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INTERVIEW WITH COMPOSER MATT MORTON ABOUT DOCUMENTARY FILM "APOLLO 11"

 
Jeremy [Six Strings]: Can you tell us how you became involved with "APOLLO 11" film and how did you approach this score different from the last score?

Matt Morton: I’ve been friends with and have worked with the director, Todd Douglas Miller, since we were kids growing up in Gahanna, Ohio (a suburb of Columbus).  He was the singer in my high school band “651” (I played guitar), and after high school, he went to film school at Eastern Michigan and I went on to Denison University where I started another band (with some other Gahanna friends) called “The Shantee”.  That band stayed together for 9 years - we recorded several albums and toured all over the country.  Todd started working on commercials in Detroit, and we kept in touch.  He would come out to shows and occasionally film them.  He used some music from my band in his first feature-length documentary ‘Gahanna Bill’.

The Shantee kind of hit a glass ceiling in the early 2000s.  We were being offered recording, publishing, and distribution deals, but because digital piracy had really hurt record companies’ profits, they weren’t offering very good deals to bands at our level.  Around this time, I started doing my first composing gigs - mostly little web videos and ads for clothing retailers, hospitals, and charities.  I started having more fun making tracks in my home studio than I was having on the road, and it meant I could make more money from my music too.  This was about 2004 when I left my band and Todd and I started working on our first projects together.

We worked in obscurity for years, slowly learning our craft by making everything from web videos to shorts to feature-length narratives and docs.  Luckily, we got to make lots of mistakes before many people were paying attention to us.  They say that every overnight sensation takes at least 10 years, and for us, that was definitely true.  In 2014, we finally got our first big chance to get noticed.  With the help of IFP (Independent Filmmaker Project) in New York City, we got ‘Dinosaur 13’ into Sundance and we world premiered on opening night.  After a bidding war, Lionsgate and CNN Films acquired the distribution rights.  It had a brief theatrical run, but it really found its audience when it played on CNN.  It won an Emmy in 2015 for Outstanding Science and Technology Programming.

After we won the Emmy for CNN, they asked us if we had any short film ideas, which led to the 2016 Apollo 17 short documentary ‘The Last Steps’ (CNN Films, Great Big Story).  Like ‘Apollo 11’, it was constructed completely from archival footage.  It ended up being very popular with online viewers, so with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing coming up, CNN Films approached us about making a feature-length archival documentary about Apollo 11.

 
Jeremy [Six Strings]: How much creative freedom did you have while working on "APOLLO 11" film and what would you like the audience to take away from the score?

Matt Morton: Any film score is a collaboration, which is one of my favorite things about making them.  And since Todd and I have worked together for so long, we trust each other’s skills and vision a lot.  With that said though, when I told Todd my idea to do a synth-driven score using only instruments and effects that existed at the time of the mission (1969), he was hesitant and needed some convincing (note: the following paragraphs are from the production journal I was asked to write about my approach to the score).

In the spring of 2017 when I found out I was going to have the honor of scoring this film, the historical importance of the Apollo 11 Mission almost paralyzed me - how could I ever do it justice?  I'm a huge science nerd, and I put humankind's first steps on an alien world right up there with the first time a fish walked on land.  It was an evolutionary milestone. How do you put that into music?  And on the other hand, considering the huge number of films and film scores that had already been made on the subject, how would I find a unique way to score it?

I approached it like a method actor, by exhaustively researching the mission and all of the films that were made about it.  I read tons of books and watched and re-watched every documentary and narrative film about the Apollo Program that I could find.  I revisited the music of the time (I've loved 1960s music my whole life), and the ways that authors and the general public reacted to the event when it happened.  And since the action centers on the astronauts and mission control, I also tried to think about what it must have felt like to be one of them at each step of the way.  I knew Todd (the director) wanted it to feel like you're right there with them on the mission, so the score needed to ratchet up the tension and excitement that they were all experiencing.

But I also thought it was important that, since we'd only be seeing archival footage from 1969, we should only hear sounds that could have been made at the time of the mission.  A lot of the 'Apollo 11' team (including Todd and I) also worked on 'The Last Steps', a short documentary about our last manned mission to the Moon, Apollo 17 in 1972.  Like 'Apollo 11', that film used all archival footage, but for that score, I used any instrument or effect that fit my approach to the scene, including modern ones.  I love that score in its own right, but one of my thoughts after the fact was that it sometimes took me out of the feeling of "being there" in 1972 when I heard modern-sounding drum loops or super-lush digital reverbs.  So when we got the chance to tell Apollo 11's story, I got to learn from that experience and try a new approach.

