I can trace my love of Disney theme park music to visiting Walt Disney World as a child. I recall recording attraction sounds with a video camera resting on my shoulder and every official Disney album release was an instant purchase for me. That is one reason why I was thrilled to speak with John Dennis, Executive Creative Director of Music for Walt Disney Imagineering, and Joe Trapanese, composer, arranger and producer for soundtracks such as “TRON: Legacy” and Disney XD’s animated series “Tron: Uprising.” Together with a talented team of audio engineers, Joe and John created new music for TRON Lightcycle / Run presented by Enterprise now open at Magic Kingdom Park in Florida. We talked about Disney theme park music and revisiting the creation of the “TRON: Legacy” score.
STEVEN: John, what makes music from Disney theme parks and experiences so special?
John Dennis: No other entertainment company has sustained a music presence as part of their storytelling, movies, theme parks, and record business as Disney has over the past 100 years. Walt Disney taught us early on that using music as a storytelling device is extraordinarily effective. It activates the human brain and stirs emotions deep in the heart. When Walt began creating attractions for Disneyland, he tied music to these experiences for not only placemaking, but to create strong emotional connections. That is the beauty of music, especially in our theme parks, as it can immediately transport you to turn-of-the-century Main Street, U.S.A., fantastical places like PANDORA – The World of Avatar or Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, or to the Grid as with TRON Lightcycle / Run.
SM: What theme park music do you remember from visiting Disney Parks?
Joe Trapanese: It’s a classic but I think I was around 10 when I visited “it’s a small world.” Richard and Robert Sherman’s music plays a critical role in that attraction, and the song is just so catchy. I couldn’t agree more with John’s thoughts about music. His team understands the importance of creating authentic soundtracks for these experiences. The fact we went to London and recorded new arrangements and material from “TRON: Legacy” with a gigantic orchestra is something I don’t take for granted. [The Walt Disney Imagineering team] could have licensed music or created something that sounded like the original material. Instead, they went right to the source and recreated it in a stunning new way.
SM: Recently, two tracks from TRON Lightcycle / Run were released on Spotify and other streaming platforms. Can you please talk about creating these tracks?
Joe: We wanted to give guests the most memorable moments from this new attraction. The first track – MK_GATEWAY – is a sampling of that 30-minute loop heard outside the attraction. The original pitch was [Lightcycle / Run] the ultimate athletic competition, a very grandiose and epic event. So, it was thrilling as a composer to reimagine and rearrange the music in that style. The second track – MK_GRID – is the music you experience on the attraction. It combines the exciting launch, the heart-pounding action on the Grid and the glory and the triumph at the end.
SM: Joe, what was it like hearing your music at TRON Lightcycle / Run for the first time at Magic Kingdom Park?
Joe: It left me speechless. As a composer, I take great pride in the act of writing and making music. Every day I am thankful for the ability to share my art that people ask me to create. While there is something special about sitting in a darkened theater and hearing audience reactions, hearing my music at a Disney attraction is like a whole next level I never even imagined possible. It’s very rare I’m left breathless by something I’ve worked on, but I could have stood under the canopy at TRON Lightcycle / Run for hours in awe of this truly magical experience we created.
SM: Joe, “TRON: Legacy” was your first major soundtrack release. Do you have a favorite memory from its production, and do you have favorite tracks from the score?
Joe: Prior to “TRON: Legacy,” I worked mainly as a technical assistant, orchestrator and arranger, helping people much like I did on the film but in a much smaller capacity. “TRON: Legacy” was the first time I stepped up as an integral part of the music production process. As a kid, I played with computers and synthesizers. I also loved classical music so much that I earned a degree in classical composition from the Manhattan School of Music. I had long struggled with how to combine my two passions, yet working on TRON helped synthesize my brain in a powerful way that convinced me to keep pushing along this musical path.
As for favorite tracks, I love the mostly orchestral piece titled “Quorra Saves Sam.” In a way, the orchestra becomes a synthesizer. I vividly remember where I was in my early 20s and what I was doing when I helped create the track.
John: My favorite tracks are “Derezzed” or “Son of Flynn.” This music has this wonderful duality. It combines human emotion expressed via the orchestra set within a digital realm. It’s the same duality heard at TRON Lightcycle / Run – grand orchestral pieces mixed with pulse-pounding electronics.
Joe: I think a lot of people were pleasantly surprised at how much orchestral music is in TRON. We found that orchestral pieces worked because the film, at its heart, is a human story. One of the most fascinating stories comes from when I recorded the original “TRON: Legacy” score in London. Four musicians in the orchestra had also played on the original “TRON” score in 1982. We pass on our legacy through the music we love, and what better examples than these musicians who returned to carry on their legacy.
SM: One final question, how was the experience on the Grid?
Joe: It was such a thrilling eye-opening experience, filled with many learnings. I could have just delivered the music and finished the project, but John and his team asked me to join them physically on-site. I helped mix the music with an amazing team of audio and sound engineers who made sure the vision of the music was carried throughout the attraction for everyone.
John: We included Joe early in the process because it was important to us to capture the same feelings guests had when watching the Lightcycle battle unfold on screen in “TRON: Legacy.” We showed him models and projections, and even had a Lightcycle in the studio so Joe could understand the entire User experience. We have tremendous guests, so we always strive to elevate the experiences we create for them.
Joe: The music is such an important part of the experience that if we, the music team and the composer, understand the storytelling goals and the real-world physical experience, we can create music that is perfectly in sync. As we walked the attraction space, I remember John saying, “We need to turn up the drums to get some energy [in a particular spot]. The drums are not resonating as well as they were in the mix.” We then tweaked the mix on-site! It was truly a new experience for a composer I never thought I’d have but one I will always remember.
John: With collaborators like Joe as well as the entire audio, music and creative teams supporting this project, we delivered this amazing attraction. I love Walt Disney Imagineering for that fact – it is a team effort.
You can hear the two new tracks from TRON Lightcycle / Run that John and Joe are talking about on Spotify and other music streaming services now!