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Mood shifts set music on ‘Numbers’

Ken Sanzel exhibits knack for song selection

In a recent “Numbers” episode, “12:01,” showrunner Ken Sanzel needed to find a song to unite two utterly disparate storylines in a closing montage: the tragic A plot of a man on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, and the very light B story about math nerds trying to play basketball.

A music devotee and indie scene enthusiast, Sanzel felt torn between his editor’s pick of the plaintive Nico Stai song “Maybe Maybe” and the faster-pumping “Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Bros.

“‘Time’ was an interesting way to go and have this kind of voltage energy. But it didn’t give you the tragedy,” Sanzel says. “I went with ‘Maybe Maybe.’ … The game becomes this really sad thing — people are jumping and cheering in this light, fun world, while (across town) this guy is going to be killed for something he didn’t do.”

Sanzel has earned a cool-guy rep at the office for plucking the perfect song per episode, but he doesn’t do it all alone. He asks music supervisor Alex Patsavas for suggestions through her business Chop Shop; staff stop by his desk with titles geared to impress him; indie station Slacker.com streams ideas he scribbles down.

“You start with mood,” Sanzel says. “I never listen to lyrics and think, ‘That line contradicts what we’re doing.’ You work to make sure snatches of the song kind of punch and underline what you’re doing.”

Sanzel’s budget allows one major-label tune acquisition per episode. He’ll frequently insert a short excerpt from an affordable indie-label song earlier in the storyline, like “Rollin’,” by Classic, which briefly punctuates beats of the “12:01” basketball subplot.

Sanzel generally pushes play on major-label music during the episode’s finale. He strives not to pick a song that’s been played to death; it brings baggage for the viewer.

“I run the gamut from Sonic Youth and BRMC and Chili Peppers to more eclectic stuff,” Sanzel says. “I love the Shins and the Decemberists, which I haven’t got on yet. We used Cold War Kids this year. And Kid Dakota. I even used (contemporary classical composer) Arvo Part.”

Show composer Charlie Clouser, formerly of Nine Inch Nails, designs music for the rest of the episode: key cues, tiny transitions and broader score. He and Sanzel discuss composition with each new script.

“We’re hoping that the score helps to give a sense of the wheels always turning inside (the character) Charlie’s mind and how his forward motion affects the other characters,” Clouser says.

“Very often we’re shifting from the FBI to Cal(Sci), very different tonalities of A story and B story, and the music has to make the shifts and not jar you,” Sanzel says. “Basically, I fumble through my inarticulate feelings about the cue, and (Clouser) turns them into something really nice.”

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