“Can you believe that’s an online orchestra?” asks composer Laura Karpman.
She’s talking about the musical score of HBO’s new “Lovecraft Country,” which debuted Sunday night and is believed to be the first post-pandemic series to be entirely scored, from first episode to last, by musicians recording remotely from their homes.
Together with musical partner Raphael Saadiq, Karpman scored the 10-part series in which three African-Americans drive across 1950s America experiencing not only prejudice but also hideous monsters out of the imagination of pulp writer H.P. Lovecraft.
Creator Misha Green told her composers (who collaborated with her on WGN’s slavery series “Underground”) that she wanted “gothic, orchestral R&B” to accompany her journey into terror. And while that combination of musical genres might seem confusing or impossible, Karpman and Saadiq have pulled it off.
Using 30 musicians, all playing by themselves in their home studios, Karpman has created a symphonic sound for “Lovecraft Country.” She has been planning this since the lockdown forced the closure of L.A. studios in March.
“Everything was shut,” she recalls, referring to the closure of recording studios everywhere in the world at the time. Musicians could not play together, so scores requiring ensembles of players immediately became impossible. Or so everyone thought.
Karpman, a current double Emmy nominee for the documentary series “Why We Hate,” began brainstorming alternatives. Recording musicians remotely — playing parts in their home studios, then sending in the recorded tracks — has long been a part of the music business, much more in the pop/rock/hip-hop world than in film scoring.
Along with other composers in the same predicament, she wondered if you could build an orchestral sound, one player at a time. “I had found in the past that, especially for players that I had worked with for years and who knew my music, it was really fine,” she says. “They would know what I wanted.”
Working with contractor and Juilliard-trained violinist Lisa Liu, they assembled a group of 29 players (20 strings, six brass, one woodwind, one percussion and one harp). Karpman called it the Unison Orchestra. Liu says they hail from all over the world, including players from the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Toronto Symphony and elsewhere.
Karpman’s engineer Brad Haehnel aided the musicians in choosing the correct microphones, and “we did all these Zoom tutorials with people” to school them in the specifics of recording at home, she says.
Adding in Karpman on piano and Saadiq on guitars and synthesizers — also working separately in their personal studios — they proceeded to record, one musician at a time, every note of the “Lovecraft Country” score, which were then mixed (together with sampled sounds) into an artificial orchestra.
The surprise, and one that was especially relevant to the “Lovecraft Country” project, was that “what came back sounded to me like Jerry Goldsmith, that close-mic’d aleatoric music of the 1960s,” she says, referring to the late, highly respected film composer and his sophisticated music for such sci-fi and horror classics as “Planet of the Apes” and “Alien.”
“It was wildly appropriate” for the HBO series, she adds. “Part of the sound of the show is the way we are recording it. Suddenly a bass clarinet or a contrabass clarinet is a beautiful double for low brass, and because it’s isolated, you can have as much volume as you want. A unique sound has started to emerge. It’s fun to be in front of an orchestra, conducting, but these players don’t need me.”