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SDCC 2013: Composers Discuss the Music Behind Your Favorite TV Shows

SDCC 2013: Composers Discuss the Music Behind Your Favorite TV Shows

Promo poster for CW3PR panel at SDCC 2013

ComicCon offers all kinds of experiences for attendees. You can stay completely in the world of film or immerse yourself in comics or even spend the weekend exploring tutorials and self-help panels. This year, due to a number of factors and in a pleasant surprise, my Con ended up being very music-heavy. I had the opportunity to talk with several film and television composers about their work, their process, and what being a composer in this industry means.

Versatility is essential for a career in film and television composition, given the range of projects out there. One composer I spoke with, iZLER, is currently working on Revenge and Shameless. Another, Chris Tilton, recently finished composing the music for the revamp of The Sims (mostly orchestral) and is currently at work on the new fall series Almost Human (mostly electronic). Not only do composers need the flexibility to seamlessly transition from drama to comedy as needed in each episode of a given show, they may work in completely different sound worlds for several projects at once. Each show has its own approach and composers need to be able to convey that. Robert Duncan described one such contrast- on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, his scoring played very much the straight man to the show’s comedy. A scene would lead to a joke with the music underneath, the music would drop out, the joke would land in silence, and then be allowed to breathe before the music came back. On Castle, Duncan’s score punctuates the comedy, coming back in with a sting after the joke has landed. Though they may go completely unnoticed by 95% of the audience, details like this are what help give shows their particular identity, making Buffy feel like Buffy and Castle like Castle.

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One of the interesting challenges on a show like Castle is keeping the music very grounded in the procedural, the familiar, while also exploring the various genres the show takes on week to week. As Duncan put it, the music, “may have the same language, but a different dialect.” One way to play with dialects is instrumentation. On Castle, Duncan has particular instruments he returns to or saves for particular moments- the mandolin for Castle, the piano for Beckett, the duduk for Beckett’s mother’s murder, and the bassoon for Castle’s father. The duduk, for those unfamiliar, is a double-reeded woodwind instrument (like the oboe or bassoon) from Armenia. When asked why he chose this specific double reed, Duncan remarked, “[In] music scores, like fashion, certain things become fashionable. The duduk is a great instrument; it’s so expressive. It’s the closest to the human voice I’ve heard a solo instrument come. It can really sob, really cry, and it can sometimes be a bit of a secret weapon when you really want to hone in on sadness and lamenting.” The instrument can only play a somewhat limited span of notes, but it falls directly within the comfortable range of the human voice. It can be very soft and warm or insistently shrill. Perhaps its single most affecting element, though, is the shockingly vocal vibrato great players can bring out of the instrument (see the video above: Shepherd’s Song as performed by Djivan Gasparyan).

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iZLER mentioned his affinity for using the guitarviol (a bowed electric guitar, see above) in his Revenge scores and Kevin Kiner spoke of his use of very specific instrumentation when composing for Hell on Wheels, “I use oud, I use tambur from Turkey, I use sitars… The cool thing about them is they have kind of a twang to them, so it works for a Western.” Kiner also uses solo mandolin on the show for the character Durant (perhaps mandolin is another of the instruments that are in right now?), along with a lot of negative space. He also spoke about his experience composing for Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which satisfied a jones for orchestral scoring recently with its final Ahsoka arc, “I really had an itch to get back to Prague… I called up Dave Filoni, ‘Dude, I gotta get in front of an orchestra’… It was really serendipitous it ended up being the last episode.” Kiner himself played the bass recorder for what ended up being the final end credits of the series, supported by what he calls a “feather bed” of lush, orchestral sound. It’s a surprising, but fitting, end to a series so intrinsically tied to bombastic and memorable fanfares.

Most of the composers spoke of the quick turnaround required for their work. They receive near final cuts of the episodes they’re to score, piece together their ideas in various ways (for Clone Wars, Kiner would sit at the piano and sketch out chord progressions. For Hell on Wheels, he jams on the guitar), send their draft off for approval, get notes, and then put the music together for their musicians as quickly as possible. With ratings for television dwindling across the board, the budget for television scoring often requires composers to creatively score for a handful of solo instruments, but occasionally, as with Kiner’s Clone Wars experience, they can work with a larger ensemble. On Revenge, iZLER started out with an eight-piece “quintet on steroids” (the usual string quintet breakdown with a few more celli thrown in to deepen the low end. The dramatic highpoints of the early parts of season one would expand to a 22-30 piece ensemble, but for the most part, the “50% old-fashioned, 50% bizarre” score was necessarily restrained in its counterpoint and harmony. Now, he’s able to work with 30-piece ensembles on a regular basis and for the big moments, expand the group to around 50 players, and this naturally allows far more complex and lush scores.

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Melodramas like Revenge lend themselves to larger ensembles and more present scoring, as do action-adventure stories or epics. Geoff Zanelli, one of the composers for The Lone Ranger, discussed the lengthy process of creating a musically-driven setpiece, like his arrangement of Rossini’s William Tell Overture for the climax of The Lone Ranger. In about 100 days over the course of a year and a half, Zanelli wrangled with the iconic piece, working with an animatic of the scene (a rarity) to sync up every element of the action, down to the sound effects for the train. The synchronizing of action to music, or vice versa, provides energy and vitality to a scene, even when it goes unnoticed by the audience (as it often does). As Duncan noted, “Music rarely wins over sound effects”, so if a particularly stylized approach is desired and the effects can be incorporated into the music as yet another of the composer’s instruments, it allows the two to come together and share the aural spotlight, creating a heightened and memorable experience.

When it comes down to it, however, the role of the music is not necessarily to be beautiful or affecting or even memorable, but to assist the rest of the action; as Duncan put it, “communicating to the audience what their expectations might be for the upcoming episode” and helping the director(s) achieve their vision for each installment. While great music can save a scene that may not quite work, and bad music can certainly do the opposite, in the end, television is a collaborative medium. As Kiner explained, “It’s really, really difficult to write super great music when there’s bad writing, bad acting, and bad drama, because my job is to support the drama and if the dramas’ not there, what am I doing?”. In the end, he says “I always tell people that if you think I’ve done good music, I appreciate the compliment, but the reason I’ve done good music is because I’ve worked on a good show.”

Kate Kulzick