FOR JUST A few hours, the entire universe is contained in a small, artificially made cave in the Hollywood Hills.
Though the cave is in Los Angeles, it isn't filled with glitter and glam. Rather, stunning projections of water, fire, and other earthly elements splay across its rocky innards like a visual palette of Earth's natural beauty.
Sitting in the middle of this cave is a man playing a baby grand piano. The shiny silver suit he’s wearing reflects the striking images of nature moving through the space. His name is Anton Zaslavski, but if that sounds unfamiliar to you, you might recognize him by his stage name—Zedd.
Zedd is one of the most successful DJs in the world right now. His songs “The Middle,” “Stay,” “Break Free,” and “Clarity” have all held their own on Billboard's Top 100—and he won a Grammy for “Clarity” in 2014. The 28-year-old typically makes music you'd hear at a club or an EDM show, resplendent with bright lasers and stunning visuals.
His next project?
To create a cinematic song. For a nature documentary.
A Song for the World
This song is what brings Zedd to his piano in the cave. He’s working on a project with producers from National Geographic's upcoming One Strange Rock series. The goal: to create a song that compliments a show about the wonders of nature.
Inside the cave, Zedd plays the piano while producers, camera operators, and members of his entourage carefully step over rocks, trying to avoid tripping in the dark tunnel. He easily picks up and leaves off at random intervals. It shows off his talent as a classical artist, a skill few see.
Just a day after filming the video, Zedd sits down in the recording studio of his former L.A. home to explain his music-writing process. This time, he's minus a baby grand, flanked instead by a keyboard and massive computer monitor.
"It's natural for me to start music on a piano," he says during an interview given between filming breaks. Classical music was part of his everyday life growing up in Germany. He explains, "That's how I grew up making music."
"When the composition was done, I layered the piano track into my software and then I just tried a bunch of sounds and played around with things. It's just trial and error until it feels right."
If heard timed to the visuals for National Geographic's music video, the music matches the escalation of the images. The video begins with ZEDD following a flow of water that leads him to a cove. As the video progresses, more varied and vivid images flash across the screen until the cave peels apart to reveal celestial bodies.
So too does the song escalate. Beginning with a predominantly classical intro, the electronic elements that make Zedd Zedd help the song build in intensity.
Heard sans visuals, the song has a momentous build on its own with a variety of auditorily stimulating elements. And, in the background, a constant ticking.
"I've started including a clock into my songs about six years ago," says the musician. "I have a clock in almost every single song. I made a conscious decision to add a clock into every single song I make."
It's not without purpose.
"I also think time is so universal. It makes a lot of sense in a meaningful level. In this context, it's about life, and time is potentially the biggest aspect of life... I think it also sounds really cool, and it replaces other percussive elements."
One Strange Rock premieres April 25th 7.30pm AEST on National Geographic.
Behind the Music
When asked what the song is about, Zedd pauses for a moment.
“It doesn’t have any lyrics… I can describe the emotions.”
He explains that the song is meant to build, to slowly reveal itself to its listener.
"It focuses on one single chord progression and reveals itself halfway through. It really evolves."
Rather than drawing inspiration from a visually pleasing image or scene from the show, Zedd says he was inspired by the serie's unique approach to showcasing our natural world.
One Strange Rock is directed by Darren Aronofsky, the director behind critically acclaimed and often jarring movies like Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. His work is rife with symbolism, like his 2017 film Mother! focused on environmental destruction. In One Strange Rock, he's revealing natural phenomena through the perspective of astronauts, perhaps the only people afforded an outside look at our planet.
The storytelling device effectively reframes commonplace elements as mysterious and complex.
Aronofsky's involvement in the show was one of the biggest reasons Zedd agreed to the project in the first place. The director's unique artistic style inspired Zedd to write a song he believes follows a comparable approach.
"What really stood out to me was the unknown of what's very known. This chord progression is similar in that sense where you know the melody, but you don't know the harmony until you zoom into the second half of the song. It matches the flow," says Zedd.
Soundtracks to Nature
It's a tricky concept to nail—writing a song that underscores the emotion behind experiencing nature’s wonder—but not a new one. Zedd’s only the latest iteration of artists to try it, though perhaps with more computerised electronic notes than previous artists.
Four Seasons is one of 18th-century Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi’s most famous works. It takes listeners on a musical journey through the changing seasons and builds in a way that imitates mortality. Early 20th-century English composer Gustav Holst took a larger perspective with The Planets. Through his own interpretation of the solar system, the composer grows and scales back a sense of musical grandiosity for each planet.
Though different in style, these compositions all work to invoke the profound feelings inspired by the natural world.
"To me, it's about the evolution of the song," Zedd says about his piece. "The first time you hear the real chords, it's so exciting. I really feel like the song needs to be listened to start to finish. I don't have a favorite moment because it's the whole evolution that makes it so exciting to me."
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