues and budgets continue to fall, the sacred responsibility of informing the citizenry falls to the citizenry. That’s why I have felt compelled to cover and report on this story in my own way. We need more educated people and a more diverse group of voices discussing and tackling these big problems that have been creeping up on us for at least the past sixty years. The same old ideas and the status quo will be our demise.
We rose early the next morning, well before sunrise, since the SMAP launch was set for 6:20am. I had invited my friend, Mike Pedersen, a terrific and experimental landscape photographer, to join me at the viewing site for the rocket launch about 5 miles east of SLC-2. We trekked into the pitch black cold to put some distance between us and the noise and lights of the crowd gathered near the bleachers. We fumbled with flashlights and managed to get our tripods, cameras and sound gear setup and ready for the main event. The anticipation was palpable.
Right when the countdown reached T-4min, a wave of groans passed through the crowd as the announcement was made: upper level winds were too strong and the launch had to be scrubbed. The RV’s and campers that I had seen parked near the viewing site suddenly made sense. Apparently, rockets are prima donnas. Mike and I packed up and grabbed breakfast at a local diner in Lompoc with walls covered in pictures of the town’s rocket launching history. Mike had to return to LA for a work commit. I was able to juggle my schedule and decided to stay another day in Lompoc.
The next day, another delay was announced due to minor debonds to the booster insulation that had to be repaired. I was determined to catch the launch so I cleared my schedule and invited another group of friends from LA to bring their gear and chase the rocket with me. Two days after the originally scheduled launch date, we were back outside in the cold dark morning at the viewing site with all of our gear setup and ready.
Instead of describing what happened next, I’ll just say that it was epic. I’m thrilled to have captured an incredible audio field recording. I wasn’t able to capture video with my camera and my photos didn’t turn out (botched exposure settings), but I edited together some of NASA’s footage of the launch with my audio field recording from the viewing site and wound up with a short video that I believe captures some of the drama and excitement of space exploration for the betterment of life on Earth:
SMAP is currently on track to complete its initial checkout and commissioning activities by the end of April. Initial data products with a preliminary level of calibration will be released by August while additional calibration will continue for up to 15 months.
In the closing pages of his four-volume memoir, Rockets and People, published after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Boris Chertok made several predictions about the future of space exploration. I found this one to be his most insightful:
In the 21st century, humankind must acknowledge planet Earth’s uniqueness in the entire observable universe in order to unite the efforts of all the leading countries to preserve her. Homo sapiens is a completely exceptional phenomenon, falling outside of the scope of observations by spacecraft. This “wise man” must use the force of intellect to reliably defend the planet from the folly of unwise Homo sapiens.
Lee Queza approached me for unique live music for his Los Angeles debut art show, Noir, held July 9, 2014 at Porta Via in Beverly Hills. I’ve known Lee for several years now and it has been thrilling to watch his artistic growth as he has developed his unique style and continues to experiment with different techniques. I studied his latest series of fluid watercolors and carefully crafted a 3-hour set of music to compliment his artwork and to help define the mood and tone of the evening. The set included several custom compositions that I performed live as well as some moody tracks from some of my favorite artists. The art show was a big success with Lee selling over half of the pieces he had on display. Follow Lee on Instagram @leequezaart for more previews of his current work and upcoming shows.
My mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the spring of 2013. Now, at the young age of 59, she has gone through the full battery of ovarian cancer surgeries, diagnostics, chemotherapies, side effects, complications, and all of the triumphs and hurdles, both physical and emotional, that are familiar to many cancer patients. I’ve been making road trips back to Louisville to be with her and the rest of my family as often as possible during this difficult time. My siblings and I have always been very close to my mom, and it has not been easy to see her go through this. Just a few months before her diagnosis, she was dancing at my wedding and my sister’s wedding, and we always thought she would become such an amazing grandmother. That has been one of the hardest realizations through this journey that we have had to face.
September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Ovarian cancer is the deadliest cancer of the female reproductive system; each year in the United States, 22,000 new cases are diagnosed and 14,000 lives are lost. One of the reasons it’s known as a silent killer is that ovarian cancer is rarely caught in its early stages. Throughout this month, many organizations are helping to raise awareness about ovarian cancer through outreach efforts, fundraisers, walks and runs in cities across the country.
