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Emmys: Limited Series or TV Movie Score Nominees Range From History to Penguins

The six scores vying for this year’s Emmy for music composition for a limited series, movie or special range from 19th-century tales of Canada and the Old West to futuristic stories of androids and virtual reality. There’s even a documentary about emperor penguins.

Alias Grace

For this six-part Netflix drama based on a Margaret Atwood novel about a possible murderess in 1859 Canada, composers Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna wanted to “honor the time but put our own spin on it,” says Jeff. “We thought it needed a postmodern chamber sound”: just 12 strings, three woodwinds, harp and piano.

Oscar winner Mychael (“Life of Pi”), who has known writer-producer Sarah Polley for more than 20 years, adds: “We did write in period style, but with elements of minimalism and even trance music, using instruments that the characters in the story would have been familiar and comfortable with.”

Black Mirror

The “USS Callister” episode of Netflix’s sci-fi anthology demanded three different sounds, says British composer Daniel Pemberton (“Steve Jobs” ): one for the pulpy sci-fi series that inspires a reclusive computer programmer, another for the near-future world he inhabits and one that blends both into the virtual-reality game he invents.

“I had to write a theme that could be adapted multiple ways — a classic, strong fanfare motif that would hark back to things like ‘Star Trek’ but have an original identity that would work through the episode,” he says. “At the same time, I had to create this other world that was a lot more synthetic and modern, and slowly fuse those two elements as the show progresses.” Pemberton used a 70-piece orchestra in Prague.

Godless

Miami-based composer Carlos Rafael Rivera once gave guitar lessons to Scott Frank, the writer-director of Netflix’s acclaimed seven-part Western about an outlaw on the run on the outskirts of a failed mining town. Rivera (who also scored Frank’s film “A Walk Among the Tombstones”) spent 18 months writing four and a half hours of music for “Godless.” He started from a reading of the screenplay and sent early ideas to Frank that influenced how some scenes were shot. “I had written the music of the final scene early on, and he sent that music to the scouting people to play as they were looking for locations,” he says.

Rivera played all the guitars, piano and harmonium (a 19th-century pump organ) and added a cellist; together, they did many of the more intimate scenes. He then added a 50-piece Budapest orchestra for the bigger outdoor scenes to create a classic American West sound.

March of the Penguins 2

For this Hulu-aired sequel to the Oscar-winning 2005 documentary, director Luc Jacquet turned to French composer Cyrille Aufort. “The role of music,” Aufort says via email, “is to bring out the imagery and poetry of a more mysterious dimension, like the transmission of knowledge between adult and child.

“Penguins don’t talk, don’t reveal their emotions,” the composer adds. “I hope the music gives them another way of expressing themselves.” Aufort recorded with a 44-piece orchestra in Paris.

Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams: The Commuter

Two episodes of this Amazon Prime series, based on stories by the celebrated sci-fi writer, were nominated. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams (“The Martian”), who was offered his choice of episodes, opted to score “The Commuter” because he liked actor Timothy Spall’s performance as a railway worker with a troubled teenage son who discovers a town that’s not supposed to exist.

“That was the jumping-off point for the music,” Gregson-Williams says. “And it had these unanswered questions; musically, that’s where I had to go as well.”

Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams: Crazy Diamond

Chilean-born Cristobal Tapia de Veer was nominated for his music for the episode “Crazy Diamond,” about a dreamer whose dystopian-future job in an android-making factory leads him to dangerous decisions. “It had a dark, romantic vibe to it,” de Veer says. “The music is helping this dreamy feel and adds confusion to the darker scenes.

“I used a bit of acoustic percussion, but in general it’s a lot of electronic sounds, which make it feel modern and futuristic,” he explains. He added a trio of voices for a human touch: “I like the honesty of voices,” he says, “not professional, not skilled. I like their natural quality.”

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