You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Composer uses submarine sounds for ABC show

'Last Resort' is latest project for Emmy-nommed Robert Duncan

The pressures of television scoring — limited budgets, frenetic time frames and perpetually uncertain future schedules — can frequently lead composers into some odd recording situations. Still, composer Robert Duncan deserves special recognition for the location he chose for his earliest scoring sessions for ABC’s freshman drama “Last Resort”: the unventilated interior of a 2000-ton decommissioned Soviet submarine off the coast of San Diego.

In setting out to score the Shawn Ryan-created naval skein, Duncan trawled the antique vessel with an engineer in tow, playing the sub’s gears, knobs and torpedo bays with hammers, mallets, metal bolts and body parts — improvising rhythms and melodies on the fly. Some of these recordings will end up playing major roles in the series’ score, though viewers would be hard-pressed to recognize them: Back in the studio, Duncan will take this found sound and manipulate it to the point that it can sit unobtrusively alongside traditional instrumentation.

“I don’t want to do sound effects,” Duncan explained, “but there’s an interesting connection when the source of the sound is native to what we’re watching on the show.”

For those who would question the logic of seeking out primary-source sounds only to render them unrecognizable, it’s all part and parcel of the composer’s intriguingly free-associative writing style.

“As I write, I’m always exploring with sounds, notes, chords and rhythms, and seeing how I feel about them,” the composer said. “Something has to stick. A long time ago I was scoring a scene of a plane landing, and I noticed that industrial, metallic percussion sounds seemed to just stick better than taiko drums or tom-toms or timpanis. Because we were looking at a great machine, there was some sort of a connection where it felt right to hear that sonically. So (using indigenous sound) helps me get to a place where the material is going to stick faster.”

This idiosyncratic approach has served the composer well. Born and raised in Toronto, Duncan relocated to Los Angeles a decade ago to attend ASCAP’s Film Scoring Workshop and soon found himself with a 20-episode scoring gig for cult hit “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Since then, he’s logged shifts composing for the likes of “The Unit,” “Lie to Me,” “Terriers” and “Castle,” the last of which sees Duncan return for a fifth straight season this fall.

While scoring last spring’s series “Missing,” for which he collected his second Emmy nomination, Duncan happened upon a junkyard typewriter that ended up providing a key cue, offering a glimpse at his process.

“I thought it was really interesting when I played a rhythm with mallets on the keys and ribbon spool, it made an interesting rattling that still sounded like a typewriter,” he recalled. “But when I brought it into the computer and started mangling it, and pitching some things down, putting distortion on other things, it turned into this infernal, machine-like beast of a rhythm. If I tell you later that it came from a typewriter, you’d probably be able to hear it, but not before.”

Even when taking found sound out of the equation, Duncan’s scores are often born of counterintiuitive strategies and rarely hew to expected beats. “Castle,” for example, was composed with a longstanding ban on strings and “vintage instruments” such as Rhodes piano or Hammond organ despite its distinctly vintage romantic comedy feel. The militaristic “Last Resort,” on the other hand, pointedly eschews any overly obvious martial sounds, drums in particular.

Though Duncan has found a welcome home in TV scoring, he’s nonetheless upfront about its limitations. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of writing music that has a production value behind it,” he said. “If TV can afford me to write at the production level of music that I’d like to write, I’d be happy, but that’s more common in film. Every cue for ‘Last Resort’ is getting mixed in very much a feature film format — all in surround — getting the royal treatment. And that’s really what I want the most.”

More Music

  • Taylor SwiftTaylor Swift in concert at

    Taylor Swift 'Reputation' Concert Film to Hit Netflix on New Year’s Eve

    Taylor Swift today announced that she is “gifting the world front row seats to the last show of the U.S. leg” of her “Reputation” tour with a concert film that will premiere on Netflix New Year’s Eve. “This epic concert film features pyro, fireworks, multiple stages and of course, a 63 foot cobra named Karyn,” [...]

  • Radiohead Santa Barbara

    Radiohead, Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks Inducted Into Rock Hall of Fame

    The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame  officially announced its 2019 inductees: Radiohead, Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Def Leppard, The Cure, Roxy Music and the Zombies, according to Rolling Stone. The ceremony will be held at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on March 29 and aired on HBO and broadcast on SiriusXM radio later in the year. Ticket details will be announced in January. Artists [...]

  • Could Anyone Follow ‘Springsteen on Broadway’?

    Could Anyone Follow 'Springsteen on Broadway'? Here Are Five Things They'd Need (Guest Column)

    After 235-odd shows, with grosses in excess of $100 million, a Special Tony Award and a hotly anticipated Netflix special debuting Saturday, “Springsteen on Broadway” is an unprecedented Broadway blockbuster. As with any success in entertainment, the rush to replicate The Boss’ one-man show reportedly is under way, with a consortium led by Live Nation, CAA [...]

  • Endeavor Sued Over Idaho Country Music

    Endeavor Sued Over Idaho Country Music Festival

    A former county official in rural Idaho sued Endeavor on Wednesday, alleging she is owed more than $190,000 in unpaid loans arising from a troubled country music festival. According to her complaint, Bonnie Layton was the economic development director for Elmore County, Idaho, when she came in contact with the organizers of the Mountain Home [...]

  • 2019 Variety Predictions

    2019 Predictions: What's in Store for Film, TV and Music Next Year?

    It would be hard to top the drama of 2018. From media mega-mergers to the rise of Time’s Up, it was a year that had more than its fair share of twists and turns. Leslie Moonves resigned in disgrace, AT&T snapped up Time Warner, Disney inched closer to subsuming Fox and “Black Panther” shattered box [...]

  • Tencent Music Raises $1.1 Billion for

    Tencent Music Raises $1.1 Billion for IPO, Much Less Than Expected

    China-based music streaming company Tencent Music Entertainment Group said it raised nearly $1.1 billion in its U.S. initial public offering, according to Reuters. Earlier this year, the company was expected to be valued at as much as $30 billion and raise $4 billion for its IPO, but those estimates were slashed in September. The IPO [...]

  • Justin Tranter and Katie Vinten Partner

    Justin Tranter and Katie Vinten Partner With Warner Bros. for New Label

    As previously reported, hit songwriter Justin Tranter and Warner/Chappell Publishing’s Katie Vinten are launching a new label in partnership with Warner Bros. Records, the company announced officially today. In her new role, Vinten, most recently the company’s co-head of A&R, will also serve as an A&R Consultant to Warner Bros. Records and will continue with [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content