Sci-fi series: a musical odyssey

The next generation of TV composers

Laura Karpman is in her Playa del Rey, Calif., studio, punching buttons and sliding controls on a massive mixing board. State-of-the-art monitors and speakers are playing back a scene from “Odyssey 5,” Showtime’s new Friday night series about astronauts trying to stop a plot to destroy the Earth.

“Odyssey 5” is one of several science-fiction and fantasy shows currently playing on cable or in firstrun syndication that features imaginative, colorful and often surprisingly varied music. Much of it is executed on synthesizers and all of it is done on a low-budget basis.

While none of the composers would speak for the record about numbers, it’s conceded that only a few shows are paying for orchestral scores anymore and those shows have network budgets.

For “Odyssey 5,” says Karpman, “it’s a matter of taking organic instruments and then processing them with various plug-ins and Pro Tools (digital recording and editing application), and coming out with a really unusual sound. A combination of textured layers create an odd ambience which is appropriate for the show.”

Karpman recorded the pilot with an unusual orchestra including countertenor and duduk (an Eastern European woodwind instrument). She then spent three months building a library of sounds (augmented by occasional live players) that would enable her to score the episodes in her own studio.

Matthew McCauley, who scores firstrun series “Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda,” agrees that “the ingenuity comes in setting up for the season, building a template or palette of sounds.” Even though the music is entirely created within his studio, “I try to think in pure orchestral terms,” he says.

Aside from his heroic theme, he points out, “music is often not a dominant player. It’s a subliminal factor. Things are going on (musically) that are almost imperceptible, but they set a mood.”

Sci Fi’s hit show “Farscape” is made entirely in Australia, where Sydney-based composer Guy Gross creates the show’s electronic score. But, “that doesn’t limit my ability to create human, emotional music,” he says. “Being classically trained, I really treat my samplers and synthesizers as colors from the orchestra.”

The composers differ in their views about whether scoring sci-fi requires a different approach than a straight drama. “For me,” says Gross, “it’s still a bunch of human stories dealing with human emotions… It’s up to me to convey and reinforce those sentiments and use every trick in my musical book to propel and heighten the drama.”

Joel Goldsmith may have the year’s toughest schedule, scoring “Stargate SG-1,” now on the Sci Fi Channel, and “Witchblade” for TNT; this is his fifth year on Richard Dean Anderson starrer “Stargate” and his second on the Yancy Butler action drama.

“Witchblade,” he notes, is “mostly electronic, ambient, loop-driven music” while “Stargate” gets a traditional action-adventure score, “with a sci-fi, fantasy flair.” On “Stargate,” it’s never dull, musically. “We go from comedy to drama to wondrous to suspense to heavy action to ethereal,” Goldsmith says.

Both shows are almost entirely synth-based, although “we bring in some musicians to sweeten it a little bit,” including the occasional oboe, French horn or trumpet, which adds a level of reality to the orchestral simulation.

Toronto-based Marty Simon has just finished his fourth season on “Lexx.” One of Canada’s pioneers in the electronic realm, he executed all the show’s scores in his studio. But although costs have come down, and synth scores are easier to create, the real pros spend time working on the mix. “Science-fiction is really a no-rules, no man’s land,” he says. “What’s fun about it is, you can go anywhere.”

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