Finding the right music for gods and goddesses can be daunting.
For “Immortals,” the $100-million effects-driven fantasy based on Greek myths, director Tarsem Singh took a risk: He hired Trevor Morris, a 41-year-old Canadian-born composer whose credits are mostly in TV.
But those credits carry a little more weight than usual: For the past four years, Morris has been the go-to composer for historical dramas with a contemporary sensibility. He has won Emmys for his themes for Showtime’s “The Tudors” and “The Borgias,” and was nominated for his score for Starz’ 12th-century epic “The Pillars of the Earth.”
Says Singh: “I wanted somebody who hasn’t been given a chance. He hasn’t done anything big, and that was never a negative for me. His melodies were fantastic. He delivered.”
Morris doesn’t operate like the usual TV composer, working out of a home space and scraping by with synthesizers and the occasional live musician. He has a new state-of-the-art studio in Santa Monica whose composing rooms, mixing board and elegant 5.1 theater definitely have the look and sound of a busy feature-film composer.
Singh’s directive to Morris: “Be big or be small, but don’t be in the middle.” Translation: epic when necessary, intimate when needed. When Mt. Olympus appears for the first time, Morris says, “the first thing you hear is a ukulele. I thought, what if we made their connection to each other, and their connection to humans, something that we cared about? The smaller instruments helped to do that.”
There is, he also points out, considerable “mayhem-action music,” much of it played by a 100-piece orchestra including what Morris believes is the largest brass section ever assembled for a film score (23 musicians, including eight French horns and 11 trombones). “It was a very godlike sound,” he says with a smile.
His 36-voice choir sings a text drawn in part from Hindu scriptural writings about immortality. And for antagonist Hyperion’s siren call, he told the brass players to bring “the creakiest, oldest, rustiest instruments” they owned — which, coupled with a 10-foot Tibetan horn, created a massive, unidentifiable noise that Morris thinks “sounds 1,000 years old.”
Morris has been composing since he was 13. After moving to Toronto from his hometown of London, Ontario, he became one of Canada’s top commercial music composers. At the age of 30 he decided to move to L.A. and try to make it in the film and TV music business.
He spent eight years working for Hans Zimmer, first as a technical assistant but eventually contributing music and arrangements to such Zimmer scores as “The Last Samurai,” “Spanglish” and two of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.
It was “The Tudors” that brought Morris wide attention for the first time. Despite its 16th-century setting and clever use of ancient instruments, “I always brought a modern angle to all of the period pieces,” Morris explains. “The main title has a full-on drum loop; it has no business being there, and yet somehow it works.” It won Morris his first Emmy.
His work ethic has also impressed producers. He spent the summer before the “Tudors” third season working out a theme for Jane Seymour (Henry VIII’s third wife) that could function as both love theme and requiem for her death, then recorded them with orchestra and choir in Prague and asked the editors to cut key scenes to his completed music.
Morris recently returned from Ireland, where he discussed next season’s music for “The Borgias” with producer Neil Jordan. “I’ve been lucky to do atypical television projects,” Morris says. “But I feel like I have something to say in the movie world, and it’s a tough world to break into. That’s why I view ‘Immortals’ as such a gift.”