My breakthrough, as far as narrowing down my approach and palette for the score, came when I started thinking about the fact that at the time, the Apollo Program was at the absolute cutting edge of science and technology.  The sheer amount of money spent (around 3% of our GDP) and the number of people working on it (over 400,000 people) have been credited with fast-forwarding the normal pace of technological innovation by about 10-20 years.  I started thinking about whether there were any parallels in the music world of the time.  Were there any technological developments happening then that lead to new types of music being made?  What was the avant garde music of the time like?  And would any of that new music and music technology be useful in scoring a dangerous and heart-racing space adventure in a 6.5 million pound rocket?

My answer was the synthesizer and the huge world of electronic and experimental music that it enabled after its development in the 1960s.  In 1963-1964, Bob Moog (in upstate New York) and Don Buchla (in San Francisco) were each independently developing the first modern (non-room-sized) modular synthesizers, unaware of each other's work at opposite ends of the country.  They steadily refined and expanded these instruments throughout the decade and they began being used by the few commercial composers and university professors who could get access to them (at the time, they cost the equivalent of a house).  In 1968, Wendy Carlos released her album 'Switched On Bach' (which were multi-tracked recordings of classic Bach pieces played entirely on a Moog synthesizer), and after its release, the Moog synthesizer blew up.  In the years that followed, the synthesizer began being used on recordings by mainstream artists like The Beatles, The Who, Keith Emerson, and Pink Floyd, as well as electronic music pioneers like Tangerine Dream, Isao Tomita, Suzanne Ciani, Kraftwerk, and Giorgio Moroder.  Today, the synthesizer's reach is immense, but it had its big bang around the time of the Apollo 11 Mission.  The futuristic sound of the synthesizer also fit in perfectly with the technological focus and futuristic look of our film.

So by late 2017, I had decided to only use instruments and effects of that were available in 1969, but I didn't actually own any synthesizers older than my Moog Minimoog Model D (which was released in 1970).  This is when I got lucky.  That year, Moog Synthesizers had decided to build (reissue) 25 of their classic Synthesizer IIIc modular synthesizers using the same parts and construction methods they used back in 1968.  I decided to make the (sizable) investment to buy one of them and use it as a central voice in my score.  When I combined the Moog IIIc with other vintage pieces including a Binson Echorec 2 (an early tube echo restored and modified by Soundgas Ltd.), a Mellotron (an early tape-based keyboard sampler), a 1965 Hammond A-143 Organ, a Leslie (rotating) Speaker, various guitar tube amps, spring and plate reverbs, early drum machines like the Maestro Rhythm King and Ace Tone Rhythm Ace, and an Echoplex EP-2 (a tube tape echo), I had a formidable palette of period sounds for the score.  I started experimenting with all the gear and seeing what kinds of sounds I could get out of them.  I produced hours of music that no one will ever hear, but some of those experiments actually made it into the final score, including the opening cue "The Burdens and the Hopes" which plays under the suiting-up and leaking valve scenes.  I've also posted a few of my synth and musique concrete experiments (the ones I knew wouldn't work in the film) on my Instagram. The only other ingredient was the orchestra, which of course also existed at the time.

My original concept for the compositions was to make them sound like they were archival just like the film footage, or in other words, to make it sound like they were written, played, and recorded in 1969 by musicians and engineers of the time.  But then I realized I could never really do that - it would only ever be an emulation.  It wouldn't ring true because as an artist, in order to get the best music out of myself, I have to stay authentic to myself and my tastes, and I live in the present.  I wasn't born until 1977, and I didn't start playing my first instrument (guitar) until 1986.  So I decided the most interesting thing I could do was to make modern compositions, but because I'd be using the instruments and effects of 50 years ago, they'd probably be a unique mixture of then and now and help to bridge the time gap between the people on the screen and the people in the audience.

 
Jeremy [Six Strings]: Please tell us a little more about yourself, that isn't in your official bio and which composer inspired you to get into being a composer... why?

Matt Morton: I grew up in a family without any professional musicians or artists, but I still developed a strong love of music at a very young age because of my dad's huge record collection.  My urge to play and create music grew directly from my love of it.  I almost didn’t have a choice - I had to learn how to do it myself.

