May 27, 2014

The Horror & the Glee: James Levine's Music for TV

James S. Levine

James Levine

Few composers in television are as versatile as James Levine. As the go-to composer for writer-director Ryan Murphy, Levine deftly scores the adventures of high school a cappella singers and devious witches alike on Glee and American Horror Story; he’s also the music maven behind the police procedurals Rizzoli & Isles and Major Crimes, both returning to TNT in June. Levine was recently nominated for the inaugural ASCAP Composers’ Choice Awards. Before you cast your vote, get a glimpse into the working life of one of TV’s most prolific composers.

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Congrats on your Composers’ Choice nomination! How does it feel to be nominated by the people who do what you do?

It’s really amazing, you know? It’s humbling, flattering, reaffirming. We live in this world where we really isolate ourselves into these stories that we’re writing music for, so it’s hard to really gauge where the music is living in people’s heads. But I think [the nomination] just tells you you’re doing something right.

It’s an interesting point you raise. Because of the nature of TV music, it’s always paired to picture and there aren’t that many opportunities to hear it outside of that. Do you have any sense of your fan base, independent of the fan bases of the shows you score?

The short answer is, I really don’t. I’ve always just wanted to write great music and work with great people and serve the picture that I’m working on and immerse myself in the story. So finding a fan base is less important than writing music that moves me. And I guess my subtle hope is that by doing that, it will touch people and move people, and they will connect either directly with the music or with the music by virtue of being connected with the stories that we’re working on. 

You score so many different shows, each one with a different set of collaborators. What goes into the long-range planning for a series or a season or a story arc? It’s more than just episode by episode that you’re scoring.

Typically, going into a second, third, fourth, or God-willing fifth, sixth and seventh season, even sometimes the first, there’s some overall tonal beat or message that the creators and writers are trying to arc across all the episodes. Obviously, in a procedural show you play the procedural beats and you have a pretty consistent way to play those. Maybe it’s something you worked out for the “case moments,” as we call them.

But then, I try to develop themes, motifs, instrumentation, orchestration at the beginning of the season that will evolve in a new way, into a little bit of a new sound, that will help inform that storyline and help bring it across. It’s very apparent, in The Closer and in Major Crimes. In American Horror Story, we start anew every year. But certainly in other shows like Glee, we’ve gone to different places and we try to inform that.

Talk about American Horror Story in that regard. There are actors that return from season to season, but what about the music? Are there themes or ideas that carry through?

No. None at all. It’s like starting over every August.

I did this little experiment, where I watched an episode of American Horror Story at two in the afternoon, then another one at 11 pm, and then another episode this morning before I came into work. And it was just as frightening no matter when I watched it. Do you ever freak yourself out when you’re composing for that show?

Yeah, totally. I like to work in a pretty dark environment anyway, but I feel like that show in particular, you really need to be inside of the story, or inside of these characters, and inside the colors and shots. I mean there are some nights where you’ll do something and you’ll hit stop and you’ll look behind you and you check the doors. Or the drive home can be very freaky. When you’re walking to your car and you’re like...

There’s gotta be somebody in the seat behind you with a piano wire.

Yeah, exactly! It’s freaky stuff. It’s dark.

This is your first horror show. Did it take some time to develop those composing chops?

Definitely. It wasn’t a genre that I had worked in before, and it was just a great opportunity. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I was going to do it just because of that lack of experience, but I started pitching some ideas to Ryan [Murphy] and some of the other producers and they were like “Wow! This is different. This is cool.” You study the genre and you listen to stuff you hear, but I wanted to take it to a weird, new place where it combined more traditional elements and techniques with a real modern approach, and I think we’ve done that. It’s a very modern horror sound. It’s weird. It’s different. 

Do you think coming at it as a first-time horror composer helped you bring in a unique perspective?

I think so! I think it was harder, in a way. It forces me to really examine what it is that would scare me, and what’s going to really work for these characters without a lot of “Well, this worked in Friday the 13th” or something. I don’t have a lot of clichés in my back pocket that I can break out. So when we create a cliché of our own, it might be a little bit left of center. If I were going to [use horror music clichés], it would be so obviously cheesy, because the level of the material is so high. Everybody has to be playing at this level where they’re doing something new. You’re surprising people.


It’s also one of the few shows you score where you’re working largely with orchestral, or at least organic instruments most of the time.

Yes. We go back and forth. We weave in orchestral and traditional elements. There’s always some twist on it, though. It’s not always something straight up the middle.

Are you going to introduce any “carny barker” music into the American Horror Story: Freak Show season coming up this fall?

