It began about two years ago, when I sat down with Ken and Betty Rodgers over coffee to talk music. The Rodgers had completed a documentary film, a legacy project, honoring the heroic men of Bravo Company, First Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment. They were in need of a composer to finalize an almost-complete soundtrack, teeming with an impressive list of musicians that had eagerly contributed their talents.
I felt a growing connection to the Rodgers as I learned about their project: an authentic documentary honoring war heroes and their families, preserving priceless historic and emotional accounts of the brave Khe Sanh Marines both living and passed on. I wanted to learn more, and was honored by the possibility that my music might be part of something so universally important. I also started to realize that it could be important to me on a personal level as well . . .
My grandfather served in World War II as a Marine during the battle of Iwo Jima, and he had been an elusive mystery to my family ever since his return after the war ended. Growing up, I never had much of a relationship with my grandfather; he made it quite clear to the family that he preferred isolation—a need that was ever-increasing toward the end. When I found out he took his life, there were so many questions unanswered, and my family was left in emotional confusion.
Briefly hearing Ken’s accounts, I started to think about the opportunity to learn about war, about the toll it takes on soldiers, from the men who have the most important stories to tell. For many reasons, I missed the opportunity to learn about war from my grandfather. Now I had the opportunity to do so, exploring a world foreign to me through something so personal—creating music.
Leaving the meeting with a DVD, I went home and watched Bravo! for the first time. It emotionally overwhelmed me, it challenged my thoughts, it changed everything I ever knew about war. The endless complexity of emotions, ranging anywhere from rage, fear, devastation, and emptiness, to youth, hope, family, love. It opened my eyes to the ravages of Khe Sanh, and to the horrors of battle that veterans such as my grandfather had seen.
I started to think how it could at all be possible to reflect war and its compound emotions by eight simple notes. I was more driven than ever to compose these pieces of music—but now the question was . . . how?
Accepting the challenge, and accompanied with the fear that I wouldn’t—even couldn’t—get it right, I got to work. I began by interviewing Betty and Ken, asking for words, colors, emotions, thoughts that they wanted to portray. A ritual with every filmmaker I work with, I’ve learned throughout the years that the emotions and thoughts I take away from watching a film may not be exactly the emotions the filmmaker wants to portray to the viewer. Emotions are different than messages, and messages are the bridge between the film and audience.
A lengthy back-and-forth ensued as I wrote, presented, Ken and Betty listened, and I altered as requested. Because there was so much complexity, there were lots of experiments with different approaches—sometimes from a female, motherly voice, sometimes brooding and dark, sometimes lilting and requiem-reminiscent.
Leaving my emotion aside and focusing entirely on the film in front of me was tough. Initially, I believe my thoughts got in the way and contributed to some cluttered and confused musical compositions. What instruments to employ was a topic highly discussed. Strings such as violin and viola sometimes seemed right, sometimes not at all. There was a delicate balance between an orchestral feel vs. too heavy-handed and hymn-like. One prominent color that Ken felt represented the film’s Ghost Patrol scene was gray—feeling cold, stunned, numb, isolated.
Repeatedly composing to scenes of devastation did take a toll on me. The more I watched the heroic men on screen, the more familiar they became to me, although we hadn’t met. Spending hours in a studio with no-one but your film protagonists, you develop a sense of familiarity with those you repeatedly observe, and their pain and tears become increasingly more personal. That familiarity, combined with a clear understanding of my grandfather’s pain, made for a highly challenging yet enormously rewarding journey.
Ken and Betty were wonderfully supportive in the creative process, and equally as supportive in helping me to understand my grandfather’s actions as a result of war. Their musical suggestions and edits pushed me and challenged me; I am a better composer because of it, and I feel a greater understanding and sense of catharsis about my grandfather. A heartfelt thanks to Ken and Betty for the life-changing experience, and to our war heroes who fought (and continue to fight) for our safety and freedom.
-Robin Zimmermann, 2015
Robin Zimmermann is a Los Angeles-based composer, performer and sound creator for independent film and multimedia. A musician for over 20 years with classical training in piano, flute and voice, her works span genres and fields, creating unique and eclectic soundscapes designed to heighten space and simulate environments. In 2010, Robin was honored as one of four internationally selected composer fellows for the Sundance Institute Composer and Documentary Lab.