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Emmy-Nominated Composers Talk Writing for Limited Series, Movies or Specials

“A lot of the best work in the world is being done in television,” says composer James Newton Howard. “I am delighted just to work on a good movie, no matter what the medium is.”

Howard, an eight-time Oscar nominee, hadn’t done a TV movie in 18 years (though he won an Emmy in 2001 for the title theme to “Gideon’s Crossing.”) This past season he scored HBO’s LBJ docudrama “All the Way,” a movie that opens with President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination.

“It was a broken moment in our country,” Howard says. “One of the first things I wrote was the opening title, this dark trumpet theme. I offset the bass part by one beat. I wanted to convey that everything was, all of a sudden, completely out of sync.”

Although he had a 70-piece orchestra, he adds, “I wanted to take a light hand, to keep it simple and not get in the way of all those great performances.”

Howard is one of six Emmy-nominated composers in the category of music composition for a limited series, movie or special. He’s competing against the composers of two miniseries, two TV movies, and one episode of a limited series. Emmys will be handed out Saturday, Sept. 10, as part of the Creative Arts Awards ceremony.

British composer Martin Phipps is up for his score for A&E’s “War & Peace,” which involved Latvian choirs singing in Russian, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and, he says, “ball-busting, driving synths” designed in his London studio for the six-hour Tolstoy adaptation.

“That ‘man choir,’ as we called it, just seemed so stirring and timeless, so full of passion and emotion and epic scale,” Phipps says. “I really wanted to take that very old sound and put some very modern sounds alongside it. I deliberately tried not to write conventional orchestral music. I loved the contrast of the old with the new.”

For AMC’s “The Night Manager,” a six-hour mini based on the John le Carré spy novel, Spanish composer Victor Reyes reports, “The score is a combination of big orchestra, strings, and brass recorded at Abbey Road in London, mixed with electronic instruments and textures — my own sounds.”

Music for the series’ various locales (including Cairo, London, Madrid, and Turkey) was flavored with exotic instruments such as the Hungarian cimbalom, Spanish guitar, Turkish flutes, and Arabic percussion. Reyes adds, “We did music of different styles for all of the characters. For Jonathan Pine, I tried to give him something dramatic, romantic, and passionate.”

Four-time Emmy winner Jeff Beal is in the running for Hallmark Channel’s “Jesse Stone: Lost in Paradise,” ninth in the series of movies with Tom Selleck as an aging, small-town Massachusetts police chief. (It’s Beal’s first nomination for his work on the recurring series.)

“The key to this character has been the inner life of Jesse,” Beal explains. “There is a dark humor, dignity, and often lonely quality to him. Cues that evoke character and emotion have been as important as more traditional procedural ones.” Piano, jazz bass, flugelhorn (played by Beal himself), string orchestra, percussion, “and a few electronics” are heard throughout.

David Lawrence, a Disney staple for more than a decade (having scored the “High School Musical” and “Cheetah Girls” films), earned his first nomination with Disney Channel’s “Descendants,” about the teen offspring of such classic Disney villains as Maleficent, Jafar, and Cruella de Vil.

According to Lawrence, the challenge was to establish the characters musically. “It had to have that Disney flair — that elegant ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’-meets-‘Lady and the Tramp’ sort of fun, whimsy, and sophistication,” he says. “It was one of the hardest things I had to do, to deliver such a rich, deep, dense, and melodic score.” I was able to go over the top with angst energy for action scenes, creepy scary stuff for the adventure scenes, and very silly music for the dog scenes.”

Jeff Russo earned his second consecutive nomination for FX’s “Fargo,” this time for an eclectic stew of drum-corps sounds (featuring the USC Marching Band drum line) and “a bit more lush, romantic, and emotional music with big string orchestra, woodwinds, and brass,” he says.

“We never try to play funny,” he adds. “We play straight, and it really does help the ironic aspect of the show.” The most fun for Russo, however, was scoring a Ronald Reagan-style faux WWII movie that Ed (Jesse Plemons) and Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) watch on TV in a motel room. “That was my opportunity to do that old-school cinematic sound from the ‘40s,” he says, “with a big section of stopped French horns.”

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