I hope so! There’s a lot of interesting opportunity there. We start getting into it shortly.

Glee has a really fascinating connection with music. It’s not just typical sitcom beats in between scenes. Would you say your job on Glee is different than what you’re asked to do on your other series?

You know, it really isn’t. Maybe more towards the second half of this season, we played with the comedy a little harder. But really, we approach that as a drama, with the exception of the Sue Sylvester stuff - whenever she was doing her thing, we had marching band going. The music and the score, we want it to be real, even though it’s an a cappella singing group with a marching band. You have to add validity to these characters and to the story. I think we felt at the beginning that playing it light and comedic and playing little stingers and beats didn’t really feel genuine to the story, and it just cheapens it.

There is a brightness to the show, even just the look and feel of it. But yeah, you can’t just play it like a traditional sitcom.

No, and I think that you try to have a little bit of sophistication. The voice of that score [is] a cappella, marching band, solo piano. It’s all music that can live in a high school - that does live in a high school. That can come out of a choir room, and it does come out of a choir room, every day at every high school. These problems that these kids have, even though they might be silly and funny, they’re real problems for these kids, you know? There’s no point to making fun of it or mocking it, so we try to respect it. We have fun with the score and it definitely plays the comedic beats. [But] always in the back of our heads is the idea that this is a real story. These are real kids and these are real problems.

Glee is such an incredibly popular show. Do you have to keep in the back of your mind that you’re getting kids into music who might not have cared about choral singing or a cappella music at all? It’s a great responsibility that you’re holding on your shoulders.

I think it’s just...that [kid] was me! ::laughs:: And that was a lot of the people that I work with on the show. So I feel the responsibility is not only telling everybody that it’s okay to be who you are, but also the responsibility is to ourselves as creators and people that are working on our show, to be really honest with the material, to be respectful and not take it lightly. Speaking to what you said, we also dig to a place of honesty in our own personal lives and our own selves, or with our own kids. A lot of us started this show before we had our own kids, and a lot of us now have kids. So it’s an interesting evolution. In the beginning of the series, you’re celebrating the show from the perspective of a student. Now, I feel like I’m celebrating the show from the perspective of a parent.

Do you watch any of your shows with your kids?

Royal Pains they can watch a little bit. And Glee, generally speaking. “Teenage Dream” was on endless repeat in my house for a long time - the Warblers version of “Teenage Dream” - and some of the other tunes. American Horror Story is a really tricky one. My kids would sneak up if I was working at home, and I wouldn’t realize they were there, and I’d turn around. You know, much like a scene from American Horror Story…you have two kids standing there in pajamas staring at the screen with their jaws on the floor, like “What the f**k is going on?” ::laughs::

Do you tend to watch the episodes you’ve scored after they’re locked?

Not really. If I’m home, I’ll watch it. Occasionally I’ll pull something off DVR.

Are there ever times where you’ll watch an old episode you scored and think “I should’ve changed that!” Or “I could’ve taken it to another place!”

Of course! All the time! But you know what’s cool? When you see something a few years later, that’s when I think it’s really fun. Like watching Damages or The Closer when it’s on. Even Glee now, we’re five seasons in, and you watch these things and you’re like “That was really cool.” And then you go to the next scene and you go “Ugh! Disgusting!” But you know, the show evolves and we evolve, so it is what it is.

Do you have to work with Glee’s Executive Music Producer Adam Anders on keeping the tone or sound similar between the songs and score?

Typically, they’re treated as separate things. Occasionally it’ll be like, “We’re going straight into a cue here,” and we’ll work it out getting into a song from a cue that I’m writing or vice versa, but we don’t really have to interact.

So you’re not taking any thematic material from some of the songs he’s arranging and then working it into a cue?

Usually not. Occasionally, I’ll write a cue with very similar chord changes or a harmonic structure that’s kind of similar, so that people don’t even know it’s going to happen, but it eases you into the song. We’ve done that a few times. Sometimes if it’s a heavy guitar thing, maybe we’ll introduce some guitars coming into it so that it doesn’t slam you in the face. But that’s usually done after the fact. I usually score that show while they’re cutting it. I get scenes and acts and assemblies as they’re going.

Does that mean you end up having to re-score or adjust more than you might have otherwise?

No. It’s not a typical TV way to work, but I prefer to work that way, generally speaking. I like to work early. Because then you have a spotting session that, for me, feels a little more substantive. You have aesthetic conversations, it’s not just, “You have four days. Go.” And you get what you’re gonna get on the stage. For someone like Ryan who wants to hear everything, when he’s watching the cut and he hears the music and he likes it, that’s it. Don’t change it.