All of the nationwide ovarian cancer walks happening this month are listed at http://bit.ly/TheBridgetBrigade, including the 16th Annual Walk/Run for Ovarian Cancer Awareness benefiting ovarian cancer research and awareness efforts, presented by the Ovarian Cancer Coalition of Greater California, at CBS Studio Center in Studio City on Sunday, September 14, 2014; as well as the 6th Annual Dee Edwards Memorial Whisper Walk for Ovarian Cancer Awareness, presented by Ovarian Awareness of Kentucky, in Louisville on Saturday, September 13, 2014. All of these walks are family-friendly and many of the walks are also pet-friendly. Proceeds from the walks go towards ovarian cancer research and awareness efforts.
To support and honor our mom, my siblings and I have made teal wristbands available for a minimum $10 donation at http://bit.ly/TheBridgetBrigadeForm. Just as pink is the official color for breast cancer awareness, teal is the official color for ovarian cancer awareness. All wristband proceeds go directly to Bridget and the causes of her choice. My mom has always felt a special affinity with animals, dogs in particular, adopting and rescuing many canine companions throughout her life. She even wrote, recorded and published a sweet little song on iTunes called “Canine of Mine“. There are several well-deserving animal shelters that she wants to support in her honor. I’ve also been trying to spread awareness by encouraging folks to post pictures wearing the teal wristbands using the hashtag #teambridget and @thebridgetbrigade on Instagram, @bridgetbrigade on Twitter and @TheBridgetBrigade on Facebook. We’ve already had a few celebs join the cause.
If you or a loved one has been affected by any type of cancer, I have nothing but high praise for the Cancer Support Community which offers a substantial number of free services, classes, activities, events, individual therapy and support groups for cancer patients and their loved ones at no charge. It is a truly remarkable non-profit organization powered by an army of amazing volunteers.
Please educate yourself about ovarian cancer and help spread ovarian cancer awareness this month by wearing teal to show your support. TEAL = Tell Every Amazing Lady. Learn more at the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC) and the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance.
The big wedding broadcast during the Grammy Awards last weekend was a momentous occasion. The cultural significance of the event was deeply felt by all of us in the stadium that night and by the millions who were watching. I was humbled to be a part of it. Music has always been a catalyst for political change and I hope to hear more voices knocking down the remaining barriers to marriage equality.
I had the good fortune of meeting Jocelyn Alice of the Calgary-based songwriting duo jocelyn & lisa at an LA music event last year. Jocelyn asked if I’d like to remix a new song that they had just finished recording called “Open Wide.” Between Jocelyn’s soulful vocals and Lisa’s solid piano work, I thought it was beautiful and intimate. I wanted to create a tightly restrained remix that highlighted Jocelyn’s voice and the lyrics while slowly building up and exploding into something fierce. I held back on adding any unnecessary elements and went for a pure emotional ride.
Right about the time when I was finishing up the remix, I met filmmaker Emmeline Kim and choreographer Ania Catherine through my work with the Downtown Film Festival LA. They told me they were looking for a new song to shoot a short film music video. After listening to my remix, they fell in love with jocelyn & lisa and their inspiration for the video concept soon flowed. You can read Emmeline and Ania’s artist statements for the video here.
The short film music video became an official selection of the 2014 BFI London LGBT Film Festival, the 2014 Ontario London Lesbian Film Festival and the 2014 InsideOut Toronto LGBT Film Festival. We’re developing plans for releasing the “Open Wide” remix to a wider audience. It has been an honor working and collaborating with these four amazingly talented young women on this unique and passionate project. I can’t wait to see what they cook up next.
Here’s the video by Emmeline & Ania set to my remix, as well as the original version of “Open Wide” by jocelyn & lisa:
A friend and Boyfriend Academy fan had taken a few trips to Australia and came home raving about this singer-songwriter she met in Sydney by the name of Anikiko. She heard Anikiko was going to be in LA and Nashville for a few weeks so she put her in touch with me and we immediately clicked. Our first song that we started co-writing together, “Light Years,” flowed effortlessly. We finished writing and recording it at separate studios with her in Sydney and myself in LA. Here’s a studio preview of “Light Years” slated for release in November. Sign up on Anikiko’s mailing list to find out more and to receive a special invite to the release!
The incredible video footage released by NASA always inspires me. During the shuttle missions, NASA mounted cameras to the rocket boosters which provided a vertigo-inducing view of blasting off into space and falling all the way back to Earth. I had just finished my remix of Barry Manilow’s “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right” when I first saw the video footage from one of the Discovery shuttle’s missions. Each rocket booster had two cameras attached, one facing down and one facing up, for a total of four camera angles. I synchronized the videos in a multi-cam FCP project using the yellow timecode burned into the corner of the image and edited it into a music video for my Manilow remix.
