For a new streaming service, Apple TV Plus made some pretty sharp music choices from the start, tapping Carter Burwell to score “The Morning Show,” Atli Örvarsson for “Defending Jacob,” Michael Brook for “Little America” and Drum & Lace and Ian Hultquist for “Dickinson.”
Two-time Oscar nominee Burwell (“Carol,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) had not previously done episodic TV, but was intrigued by the Jennifer Aniston-Reese Witherspoon a.m.-news-show sendup. Explains the veteran of 18 Coen Brothers films: “They wanted someone who could take openly tragic situations and put an ironic tinge on them.”
Piano, string bass and percussion were the main instruments: “Upright bass worked very well. It had an urban feeling to it, a version of hipness that seemed to fit these characters. We wanted to play the way they thought of themselves, in New York City on top of their game. It’s a bit jaunty, which helps with how awkward, in reality, a lot of these characters were. And then piano seemed right for Aniston’s character, because it can be very cool yet also let some emotion in.”
Burwell spent six months on the pilot alone, then had just a week to score each of the remaining nine episodes — all recorded by himself in his Long Island studio because “there was no time” to enlist other musicians.
The dark family drama “Defending Jacob” was directed by Norwegian Morten Tyldum and scored by Icelandic composer Örvarsson, leading the latter to term it “Nordic noir. We grew up in bleak places,” he points out. “And maybe the fact that [I wrote this] in late December in northern Iceland, where it’s cold and dark, I suppose some of that is coming through.”
Örvarsson (best known for his NBC “Chicago Fire / P.D. / Med” dramas) was chosen not from anything he’d written for films or TV but rather music he’d written for a then-unreleased solo album, “this minimalist, post-classical, piano based music I’ve been working on for the past couple of years.
“The music is really a study in a family falling apart, and the sadness and loneliness that comes with that, more than driving the plot or thriller aspects of it,” he notes. Örvarsson played the piano, added the electronics, and recorded a string group that ranged from three to 25 players.
And with the music totaling anywhere from 23 to 40 minutes of music per episode, “it felt like scoring a movie a week for eight weeks straight,” he adds.
Canadian composer Michael Brook may have been hired for “Little America” – the delightful, fact-based anthology of the immigrant experience in America – based on his experience as a world music artist, who collaborated with Indian, Pakistani, Armenian, Tanzanian and Irish artists on the Real World label in the 1990s. “But at the end of the day, we didn’t really go too exotic with much of the [score],” he says. “Cultural appropriation is basically a bad idea, and I think it would have made [the series] a little too fake-tourist.”
“Normally on a series you can build up a bit of momentum and themes, so you’re not starting from zero for each episode,” says Brook. “But these are a collection of short stories. They have a meta overall theme – people coming to America – but in terms of culture, emotion, character, location, none of them have anything in common.”
Guitarist Brook (“Brooklyn,” “The Fighter”) played all of the music in his studio, adding his violinist wife Julie Rogers on some tracks. He says he tried to reflect “the American culture,” particularly in the first episode, about an Indian boy who is forced to grow up quickly and run his family’s Utah motel when his parents are deported.
“Dickinson,” a reimagining of the life of 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson, may have the most unusual score of all. Married musical partners Sofia and Ian Hultquist (she’s known professionally as “Drum & Lace”) scored it without regard to the era depicted.
For the main title, “They wanted it to be really loud,” says Sofia of her showrunners. “It’s just a bunch of guitar distortions, but they seemed to think that it captured Emily Dickinson’s internal turmoil. We’ll take it!”
Adds Ian: “We don’t worry about the period when it comes to the music, but we still are very conscious of it when it comes to the story and what the characters are going through. We’re still scoring the narrative, the emotional arc, but we’re just using contemporary instruments and sounds.”
Rapper Wiz Khalifa plays Death in the series. Says Ian: “We had to find a theme that was death, but also sexy. She’s so infatuated with him, so we found this weird, ghostly hip-hop sound to encompass all that.”
Sofia’s vocals became “Emily’s internal voice” as the season progressed, Ian notes. “It felt like the music needed a softness and relatability,” Sofia adds. “Once we started overlaying my voice on scenes that were very personal to Emily, it really drew you in, helping to add that extra connection in a way that mechanical synthesizers can’t really do.”