We're working on a new version of PRX. Want a sneak peek?

Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Songs for Hippos and Wasps

(MUSIC) OK, now we see the little girl. 'Kay, there's some shots of her playing on the beach. Now she's picking up her flotation device. There?s her concerned mother.
Our job is basically to take what's already there in the film and enhance it. To ramp up the emotion so that people are interested in the story and get caught up in the story a little bit more than they normally would if the music wasn't there.


(music changes) now I add some weird sounds here. (scary music --weird sounds)


My name's Lenny Williams and I write music for non-fiction television. I've won four Emmy awards in the last five years. And all for National Geographic shows about -- mostly animals uh, first was for a hippo show. The next one was "Hornets From Hell." And last year and the year before there was a show about the Arctic called "On Thin Ice" and then last year was "Deadly Love" about spiders and spider sex.

(drum crash) (scary music) (splash) OK, here's the part after she's been attacked where she's racing to the shore. Here's the part where she's collapsed on the beach.

Well I'm here at my work space and I have here -- what I like to call "the cockpit." I have computers screens in front of me, hardware samplers behind me. I have a piano keyboard Controller to the left of me where I play the notes into the computer.

I keep the tension going here because we're not sure if she's going to make it or not. (music -- long stretch)

One must have a solid understanding of a lot of musical genres and styles and that's the key to being able to do this job because you don't know what you're going to be faced with. I'm a classically-trained composer. I went to the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland. When I studied composition, I learned about structures and forms or 19th Century music and what most laymen call "Classical Music."

[MUSIC - Mozart - Symphony No. 40 in G minor: l. Molto Allegro]

When I was in college studying composition -- art music -- noncommercial music -- that my goal then was to be this famous classical music composer and win a Pulitzer Prize, get my PhD and teach in college. I think that was every student's goal. And then I started playing jazz at night and I fell in love with the idea of me playing in jazz clubs and being a jazz player

[MUSIC -- Eva Cassidy Live at Blues Alley --Dancing Cheek to Cheek]

Fade down after we hear her say, "Lenny Williams" and the audience claps
As I'm playing around town I met a producer named Chris Biondo -- his girlfriend was Eva Cassidy. I had just met Eva Cassidy and she had just started to record and then she was doing an album with Chuck Brown who I had known as a kind of a DC go-go legend.

[MUSIC - Bustin' Loose - Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers]

And his idea at the time was, he wanted to move away from his hardcore go-go thing and do a jazz thing. So he wanted me to be his jazz guy. We tried some jazz gigs and I played on some go-go gigs, but the fact of the matter is: Chuck is right where he belongs with go-go music. It was a pretty good life but after about 10 years of that I thought, "If I ever play in one more jazz club again; I gotta think of something else to do." I eventually ended up laying in pit orchestras at the Kennedy Center and the Warner Theater. So later when I was presented with an opportunity to write music for moving pictures or TV, I kind of drew on those -- that education to help me in order to do what I do.

(movie sound) Announcer: The northern shores of Australia.

They send me a DVD of different cuts of the film. They kind of melt that down into what they call a rough cut. And they send us these usually has a few music tracks that they've already laid in to give us an idea of what tone that they want. And we kind of pick up on that tone and that's what we start writing from.

(movie sound)

This is a show about jellyfish and this is a particular scene as they want to demonstrate how jellyfish are dangerous in our seas. Normally I would start by watching the scene, deciding when I want the music to start. And at certain points you want to ramp-up the intensity and obviously when she is attacked by the jellyfish, you want to have a dramatic movement. So I would start by picking a sound out of the sounds that I have. I need something ominous. Not too -- slightly neutral -- and I'd pick it out (music). Maybe something like this. I have a thing called a metronome -- a click track which allows me to sync everything up to a master clock, so to speak. (metronome in the background) (droning music comes in) (drum plays)

So that, to me says "slightly ominous -- something going to happen but we're not sure yet." So here I would add a little piano and this could create a little tension for where the girl is entering the water.

(music plays)

OK, here we have the little girl running into the water with her little flotation ring. And then she's in the water floating and we see some other shots of jellyfish and their stingers in the water.

(music gets scarier)

We see close-ups of the jellyfish stingers and then we see the girl being attacked. And screaming and splashing around. She's staggering towards the shore while people are helping her and now she?s laying on the shore. People are running over to her, and then an ambulance comes, And they attempt to revive her.

(music ends)

A cue that's as long as this -- "cue" meaning a piece of music -- which is about two minutes long, will probably take me maybe three hours to create.

Right around the time that people started making movies, they almost at the same time -- people wanted music with their pictures. And piano players sat in the movie theaters and played these things. Like if they had a chase scene in the silent movie, they?d play this kind of music. (chase music) And that?s kind of where modern film music sprung from.

So with Mutual Of Omaha?s Wild Kingdom or Jacques Cousteau, if they were in Africa you might hear something like this (European music). Then we started ? in the 80s, there was this big push to promote world music. Some producers like you to be regionally specific. So if you?re in Australia, they like to hear Australian instruments. If you?re in Africa, they want to hear African instruments.

(Kalimba music plays)

Because I do so many of these shows ? a lot of the same scenes with the same sequence of events come up. And you?re constantly faced with the challenge of creating the same emotional outcome musically with different instruments and different techniques. So a typical thing would be what we call a ?Predatory scene? where an animal wants to eat another animal and he?s chasing the other animal. If we?re in Africa and it?s a lion, we?ll go with African drums and we?ll have them go quickly


You can?t do that every time so you might mix it up and have something like an African Kalimba which is a thing that makes pitched instruments. So when the lion takes off after their prey, I might go with ethnic-sounding percussion.

(Kalimba music plays)
Other ways you can vary the scene is what you add to these basic patterns that you put down to describe running. So you may put a high note in, a scary note in, an effect.

(effect sound)

A cymbal when they catch their prey,

(cymbal crash)

And at the beginning I?ll put a cymbal swell in to say ?Something new?s happening and it?s very exciting and you should watch.? Let me play a little bit of what I ended up writing for the scene.

(Musical sequence that he?s been building)

I have a different boss on every project so ? so I?ve learned how to communicate with bosses that don?t necessarily know how to communicate with me. Sometimes we get things like, ?I want the score to be very orange.? Well in a situation like that, when I have a new producer and I fell like ?Well they don?t communicate well musically? I?ll try to get them to come out here to the studio. And I?ll play some stuff and I?ll say ?Something like this?? And usually through a couple hours I can discern what they like and what they don?t like.

There?s a lot of tricky scenes and some of the hardest scenes to do are what we call ?emotionally neutral? scenes. Scenes that aren?t happy, aren?t sad, aren?t scary, aren?t tense. When you hear certain music, you feel certain things. To write music that doesn?t feel anything is sometimes the hardest thing to do. So say ? typically this comes up a lot in science shows. Where there?s just information. So science cues tend not to be a minor chord (plays) Not be a major chord (plays) They tend to be chords that leave out the defining note of what major and minor is so you might have something like this (music)

A lot of what we do and our success in what I do in this job depends on my ability to be able to say ?OK, what would the average person watching TV feel if they saw this??
The music just needs to enhance what?s there and bring the picture to life.

So if I was going to map out the lion chase scene, on the piano it might sound something like this. (piano plays)