Showrunner Kevin Murphy knew he needed a unique sound to help steer “The Son,” AMC’s tale of a Texas oil family, through 150 years of history. Noting the importance the score would have in ushering the story of the McCullough family through the numerous culture clashes of the 19th and 20th centuries, he targeted the work of composer Nathan Barr, who had worked on horror-thriller “Hemlock Grove” with “The Son” writer-producer Brian McGreevy.
Barr has showcased his unique style on series ranging from “True Blood” to “The Americans.” During his early conversations with Murphy and “The Son” producers, the composer proposed a unique blend of instrumentation that would highlight the characters’ emotional journey as well as outline the raw quality of DP George Steel’s cinematography. An avid instrument collector since childhood, Barr incorporated pieces he’s collected throughout his global travels, including a guitariphone (a fretless zither played with buttons) and a nyckelharpa (a Swedish instrument dating back to the Vikings).
“It’s as if a hurdy-gurdy and a violin had a child,” says Barr. “It creates a beautiful, open sound.”
Barr also played traditional instruments in unique ways: He used a prepared piano, where objects are attached to the piano strings to modify the sound; and he played only the higher strings on an upright base, sourcing a range more akin to a cello. These elements were blended with music played on standard string instruments and reshaped with plug-ins to achieve specific qualities.
Themes play an important role in the score. For instance, Barr used the series’ high-octane main title track to define the character of Eli, played by Pierce Brosnan, who rises from boyhood to become an oil tycoon. It’s a piece of music that resurfaces throughout the series, and it defines the main character’s developmental arc. Vocals also play an important role in defining character growth. Barr performed the bulk of the instrumentation himself, and hired male vocalists, including ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, who’s featured in a song in the final episode, and Frank Fairfield, who appears on camera to sing one particularly crucial song.
During the spotting process in the edit suite, Barr joined members of the sound department to match the music with the sound design and effects like gunfire and the pattering of horses’ hooves. The score aims to highlight character arcs, and accompanies between 20 to 30 minutes of action per episode, from subtle cues to bombastic melodies.
“Music is such a key to this [project],” says Barr. “Kevin really likes to lean on the score and sound effects.”