Giving flight to landlocked birds

Alex Wurman: March of the Penguins

Can Alex Wurman beat the odds and become the first composer of a documentary score to be Oscar nominated since “Birds Do It, Bees Do It” in 1975?

Maybe, not just because of the commercial success of “March of the Penguins” — now the second-highest-grossing doc ever — but because the music was so critical to filmgoers’ involvement in the saga of emperor penguins and their annual mating ritual at the bottom of the world.

Wurman, composer for such offbeat films as “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” was hired to rescore the French film after execs at Warner Independent Pictures and National Geographic decided that the original music — pop electronica including songs sung in English — would likely not play well with American auds.

“The distributors felt that it needed a little more drama,” says Wurman. “We felt that the way to instill beauty and inspire emotional investment in the film was through the music and not as much through the narration.”

Budget limitations forced Wurman to be creative with his orchestral palette: He began by choosing flutes of all kinds for the birds. “I loved the idea of it being in the mold of ‘Peter and the Wolf’; the higher you go, the more vulnerable the penguin is.” Plus, he could record flutist Fred Selden in his home studio (where Wurman created his synthesizer sounds).

Also figuring in the 70-minute score are vibes, harp, bassoon, percussion, strings and three pianos. Because Morgan Freeman’s new narration had not been recorded when the composer began his work, he was free to shift script elements around to ensure maximum effectiveness for the score.

Wurman chose, for the most part, not to play the Antarctic setting. “It’s the harshest place on Earth, and none of that made it into the score,” he says. “I think it’s really beautiful.”

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