Behind the Sound of The Futures Channel

Steve Jay

Stephen Jay is the composer of the music enhancing The Futures Channel’s popular documentaries. Photo by Jenna Bowles


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There is a fine line between creating the appropriate vibe and presenting a cliché. It is in this detail where Jay’s brilliance shines. “Sometimes there’s an obvious choice,” he says. “For the piece, “Horses in the Movies,” I knew right away that it called for something very authentic… all acoustic and honest to the core.”

However, the choices don’t always present themselves so blatantly, allowing him to explore his musical depths. In his work on “The Surface of Mars,” Jay employed the services of the Australian didgeridoo, an instrument one would doubt makes an appearance in NASA’s training videos, yet one that has Aboriginal roots and nomadic undertones somehow perfectly convey the uncharted craters and mountains of the red planet.

Whether it be his work for The Futures Channel or the wide-spread array of musical genres demanded to be mastered as Weird Al’s bass player, for Stephen Jay it’s not about trying to simply re-create a sound; it’s about experiencing what his subject has gone through and letting that experience influence his own.

“For the parody we did of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ while playing, Al wanted us to jump around in the whirling dervish those guys made famous.” Sure, it can be assumed that this leaping and thrashing was simply to create good theatre for the camera. But for Jay it was as an opportunity to jump into the skin of Nirvana bassist Kris Novoselic and, rather than just sound like him, do his best to feel what he felt, and in that feeling produce the emotion and characteristic grunge sound trademarked by the celebrated Seattle band.

While studying music in West Africa from 1973 to 1976, Jay accumulated a vast collection of exotic musical instruments that now line his studio walls. Sitting in front of his mixing console, Jay picks up the Moroccan gimbre; a long neck made from a solid branch connected to a hollowed-out gourd. Three gut strings line the primitive-looking instrument attached to the neck with fine strands of leather. Plucking away at the homemade musical tool, it becomes apparent what Jay meant when he said, “[music] possesses a will and volition identical to Man’s, only much bigger.” (Bass Player Magazine, July 2004).

Though not a master of the gimbre, the tantalizing rhythms and musical expression coming from him are incredibly intriguing. The music has overcome him, breaking through the barriers of extensive formal training.

Too often, the power of music in video is overlooked and underestimated. Thrown-together soundtracks of “muzak” and bad elevator music have been the downfall of many an independent film. But, Stephen Jay understands what his contribution does for these Futures Channel documentaries and how it pushes the education they provide to another level of inspiration.

In a letter to The Futures Channel, high school teacher Jim Leitzky says, “The Futures Channel offers my diverse student body an opportunity to exit the classroom and review “REAL” world applications. Thanks for your efforts. They are appreciated on a daily basis by more than 150 academically engaged students. Thanks.”

Jay gives each movie its own unique story and attention because, in the end, the viewing audience, be it teachers, students or just curious individuals, deserve it.

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