Most people see fish when they’re underwater. Douglas Morton saw music.
He’d made a habit out of scuba diving near his home in Santa Cruz, California, but on one particular dive, the ocean swirled around him and transformed into a symphony.
“I noticed the different elements under the surface of the ocean were all very musical, and I realized that I could assign different things that I was seeing as I was diving to musical instruments and melodies,” he said. “I saw a school of fish as a section of flutes. The current became a rhythm. The pinnacles of the mountains coming up from the bottom were like bass tones.”
Soon after, Morton, a pioneer in sound design who now resides in Park City, began to draw musical inspiration from the sea. Since that dive more than 20 years ago, the composer has created ocean-inspired music for Monterey Bay Aquarium in California and the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium in Draper. Morton will be performing and creating new compositions in front of the shark exhibit at the Living Planet Aquarium on Saturday, June 17.
Morton draws a connection between music and the underwater world by observing animal movements. One of his earliest compositions that was featured in an exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium, titled “Jellies: Living Art,” involved timing the pulses of jellies moving through the water — a rhythm that later set the tempo for his music.
“Jellies are just beautiful to look at,” he said. “It’s like watching ballet. They’re really fun to compose to. It’s very similar to scoring dancers or scoring a movie,” he said. “The fish are the characters in the movie I’m scoring.”
And while his music generally produces a calm, atmospheric tone, certain creatures tend to bring out some wilder melodies.
“A lot of aquariums, you’ll see a variety of fish and we jokingly call some of them the ‘talent fish’ because they’re more fun to look at,” he said. “People love sharks just because there’s such a mysticism behind them — they’re instantly recognizable and they always look a little predatory.”
Morton added that penguins are often more active and energetic, an observation that led to his enthusiastic piece “Penguin Boogie.”
And as much as he enjoys composing aquarium music, Morton said his songs work best when they go unnoticed.
“It can’t be too overstated,” he said. "If you’re paying attention to the music, then we haven’t really done our job well. The music is supposed to support the visuals, and we’re trying to create an immersive experience where you’re in another world for a little while. And this world is filled with color, current, plants and fish. My goal always is to reinforce that immersion. It’s challenging, but it’s really fun.”
Morton hopes he can bring the ocean even more to life for those exploring the aquarium in Draper on June 17. Throughout the day he will be performing and composing on his keyboards and bringing in some guest musicians for collaboration. And while he hopes to come away with some new music for the aquarium, above all he hopes his performance is interactive and engaging.
Morton’s performance on June 17 is one of three events he has scheduled at the aquarium this summer. The other performances will take place on July 15 and Aug. 12.
“This is for the guests (and) for the kids,” he said. “There’s people who have never experienced any ocean life, and children who have never been to the beach. (The aquarium) is a wonderful offering to the community of Salt Lake to bring the ocean to people, and it’s been really incredible to be a part of.”
If you go...
What: Douglas Morton
When: Saturday, June 17, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, July 15; Saturday, Aug. 12
Where: Loveland Living Aquarium, 12033 Lone Peak Parkway, Draper
How much: Adults, $19.95; teens, military, students and seniors, $16.95; children, $14.95; free for children 2 and under
Email: [email protected]