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August 15, 2016
Emmy-Nominated Series Composers Speak
Six top composers talk about their approaches to TV drama by Jon Burlingame

HOLLYWOOD—Writing the music for a weekly television series is among the hardest jobs in the business. A composer must confer with producers, compose anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes of music per episode, and often deliver a finished product within a matter of days to make locked airdates on time.

This year's Emmy nominees in the Outstanding Music Composition for a Series category demonstrate a wide range of styles and approaches. Five of the six have been nominated for Emmys in the past.

Chris Bacon

Chris Bacon

Chris Bacon, nominated for the "Forever" episode of A&E's Bates Motel, was previously nominated for an episode of NBC's Broadway drama Smash. In the penultimate episode of the Psycho prequel's fourth season, what Bacon refers to as "a really dysfunctional but crazy, loving relationship between mother and son" reaches an endpoint. "We had to try and make it something personal and emotional, that felt like it could be real. They really are meant for each other. That's the heartbreak of the story."

The episode's climax is an attempted murder-suicide. "In his mind, this is the only thing that makes sense for these two broken people to be together," Bacon explains. The score is mostly strings, piano, harp, some percussion and electronic elements. "Norman doesn't really have a theme," he explains, "because so much of what he is, is tied into his mother. They have a theme, but it gets twisted." Bacon has been recording a string orchestra of 18 to 20 players every week for Bates Motel.

Duncan Thum

Duncan Thum

Duncan Thum's music for the "Grant Achatz" episode of Chef's Table is the only documentary score to be nominated this year. It's also his second nomination for the Netflix series about world-renowned chefs.

Achatz is a wildly innovative, award-winning Chicago chef whose personal story was especially compelling (being diagnosed with cancer of the mouth, the subsequent treatment leading to a loss of his sense of taste). Thum's original suggestion, that they consider miminalist composer Arvo Part's music as a possible role model, did not work; that music was "adding this intensity and gravity to everything that was going on in the story," Thum said, so the idea was discarded.

Paul Leonard-Morgan

Paul Leonard-Morgan

Ultimately, Thum decided, music needed to suggest "the element of surprise and theater. The thrust of the composition is to experience the sensuality of the food through the emotions of the music." It was "very much a string score," he added, "a classical foundation with a modern take on the old tradition, using age-old instruments but not in the most conventional ways."

Limitless, the CBS spinoff from the 2011 movie thriller, is an instance in which the original film composer, Paul Leonard-Morgan, came back to do the series as well. "The most challenging part was trying to come up with something that was significantly different than the film," Leonard-Morgan said. The producers wanted "to establish a brand new style."

The music needed "to have touches of darkness, touches of super-powers, but it's not really super-hero. It's much more grounded. It's coming up with little hooks – as soon as he's popping that pill [which gave the lead superhuman intellectual abilities], the music is really guiding you to it. But it's got to be a super-fast motif rather than 16-bar thematic material because you haven't got that much time."

Sean Callery

Sean Callery

Leonard-Morgan enjoyed writing a song for Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) and his indie band that recurred throughout the series. "You never get the chance to do that, this whole crossover, schizophrenic score," he says. This is the composer's first Emmy nomination.

Like Limitless, Fox's futuristic Minority Report was a movie spinoff that lasted just a single season. But the movie Minority Report was scored by John Williams, while the series went to TV veteran and three-time Emmy winner Sean Callery (24, Homeland, Elementary). The producers "wanted to acknowledge the world that was created, but also take the story forward with the pre-cogs [people with the ability to predict crimes] rather than the cop," the subject of the original film, Callery said.

Luckily, none of the Williams score was used as a model for what Callery needed to do in his pilot. "It had to be a very broad orchestral score," he said, "bigger than 24 in terms of theme, in terms of story. The challenge was to create something original that honored the film but didn't mimic it. It was some of the hardest work I've ever done, that spoke lyrically and served the grander canvas."

Mac Quayle

Mac Quayle

One of the most-talked about new shows, USA's Mr. Robot, was nominated for its music for episode 1, which aired in June 2015. It's an all-electronic score by Mac Quayle, for whom this is also a second nomination. "That was the original idea discussed with the creator, Sam Esmail, that it would be an electronic score. It sounds obvious but it just seemed to work," Quayle said.

"The music, for the most part, is about being inside Elliot's head. In a lot of it he's paranoid, stressed, tense, afraid. So I'm writing a lot of music describing those feelings." And while many careful listeners are praising Quayle's use of analog synthesizers dating back to the '70s and '80s, in fact "they're just really good digital imitations of them," Quayle added.

Abel Korzeniowski

Abel Korzeniowski

Abel Korzeniowski received his second nomination for Penny Dreadful, in this case the final episode of the second season. Just three weeks before this year's Emmy nominations were announced, Showtime surprised fans and viewers by confirming that the third season, which concluded on June 19, would be its last. "I'm grateful for three years," Korzeniowski said. "It was a huge artistic adventure."

He entered "And They Were Enemies," the 10th and final episode of season 2, because "it had everything," he said. "It had new themes for that particular episode, and a recapping of all the themes from the rest of the season, including one of my favorites, 'Melting Waltz,' for Dorian and Angelique earlier in the season. It was recalled as a recording for gramophone, for Lily and Dorian dancing."

Kozeniowski (who generally recorded a 35-piece orchestra for every episode) describes his Penny Dreadful music as one of "dark beauty. It's an exploration of different shades of what we consider beautiful and charming and alluring. It's the sweetness of the poison."

©2016 Jon Burlingame
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