If your knowledge of Nickelodeon cartoons ends at Rugrats or SpongeBob, you're denying yourself the pleasure of experiencing the best action filmmaking currently on television. Last year, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko unleashed The Legend of Korra, a sequel series to their hit show Avatar: The Last Airbender. Both shows are set in a world where half the population can manipulate the elements (fire, air, water, earth), with a single person, the Avatar, capable of "bending" the full spectrum.
The Last Airbender melded Eastern influences with Tolkien lore, and with Korra, DiMartino and Konietzko jumped ahead 70 years to see what it would all look like amidst an industrial revolution. Following the new Avatar, a 17-year-old named Korra, the first season explores themes of class discrimination and totalitarianism through detailed art, fluid camerawork, and genuine-sounding dialogue. With most big-screen animation focused on the lives of anthropomorphic animals, Korra reminds that the medium can also boast emotional storytelling. And ambitious music, like the two tracks from the upcoming show soundtrack that Vulture is premiering exclusively.
On July 16, the network will release The Legend of Korra: Original Music From Book One, a soundtrack of selected tracks from composer Jeremy Zuckerman's score. Like most of Korra's technical aspects, Zuckerman's work is unlike anything else you’ll find on TV. It utilizes instruments from around the world, including the dizi, a Chinese flute, paigu drums, the guqin, a seven-string zither, and the matouqin, a Mongolian stringed instrument. In this exclusive clip from "Firebending Training," a track on the album, you can hear the raw quality Zuckerman's ensemble brings to Korra — a juxtaposition of imperfection alongside some very precise animation.
"Early on, I made a choice to make the music intimate and human," Zuckerman says of his approach to scoring Korra. "I wanted to hear the individual performances of the live instruments. I wanted it to be sparse at times, have cues that are one or two instruments." The composer describes the process of making music for the show as "unrealistic." The soundtrack to Korra could easily be another mishmash of electronic samples, a one-man operation banged out on keyboard and ready for Saturday morning. But Zuckerman wants the music to reflect DiMartino and Konietzko's complex treatment of the character.
"[I'm] looking at the imagery, looking at the pacing of the fight, looking at the dialogue. Is it full on aggressive or is there a bit of sadness? What kind of stuff is under the surface of the action? There's always something. I try and bring out the lower layers," he says of the action scene that accompanies "Firebending Training."
Zuckerman couldn't reveal too much about season 2, which has yet to be given a premiere date. Teased at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con, season 2 takes Korra outside the city environments and into a spirit-filled world that evokes the films of Hayao Miyazaki. "The scale is larger. The epic is bigger and the intimacy is more intimate," Zuckerman says. "The temple stuff, the middle of the season, is really ambitious. So much music and sound design. It starts out on 10 and you have to figure out how to raise the ceiling." Zuckerman does give us one straight fact about the sonic evolution fans can expect from the show: more matouqin.
Here's a second exclusive clip from the album, a taste of the first season's conclusion entitled, "Greatest Change."
The Legend of Korra: Original Music From Book Onearrives July 16. Zuckerman will also be holding court at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con for an exclusive signing. Saturday, July 20th at 3:00pm at the Nick Booth.