Baby Yoda. Jean-Luc Picard. A medieval witcher. A world where fairies have sex with humans. Steve Carrell aiming for the moon. A science-fiction anthology. The fantasy and sci-fi realms prospered on TV during the past season, particularly with the help of several gifted composers.
The anthology “Tales From the Loop” (Amazon) boasted the most high-profile theme, by famed minimalist Philip Glass, in partnership with Scottish composer Paul Leonard-Morgan. The two ended up scoring all eight episodes together.
As they were beginning, sitting at pianos in Glass’s New York studio, Glass remarked to Leonard-Morgan, “your melodies are beautiful but your harmonies need work!” But, as Leonard-Morgan related, “by episodes 2 and 3, we were so much on each other’s wavelength that people didn’t know what was coming from Philip or from me.”
In classically Glassian fashion, piano and strings became the primary voice for the miniseries. “He was playing some harmonies,” Leonard-Morgan recalled, “and I said, ‘well, if you put a beautiful cello line on top of that…’ and we just started bouncing off each other.”
Baby Yoda instantly became the internet’s favorite meme upon the debut of “The Mandalorian” (Disney Plus) last fall. Oscar winner Ludwig Göransson (“Black Panther”) was enlisted even before shooting began, given all eight scripts and time to come up with a unique sound palette.
He took a set of recorders on a two-day retreat into the woods and emerged with a bass-recorder theme: “a very original, distinct, lonely sound following this gunslinger on his journey,” Göransson says, referring to the bounty hunter of the title (who finds and protects the creature that the web quickly dubbed Baby Yoda).
Upon returning to his studio, he started adding other instruments into the mix: guitars, basses, drums, other percussion. “I wanted to combine the organic sounds and flute sounds with tech, which is a big part of the show, and also with the cinematic, orchestral feeling of ‘Star Wars.'” So he added modern production techniques and a 70-piece orchestra.
Aware of the vast catalog of “Star Wars” music preceding him, most of it by John Williams, Göransson says he “put as much thought and detail as possible into it, because of the legacy.” (Many of his musicians were playing on Williams’ “Star Wars IX” score at the same time last summer.) The four hours of “Mandalorian” music, written over six months last year, became the composer’s biggest project to date.
The soundtrack for “The Witcher” (Netflix) became its own phenomenon earlier this year, eventually tallying 100 million streams for the colorful score by Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli. Because the series (with Henry Cavill as a 13th-century monster hunter) featured so many songs and dances, they wrote an hour of music even before shooting began.
Obsessed with offbeat instruments, they played the Renaissance-era stringed hurdy-gurdy, the Chinese erhu, Armenian duduk, dulcimer, mandolin, ethnic flutes, even toy pianos, a total of 64 instruments in all.
“The goal,” says Belousova, “was to use all these period instruments, sometimes in a traditional way, other times in a more contemporary manner. It’s such a diverse continent, with dwarfs, elves, all sorts of monsters; anything less wouldn’t really reflect the diversity.”
Their song “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” became a viral sensation (28 million views on YouTube, a top-40 hit in the U.K. plus endless covers) after minstrel Jaskier sang it in the second episode. “He becomes the rock star of the continent,” says Ostinelli, who adds with a laugh that they wound up writing covers of their own songs because “every time they go to a new tavern, the music we hear is actually a cover of one of Jaskier’s songs.”
Composer Nathan Barr found the fairy-centric fantasy “Carnival Row” (Amazon) the perfect vehicle for the 1928 Wurlitzer pipe organ that he spent four years restoring, even building a studio to house it in Tarzana.
The virtuoso organ piece (plus choir and violin) that accompanies the opening titles was just the start. “The filmmakers were constantly telling me to put in more organ because they loved the way it sounded,” he says. “It became a tool that they really liked leaning into because it has such a grand and unusual sound.”
Much of the score for the eight episodes was built around the organ, with Barr and studio colleague Harry Risoleo playing cello and violin, respectively, plus that nine-voice women’s choir. He worked over six months on the series.
Emmy winner Jeff Russo (“Fargo”) has assumed the mantle of “Star Trek” composer, first with his music for “Discovery” and now the “Picard” series, which returns Patrick Stewart to the role of Enterprise captain Jean-Luc Picard. His theme may be the most gentle and intimate of all the “Trek” themes to date, with prominent solos for piccolo and cello.
“It needed to be somewhat contemplative,” Russo says, “to reflect his current life, where he’s been and his desire to perhaps fix his past mistakes and heal himself. The sound of ‘Star Trek’ has always been a grand orchestral sound. But it’s really all about the internal relationships, so the title and the score [of ‘Picard’] are more intimate.”
“It’s a smaller and more emotional sound than that of ‘Discovery,'” Russo says of the score, with “Discovery” emphasizing the brass section and ‘Picard’ often relying on strings for greater warmth and a hint of melancholy for the aging Starfleet officer. Those piccolo and flute sounds resonate with “Trek” fans who recall Picard playing a Ressikan flute in the 1992 “Next Generation” episode “The Inner Light.”
Carrell’s “Space Force” (Netflix) required a very different approach. “Even though it’s a comedy,” says composer Carter Burwell, Carrell was playing the character as a three-dimensional human being. He’s a patriot. I didn’t want to make fun of his aspirations,” so the classic Americana sound of Aaron Copland came to mind. “We wanted to ennoble this enterprise, and that would bring out the comedy.”
He recorded with a 30-piece, brass-heavy orchestra in Nashville in February and March. His was the last recording session at Ocean Way studios before the coronavirus shutdown.