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Cue the Music: A Death March for Viewers of NOVA's 'Himalayan Megaquake'
January 28, 2016  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

It was a documentary I had every reason to look forward to. I knew that, at the very least, it would hold my interest.

I had just returned from six weeks traveling in the developing world. My interest in faraway places and foreign cultures was still fresh. And when I saw that the venerable PBS science series NOVA was presenting a documentary called Himalayan Megaquake, about the April 25, 2015 earthquake in Nepal that killed 10,000 people, including 20 climbers on Mt. Everest, I made an appointment to watch.

Himalayan Megaquake, which aired last week, was written, directed and produced by the respected, award-winning filmmaker Liesl Clark, a mountaineering enthusiast whose past work includes the alpine documentaries Everest: The Death Zone, Cave People of the Himalayas, the National Geographic documentary Lost Cave Temples and the earlier NOVA programs Deadly Ascent, Killer Landslides, Lost Treasures of Tibet, Descent Into the Ice and Volcano Above the Clouds.

Himalayan Megaquake seemingly had everything going for it. A compelling narrative. First-person witness accounts. Harrowing home video of a 50-foot high avalanche, shown in real time. Sad stories of those who died, and some remarkable tales of last-minute rescues. Good science, backed by the testimony of geologists, seismologists, construction engineers, search-and-rescue engineers, Nepalese volunteers who rushed to help the survivors and officials with various NGOs. Himalayan Megaquake was a story of life, death and the power of the human spirit, played out against a backdrop of powerful geological forces, where time is measured in millions of years. Himalayan Megaquake had some of the most compelling subject matter you will see in any documentary film this year.

It was also unwatchable.

The music — maudlin, obvious, loud and intrusive — began early, and it never stopped.

It was the worst kind of music, that lazy, sonic wallpaper that smothers every word, that wrings pathos from every sad moment and throbs with fake urgency at any hint of danger. It’s the kind of music that has become all too common in TV documentaries today, the kind of music that assumes you’re an imbecile who needs to be told when to laugh or cry, or when to reach for the remote.

I was curious. Since everything costs money these days, I was curious to know who composed such awful music, and who signed off on it.

This is not the first time NOVA has ruined a perfectly good program with loud, relentless music. The producers’ assumption must be that the program, by itself, is not compelling enough to hold a viewer’s interest without emotional prompting.

The effect, though, for anyone capable of thinking for themselves — and PBS is nothing if not thought-provoking programming for thoughtful people — is quite the opposite. Annoying music is, well, annoying. And I was annoyed enough that I very nearly stopped watching.

There’s a reason why 60 Minutes — arguably the standard bearer for serious journalism on broadcast television — doesn’t use background music, unless the segment is about a musician. And even then the music is used sparingly, as a bridge between musicians telling their own stories, in their own words, using their own voices. Over the decades, the ticking stopwatch has become one of the most familiar sounds in popular culture, and it doesn’t play over every second word.

Himalayan Megaquake clocked in at slightly under an hour, of which roughly two minutes played without music.

Here’s the rub, though. If you’re looking for someone to blame — an actual name who specializes in composing maudlin, annoying music —  you’re out of luck. The end titles credited the music to APM, a warehouse of computer-generated music clips with offices in Hollywood, New York and Toronto. APM’s clients include Major League Baseball, National Geographic, Animal Planet and, ironically enough, MTV.

As well as PBS, and NOVA.

APM removes the messy business of finding a creative composer with genuine talent — just one person’s opinion, of course, but if you want to hear a truly astonishing background music score, check out Mark Isham’s film score for Never Cry Wolf on the Windham Hill label — by having prospective clients fill out on online client application. From there, an APM representative contacts the prospective client to discuss their music needs, and customizes a plan.

“APM has the largest collection of production music in the world,” according to its website (www.apmmusic.com). “Because we have such a large collection of music (over 400,000 tracks), we’re proud to offer every bit of music imaginable. We have hundreds of categories and sub-categories of music to choose from,” and so on, and so on.

Only not, it seems, a category for good music.

Trying to get through Himalayan Megaquake proved, to me, to be about as comfortable as a 12-hour midnight flight in economy class, complete with crying babies and the dull roar of jet engines reverberating though the cabin, and it was all because of that rote, computer-generated music.

Here’s the real question, though, and the question producers of quality programs like NOVA need to face:

When will producers learn that no music is better than bad music?


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Pat Carto
Absolutely have had same experience, especially when watching "NattyGeo" programs. And Discovery, History, Smithsonian, etal. The nonsensical "modern" and childish sounds totally overrun the dialogue. Happening as I write: I just tested it. The Science channel just did a "What in the World" program that would have been interesting if I could have heard the words. Effect on viewer: Frustration, high blood pressure. Result: hardly watch any of these channels anymore. Thank you for your comments.
Oct 25, 2016   |  Reply
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