I edited another amazing NASA video for my remix of Janis Joplin’s “Move Over.” The Transit of Venus in front of the Sun is one of only two such planetary crossings — the other being the Transit of Mercury — that are visible from Earth. While transits of Mercury occur thirteen times each century, Venus transits the Sun only twice per century. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the remarkable event on June 5, 2012 with it’s Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager, an instrument designed to study the oscillations and magnetic field of the solar surface. The video images were constructed from several wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light and a portion of the visible spectrum. The red colored sun is the 304 angstrom ultraviolet, the golden colored sun is 171 angstrom, the magenta sun is 1700 angstrom, and the orange sun is filtered visible light. 304 and 171 show the atmosphere of the sun, which does not appear in the visible part of the spectrum. The small black disc that passes horizontally through the video is our neighboring planet, Venus.
The year came to an end with a bang. Metro Newspapers launched a new music festival called the Silicon Valley Sound eXperience — now known as the expanded C2SV: Create Converge Silicon Valley music and tech conference — and in their inaugural Silicon Valley Music Awards competition, their jury awarded me as the Best Electronic Artist of 2012! Just a few weeks later, RAW San Jose audience voters chose me as Best Performing Artist of 2012! Thanks to Metro Newspapers and RAW San Jose for the esteemed honors.
I had made great connections in Los Angeles over the past few years of monthly trips and decided it was time to take the next step for my career. I relocated to LA during Thanksgiving week and began to settle into my new home in Echo Park. I’ll always have a spot in my heart for San Jose and the entire San Francisco Bay Area, the place I called home for the past 10 years. But now, it’s time for the next chapter…
In early February 2012, I heard about a short filmmaking competition called Silicon Valley ArtShots where local filmmakers paired up with local artists and were given two weeks to create a 90-second micro-documentary capturing the spirit of the artist and their work. Always up for a new challenge, I approached my friend, Dalia Rawson, to see if she would be willing to share her personal story and be the subject of my short film.
Dalia Rawson is the School Principal of the Ballet San Jose School and is also the founder and artistic director of the award-winning Rawson Project Contemporary Ballet. From her years as an elite ballet dancer in training to her current work as a choreographer and dance instructor, Dalia has an incredible life story of overcoming obstacles and living life through dance.
After a week of following her with my camera through her long days of rehearsals, classes and workshops, I invited Dalia to my home studio to interview her for the film’s voiceover. I approached the project as I would a radio piece, editing her interview into a short narrative to fit within the 90-second time constraint. With a background score and the audio story complete, I assembled video clips from the week of shooting and stitched together the puzzle pieces into the final product.
[vimeo http://vimeo.com/36997714 w=948]
At the Silicon Valley ArtShots finale, my short film was awarded Best Overall, Best Presentation of the Artist and Most Inspiring by the judge’s panel. All of the Silicon Valley ArtShots films were screened during the San Jose ArtWalk in April and aired in rotation on CreaTV. My short film was also an official selection of the Silicon Valley Film Festival and screened at the Intel Theatre in November.
None of this would have been possible without the cooperation of the students and parents of the Ballet San Jose School and the members of The Rawson Project. Thanks to Nick Masculino of Less Than Three Productions for lending me his camera lenses, and thanks to my brother, Brandon Smith, for the lessons on color correction. But most importantly, thanks to Dalia and her brother, Cliff, for sharing such a personal story and letting me into their workspace and their home with a camera.
I’m playing a live electronic audiovisual set at the RAW Ensemble show on Thursday, September 27 at Beso Club in downtown San Jose. It’s going to be a jam-packed night of some of the best new local art, music, film and fashion in the South Bay. In addition to live music by Boyfriend Academy, Margaret The King and Heroes At Gunpoint, there will also be live body painting, performance art and exhibitions by more than a dozen local artists, short film screenings by local filmmakers and a fashion show featuring local designers and stylists. Check out the promo video below for the full rundown and this preview article from Metro. Advance tickets are highly recommended for this one-night-only special event.
Written and directed by Anuj Nijhawan, According to Plan A is a heartfelt and realistic portrayal of an immigrant’s struggle to succeed in the high tech world of Silicon Valley. Abhi (played by Ali Fazal) works in a big tech company, confident about his life plans and optimistic about his future career. Things don’t go according to plan and Abhi must discover a new path forward with the help of his two closest friends, Raghu (Sunny Moza) and Gia (Angela Gulner). All three of the lead actors deliver honest and likable performances in this tender and bilingual short film about aspirations and overcoming setbacks. Anuj worked closely with me on the score for his film. We started out with several listening sessions where Anuj played for me some of his musical influences and musical ideas for the film, which was exciting and educational for me because of our different cultural backgrounds. Another reason that I was excited about working on this project was that I would not only get to compose the underscore but I would also get to write and produce the songs for the opening title sequence, the montage scenes and the ending credits.
