Music, Surf culture, Surf MoviesC.J. Mirra, The Cold-Water Composer
Surfing has its own special soundtracks for each of us; be they the noises and soundscapes associated with breaking waves, muffled underwater tumblings and the backdrop of the beach on a summer’s day, or the tracks and songs that accompany the surf films that we’ve watched over and over. In the early days of surf cinematography films were scored because that’s how filmmaking worked. Bruce Brown had the Bud Shank Quartet soundtrack Slippery When Wet and they produced the score by having Bruce project the film though a letterbox in the studio door onto the wall of the room in which the band were recording. They watched the movie, and played along while the tape rolled. Over time surf movies went from having sound set to them, to being set to sound; and often to tracks that were already famous in their own right. There are countless iconic sections in surf movies that are defined as much by the music as by the surfing footage, and we each have our own favourites.
In recent decades, with the increased democratization of surf filmmaking (that began with VHS camcorders and has moved on to affordable digital cameras that can capture high quality footage) it has been rare for a surf film to have a dedicated score. These films are seldom projected onto a screen for an audience, but rather streamed and shared on handheld devices. Music tracks are licensed, and that is that. When a soundtrack is created specifically for a surf film then, it is surely something to take not of and celebrate. Take a bow please, CJ Mirra and the surf filmmakers who have employed his skills and services.
Where those early surf filmmakers and musicians were mostly scoring music for small waves, sunshine and sparkling smiles around the surf spots of California, Hawaii and Australia, CJ has been working with cold-water filmmakers such as Chris McClean to create the sound of frigid, heavy slabs and camping under frost covered canvas at the far reaches of surfing’s North Atlantic frontiers. He is as much composer as musician, layering acoustic and orchestral instruments with synthesised sounds and samples to create the bone-ache of a freezing sea or the golden view from inside a cold-water barrel backlit by the low winter sun, through the medium of sound.
Mirra is a musician through and through, more so than a surfer. His position as the pre-eminent “cold-water composer” of contemporary surf cinema came about when he accidentally uploaded the wrong track to a music-sharing site. In the fifteen minutes that the track lived online before CJ pulled it down again, filmmaker Chris McClean heard it and wanted more. When he went to listen again the track was gone, so he got in touch with CJ and the next week they started working together on a short surf film for Channel 4 television. In the four years since they’ve produced over twenty short films together. Static, CJ’s album of original surf soundtracks released this spring, is a collection of eight original compositions taken from some of the award winning films that he’s worked on, including the critically acclaimed Edges of Sanity featuring actor Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones) reading a poem written for the film of the same name.
Edges Of Sanity. from Finisterre on Vimeo.
To aid the creative process, CJ often accompanied Chris on film trips to the surf spots on the fringes Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and the Faroes, immersing himself in the world of the surfers who are the subjects of these films – feeling the same cold wind at his back and sitting around the same campfires. Whether scrapbooking ideas and collecting sounds or starting work on the tracks themselves, these trips had a huge influence on the scale of the sounds that he created to evoke the feelings of these trips.
“The light, the landscape, the size of the waves and colour of the water all had an influence on the sound,”
With a number of award-winning collaborations under their belts and their work screened at festivals worldwide, CJ and Chris then went on to collaborate on a live A/V show titled Chasing Zero that saw CJ performing and reworking tracks live in cinema auditoriums, responding to the visuals that Chris projected onto the giant screen next to him and creating a unique multi-media show for the audience.
“I like to think of CJ as my own Angelo Badalamenti, supremely talented and able to adapt to every given situation with a new range of sounds,”
As the boundaries of surf exploration expand to the furthest reaches, so too does the soundtrack that accompanies the journey. Haunting, soaring and sublime: surfing has rarely sounded so good.
BEYOND THE SCARS from Chris McClean on Vimeo.
‘STATIC – Original Surf Soundtracks Vol.1’ is available on digital download, cassette and limited edition gatefold 12” vinyl.
CJ Mirra will be on tour in Europe in May. The live band features renowned surfer/musician LeeAnn Curren and the performance will be accompanied by visuals from Chris McClean.
- 5th May, The Poly, Falmouth, UK
- 11th May, Standart, Biarritz, FR
- 12th May, Chez Renault, Saint Jean de Luz, FR
- 19th May, The Great Escape, Bau Wow, Brighton, UK
Full details can be found at https://cjmirra.bandcamp.com