Composer Joseph Trapanese was determined to make the music for “America the Beautiful,” National Geographic’s six-part series launching July 4 on Disney+, different than that of any nature documentary to date.
“Hollywood is so guilty of misappropriating culture,” Trapanese says, “tapping into a culture and throwing it around, willy-nilly.” So he determined to score the continent-spanning story of North American flora and fauna with authentic musical touches as well as a very modern mix of traditionally orchestral and more contemporary sounds.
Series producer Dan Rees and executive producers Vanessa Berlowitz and Mark Linfield said they “didn’t want the typical nature documentary sound,” the composer explained.
Trapanese called an old friend, Sean Carey of indie folk band Bon Iver (they had previously joined forces for a song in 2017’s “Only the Brave”), and asked him to collaborate on an opening song. In turn, Carey enlisted friends from the Native American populations of Wisconsin and Minnesota to contribute vocals to the song and score.
“Quilt of Life,” the main-title song, features lyrics and a vocal by Carey, augmented by the wordless vocals of Dylan Jennings of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and Joe Rainey of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians. Their voices provide a link to the sounds of ancient North America.
“I played music for them, and asked them to be inspired by it but not to limit their creativity, and only do things that felt natural and authentic,” Trapanese says.
Both Jennings and Rainey “sing along the Pow Wow Trail every year,” Jennings reports. “We’ve been singing this style of indigenous music for many years.” Adds Rainey: “The indigenous voices are painting a picture of the scene.”
“Joe [Trapanese] and the producers really liked that angle, bringing them in to represent the indigenous communities across our country,” Carey tells Variety. “We’ve been working on music together. It’s really fascinating and humbling. They’re amazing people, and what they do musically is extremely moving and powerful.”
Guitars, banjos and dobros remind us of the sounds of the West, along with an “amazing collection of Native American instruments” played by L.A. musicians, Trapanese says.
He also enlisted Houston blues artist Leonard “Lowdown” Brown to play guitar, and to create a new song, “America Hymn,” using the original lyrics of “America the Beautiful.” Violinist Lucia Micarelli added some bluegrass fiddle to the soundtrack, and Trapanese recorded a string ensemble in Nashville.
Finishing off the mix was Tonality, a Los Angeles choir representing diverse cultures and ethnicities. “They really embody the spirit of America, this creative freedom, the strength of diversity,” Trapanese notes.
The composer added a level of electronics too. “These pulsing synths, the driving rhythmic percussion, are part of my DNA,” he says. “I’m trying to find a holistic, organic way of bridging song and score, ancient and new, and find a way to bring it all together.
“The producers really enabled us to explore things musically that led to these moments where it was a dialogue between me and the musicians, and the animals and emotions on screen. It really created a deep human connection between us and these creatures. Hopefully it will help us to think about our impact and what we can do to make our ecosystem better.”