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It gets inside your head

Orchestral and electronica music become one in composer Don Davis' scores for the 'The Matrix' trilogy.

May 13, 2003|Jon Burlingame | Special to The Times

Everyone agrees that "The Matrix" franchise has been wildly influential in terms of its visual style. Now its music too may become the wave of the future -- an interlocking combination of traditional orchestral score and contemporary electronica.

The new two-CD soundtrack for "The Matrix Reloaded" has tracks by composer Don Davis as well as cuts labeled "Juno Reactor vs. Don Davis" and "Juno Reactor/Don Davis," which reflect the surprising collaboration between the Emmy-winning orchestral composer and the Juno Reactor band on key sequences in the Wachowski brothers' widely anticipated sequel.

Even Davis' own music, which dominates the film, is unusual by contemporary film standards. The composer characterizes it as "postmodern" in style, not unlike some of the concert music of John Adams.

In 20 years of writing music for films and TV, Davis' "Matrix" experience is unique, the composer explains at his Calabasas studio during a recent break between "Matrix" projects. Davis scored the original "Matrix" in 1999; wrote the music for all nine "Animatrix" shorts, due for DVD release June 3; and is beginning work on "The Matrix Revolutions," the concluding chapter of the trilogy due later this year. His music also underscores the "Enter the Matrix" video game.

Davis, 46, composed the music for Larry and Andy Wachowski's first film, "Bound," in 1995. He had been recommended by their editor, Zach Staenberg, on the basis of some short films that Staenberg had edited and Davis had scored.

According to Davis, the brothers liked the fact that he "could demo everything and we could workshop it" -- meaning he could create synthesized mockups in his studio to simulate the eventual orchestral score to assess how well the music was working with the film. "They really liked that level of collaboration," says Davis.

The media-shy Wachowskis were unavailable for this story. But, notes producer Joel Silver: "Music is very important to the Wachowski brothers. They are as precise and passionate about music as they are the visuals, the performances and the writing. They really feel that music is a stylistic contribution."

So when the Wachowskis made their deal with Warner Bros. for the original "Matrix," Davis was one of the members of their team they insisted upon retaining.

While "Bound" was recorded with 50 players, "The Matrix" demanded 94 musicians, a 40-voice choir and 75 minutes of music. For "The Matrix Reloaded," those numbers ballooned to 110 players (at the orchestra's largest), an 80-voice choir and more than 100 minutes of music.

On the original "Matrix," says Davis, the directors "said that they wanted something that had never been heard before. You hear that from directors all the time," he says, "but with Larry and Andy, they mean what they say."

Purely minimalist music, which was tried out as a temporary score, "isn't really dramatic," Davis points out. But postmodern, "an eclectic music that accepts all points of view, simple, repetitive, complex, rhythmically simple or rhythmically complex," might work, the composer surmised.

He incorporated minimalist elements, however, to represent the computer-driven world, "that thing that they can't see and can't touch but is controlling their every move."

In addition, the many instances of reflective imagery in the first film inspired music that was "a kind of musical mirror, contrapuntal ideas treated in a minimalist way, the way [composer] Steve Reich might have."

And in "Matrix Reloaded," Davis says, the score is "stylistically consistent. It's also a postmodern score. I approached it as the second movement of a three-movement symphony. There are a couple of moments in 'Reloaded' where I establish some thematic things that will be exploited in 'Revolutions.' "

But don't look for any sweeping, immediately recognizable themes. "In general, I don't really gravitate toward the traditional theme and variations. I tend to go for thematic material that expresses a situation," he explains. For example, there is "a kind of triumphant fight music" that is often used while Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is battling bad guys, and a romantic motif for Trinity and Neo (Keanu Reeves) that originated in the last "Matrix," but they are just two pieces of a multifaceted whole.

This is, after all, a summer blockbuster, so there is plenty of powerful action music, often involving complex patterns for an augmented brass section. In general, says Davis, the score had to "set the tone in terms of the threat to the protagonists." When the Wachowskis had suggestions, they tended to be that the music needed to be darker or more intense.

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