Origins, Music, and Human History in the eyes of John Boswell

by Nikko Van Wyck

Our earliest ancestors started doing things that were inherently human around two million years ago halfway across the planet. Fast forward to now and we’ve come into the golden age of communication and global connectivity. With the advent of the internet, scientific breakthroughs are seemingly announced by the hour, helping solve mysteries that span the course of our own history. However, even with all of the progress we’ve made, our species story is still shrouded in uncertainty and conjecture. That’s where local musician, producer, storyteller and filmmaker John Boswell comes in.

John, who makes his home here in Bellingham, is the creator and producer of the soon-to-be-aired National Geographic Channel show Origins. The show takes on the task of tackling human history, telling stories from our early hominid relatives Cro-Magnon, all the way into the 21st century. It’s a visually striking special that he also scored. His major pieces in the feature are the program’s intro and outro compositions, which are epic and inherently human to say the least.

His own origins are very humble, starting with his interest in music in grade school. “I actually got my start playing in a metal band in high school. Hair down to my nipples and everything. I was the keyboardist and turntablist; that’s when I started learning both music theory and sampling,” he said. “Music theory fascinated me, so I pursued it and took piano lessons. From there it snowballed into music production, composition and eventually a real life job, something I always thought was a fantasy.”

It was a natural progression for him to branch out into other media platforms, he explained. “In college I started a business doing media conversion, turning old films and tapes into DVDs and CDs. Through that I learned the basics of video editing. My background as a turntablist influenced my approach to video – playful experimentation, mixing and mashing things together, then adding my own music. I spent years cutting down bland science documentaries into exciting music videos.”

In fact, you’ve probably come across some of his work without realizing it before. John, creator of the web series Symphony of Science, is responsible for the amazingly catchy Carl Sagan auto-tune YouTube sensation (10 millions views so far). It only made sense that John would eventually embark on a project that connected all of the things he was fascinated with into an enormous production piece.

Origins follows John’s natural evolution of film and musical production, and the concept was a marriage of both passions. When asked what came first, John said that it was really both ideas of presentation that formed the end result. It’s “a synthesis between the two. It has since morphed into something very different than the original concept, which was more experimental, but there are still flourishes that echo the initial vision – cutting edge soundtrack and movie quality visuals that evoke deep seated human emotions.”

And with that evocation required, composing the sound track to coincide with human history was also a challenge, though he states that a lot of the soundtrack has its roots in our own backyard.

“A lot of my music is infused with mystery. I think it comes from living in such a dramatic part of the world – the Pacific Northwest. But it’s also designed to reflect the story of human history – which is dark, somber, tragic, and mysterious, but also uplifting, triumphant, euphoric, and transcendent.” He added that in order for the show to evoke those feelings, “The music has to be all those things. And it also has to reflect the breadth of the story we’re telling – from Cro-Magnon days to the 21st century – so my goal has been to synthesize the entire history of music, from African hand drums and wind instruments to modern electronic influences.”

The production of the musical sides of Origins also speaks volumes to how far we’ve come, in the sense that a lot of what we hear in the soundtrack is, in fact, sampled. I personally found it fascinating that a show undertaking the history of human kind in an enthno-musical fashion embraced technology to create music that is so inherently human. “The majority of my contribution to the soundtrack is sampled – we don’t have the budget or time to record a proper orchestra – but I track as many instruments as I can,” John elaborated. “Hand drums, solo strings, guitars, etc. Sampling goes a long way in ensuring I can pull off something so ambitious with such a quick turnaround, while simultaneously video editing.” However, he did add, “Most of the big exciting moments are custom scored.”

Deadlines were also a huge factor in the process of creating Origins. With so many moving parts and different parties working on the project, time constraints played a huge part in how the story was crafted. “We had basically one year from getting the green light to airing the first episode. We all fought for more time – I would have preferred two years to do it properly – but TV deadlines are apparently all like this. We did the best we could with the time we had. The seas have been both calm and stormy along the way, but the last two months – and the next two – are pure insanity. Forcing creativity under pressure is never ideal, but vastly preferable to the alternative – not.” It’s a theme that also runs concurrently to our time here as humans; there’s never enough time to go around.

John added, “My prime responsibility is the intros and outros – so make sure to catch the beginning and end of each episode, where I get to shine creatively the most, musically and with my video editing.”

Origins is visually spectacular, as well as incredibly powerful to listen to. The production encompasses and strikingly tells the story of what it’s like and what it means to be us. Bellingham should be incredibly proud of John and that this story has its roots in our community.

Catch the debut of Origins on Monday, March 6 at 9 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel.