Meet the Composer Who Wrote the Music for Shanghai Disneyland's Tomorrowland
BT (born Brian Transeau) has not been able to talk about his two-year undertaking until now. Here, he reveals his inspirations, work process and the one thing he really, really wants from Disney.
BT has seen the future, and it looks like the happiest place on Earth.
Walt Disney Co. executives handpicked the pioneering electronic artist, composer and producer (born Brian Transeau) to write the original music pumped through the Tomorrowland themed area at Shanghai Disneyland. The $5.5 billion park officially opened Thursday.
They chose BT after surveying the musical landscape for possible candidates. “Our creative director, Scot Drake, distilled the principal design premise for Tomorrowland with this statement: The land is the intersection of man, nature and technology,” says John Dennis, executive creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering. “Using that statement as a starting point, my team spent several weeks listening to the music of many artists to find the right fit. One day I heard BT’s [2010 Grammy-nominated album] These Hopeful Machines and I felt a connection between his music and Tomorrowland.”
BT’s representative, Kraft-Engel Management’s Laura Engel, casually mentioned Disney’s offer to him at the end of a slate of other projects. What she didn’t know was that BT and his 11-year-old daughter are Disney junkies. “We’ve lived at Disney for the past 10 years. I intimately know all the rides. I’ve been to every [Disney] park except Hong Kong,” he says. “Everything else [Laura] was excited about became back-burner stuff.”
From the first meeting with Drake and Dennis more than two years ago, BT was bound by non-disclosure agreements not to utter what he was working on. The Hollywood Reporter interview is the first he’s given since the NDA was lifted. “It’s been an absolute social media and life NDA blackout. If I said anything, I would be attacked by Disney ninjas,” he jokes. “I’ve been bursting at the seams to talk about it. It’s one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.”
Part of the thrill was being part of a team of a dozen Imagineers — the title given the members of Disney’s creative brain trust — of all different disciplines, some of whom had been with the company for decades. “They showed me some early-stage design documents [for Tomorrowland] and just glancing at it, I intuitively understood it. I said, ‘Those are Fibonacci spirals, this is bio-mimicry stuff, you’re copying shapes from nature. This is what I do with music.’”
Dennis agrees that the connection was immediate. “In our first meeting, it was clear to me that BT would be a great fit for this project,” he says. “BT’s work as a technologist and an artist, along with his enthusiasm for Disney theme parks, made him the perfect fit to create the music for Tomorrowland.”
Spanning two years, BT wrote more than four hours of music that flows out of more than 200 speakers spread throughout Tomorrowland. Though used to writing for his albums and for movies — among the films he’s scored are The Fast and the Furious, Stealth and Monster — writing immersive music for the theme park was a totally different animal: “It’s a living space and it’s a space that changes as you walk through it.
“The first thing I had to do — and it took me about two months — was lay out in a sundial configuration how these pieces of music should overlap,” he says. “I had to decide how the music was going to function. How the compositions would speak to one another. It wasn’t just like, ‘Let’s go write some music.’ It was how is the concourse area going to be affected by arena music based on its proximity of 327 feet, and how much are you going to hear? There was so much thought before I wrote a single piece of music.”
Though the team’s discussions, he was given suggestions on how the music should sound: aspirational, hopeful, influenced by technology but not dependent upon it. And then he was left to create. “They came to me and were like, ‘Here’s what we want it to look like. Here’s what we want it to feel like. Blow our minds.’”
He would bring his music back to the team for feedback.
“The cool thing was even people who had nothing to do with the music were involved because they were involved in sculpting the feeling of the park,” he says. “I worked very intimately with the lighting people; everyone had a say. I’ve certainly had [movie] projects where the rogue producer would comment and not only knew nothing about music, but was saying something to justify being in the room. We didn’t have a single person on the project like that. Every single person who gave me notes, ideas or thoughts, it was all valuable. It was crowd-sourced to the group. It was very democratic.”
His themes range from orchestral — he recorded with a symphony in Nashville — to electronic to what he calls “glitchy, micro-rhythmic.” What he assiduously stayed away from was anything that sounded of the moment. “The marching orders were make it futuristic without being dated, so I really avoided any kind of modern cliches,”he says. “There’s no dub step or house music. I used a lot of electronic instruments that are 30, 40 years old — like a Yamaha CS-80, which is what Vangelis used for Blade Runner. We wanted there to be a feeling of nostalgia about the future.”
Another goal was for Shanghai Disneyland’s Tomorrowland to sound distinct from the Tomorrowlands in the five other Disney parks. “Chinese ambient noise is totally different from westernized ambient noise,” BT says. “I studied the tonality of Mandarin and part of the frequency range that it occupies and tried to stay out of it. You just have to drill down to a molecular level.”
Though there are vocalizations in some of his themes, “we decided to avoid the use of a language because we wanted it to not be beholden to any one culture,”he says. “We wanted it to be very broad.”
BT, whose 10th album will come out later this summer, declined to comment on how much it cost to create his aural world for Tomorrowland or how much he earned, adding only: “I would say there was more work than I anticipated, but they were generous. Any of the raw materials that I needed, they were really open to.”
His one complaint? All his work failed to earn him the coveted Golden Pass that allows employees lifetime free entry into any Disney theme park. “It was one of the first things I asked them about and I got shot down. I’m not kidding,” he says. “People who get that have worked their whole life for Disney. I have a feeling I’d have to do another five of these to get that. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”