MONO LAKE STORY – Cody Westheimer

Original Review by Alan Rogers

Mono Lake is a large, shallow saline lake in Mono County, California became the centre of a conservation project in the mid- to late 1970s after years of decline due to the diversion of water supplying the lake to meet the needs of Los Angeles in the 1940s. With little freshwater flowing into the lake salt levels within the lake rose, water evaporation rates exceeded inflow rates and the surface level began to fall rapidly. As well as being extremely salty the water is very alkaline, no fish survives in such conditions but brine shrimp thrive.

With the formation of the Mono Lake Committee, a dedicated group of people organised themselves to try to save the lake form further decline and today they have been successful in reversing some of the problems faced by the lake’s ecosystem. As part of the efforts to raise awareness of the plight of ecological problems of Mono Lake the Mono Lake Committee have shot a 27-minute high definition documentary film, Mono Lake Story, highlighting the fragile ecosystem of the lake today but also documenting the natural beauty of the region. American composer Cody Westheimer (whose titles include documentaries such as The Runner and UltraMarathon Man: 50 Marathons, 50 States, 50 Days as well as the feature-length documentary on the making of Hellboy, Hellboy: The Seeds of Creation) composes a score that listens as a series of ideas for a small ensemble of instruments: guitar (acoustic and electric), a few strings, piano, winds and some percussion. The music doesn’t really effect any specific emotional response when listened to separate to the film. But I can imagine the music allowing the images to make their own impact on the viewer, with the music acting more as a sensory filler that is pleasant to the ear but doesn’t detract from the natural beauty of the visuals.

This is not to say that this is in any way a bad listen. On the contrary, many of the tracks are pleasing to the ear and Westheimer uses his palette of instruments to compose some nice ensemble pieces. Just don’t expect much in the way of thematic material or development of any themes. There are several cues worth picking out from the score: track 6 (“Water”) injects a bit of urgency to the score with the inclusion of an up tempo rhythm, “Owens Dry Lakebed” with its plucked staccato acoustic guitar motif effectively evokes a dry river bed and “David Gaines” (the graduate student responsible for the establishment of the Mono Lake Committee) features an almost comedic guitar motif that reminds me of Rolfe Kent’s theme music for Dexter (perhaps not the best association!) Westeimer saves his most emotionally charged music for when people become intimately involved with Mono Lake. The aforementioned “David Gaines”, “The Deal” (the longest track on the score) that features a nice solo strings melody that’s both uplifting and forward-looking in aspect and “The Difference” with its piano ostinato that instils a sense of purpose and optimism for the lake’s future.

I would imagine that it is difficult for composers of natural history documentaries as they need to support the visuals but not be too intrusive. For example, composing dramatic music for the hunting of prey by a natural predator (e.g., the documentary music of George Fenton) does enhance the emotional levels but I have always been a bit against the likes of comedic music underscoring an animal species that we see as being comedic. Westheimer saves his most obviously emotional music for the involvement of humans in the story and provides pleasurable underscore to enhance the natural beauty of Mono Lake. Although the optimistic tracks towards the end of the score do provide some sort of ending, Mono Lake Story doesn’t really come to any kind of firm conclusion (e.g., a formal end titles), the cues just finish. Before you know it, the 25 minutes have passed, and passed quite pleasantly too. This score is available as a digital download from usual outlets.

Audio samples can be found HERE and then click on arrow next to running time for samples of entire album or individual tracks.

Rating: ***

  1. Sunrise At Mono (1:49)
  2. Lake Intro (1:07)
  3. The Tufa Towers (1:00)
  4. Shrimp and Flies (1:05)
  5. The Gulls (1:33)
  6. Water (1:20)
  7. Owens Dry Lakebed (0:38)
  8. The Aquaduct (0:59)
  9. Siphoning The Source (2:29)
  10. David Gaines (1:32)
  11. The Deal (3:51)
  12. The Answer (1:50)
  13. The Difference (2:55)
  14. Preservation (3:21)

Running Time: 25:35

New West Studios (2011)


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