This story about “The Voice of Dust and Ash” composer J. Ralph first appeared in “The Race Begins” issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
For more than 20 years, J. Ralph has been making music as a wide-ranging composer, producer and recording artist, but he’s also carved out a specific identity in film: He’s a documentary composer and songwriter. He’s written scores and songs for a string of nonfiction films ranging from the Oscar-winning “Man on Wire” and “The Cove” through “Hell and Back Again,” “Finding Vivian Maier,” “Virunga” and three for which he’s been Oscar nominated for his songs: “Chasing Ice” in 2012, “Racing Extinction” in 2015 and “Jim: The James Foley Story” in 2016. He was the first songwriter ever nominated twice for documentaries, and his three nominations edge out the two for Diane Warren, the only other songwriter with multiple doc noms.
“Documentaries are where I’ve focused almost my entire career, whether it’s about climate or animal rights or journalism or autism or war,” he said. “I’m always continuing to meditate on these powerful questions we have as a society and continuing to help amplify people whoare taking risks.”
This year, he’s written the song “Dust & Ash” from the film “The Voice of Dust and Ash”, which at first may feel as if it’s a change of pace for Ralph: It’s a documentary about Iranian recording artist Mohammad Reza Shajarian, a powerful singer of Persian classical music who died in 2020 at the age of 80. But in Iran, music can make a strong political statement, and Shajarian was banned from performing in public when he criticized the government in 2009. He became not just a majestic singer, but a strong voice for justice and human rights.
When he was approached about working on the film by producer Fuscia Sumner (daughter of Sting, with whom Ralph has collaborated in the past), Ralph had never heard of Shajarian. “It’s crazy to think of somebody who is that profound of an artist, and you have no idea about them,” he said.
“He’s a monumental artist in his own right, and it was inspiring to, to be exposed to his mastery of voice poetry. And also, I just was blown away by his humility and tireless efforts to help his community in the world, to be able to express their freedoms.”
The title “Dust & Ash” comes from a quote by Shajarian, who responded to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling anti-government protesters “dust and ash” by saying, “Then I am the voice of dust and ash.” “Writing this song was about celebrating the empowerment that he stood for,” Ralph said. “I was just trying to find something that distilled his story, and it wasn’t until very late that we unlocked how interesting it could be if we took the put-down, which he inverted as an empowering statement: ‘I am the dust, I am the ash.’”
In the film, Shajarian describes himself as one of the ancient voices of Iran, a phrase that clicks with Ralph. “I’ve always been been enamored with ancient voices and foreign voices where you could take away all of the power and majesty from the singer without even understanding the lyrics,” he said. He started working on the song when Shajarian was still alive and dreamed of doing some kind of collaboration, but the singer passed away before that could happen.
Still, he found a family connection with Shajarian: After Ralph and Norah Jones perform most of the song, the singer’s daughter, Mojgan Shajarian, delivers the song’s powerful outro. “Originally she was going to play an instrument on the song, which I thought was super-cool,” he said. “And then I said, ‘Could you try singing? Can I hear what that would sound like?’
“And as soon as she opened up and sang, I was like, ‘Close up the instruments, this is what is it. This is from another world.’ It was almost like she was channeling her dad, but doing it in her own voice.” Her presence as a vocalist also made a strong statement because under Iran’s current regime, women are forbidden from singing solo.
“We wanted to celebrate her incredible voice,” Ralph said, “but also meditate on bravery and equality, ultimately handing the song off to his daughter to punctuate the entire piece with the strong female solo that is forbidden in Iran.”
The song’s placement in the film changed over time: It was originally going to be at the beginning of the film and then over the end credits, before it ultimately evolved into what Ralph calls “a beautiful coda,” an animated sequence in which the lyrics are presented on screen. “The lyrics have this vibrational energy,” he said. “Words have power and words are alive, you know?”