In my opinion, the concept of the movie soundtrack peaked somewhere in the late 1990s, coincidentally around the same time that CDs were ubiquitous. Back then it seemed like every blockbuster commissioned at least one big-name easy-listening artist to produce a song for their soundtrack. The track’s accompanying music video would be a weird fever dream that interspersed “high art” images of the band in between clips of the movie. The movie promoted the song, the music video promoted the movie, and everyone was held hostage by BIG CD and forced to pay $16 just to listen to “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”. Céline Dion, Seal, The Goo Goo Dolls, Smash Mouth (twice!) all beat us over the head with saccharine mega bops. We grew wary of soundtracks – rightfully so – until Napster kickstarted the digital rebellion that empowered us to download whichever Phil Collins songs we’d like to, in peace.
But what about a soundtrack for other mediums? Music is such a powerful storytelling tool, and a deeply impactful way to communicate feelings and emotions. Could paintings or sculptures or a meal have a specific, intentional soundtrack? How about a book?
Ian Urbina is a Pulitzer Prize winning author based in Washington, DC. His latest book, The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier was published last year via Deckle Edge. It recounts Urbina’s experiences as an investigative journalist reporting on lawlessness on the high seas as he traveled across the world to get a better sense for the lives of those who brave the waters – either by choice, necessity, or duress. Based on a series of articles Urbina wrote for The New York Times in 2015, The Outlaw Ocean shines a light on the harsh conditions, violence, and risk of a seafaring life even today.
In the process of conducting his research, Urbina traveled across five seas and four continents – Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America – capturing field recordings and sounds from across the world. These captured sounds run the gamut: radio transmissions, machine gun fire, crew chatter, interview excerpts, and even the cries of victims of human trafficking and piracy; a heartbreaking reminder of the violence that threatens vulnerable populations every day. Urbina’s mission was to call further attention to the issues addressed in the book using another medium that would reach a broader, different audience.
The Outlaw Ocean Music Project was envisioned as a soundtrack to a book. Urbina shared his years and years’ worth of field recordings with over two-hundred artists from around the globe, and asked them to produce songs inspired by the clips in the style of their choice. The result is a curated sonic experience that tells a story in and of itself – the first “wave” of music was released on January 31, and features seventeen songs. The seventeen track sampler, part of a broader release of over two hundred songs, is about as long as an old school movie soundtrack, and personal highlights were “In the Earth’s Coldest Waters” by Mexico City post-rock band De Osos, and “Long Lang” by Dutch producer Kettel. The record incorporates found sounds artfully, and the songs do an amazing job at concisely expressing the heartache and difficult, as well as the human resilience, Urbina reports on.
At its core, the Outlaw Ocean Music Project is meant to push the boundaries of human creativity while also helping raise awareness about the daunting challenges faced by those whose livelihoods are tied to the sea. The project intends on releasing a new music throughout the year; although it’s unclear when the next drop will be, I’m excited to continue navigating what they’ve already shared. This is a soundtrack I can definitely get behind.