Dan Deacon’s newest work uses theremin and rats to create a stimulating soundtrack
Rats and theremin may seem like an odd pairing, but in this case, they were both crucial ingredients to electronic composer Dan Deacon’s latest work, Rat Film (Original Soundtrack). The soundtrack was created to accompany an experimental essay/documentary of the same name created by director Theo Anthony.
“It seemed like a smaller project when we first started, but developed into a full film that would need a score,” Deacon says. “It definitely started around making music with rats for a film that was going to use rats as a way to link various ideas.”
Rat Film’s soundtrack is very different from Deacon’s better known electronic work, shifting from dissonant Hans Zimmer-esque tones, to sporadic piano and submarine-synth sounds.
Much like the development of the film, which links the Norway rat infestation to the history of Baltimore’s racial neighbourhood segregation, the soundtrack was created through very experimental methods.
“Right off the bat, I knew this was not going to be a standard, traditional project,” Deacon says. “Most documentaries are like, ‘These are my beliefs and this is what happened,’ but he was making a documentary devoid of journalism and that was really intriguing to me. I had all the freedom to convey a multitude of ideas into a score, but so much of it is left to the audience to put together themselves.”
Early on, the rats not only became the source of the documentary’s ideas, but also its music. Anthony basically asked Deacon if it was possible to create music with rats.
“The inspiration from that came from these EKG readings from a rat’s hippocampus that they used to study the brain waves of rats,” Deacon says. “Theo had these readings slowed down and put into the audio spectrum and he wanted more music made by rats. I immediately thought of the theremins. I had three of them and what the hell else was I going to do with them?”
Deacon and Anthony then created a fibreglass enclosure with three corners, each with it’s own separate theremin playing. They dropped a few rats in and listened to the sounds produced from the rats running around the enclosure.
“Luckily the rats jammed on them pretty hard,” Deacon says. “We recorded the sounds made for hours. I tried to create rhythms, scales, and pitch movements from that data and tried to filter it down and modulate so I could turn it into appropriate music.”
Deacon also used the previous EKG readings to create the piece “Redlining,” which is played on player piano, a self-playing piano containing a pneumatic mechanism that operates the piano with pre-programmed music.
“It was taking those impulse responses and the rhythmic patterns of the rats and converting it into MIDI. Once I had the MIDI data, I could change those impulses to fit whatever scale or notes I wanted, but the rhythmic pattern was taken from those rat experiments,” Deacon says.
The tone of the soundtrack does not really convey a specific mood or emotion, and while it does fit the film’s footage, it almost lives in its own universe making it a captivating work.
“In the beginning we had all of these big thoughts and concepts and I was just like, ‘Fuck all of this. I’m just going to write whatever music comes to my head,’” Deacon says. “Theo was placing tracks in completely different spots than I was originally inspired to. So, that informed a common language of what he was going for in the final edit.”
The Rat Film soundtrack was a way for Deacon to break out of his comfort zone, something he has strived for since his early beginnings.
“I guess that’s really the whole point of being a musician,” Deacon says. “I toured with Miley Cyrus I was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ That was definitely out of my comfort zone from a performing standpoint. From a writing standpoint, this was very similar. The music almost couldn’t sound like me because the context of the film became more important.”
Releasing Fri., Oct. 13
Dan Deacon’s Rat Film (Original Soundtrack)