September 01, 2008

Best in Shows

By Charlyn Bernal, Shawn LeMone and Mike Todd

Several new cable series are all the rage. Here are some of the composers who are creating the scores.

If you're a television fan, you most likely have been watching one or more of the new, engaging series on basic cable. Following the lead of HBO and Showtime, with their groundbreaking shows like The Sopranos and Weeds, basic cable stations are joining the recent renaissance of television programming. Fans and critics are acknowledging their efforts with record ratings and Emmy Awards. This year, Mad Men and Damages are the first basic cable series to challenge HBO and the networks in the drama arena. In addition to the accolades, basic cable shows are attracting record number of viewers with shows like Burn Notice, Deadliest Catch, Army Wives and Psych. ASCAP's Film & TV Department recently reached out to the composers who are creating the music for these popular new programs. Here is what they had to say about their experiences.

Mad Men( AMC)

composed by David Carbonara

This Golden Globe-winning and Emmy-nominated provocative show follows the lives of the men and women in a 1960's advertising firm.

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David Carbonara (Mad Men)

What would you say defines your experience composing music for Mad Men?
David Carbonara: We don't use a lot of music. Many shows, especially network shows, are overscored. On Mad Men we don't score a scene unless we feel that music is going to enhance it. This is not something that's original. If you look at a lot of the great films from the 60's and 70's, like Steve McQueen's Bullitt, the scores are very sparse. This may have been a reaction to the earlier era of film scoring where they scored every scene. In an episode of Mad Men that we just spotted this week, we ended up not scoring anything. The only music is the theme, some licensed music in a bar scene and a well-placed classic song over the end credits.
Also, when a scene does demand music, I tend to wait until after "the moment." I want the emotional impact of whatever is happening on screen to already have hit the audience before the music informs them how to feel. I like to let the picture lead. Other guys hit the moment. I think audiences have come to expect music in film and television as a reassuring thing to let them know that what they are feeling is correct. It can be quite unnerving to take that away and I think it lends to the tension of Mad Men.

Deadliest Catch(Discovery)

composed by Paul Hepker

This Emmy Award-winning reality series documents the adventures of Alaskan crab fishermen.

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Paul Hepker (Deadliest Catch)

Paul Hepker: "After creating musical IDs for the different boats, crews and a voice for the Bering Sea, I had to find a formula that worked for the underscore: music that is present enough to still drive the action under the FX-heavy mix but that would also stay out of the way of the non-stop narration. Thom Beers, Original's CEO, is fond of an epic cinematic rock sound driven by thunderous ethnic drums and punctuated by rock guitar. I'll often include live elements to each track that add an organic energy and tangible live-ness to what is otherwise a very digital and impersonal sound. There are places in the show that call for a strong and identifiable theme, but in general, the music acts as a kind of backdrop for the action. It needs to be versatile and unimposing - not a particularly glamorous directive, but still challenging in its specificity. After four seasons and more than 50 episodes and 12 Emmy nominations, I've created a huge library of music for editors to draw from. My cues often find their way into Original's other shows, such as Axemen, Verminators and Ice Road Truckers. Other credits include Frontline Firefighters, Crash Files, Impact and the feature films Tsotsi and Rendition (both with Mark Kilian). I'm currently working on another show for Discovery about the Iditarod and a sixpart series for NBC called Shark Lab.

Burn Notice(USA)

composed by John Dickson

An Emmy-nominated thriller/comedy about a spy unceremoniously "burned" by the US government who uses his training to help others in need.

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John Dickson (Burn Notice)

John Dickson: "It's an exciting challenge to create a score that plays the on going saga of Michael [agent Westen] and his cohorts while also incorporating a wide variety of additional styles and textures to support the ever-changing plot and guest characters each week. All this while helping to balance the tone between humor and spy action-thriller. Every week is different. I've always loved working with Matt Nix. We go way back with a ton of very funny short films, and the Burn Notice team is terrific."
Dickson is currently working on Miss Nobody, an indie feature for director Tim Cox and Judgement Day and Wolvesbayne for Sci-Fi channel.

Psych (USA)

composed by Adam Cohen and John Robert Wood

A comedy about an observant young man who helps the police solve difficult cases by pretending to be psychic.

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Pictured (l-r) are Adam Cohen and John Robert Wood

Adam Cohen: Working on Psych is a happy creative "nightmare." While continuously moving back and forth between comedy and dramatic mystery, every episode also has a different theme. In the past few weeks we have moved from a John Hughes homage to a pirate treasure episode, into a 70's disco episode then onto a bank heist and next week brings the Friday the 13th slasher episode. Much to their credit, the producers leave us alone to do our work and the job has been a fun and creative experience."

Army Wives (Lifetime)

composed by Marc Fantini, Steffan Fantini and Scott Gordon

A moving drama about the wives of soldiers living on an army base.


Pictured (l-r) are Steffan Fantini, Marc Fantini and Scott Gordon

Tell us a little about your experiences working on Army Wives?
Steffan: From the first episode they told us they were looking for a real organic score. They wanted us to use real instruments as much as possible. Army Wives requires a real diversity of genres. From roots music to Arabic music to full orchestral cues. As the show progressed, they realized that we needed to broaden the palette and use samples for those scenes that required a lush, orchestral score, but we have retained our focus on using real instruments such as guitars and percussion as much as possible.

Marc: I think that's why the show has such a unique signature sound. We do a ton of experimentation with live instruments so we can avoid string samples and drum loops. Everyone uses the same samples these days, which is why so many television shows sound alike. It's a real challenge but a lot of fun. I think our past experience being in a band signed by RCA and working on a bunch of different records with other artists helps us, as we are players. On some scenes we will all strap on an instrument and essentially jam out the cue.

Scott: I am just thrilled that I get to play harmonica on a television show (laughs). I sometimes run it through so many effects that no one could tell it's a harmonica, but the indelible feeling of human breath is still there. In every scene, we try to retain that organic, intimate feel that you can get using live instruments. I think that's what gives the show the "every man" type of feel that the producers wanted.

What other projects are you working on that you can tell us about?
Marc: We are still working on our network show Criminal Minds, which requires a completely different, huge-sounding score every episode. So the variation between the two shows keeps things fresh.

Scott: We're currently considering several film and television opportunities, which we hope to announce shortly. Whether we are scoring a film or a television show, we try to approach each cue as though it's the most important cue we have ever scored.

Steffan: We have been fortunate enough to work with Mark Gordon on two successful and challenging shows. We look forward to doing more with him in the future. We also continue to run our recording studio, Sage and Sound Recording that puts out major records. Recent clients include The Pretenders, Willie Nelson, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss and Marilyn Manson to name a few. All in all, we are three busy guys just getting busier.