The final soundtrack I delivered for the film spanned multiple genres including electro pop and rock, but the pieces of music that I enjoyed working on the most were the underscores for the layoff scenes. They had to be somber and pensive, but not too dark and dreary. After experimenting with different instruments and motifs, I was drawn to the simplicity of the rhythmic droning of tapping on Asian jars tuned to only three different notes. With a bit of reverb, the result is almost hypnotic. It fit the scene perfectly and it was one of the first cues of music that Anuj approved.
Earlier this year, the film won “Best of the Fest” at the Riverside International Film Festival. It premiered at the Tampa Bay India International Film Festival and it was also an official selection at the Treasure Coast International Film Festival, the Maryland International Film Festival, the Santa Rosa International Film Festival and the Indisches Filmfestival Stuttgart.
Rufus Wainwright’s unique vocal melody for his song “Bitter Tears” inspired me to produce this glitch house remix. His original song has such a drugged-out baroque feel and I wanted my remix to be just as moody. I had a little fun with the lyric, “Choking on my bitter tears,” transforming it into a new melody and turning it into a catchy refrain of its own. For the breakdowns, I created several new synthesizer sounds and experimented with some rhythmic slicing and glitch effects on the vocals.
For my remix of K’naan ft. Nas – “Nothing to Lose,” I wanted to make a fusion remix that crossed genre lines. Something that kicks off with a rocking, hand-clapping hook before mellowing out with a laid-back hip-hop verse and then exploding into a drum & bass style chorus.
I cranked up the heat and got busy producing remixes this winter. My initial approach to remixing was somewhat non-traditional. Instead of chopping it up and dropping it over a beat, I tried to honor the integrity of the original song structure while creating an entirely different interpretation and expression of the song. Usually this means leaving the vocals relatively intact (with some creative embellishments) and creating from the ground up a new song. It’s kind of similar to my process for film scoring, where the vocals are the film and dialogue and the music is the underscore. I also try to isolate and play with what I think is the most unique or interesting ingredient from the original song, whether it’s a guitar lick or a percussive sound that inspires me as a jumping off point.
I’ve been a fan of Theophilus London for a while now. I started writing with a signature bass line in mind but I wanted the song to be more downtempo with a dubtronica gangsta feel. I kept parts of the guitar but heavily processed the guitar stem for the last part of the song to the point where it started to sound more like a swooping synthesizer effect.
When I first heard Jon Foreman’s vocals for Switchfoot’s “Afterlife,” the tonality and lyrics reminded me of the ’80s style of music popularized by Depeche Mode and Duran Duran. I was hearing a dark electro New Wave drum and synth atmosphere and immediately started assembling my sound palette and composing the drum, bass and synth lines. The sonic ingredient from the original song that stood out the most to me was the percussive whack of a drum stick against the side of something metallic. With a bit of reverb judiciously applied, it took on the nature of something you might hear in a Peter Bjorn and John album.
Beyoncé’s vocals are so full and powerful, I found it challenging to create a wall of sound that felt right with her sound. My goal was to create a signature bass line in the tech house style of Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction” as a fun counterpoint against the vocal melody.
San Jose-based director DB Cheng met up with me last year and gave me the script for My Name Is Seven, a short romantic comedy he planned to shoot in Los Angeles with hip-hop dancers Steve Terada and Brian Hirano of Quest Crew and Yuri Tag of Kaba Modern, best known for their performances on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew. DB already had a few songs in place from The Bangerz and wanted some additional flavors from Boyfriend Academy. I wrote and recorded two electro pop songs for My Name Is Seven: “Do It 4 Me,” an up-tempo, four-on-the-floor, dance pop number; and “Gimme Summer Dat,” a mid-tempo, urban pop track. Both songs made the final cut.
The best part of the process was running the live sound playback at the shoot in in Los Angeles for the dance studio scene and getting to see the dancer’s choreography bring “Do It 4 Me” to life.
My Name Is Seven toured the Asian American film festival circuit in 2011 and 2012. I attended the premiere screening with DB at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. The film was also an official selection in the Asian Film Festival of Dallas, the San Diego Asian Film Festival, the DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival, the Boston Asian American Film Festival, the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and the PBS Online Film Festival.
