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June 4, 2014
Scoring the Cosmos
Alan Silvestri's music soars through time and space by Jon Burlingame


LOS ANGELES—Seth MacFarlane is a great fan of the orchestra. He loves to sing with a big band, he hires a full orchestra every week on his animated series Family Guy, and his new movie A Million Ways to Die in the West has a symphonic score reminiscent of the halcyon days of The Big Country and The Magnificent Seven.

So when MacFarlane started thinking about music for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the Fox science documentary series that concludes its 13-episode run this Sunday, he instinctively knew this would need the full power of the orchestra to support the stunning imagery and thought-provoking scripts.

Unfortunately, the show was debuting in March 2014 and it was already mid-December 2013. Compounding the scheduling dilemma: because of an international distribution deal already in place, the first four episodes needed to be completely finished by the third week of January.

That's not a lot of time to compose, orchestrate and record two hours and 40 minutes of music, which was what the first four Cosmos episodes would require.

Seth MacFarlane and Alan Silvestri

Seth MacFarlane and Alan Silvestri

Luckily, Alan Silvestri was up to the challenge. Over the next three months, he would write nearly four hours of original music, "by far," he says, the most he has ever composed for a single project.

Silvestri, the Oscar-nominated composer of such films as Forrest Gump, Back to the Future and The Avengers, has been friends with MacFarlane for years but they had never worked together. (MacFarlane is a huge Back to the Future fan; he even has a replica DeLorean like the one in the movie.)

SIlvestri met with MacFarlane and fellow executive producer Ann Druyan, widow of famed scientist Carl Sagan whose original 1980 series, Cosmos: A Personal Odyssey, had been a landmark in television documentaries, winning three Emmys and a Peabody Award.

Silvestri knew Druyan from a previous Sagan project, the feature film Contact (1997) which she had co-written with Sagan and which the composer had scored for his old friend and frequent collaborator, director Robert Zemeckis. "We met during the scoring," Silvestri recalls, "and at some of the after-events, and she was always fantastic."

On Cosmos, however, Silvestri wrote three main-title themes before Druyan was satisfied. "My original approach was to accentuate the adventure, the wonder of it," Silvestri says. "Although she wanted some of those elements, Annie wanted to leave people with more questions than answers... not just whisking and flying them through it. It was an interesting angle." The final version, the one that opens every episode, is "pretty but introspective," he adds.

Beyond the theme, decisions regarding the rest of the music were left up to Silvestri. MacFarlane, Druyan and the other producers relied on the veteran composer's dramatic instincts and 45 years of film and TV experience to find the right sounds. Much of it was the result of listening closely to host-narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson. "I followed 'Uncle Neil's' story," Silvestri quips. "That, for me, was the way in. He has wonder in his voice; he speaks softly when it's something mysterious, and he raises his voice when it's expansive."

The Cosmos music is a blend of the orchestral and electronic. Silvestri has always stayed abreast of the latest technological developments in music-making, and so programmed his own synthesizer lines and colors. "There were a number of cues where the orchestral element was just sweetening what he'd already done," says Mark Graham, who orchestrated and conducted Silvestri's score.

With Silvestri writing every day for weeks at his studio in Carmel, Calif., Graham flew to England to oversee the actual recording of the music at London's fabled Abbey Road studios. Graham conducted orchestras of 47 to 53 players; he recorded the first episode score, 38 minutes of music, in just two three-hour sessions. A side trip to Berlin was required to record the main-title music (for financial reasons, apparently, it was too expensive to record the series theme in London), and then it was back to London to record Episode 2.

Graham was in England for a month, recording with engineer Simon Rhodes, and sending the music back to mixer Dennis Sands in the States. Silvestri's longtime assistant Dave Bifano coordinated all of this, and hooked Silvestri in via the internet to consult with all of them on a regular basis. "It was a team effort," Graham recalls. Veteran London conductor Gavin Greenaway conducted two more recording sessions after Graham returned to the U.S.

The key to being able to score all 13 episodes, Silvestri asserts, was the concept of building "a cutting library." Music editor Jeff Carson kept track of every piece that Silvestri wrote and recorded, and then as Silvestri was "spotting" the music for each new episode (deciding where music should go and how long each cue should last), Carson would determine if a piece that Silvestri had already written might work, thus saving time if no new music was needed at that particular spot in the show.

"Jeff and I would coordinate," Silvestri explains. "It would be like a grid: we had something great for this scene, but nothing for the next scene." By the end of episode 4, two full hours of music had been recorded. As Silvestri notes, "there were cues in every episode that weren't covered by anything we already had, so I continued to write all the way until the last episode. There was nothing for the final 15 minutes of the last episode – it was all emotional."

More than 168 minutes of Silvestri's Cosmos music – music of wonder, awe, danger, humor, grandeur and beauty befitting a series that spans all of time and the entire known universe – has already been released in four volumes on iTunes.

MacFarlane called Silvestri to thank him after the final playback of each episode. "He would say the most lovely things," Silvestri says. "He's appreciative but so smart, too. He does his work and then lets you do yours. I was given this incredible level of support: It was like I was a marathon runner and, at every turn, they weren't telling me to run faster, they were telling me, 'You're doing great, don't stop!' They were cheering me on until the last moment."

Silvestri is beginning to wonder if – despite having scored some of the most popular films of all time – he will ultimately be known as the composer of Cosmos. "This was a magnificent thing to be a part of," he says. "This will be in all kinds of educational institutions around the world, museums and planetariums; Neil and Annie and Seth speaking and promoting science... it's going to be a fantastic tool."

©2014 Jon Burlingame
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