If you’ve seen the 1999 video The Mystery of Chaco Canyon, narrated by Robert Redford, you’ve heard Michael Stearns’s music. The score for Chaco Canyon was an enormously significant factor in the success of this legendary account of Anna Sofaer’s discovery of an ancient spiraling petroglyph known as the Sun Dagger. The narrative—through its stunning visuals and remarkable sound track—engulfs viewers in the thoroughly believable sensation of having slipped through a wormhole nearly 1,000 years into the past.
Stearns, a young-looking 60 years old, quietly recites a list of accomplishments that are impressive. He resists labeling what he does, saying that while “music in the U.S. is very formatted by labels [such as] electronica, rock n roll, ambient music, I play at European music festivals and generate much bigger audiences because, I think, they are much more comfortable without labels, with music that is produced in non-traditional ways.” Modestly, he continues with a real understatement, “I do music for films—I’ve scored 22 IMAX films—planetariums [he scored the music to the program Fragile Planet, narrated by Sigourney Weaver, in the newly renovated California Academy of Sciences Morrison Planetarium—the largest all-digital planetarium in the world] and I make my own CDs.”
This Santa Fean has quite a history in the music biz. So what if you’ve never heard of him: he’s a name, a big one, and he’s been around for nearly five decades. He says he “got tricked into music by the muse, around the age of 13. I grew up in Tucson, and all the kids would go to the community swimming pool and hang out all summer long. In the evenings, my best friend would pull out his guitar, and I noticed that all the girls immediately gathered around him. I thought, ‘I’ve got to get in on this.’ So I begged and pleaded and got a guitar. I played guitar pretty much exclusively until the early Moog synthesizers came onto the scene in the late ’60s. When I heard those sounds, I actually put the guitar down for 20 years and just dove into synthesizing.” Having moved to Los Angeles in his mid-twenties, Stearns soon was scoring films with a co-worker. Shortly thereafter, he began scoring his own films, and continued producing his own music—“at that time it was LPs and cassettes.” In about 1984, he was asked to score the film Chronos, directed and photographed by Ron Fricke, who had just finished shooting the ground-breaking Koyyaniskatski (released to huge acclaim in 1983). Next Stearns composed the music for Baraka, another Fricke release. Much of Stearns’s work is as a non-verbal film composer, creating symphonic expressions of our planet shown on a large scale through time-lapse photography. “In scoring nonverbal films I create an emotional landscape that propels the picture,” he explains. Scoring a “talkie” means sweetening a romantic moment, increasing the suspense in a horror flick—the script drives the composer. In Stearns’s milieu, the reverse is true: his music focusses the visuals.
Asked what inspires him, Stearns declares, “I’m a dreamer by nature. I’ve been a dreamer ever since I was a child.” He continues, “I dream things before they happen; I meet people in my dreams. I’ve had dreams of music; I get a lot of inspiration from my dreams, and from the natural world, from traveling through foreign lands, meeting people from other cultures and hearing their music. It is such a rich time to be a composer. We have this technology that even 10 years ago was far-fetched.” Yet despite a studio stuffed full of computers, sound baffling, computers, and a huge soundboard, Stearns is excited about the antique musical instruments from traditional cultures he’s visited in his three or four circumnavigations around the planet. His contribution to the performance Experience Design was through his world-based music, setting the stage during the opening movement for a kind of exotic yet communal human awakening. With technology backing tradition, Stearns is truly a composer of world music, using everything from his computers and synthesizers to the Australian didgeridoo and the Finnish kantele lap harp to make music that sounds like the heavens’ spheres.