‘Hollywood,’ ‘Unorthodox,’ ‘Wu-Tang: An American Saga’ Composers on Capturing a Series’ Tone in One Short Tune

Hollywood Unorthodox Wu-Tang- An American Saga
Hollywood: Saeed Adyani/Netflix; Unorthodox: Anika Molnar/Netflix; Wu-tang: An American Saga: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

A main title sequence is often the only part of a show in which music can take center stage, and usually for just a minute. But it can also be the biggest challenge for a composer, who must somehow encapsulate the ideas, the story, the characters and the milieu of a series. This year, the Television Academy nominated six main title themes by five different composers. They range from big-band jazz to serious symphonic composition, from theater organ to analog synth sounds and even classic hip-hop.

Carnival Row
A few years ago, composer Nathan Barr found, bought and lovingly restored a 1928 Wurlitzer pipe organ that had once occupied the 20th Century Fox scoring stage. With “Carnival Row,” the Victorian-era fantasy about mythical creatures fleeing war and prejudice, Barr found the perfect vehicle to showcase the instrument. “The filmmakers were constantly telling me to add more organ because they loved its grand and unusual sound,” he says. The music is Barr’s theme for Philo (Orlando Bloom), the series’ tortured hero. Against images of fairies and other mystical beings, along with a 19th-century zoetrope depicting a centaur in motion, Barr played the organ while his assistant Harry Risoleo added a virtuoso violin solo and a nine-voice women’s choir sang.

Defending Jacob
(Apple TV Plus)
The mood of this limited-series adaptation about a family torn apart when their 14-year-old son is accused of murder is dark and disturbing, so Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds matched it with melancholy music. “We didn’t want to convey the show as a standard whodunit,” he explains. “It happens in a suburban neighborhood, so I didn’t want to make it too ethereal. It should have some electronic beats, something that connects us to a city, but at the same time be mysterious.” A string quartet, analog synthesizers and drum machines play the 75-second piece. Arnalds originally intended to score the entire series but he left the project and only later saw the visuals (knife, sneakers, road, leaf, fingerprint, schoolroom, shadows of the family) that eventually accompanied his music.

Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s alternate history Tinseltown limited series is about outsiders trying to make it in the post-World War II movie business, so composer Nathan Barr considered a swing band the perfect accompaniment to shots of the cast scaling the Hollywood sign, emerging triumphant at the top. “I love old-school Hollywood and ’40s jazz, so this was a dream come true,” he says. He used his Golden Tip service-station theme to open and his theme for aspiring actor Jack (David Corenswet) for the string-drenched close. “It was the glamour, the dream that everyone’s pursuing,” that inspired Barr’s 50-second theme (played by a mix of real brass players and surprisingly authentic sounding synths). With three Emmy nods, Barr (also nominated for limited series score for “Hollywood”) is this year’s most-nominated composer.

The shortest main title of the six (just 25 seconds) was written by Antonio Gambale, an Australian-Italian composer based in Paris, working from very specific instructions from executive producers Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski: “They wanted to feel there was a sense of drama, tension and excitement, because the story has an element of chase and intrigue,” he says. “They also wanted it to feature something about Berlin; that’s why there are so many electronic elements, foreshadowing where she would go.” Strings and synths play his theme for Esty (Shira Haas) as we watch animated white lines simulating the eruv boundaries of Orthodox Judaism. Gambale specifically avoided Hebraic-sounding and classical-sounding music as, he points out, there was already plenty of both in the series.

Why We Hate
(Discovery Channel)
The six-part docuseries needed a theme “that somehow captured the human condition — optimism, hope, sorrow, death, life,” says composer Laura Karpman. She was inspired by the minute-long title sequence, in which seemingly innocent photos are revealed as portraits of hatred (lynchings, terrorism, mountains of skulls). Karpman ultimately wrote a theme that “had no beginning and no end, very simple on the top layer but harmonically dense and complex, so you can wind up singing it but you would never know what’s going on underneath.” And she insisted that an orchestra of real musicians (not synths or samples) perform it, because the series “goes too deep. You can’t talk about human beings without using them. It’s too much about the soul.”

Wu-Tang: An American Saga
The RZA was not only co-creator and executive producer of this dramatized history of the ’90s hip-hop group, but he also scored it. “My first take was this elaborately orchestrated piece, but it was too big for the show,” says Wu-Tang’s founder. “So I made three other versions, and everyone felt this one was the coolest.” He started with the drum track playing an energetic tempo (similar to Wu-Tang’s first hit “Protect Ya Neck”), added voices, sampled orchestra and then, “since it was hip-hop, I had the privilege to add a scratch and effects to it. They’re not just sound design.” Set against images of drugs, bullets, turntables, bees and kung-fu action, the 60-second piece becomes “scaled-down hip-hop,” he adds.