DB Cheng and Tony Smith, premiere of My Name Is Seven, Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival
Nominated for “Best Fashion Event of the Year” in the 2010 San Francisco Fashion Awards, the Zivity Fashion Show and Charity Auction raised over $7,000 for charity in a very sexy way. I had previously worked with Danielle Cohen of Missing Piece Productions on a few fashion events, so I knew her events were always unique and provocative experiences. She told me about her ideas for Zivity’s anniversary bash, including a runway show featuring seven San Francisco designers, old-fashioned candy girls, a retro photo booth, vintage cocktails and a striptease charity auction. Here’s how the striptease charity auction worked: each of the seven designers selected one of their best pieces to send down the runway; the higher the bidding, the more clothes came off. SF Indie Fashion said of the event: “With the hauntingly ethereal music by Boyfriend Academy playing overhead, I couldn’t help but think to myself, never was there a more altruistic reason to bare it all… Who knew being bad could do so much good?”
Danielle wanted custom music for the stripteases to set them apart from each other and from the rest of the show. She challenged me to compose seven different musical ideas suitable for each of the seven designers. Here are some of the tracks that I composed for the striptease charity auction.
After seeing Nhan Ho’s contemporary choreography at sjDANCEco‘s ChoreoProject Awards last year, I knew I had to collaborate with him. Nhan had recently moved back home to San Jose from New York to start his own dance company, the Nhan Ho Project. He was putting together his company’s debut show at the Santa Clara Convention Theatre. We hit it off and I got him over to my studio to talk about music. One of the pieces Nhan was developing, Wilt, was a duet about a couple separated by death. He wanted slow and somber music with a steady tempo, piano and strings, something along the lines of The Cinematic Orchestra. I composed a first draft of the music and attended a rehearsal with Nhan and Jenni Bregman to see how it worked and to gather more feedback. Only a few adjustments to the mix were needed.
I couldn’t make it to the premiere due to a conference in Los Angeles, but I was able to attend an encore performance a few weeks later at De Anza College in Cupertino, captured beautifully in the video below thanks to John JP Parenica of 2nd20 Productions. Thanks to Nhan and Jenni for the intense collaboration.
Nhan Ho of the Nhan Ho Project was working on a large group piece about a woman who falls in and out of time. He wanted experimental electronic music with syncopated delays and counterpoints that the dancers could play against. I had just recently received my custom-modified RX17 drum machine back from Logan Erickson at Low-Gain Electronics and thought this would be the perfect first use. I routed the modded RX17 through an MFC42 analog filter, played around with the resonance, synchronized the MIDI through Logic and layered in a few other synth sounds. Time premiered at the Santa Clara Convention Theatre on April 30, 2011 as part of the Nhan Ho Project’s debut show, From Light to Dark.
New York Film Academy student Adam Ishmael had written and directed his first short thriller, The Last Mission, as his thesis film project. His original composer was unavailable due to a family crisis, so Adam went online to find a composer who could work on a tight deadline and deliver a fully completed score within four days.
When he first emailed me a few screen captures to show the quality and tone of his 35mm film, I immediately started developing a sound palette, character motifs and thematic elements. The artistic direction Adam gave me was “somber, intense, modern and introspective.” Some scenes needed only a sparse and ambient soundscape, while others, like the final showdown, called for a climactic and percussive build.
Our collaboration over the next four days was done entirely online; Adam would send me the video files and I would send him drafts of the score. His team was doing ADR work while my score was coming together. Four days later, we made the deadline for the May 28 premiere screening. I wasn’t able to attend the New York screening but Adam told me that it was an audience favorite and that he was approached by a producer interested in working with him on a feature-length project.
Brent Adams, Jerome Tobias and Andria Lo wanted unique live music for their San Francisco debut art show, Filtered, an exhibition of paintings, mixed-media assemblage and photography examining the everyday as filtered through their vision. I’ve been a big fan of their work and was excited to provide the soundtrack for the opening night. From the show’s literature: “All three artists work in the design field during the day, and weave these design experiences seamlessly into their artwork. Jerome Tobias and Brent Adams are both architects in the Bay Area, incorporating fundamentals of texture and space into their artwork. Tobias paints the intangibles of motion to form the space of his subjects, while Adams plans spaces through the assembled composition of found objects. Andria Lo is a professional photographer whose personal work presents a curious look at the everyday/night by often capturing scenes that cannot actually be perceived by looking.”
The show was also a benefit for Bay Positives, a non-profit organization that helps young people with HIV/AIDS to live longer, happier, healthier and more productive lives. Artwork from their Healing Arts Program was exhibited and offered for sale.
I performed a live background score on the opening night of the exhibition. To give myself a few breaks to grab some drinks, I also composed a few instrumental tracks beforehand that I could playback during the event.
Here’s one of the tracks I composed for Filtered.