Celestial Seasonings

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Tribal beats thump to scenes of randy young men itching to put their arms around their Fanta-sipping dates in movie theaters around the globe. Nostalgic organ pipes of a fairground carousel shift to a speedy techno groove, juxtaposing the classic comfort and powerful delivery of the new Pontiac Bonneville 2000.

These commercials pulsate to life with the sound design of music house Sacred Noise. "Television is an acoustic medium, much more than a visual medium," says Michael Montes, who, with executive producer Jeff Rosner founded the company in 1995 in New York's Flatiron District.

The two first met 10 years ago while working at the larger music house JSM (see "Oh, Brother!" at left). Says Rosner, "Working for a large company can get very factory-like. We wanted to be much more specific in dealing with our clients and their projects, just be more focused and work more on the pure handicraft." Now, the 45-year-old Rosner and 41-year-old Montes run what they call a free-flowing artistic space for "eight noises," including five resident composers who range in age from 23 to 34.

A key component of the Sacred Noise sound is the integrated combination of music and sound design, says Montes, a keyboardist and electronics expert who started his commercials career at Elias Associates in the early '80s. Montes culled his vast library of samples from as far away as the Serengeti to as nearby as the cutout bins of the Wiz. His collection of tens of thousands of sounds ranges from desperate animal cries to industrial worksite clamor to, um, bodily functions. "To me it's all music," says Montes. "For me the sound of a hurricane is just as valid a musical gesture as the sound of a violin." Or the noises emanating from bathrooms, apparently. The emotional impact of all this "music" is apparent in Sacred Noise spots for the Bronx Zoo, Jeep, MTV-X and MGD, where sampled sounds contribute even more to the mood than a catchy melody.

The pairing of Montes and Rosner strikes a compelling and lucrative balance of business savvy and artistry, and even the loft space that houses the company reflects the yin and yang of the two founders. The bright afternoon sun floods through gauzy white curtains giving a warm glow to Rosner's domain, a cozy reception and office area that seems lifted off the pages of a Pottery Barn catalog, with its caramel leather couches, houseplants and mounds of wicker baskets piled atop the kitchen cupboard. Just around the bend is Montes' world, where two dark recording studios flank a middle live room painted siren red. "It's kind of anarchistic," says Montes.

Rosner, the executive producer, is the stabilizing arm of the duo. He is grounded by a cautious business sense and is responsible for keeping the clients and composers in sync. Montes, dressed in all black save for a bright orange bracelet, refers to himself as an "elder goth." He is the flamboyant and outspoken artist.

The two agree on the basics, including the importance of a strong and clear concept. "We're always energized by a simple idea," says Rosner. "The greatest ideas are the simplest ones." Work becomes work, he says, when a client comes in with the hopes that flashy or good music will salvage a weak concept. "[Then] instead of supporting the concept, we're being asked to make the concept better."

Rosner and Montes tomato and tomahto back and forth, however, on various other matters. Montes has little respect for the "needle-dropping" inclinations of some agencies to use prerecorded music in their ads. "There are plenty of advertisers involved with recycling old pop hits and using them for their commercials," he says. "I consider that to be creatively pure laziness and the epitome of bad advertising. It's like putting a celebrity in your ad. Why do something creative when you're not interested in being original?"

But Rosner is not so quick to bash such use of music, and sees possibilities behind any good tune as long as it works well with the concept. Citing the Post Office's use of "Fly Like an Eagle," he asserts that "there are some campaigns that have used original songs that do work. If it's done well, it can be effective."

Ninety percent of Sacred Noise's work goes into scoring and sound designing commercials, but the company's work with other projects in film and recording continues to increase. Sacred Noise created the sound design for indie flick Pants on Fire and the 1998 Sundance film I Remember. It also scored the music for the movie Whipped, set for release this spring.

But the company doesn't run from music that is -- so far at least -- decidedly uncommercial. Rosner and Montes actively encourage their composers to pursue their extracurricular work. Montes plans to release a third album with his own performance art band Zoar. Ravi Krishnaswami, the youngest Noisemaker, who specializes in techno sounds, performs with Charming, an ethereal pop band he formed in college. Says Montes, "I've learned from the years that when people go away from advertising and work on their own projects, it often allows for a very strong period of personal growth. You come back to the advertising world that much stronger."

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