Upon reentering his recording studio in New York’s waterlogged Lower East Side neighborhood two days after Superstorm Sandy, musician and film composer J. Ralph was struck by how quickly the 250-gallon fish tank he keeps filled with about three dozen parrot fish had become completely fouled when the tank’s electric air pump shut off.
“Compared to the horrors so many people experienced, what I went through was nothing,” Ralph acknowledged during a recent stop in Los Angeles, adding that he was able two save all but two of the fish. But the lesson rang familiar for Ralph, who has written scores for Academy Award-winning documentaries “Man on Wire” and “The Cove.”
“You see how little a change it takes to make the whole system break down,” he said. The message is echoed in Ralph’s latest project, “Chasing Ice,” which features National Geographic photographer James Balog collecting evidence of climate change while shooting glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and even Montana.
Balog collected an award for excellence in cinematography at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and veteran Chicago Sun-Tumes film critic Roger Ebert recently awarded “Chasing Ice” three stars. “At a time when warnings of global warming were being dismissed by broadcast blabbermouths as ‘junk science,’ the science here is based on actual observation of the results as they happen,” Ebert writes. “When opponents of the theory of evolution say (incorrectly) that no one has ever seen evolution happening, scientists are seeing climate change happening right now -- and with alarming speed.
“Here is a film for skeptics who say, ‘We don’t have enough information.’ ”
In an ironic twist, the film’s footage of glacial erosion and the effects it may be having on global weather patterns was about to hit theaters in Los Angeles and New York when Sandy struck.
A musician with no classical training who said he relies largely on instinct in composing, Ralph employed repetitive undulating piano arpeggios throughout the score as a musical complement to the ebbing and flowing of the glaciers themselves. He also wrote a song, “Before My Time,” which was recorded by Scarlett Johansson and violinist Joshua Bell and plays over the closing credits.
“She’s a world-class singer,” Ralph said, and argued that Johansson could make a career of it if she wasn’t so prodigiously busy making movies. The composer also tapped the actress to sing one of the songs he wrote for last year’s “Wretches and Jabberers,” which traced the journey of two adults with autism who rose to become advocates for those with the condition.
For Ralph, the films he’s taken on aren’t linked by subject matter, but by the participants’ “willingness to take risks -- even with their lives -- to tell stories that are important,” he said.
“Man on Wire,” James Marsh’s 2007 Oscar-winning documentary, told the life story of French aerialist Philippe Petit, who walked a high wire he secretly suspended between the twin towers of the World Trade Center shortly after it opened. “The Cove,” in 2008, generated an Oscar for filmmaker Louie Psihoyos for his covert filming of dolphin slaughter in Japan.
Last year’s “Hell and Back Again” looked at the toll of the war in Afghanistan on a soldier both in the field and after he returned home with life-changing wounds, physical and psychological. Ralph landed Willie Nelson to sing the title song for that film.
“Most of these are like the big Hollywood adventure films,” Ralph said, “except they happen to be true.”
Here’s the official trailer for “Chasing Ice,” which opens a limited run in Los Angeles on Nov. 23, three days after Tuesday’s release of the soundtrack featuring Ralph’s score.
Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2