It also means that there’s no chance for the editors or Ryan to get attached to temp music.

Exactly. It’s definitely helpful. I mean, it still happens, but not usually for Glee or American Horror Story.

Rizzoli & Isles is starting up again in June. Would I imagine you’re right in the middle of scoring that?

Yeah, we’re on episode seven now.

The show is as much a screwball comedy, to me, as it is a crime procedural. So what does it take to get just that right balance of humor and mystery and... "proceduralness?"

A lot of experimentation and a lot of failure. ::laughs:: Seriously! Riding that line is very tricky. And making those subtle, tonal shifts here and there.

Can you give me an example of something you tried that maybe didn’t work at first and you had to shift it in a slightly different direction?

Yeah, I think finding the tone on the pilot. One of the opening scenes is when Jane is playing basketball with Frankie, her brother. And I think that was a real moment. Usually in these shows you have a moment where something clicks, and we were trying to see [how to capture it musically]. Is it Celtic? Is it rock? Is it shakers? Or what you’ve heard before? And we made this cue that was kind of Celtic rock, but then when they go inside and they’re with Angela, it turns into a lighter cue that’s a little more delicate.

Objectively, it would seem like such a simple moment.

That’s the trick! But you’re setting up these characters and the world they live in and their attitude and their colors and their relationship. It was a big, big scene. And ultimately, I think it’s a drum kit and some Rhodes or something that I distorted with guitars, and then it goes into that big, main title that’s a bit of an Irish jig that we wrote. It’s tricky.

There’s another scene in episode two where I introduce this Bach counterpoint, very clear, classical, with harps and pianos. It just kind of worked. But before that we tried a million things against those scenes. You know, what feels honest? What feels right? What feels real? What feels like it’s funny, but not silly or broad? The last thing we want to be is broad with any of this stuff.

Do you feel like spending so much time trying to get the emotional tone for all these characters actually helps you become a more sensitive person?

Definitely. It has to. I feel like there’s this idea that you have to release yourself to this material. I think about this stuff 24 hours a day and in my sleep, so it can’t not affect me or seep into my subconscious. And that’s kind of messed up, because these are all fictional characters, right? ::laughs::

There might be times where you’re hanging out with your family and thinking, “What kind of music could go underneath this scene in our lives?”

::laughs:: The thing is, those moments with our family that you’re talking about, it’s not like we can cut out the space and trim to time and suck the air out of the scene and go “Hmm, this isn’t really funny, but maybe we can add a shaker underneath and some staccato strings, it’ll be really appropriate.” That doesn’t help your kids get dressed in the morning.

James Levine conducts his music from <i>American Horror Story</i> with guest vocalist Tori Letzler at the Television Academy's SCORE! concert on May 21, 2014
James Levine conducts his music from American Horror Story with guest vocalist Tori Letzler at the Television Academy's SCORE! concert on May 21, 2014

Do you ever write music for yourself, even music not for public consumption?

Not really. Sitting at home I’ll just play piano and write stuff for fun, or with my kids we’ll write songs together, stuff like that. I used to play in a bunch of bands when I first came to LA, and my friends and I are all pretty much composers or session musicians at this point. Everyone’s working on the job, and it’s like “When are we gonna just get together and write some songs and jam?” I just had an opportunity to write songs for a show and we did it. It was total TV schedule: five days, three songs, top to bottom. And it’s like “Man! We did that so great. Imagine if we spent some time on it” - like did it like a band would, you know?

But it’s just not in the cards right now for you?

It’s not in the cards immediately. But it’s something I think would be fun to do. I don’t know if that means a band. I’ve always admired and loved the way Quincy Jones made records in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Have you ever heard that record The Dude? The Dude or Body Heat - these are records that really informed pop music production, but it’s not like Quincy Jones was the composer and the musician. He was this mastermind, the behind-the-scenes guy getting the performances and shepherding the material. I think that would be something that would be really exciting if I had time.

Can you talk about how being an ASCAP member has impacted your music career?

I think that ASCAP has been a wonderful champion of what I do, from a career standpoint, business standpoint, emotionally. You know someone out there has your back for the way we make a living.

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Read more about James Levine at his IMDB page.

The new season of Major Crimes premieres June 9th on TNT. Find out more at www.tntdrama.com/series/majorcrimes.

Rizzoli & Isles returns on June 17th. Find out more at www.tntdrama.com/series/rizzoli-and-isles.

The next season of American Horror Story begins in October. Find out more at www.fxnetworks.com/ahs.

Season 5 of Glee wrapped up this May. Find out more at www.fox.com/glee.