It’s Friday night on the Newman Scoring Stage at 20th Century Fox, and gales of laughter emanate from the control room. Musicians, mixers and friends are watching playbacks of a new episode of “The Simpsons,” accompanied by new music by Alf Clausen.
Clausen is seated at the mixing console during the “10,” a break for the 35-piece orchestra that enables him to review the music he has recorded and decide if any changes should be made. Satisfied with most, he decides just one cue needs a better performance.
Clausen has just three hours to record 29 separate pieces of music that range from four seconds to 63 seconds in length and ultimately will form the score for episode 5F14, a sendup of the IRS. There is dramatic music for the auditors, a propulsive cue for Homer racing to file his return, a raucous piece for lines at the post office, even a faux anthem for a patriotic speech by Mr. Burns.
When the 200th episode of the celebrated Fox series airs on April 26, Clausen will have composed and conducted the music for more than 180 of them. Emmy-nominated nine times for his “Simpsons” music (and seven times for other shows), he finally took home the statue last year for his song “We Put the Spring in Springfield,” a high-stepping, Broadway-style ode to the local brothel.
“The Simpsons” is one of only a handful of shows on TV that features an orchestra, and has since it went on the air in 1990. It was creator Matt Groening’s idea. “I wasn’t sure how good the animation was going to turn out,” he recalls, “so I thought if we could solidify it with a great orchestral background, that would help the wobbly animation. And it has.”
Seeking out Danny Elfman for his theme, Groening asked for “something that’s frantic and frenetic, like the scores of the great shows of the 1960s.” Notes Elfman: “I was inspired by a lot of different stuff including ‘The Flintstones’ and ‘The Jetsons.’ The pencil sketch they sent me really had the feel of a ’60s-flavored fun opening and I played it that way.”
Clausen joined the series during the second season and has scored every episode since, usually writing each in four or five days. “Alf was able to handle everything and anything that was thrown at him, and put up with the grueling schedule,” Groening says. For Clausen, just coming off the nightmarish schedule of the infamous “Moonlighting” — where he once had just 16 hours to write and record an entire score — it was a great opportunity.
As the composer explains later in his Northridge studio, “Simpsons” music isn’t like Carl Stalling’s music for the old Warner Bros. cartoons. “Matt Groening said to me very early on, ‘We’re not a cartoon. We’re a drama where the characters are drawn. I want you to score it like a drama.’ I score the emotions of the characters as opposed to specific action hits on the screen.”
Clausen says he and his team (which includes orchestrator Dell Hake, music editors Chris Ledesma and Bob Beecher, and scoring mixer Rick Riccio) “have to work so hard, so fast, that we don’t even get a chance to breathe,” much less assess their contribution to the cultural impact the series has had over the years.
The underscore is a crucial element of practically every “Simpsons” gag. When the writers parody a movie or TV show or make some pop-culture reference, Clausen’s music helps make the point. Earlier this season, for example, he provided a “Hans Zimmeresque adventure kind of score” for a takeoff on “Crimson Tide.”
“I try to distill the essence melodically, harmonically, rhythmically and orchestrationally as to what sums up the feeling of the music from ‘Waterworld,’ for instance,” he says — often in as little as 10 seconds of screen time. Sometimes he adapts the original themes: TV’s “Ben Casey” theme as Homer entered a hospital and “The Great Escape” theme for Maggie’s adventures in a nursery are among classic examples.
Clausen particularly enjoys writing the 10 or 12 songs per year that figure in various “Simpsons” episodes, something he’s been doing for the past five seasons. Lyrics usually are written by the scriptwriters, and it’s Clausen’s job to set them in a way that makes musical sense yet fits the singing range of the actors who play the various characters.
Many of the best songs and score bits were contained in last year’s Rhino album “Songs in the Key of Springfield” (produced by Clausen), which has sold more than 300,000 copies to date and is one of Rhino’s bestselling single discs. Rhino spokesman David Dorn says a second volume, still untitled, is due in August, containing new material, outtakes and older music that didn’t make it onto the first compilation.
“This is a dream job for a composer,” Clausen says. “(The producers) are very appreciative of what I do for them. The creative level is amazingly high. I look at the majority of what’s on television now and I think, boy, I’m a blessed guy.”