Composer J. Ralph has cut an interesting path for himself, working simultaneously as an artist and social activist while writing and producing the music for seven of the Oscar-winning or nominated documentaries over the past eight years. Ralph has been nominated twice for Best Original Song—first, for “Before My Time” in the 2012 film Chasing Ice, and now “Manta Ray” in Racing Extinction, both films that explore different elements of climate change that are issues of real, pressing urgency. J. Ralph delves into his artistic process, the intersection of art and activism, the experience of seeing images and sounds from Racing projected in St. Peter’s Square, and more.
Your co-nominee, lyricist and performer Antony Hegarty, is only the second openly transgender person in history to be nominated for an Academy Award.
For Anohni and I—that’s her new name—it’s really about the music and the focus on species, and we’re very honored that they appreciate that and see the the importance of the film.
How did you originally find this unique intersection of work as both an artist and a social activist?
I really get motivated by people taking risks, and whether it’s with their words or with their lives, with their music, with their films, I find that I’m drawn to these incredible moments of authenticity. I’ve always been looking for real characters; once in a lifetime individuals and stories. And I guess it was a natural progression. As films became bigger and bigger, there isn’t as much space for the smaller, unique stories, and I think the democratization of camera equipment has helped create a look that people associated with huge budget films, which enabled those riskier outsider stories to come through.
I think reality TV has pervaded culture so that people have this kind of naturalistic, voyeuristic window into everyday people. Our culture has changed to a degree that somebody who is normal can be anointed as interesting and worthy of attention, as well as people who are traditional stars. All film— all art— is about capturing a moment and encapsulating some magic in that moment, or some truth, and it’s very hard to manufacture that. Wes Anderson does that and Paul Thomas Anderson, and Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley. Those people managed to create things that were based in truth. Documentaries are always encapsulating radical truth, and it’s very interesting and inspiring.
The two films for which you’ve received Oscar nominations, Chasing Ice, and now, Racing Extinction, both confront different aspects of climate change, and related issues of real global significance and immediacy. At what point in your life did these issues become pressing for you, to the point where you needed to address them in your own work?
For me, again, it’s about profound truth and trying to find the stories that make the world a better place, or a safer place, or help all of us, as a collective humanity, interrelate better. I don’t have an agenda— it’s not really a specific mantra, if you will, it’s just I don’t have any ability to resist somebody presenting me with the absolute truth like that, and I feel compelled to want to amplify the message and help create touch points for the audience to understand and relate to the issues. Some of them are very abstract—how do you relate to melting ice? How do you relate to a manta ray or plankton disappearing? Even though it affects us all, it’s almost un-relatable, sometimes. It’s just continuing to reinforce the narrative of the film and distill the story into a sonic narrative that people can instantly feel, even if they don’t understand every last bit of the facts.
You’ve taken on a diversity of projects in between your nominations, but is it affirming that the Academy is continuing to recognize the significance of these issues, and placing them on a platform for people to see?
Yeah. I think it’s very helpful because these things are radically important messages for people to understand and make part of their everyday life. It’s a very fierce, competitive environment every year, with a lot of options to choose, and a lot of input that everyone is receiving. It’s very hard—people are constantly being inundated with new information from all over the world. So the fact that people respond to it and want to celebrate it and push it to the forefront is incredibly helpful to the message and the campaign that we’re all trying to get across to everyone. We projected the images (from the film) onto the United Nations, onto the Empire State Building—the Pope saw that and he commissioned Louie (Psihoyos), the director of the film, to make a whole projection event for the Vatican. It’s the only time, since the beginning of that institution, that they ever allowed the square and the actual Vatican to be used for anything other than a religious ceremony.
How did your Oscar-nominated track, “Manta Ray” come together, and how did you decide on the instrumentation to be used in the song?
The theme was born out of a visit to the Cornell Bioacoustic Laboratory during the making of the film. Louie and Chris Clark— the director of the laboratory— played me a recording of the male O’o bird, who was the last of his species, and the recording is him singing his mating call for his mate that would never come. It was such a harrowing experience, and I knew right then that the theme of the film had to be a response to that call that was just echoing into the ether.
That’s basically the only music, and it’s just many different arrangements of it. The piano waltz is used several times in the film as the instrumental, but then the rest of the score is also based off of the same chords and harmonic structure. And then we wanted this moment at the end for people to be able to absorb everything that they had seen throughout the whole film, and something that could transport them into another outlook—to almost see what it could sound like to be the last voice on the earth. I said to Louie, if I had to pick one voice to represent the fate of humanity, it would be Antony (Hegarty), who is obviously now Anohni. That’s what I always envisioned the film punctuating in and building to— this meditative, transcendental moment of hyper-intimacy, as if you were enraptured by the last voice on the planet.
It was really the perfect match. When she was done singing it and listening to it, Anohni said to me, “I’ve only heard my voice recorded three times the way I always envisioned it to sound, and this is one of them.” I always joke with my friends that I don’t see myself as a record producer, but rather a reducer, trying to keep stripping away any sort of ornamentation or affectation in the arrangements, the performance, the vocal performance, the music, and stripping it down to its barest emotional core, to enable it to give somebody this moment.