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Music for Monarchs: A Conversation with Mark Lewis

Monarch butterflies.jpg

In the first installment of our interview with composer Mark Edward Lewis, we asked how he pulled off such a stunning soundtrack for Metamorphosis, the new documentary from Illustra Media that documents the case for intelligent design from butterflies. This time we wanted to ask about one of the most noticeable aspects of the score: the African vocals.
Let’s talk about the singers a bit. What made you decide to try African vocals this time?
Monarch-wildflower.jpgLad Allen, the producer-director, was enthralled with the music from the World Cup Soccer tournaments in South Africa in 2010. He immediately had an idea for using that sort of African style in the Metamorphosis score. When he described the idea to me, I was excited, but puzzled: how do I merge African percussion and choral music with images of delicate butterflies? We went through several ideas, but decided to use the African elements with the images of Monarchs flying about in the millions. Still, it was an untested idea.
How did the idea grow as you and Lad developed it?
On previous projects, I had pretty good success imitating a full choir by multi-tracking two singers over 40 times. One day I brought in a friend, and the two of us recorded the “Morning Flight” cue as a demo for Lad and Jerry Harned to consider. The choral sound wasn’t quite right. No one would say what I already knew: I was a white guy trying to sound African. No dice! We realized that we’d have to hire legitimate African singers. As it turned out, we ended up with the best in the world.
How many singers did you use?
Although there are only four of them, we used the techniques and tricks that I have previously used with the “one-man choir” — multi-tracking and acoustically enhancing their sound. At the recording session in Sol-7 Studios in Encino, California, we had a limited time to record a ton of music. What made it even more difficult was the foreign languages they had to sing in. Still, they made it through some very difficult music, and their professionalism and virtuosic talents are self-evident in the soundtrack. It was a wonderful experience.
Tell a little about the quality and experience of the singers.
We were blessed to have four world-class African studio singers: Edie Lehmann Boddicker, Alvin Chea, Randy Phillips and Judith Hill. Ironically, Edie, who contracted the session, is as white as I am, but the sound that the four of them made is incredible. She is one of Los Angeles’s leading vocal contractors and has sung on hundreds of major motion picture soundtracks. There’s not space to describe all the credits that these folks have: Judith has sung all over the world in just about every style there is. Randy has, like Edie, sung on hundreds of gospel and secular recordings. Alvin is best known as the bass in the group “Take 6.” He also did the narration for the film.

Left to right: Edie Lehmann Boddicker, Judith Hill, Mark Lewis, Lad, Randy Phillips, Alvin Chea

Did they enjoy working for a film on butterflies?
We had a limited time at the studio due to budgetary constraints, but the singers were heroes. Alvin jumped off a plane in Los Angeles (after it had landed, of course) and drove an hour to make it to the session. Edie had to wedge our session between motion picture scoring dates. The stories go on. They gave it their all at the session and were very generous with their time and talents from beginning to end. Sadly, only a few weeks later, our tenor, Randy Phillips, died of a heart attack. This score memorializes Randy’s last passionate performance. It holds special meaning for the production team, the singers who sang with him, and his many professional friends. Randy, you are missed.
What words are they singing?
I knew the vocals had to be percussive and “sound” African, but I, of course, don’t speak Swahili or any other African language. I do speak Korean, though, and many of its syllables are similar in sound to Swahili. The text for “Morning Flight” is generally a Koreanized dialect extolling the beauty and wonder of creation. The rest of the cues are, indeed, in Swahili. (“Morning Flight” had been written long before the film was in final form, so a keen listener will notice a pronounced difference in linguistics between that selection and the rest of the cues.) One of the words heard in the score is Kipepeio which means butterfly. Loosely, they are saying:
We rejoice in the beauty of butterflies.
They are wonders of the earth.
Their Creator is great and good.

After all this intriguing backstory, how about letting us hear a sample?
Sure; click on this link at to hear a recording of “Morning Flight.”

It’s incredible that four singers sound like a good-size choir. In closing, Mark, what do you feel a good soundtrack contributes to the effect of a film?

The highest use of music in a film is to simply move the emotions of an audience one way or another. No other part of a film can do this with more efficiency or power. It’s the judge’s gavel of emotion in media: the final word. An effective soundtrack can focus, with surgical precision, the director’s vision of how he wants the audience to feel moment by moment. So as I work, I try to combine the elements of harmony, timing, theme, and acoustics for the emotional impact he’s after. When I can accomplish that, everyone is satisfied.
Thumbnail image for metamorphosis-bluray.jpgHear the original music score from Metamorphosis: The Beauty & Design of Butterflies. It can be purchased on iTunes or; just search for “Mark Edward Lewis.” And be sure to visit, where you can watch the trailer and order this outstanding documentary, now available in both DVD and Blu-Ray formats. You can also download the beautiful new companion e-book for free at the Discovery Institute website: Metamorphosis, The Case for Intelligent Design in a Nutshell Chrysalis.

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