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Top TV Composers Reveal Secrets to Creating Memorable Scores

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The creators of music for such shows as “The Looming Tower” and “Chef’s Table” weigh in on the building blocks (words, images, QuickTime?) that lay the foundation for unforgettable scores.

When it comes to creating powerful music for a TV series — limited, scripted, whatever the genre — timing is everything. Some composers, like Will Bates, who created the music for Hulu’s The Looming Tower, enjoy coming on board very early in the process, before a single frame has been shot. Because the project was based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Bates was able to read it in order to get a sense of the main character, FBI agent John O’Neill.

“It was such a broad, far-reaching story that I needed time to figure out how the instrumentation was going to go,” says Bates. “And I wanted to nail John’s theme right away. It would give me a springboard for other melodic ideas.”

Once he started seeing footage from the episodes, not all of his earlier music still worked. “But that’s part of the fun of TV. You come up with things early on and get to change their context as the series progresses,” says Bates.

Marcelo Zarvos, who works on Showtime’s Ray Donovan, goes out for drinks with showrunner David Hollander before shooting begins each season to get a head start. “You also have to be able to let go quickly of certain ideas once you see the visuals,” he concedes, adding that ultimately the bulk of his work comes when watching rough cuts. “I watch, and hear the music start in my head,” he explains. “But then I try to let my brain relax, and I start to feel something in my chest and stomach.”

For Nathan Barr, who scored all six seasons of FX’s The Americans, reading scripts before writing the music can lead him down the wrong path. “I like to experience the episodes when I’m right there watching,” he says. “You’ll know right away whether it needs trumps or strings. … You know musically what it wants to be.”

Likewise, Silas Hite, who composes the score for Netflix’s Chef’s Table, prefers not to start his work until he’s not only seen a rough cut but also consulted with the show’s editor to see how each scene will come together. “You can talk all day about what the music could be like but until you know how it would work with the visuals, you’re just chasing your tail,” he explains. “My job is to write music that reflects what’s on the screen, and because Chef’s Table is shot more like a one-hour film, I didn’t realize until watching it that I had to raise the level of elegance in my music.”

Carlos Rafael Rivera, who scored Netflix Western Godless, has devised a process that combines both approaches: He turns the words from the script into a QuickTime movie complete with screenplay font, which he then runs at a reading pace while playing along with his instruments. “Overall, about 30 percent of that first pass with QuickTime turns out to stick all the way to the finished show,” he says.

Whether a composer prefers starting with words or with images, though, there’s one thing that’s critical to both approaches: just get started. “By the time the director gets into the edit room, it’s generally a mad dash,” says Bates. “So any opportunity you get to kick the ball around creatively with your score really helps in the end.”

This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.



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