I started on guitar when I was 9, but I wasn't satisfied with playing just one instrument for very long.  I’ve continued learning and acquiring new instruments (and recording gear) my whole life.  Although my strongest instruments are still guitar and bass, I’ve learned keyboards, drums, ukulele, charango, ronroco, banjo, cuatro, etc.  I think that comes from a realization that all the instruments, including the way they’re recorded and mixed, have an effect on the final track and the way that it's felt by the listener.  I guess I just kept following my curiosity and kept learning how to play the parts of each of the musicians and engineers until I was able to make full recordings all by myself.  I’d say I’m almost as interested in engineering and producing music as I am in composing it.

As for which composer inspired me to become one, it didn’t really happen that way for me.  I feel like I fell backwards into it.  I didn’t grow up dreaming of being the next John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith.  I wanted to be the next Jimi Hendrix, Brian Wilson, George Martin, or Jimmy Page - the guys mixing the power of rock and pop songwriting with the power of the recording studio.  I started getting interested in orchestral instruments more because of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and ‘Pet Sounds’ at first, but once I got bitten by the orchestral bug, I started working my way back through the huge history of orchestral concert music, and I also became much more attuned to film scores.  Composing for film is really the ultimate medium for me because I get to combine my love of so many different kinds of music with my love of recording and using the studio as an instrument.

 
Jeremy [Six Strings]: After working on "APOLLO 11" film, what is next and what do you use to inspire your next project?

Matt Morton: I have a bunch of ideas for what I might want to do next, including possibly taking a short break from scoring to record a solo album using the same 1969 palette I used for 'Apollo 11’ (but without having to limit the track lengths or keep arrangements minimal in order to stay out of the way of dialogue).  But whatever my next film scoring job is, I will draw my inspiration from the story and the way the filmmakers want to tell it.  If you do it right, each score should have its own character and palette, and they should always be defined by what will help the storytelling process.  One of my favorite parts of composing is deep-diving into the background of the story and searching for clues that will help me enhance it in a meaningful way.  I have to really believe in the project or else I can’t make good music for it.  Hopefully whatever comes along next will be even more inspiring than the Apollo 11 mission, but that’s a pretty tall order!

About Matt Morton... is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and engineer/producer from Columbus, Ohio. He started on the guitar at age 9 and went on to learn the bass, piano, drums, mandolin, cuatro, charango, ukulele, banjo, and the cello. He was a founding member, lead guitarist, and vocalist for The Shantee (rock band), and has recorded several albums, toured nationally, and opened for bands including George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic, Blues Traveler, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, the Neville Brothers, Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, Widespread Panic, and The National.

His feature-length scores include 'Scaring the Fish' starring Max Casella and Anthony Rapp, John Urbano's Panama documentary 'Beauty of the Fight', Todd Douglas Miller's Emmy-winning Sundance documentary 'Dinosaur 13' (Lionsgate, CNN Films), and 'Apollo 11' (NEON, CNN Films). His short-form and commercial clients include CNN Films (their Apollo 17 short documentary 'The Last Steps'), SapientNitro, Ketchum, JPMorgan Chase, Wendy's, Scotts Miracle-Gro, American Eagle, Hollister Co., JDRF, Mercy Health, and the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation. He is also the founder of the music production company Studio 651 Ltd. and its publishing division, Studio 651 Publishing (BMI).

Matt's most recent project is the feature-length, all-archival documentary 'Apollo 11'. He wrote, orchestrated, performed, recorded, and mixed all of the original music for the film, as well as the teaser trailer and the theatrical trailer. Every instrument and effect used in the score existed at the time of the mission in 1969 including a Moog modular Synthesizer IIIc (a reissue of the 1968 version - 1 of 25 in the world), a Binson Echorec 2 (tube echo), a Mellotron (early keyboard sampler used by The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, etc.), a Hammond organ, various period drum machines, and the orchestra. The Soundtrack is out now digitally worldwide on Milan Records, with a CD release on June 28th, and a vinyl release on July 19, 2019 (the day before the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing).  The film will debut on TV (US only) on CNN on June 23rd.  A special 48-minute version of the film, ‘Apollo 11: First Steps Edition’, is playing now in science centers and museums.  The ‘Apollo 11’ documentary team will also be awarded the Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication at the Starmus Festival in Zurich, Switzerland on June 24th along with fellow recipients Elon Musk and Brian Eno.
 
 
It's a real honor when you can talk with someone with so much passion about their craft and you all know my respect for score music. Matt Morton has earned my respect, he is a true professional when it comes to this score for the documentary "APPOLLO 11" and I suggest you look for release from label MILAN RECORDS and MATT MORTON on the web.

Also, thank you for being awesome I got a little behind on this interview well not a little a lot, but thank you for understanding!

Jeremy [Six Strings]

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