A composer uses a lifetime of sights and sounds to weave a fascinating, timeless musical voyage.
By Steve Houk
When he was a kid on Long Island, Todd Jones did what young boys do. Played baseball, roughhoused with his brothers, got into a few pickles, and enjoyed life. He also liked music early on, but he loved doing something most that not alot of kids his age did: collecting and listening to movie soundtracks. He was drawn to the way they painted musical pictures of the epic stories they were telling.
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Little did the ‘tween Todd know that this love of sweeping panoramas both musical and visual would be a catalyst for a journey that would be the central focus of his life, and helped foster and ultimately create an immense and virtuostic musical talent.
“I’ve always wanted to be a film composer, always. They used to have these Disney records that were basically like listening to a movie, with nothing visual. On a little kid’s record player, I’d be up there in my room by myself just listening, I ate those things up. They had sound effects, music, dialog. That was just a big part of my childhood. It immediately got me associating sound with vision, yet there was nothing visual at all, so it all had to take place in your mind. I think that shaped it all for me, more than anything.”
And what a glorious mind Jones has. Since those days with his little record player, Jones has developed what can only be described as a true mastery of creating exquisite sonic landscapes. His vivid and colorful imagination, coupled with a rare gift for musical composition and construction as a composer and songwriter — all fine tuned during his days at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and as a studio owner, performer and producer in Las Vegas — have brought him to a seminal moment: the release of his latest CD, Ancient: A Musical Journey Through Time, an epic, majestic and historic voyage through time and across the world.
Jones, 54, is no stranger to painting exquisite vistas with his music, or his pen. He is the author of several historical novels, and his last project before Ancient was the music for a NatGeo documentary series, “Odyssey: Driving Around the World.” But it is Ancient that truly combines two things that are very near and dear to his heart.
“I’ve always just loved history, I’m a history buff, I guess you could call it,” Jones told me from his home studio in Atlantic City. “The reason why this new project clicked with me so perfectly was that these are two things that I absolutely love: visual soundtrack-type music and history. So that’s where the orchestral and the film soundtrack world came in, because so much of my love of the world and geography and history came through movies and things that I grew up with, older movies from the 60’s like The Robe and Greatest Story Ever Told, the old Spartacus, those kind of things, that’s what shaped my view of what the world sounded like in those big movies. It just blends with the composition as well as the instrumentation.”
Saying Ancient was a huge undertaking is a major understatement. Jones’ main goal was to be authentic to a fault, to use no modern instruments or vibes — “What a complete taboo it was for me to have anything electronic sounding, modern sounding” — while trying to accurately recreate sounds and music from long bygone eras, like ancient Greece, Tenochtitlan, Mesopotamia, Stonehenge; places and periods in history that have no true record of what music was played or experienced. But with his deep historical knowledge coupled with heavy research and intricate acquisition of a vast array of mesmerizing sound effects, Jones was able to craft truly astounding and unforgettable suites of music that brilliantly evoke the times represented. Listening to Ancient, you feel literally transported back in time to places no one has recounted visiting. But with every era, you feel you have.
“In my research of sounds, say in the case of Egyptian really old ones, you either don’t know what they used, or have a very vague idea of what they sounded like, and they don’t exist anymore” Jones said. “So they evolved into other instruments, like old harps evolved into lutes, and lutes evolved into balalaikas and guitars, and so on. I had to get as close as I could get historically for each piece, try to match it with something if I didn’t have the exact thing, which I did have fifty percent of the time. Like with the Aztecs, they didn’t have metal, so that just takes a huge chunk of things that you can’t use. No metal other than their jewelry. So I did some research, I knew alot about the Aztecs anyway, but not about their music other than they had the Ocarina flute and some drums, almost a more Native American approach. So I was using rattlesnake shakers and things like that. But those were percussion, what’s going to create the melodic part of it? They actually had on one site an Aztec death whistle, which is shaped like a clay skull that you would blow into, they would blow it before they went into battle or before a sacrifice. So I actually found a site with like 100 Aztec death whistles. In the end, there is no metal in that whole nine minute piece, nothing with metal in there at all.”
Jones used a very specific formula for the development and construction of Ancient, one he had not used in previous projects: building the foundation of each period first with the sound effects, and then weaving the music in around them. It was this formula that really set the tone for his writing process.
“I wrote this album faster than I’ve ever done anything else, I did it in almost ten weeks, I wrote almost a song a week, and I’ve never written that fast, especially something this complicated. But I worked on it seven days a week. And once I got into the flow, I went in order, it really helped spur me along to go in order and move through time.”
“As for the sound effects, I had to find those first, not the other way around,” Jones continued. “I didn’t say, oh, I’m going to drop those in later. Like with Mesopotamia, The Cradle of Two Rivers. There’s almost nothing left of Mesopotamia, it’s dust, there’s no written history, it’s very vague. But you knew that human civilization started there because of the fertile two rivers. So how could I write that without the sound of a river in the background? That’s where they were. So I put that in there, and that set the mood and the atmosphere, and got my juices flowing. When you hear these sound effects, they really were a big part of me even getting creative to begin the writing process. This made the writing of the music so much easier and much more fun. It’s the only time I’ve done it that way, and it was very important to getting me into every piece I did.”
Once the sound effects from a particular period were inserted into place, next came another challenge: how would he craft his orchestral accompaniment, given there were no orchestras in any of the eras he was visiting.
“Obviously they didn’t have an orchestra back in any of these time periods, so that’s where the cinematic part of the formula came in, using strings, using brass, percussion, whatever, to not take away from the flavor but to fill in the gaps between, and appeal to the Western sensibilities that people associate with certain places or times. I learned that no matter what, we’re still trained by our Western ears. So whenever I was writing music for scenes that were taking place inside say China, in Cambodia, wherever they were, if you were to listen to actual Chinese music, or Cambodian music, to Western ears it’s very unpalatable, it actually can be annoying and horrible-sounding. It’s almost like spices in the kitchen, you can throw a bunch of foreign species in there, but if that’s all you have, it’s gonna be inedible. It has to fit the pallette.”
The genre of music Jones dwells in with Ancient is not necessarily the ticket to selling millions of records, but along with his previous project, Jones may have found a valuable niche in a world made up of simply astonishing and breathtaking instrumental music.
“The ‘Odyssey’ album is almost a set up for this, in the sense that these are never gonna be million selling records, I have no illusions about that,” said Jones. “But I have been reaching people around the world every day who like this kind of music. I think it will appeal to people, number one, who like soundtracks, right off the bat. And for me personally, I have to like it. I have to like it as a fan, would I buy this album. First and foremost, I did this for myself as an artist, this is an artistic journey for me, it really was. I hope it appeals to people who have similar interest.”
So for Jones, whose next project Black will take you on a different journey, this time to the final frontier of space, loves the challenges that Ancient and his other sweeping and panoramic projects present.
“It was very important to me that each piece has its own personality. This was all a fantastic musical challenge for me, to set parameters, stay within them, and create different worlds…you know, like you’re traveling through time.”