I think, as of this afternoon, I have finished scoring the 2nd season of Big Love. (Mark Mothersbaugh did the first season.) The last cue for the last show, which is episode 212, got posted today (they’re in LA, so I upload the music files to an FTP site.) I’ve been working on it since the fall, though actual writing to picture didn’t start until the winter. It was an education. At first I had grand ambitions, the scores of Herrmann, Rota and others swimming in my head. I had an idea to base my scoring loosely on Mormon hymns. That would presumably hint at the unspoken spiritual underpinnings that motivated many of the characters’ actions — or justified them, in several cases. I got hymnals and CDs, read up on the Mormon Church and practiced writing “fake” hymns.
I wrote a half dozen of these — not for specific scenes — and had them arranged and recorded with the aim to create a library from which the TV people in LA could draw. I would give them complete freedom to splice and dice my cues, but it would also allow me to be more creative. Few of those themes were actually used. I had to agree with the decision; as score they were outside the characters, they were meta-themes, which, as it turned out, were not suitable when the aim was to get you to empathize with the characters. Big or highly melodic themes like those take you outside the intimate world of individual characters, and the music pulls you back — you view the spectacle from a slight distance. An epic distance, in the Brechtian sense, but it’s hardly intimate.
Walter Murch, the film editor and sound designer, mentions how Nino Rota’s music for The Godfather almost got pulled for this reason. He would write music that played against a scene. In the scene where the guy finds the severed horse head in his bed Rota had composed a sweet waltz. The studio hated it; because it was a counterpoint the music viewed the scene from a removed vantage rather than expressing the guy’s revulsion and horror. (A compromise was reached.)
Murch: “When music makes an entrance in a film there’s the emotional equivalent of a cutaway. Music functions as an emulsifier that allows you to dissolve a certain emotion and take it in a certain direction.”
So, increasingly I wrote less overtly melodic pieces, and more pieces that could play as underscore and gently create a mood or add some tension without resorting to melodrama. I wrote tunes that were less busy and that tried not to draw attention to themselves, though they were still rather melodic, if you cared to listen. As the episodes progressed — I would get sent locked edits on DVDs as they were completed — it seemed that even less melody might be what they were after. I got pretty good after a while at knowing what was wanted, sometimes because a temp score “borrowed” from another film had been plopped into the rough cut to determine what musical mood might work.
News to me, these kinds of TV shows are a writers’ medium. It was usually the producer or the two writers who gave me feedback, and it was obviously within their power to say yes or no. Good for them. In film, at least up to a point, it is a director’s medium; much has been made of referring to the director as the auteur — the author. In film the writer is more or less a hired hand who is dismissed once his or her contribution is done, but in TV, maybe because it is episodic and the characters and setting will need to be consistent for years, the writer sort of has the final say, and it is the director who is the hired hand. I never once spoke to the director of any of these episodes!
Towards the end, in the final few episodes, it seemed to me that there were fewer musical nods to Americana, to an idealized U.S. family (even if this one was polygamous) and to the spirituality of the Hymns. As we neared the season’s end the whole thing became darker and more tragic: sons betraying fathers, evil rival clans emerging from the wilderness and child brides. What began as a study in how to manage having 3 wives in an orderly disciplined manner, and how those wives got along and dealt, devolved into a morass of widespread crisis, bitterness and jealousy — and in some ways the changing moods of the music — and what was needed — reflected that.
I will probably release the best of this music as a CD within a year, maybe by February. To make that CD play better some cues may get expanded a little or amalgamated if they are super similar to one another. It won’t be a pop record by any stretch, so its audience might be limited — but I’m proud of some of it, so we’ll see.