The choices for Emmy’s music branch this year are overwhelming, with hundreds of series now available via broadcast, cable and streaming options. Here are six of the most talked-about possibilities for nomination in the original score categories.
“The Flight Attendant” (HBO Max) featured one of the season’s most creative scores, courtesy of composer Blake Neely. At his initial meeting with producers, Neely remarked that he saw the hard-partying title character Cassie as “a broken child,” and thought “child instruments” such as toy pianos might make an interesting musical choice.
As Neely recalls: “Then I upped the ante and said, ‘How about only percussion?’” They loved the idea. Every musical sound in the eight-part series is a percussion instrument, from timpani and marimba to piano and tubular bells, all played by Neely.
“You start looking at things in your house differently,” he says. “My dishwasher, could I play that? I played a metal lamp in my studio. Bicycle spokes! It just became very creative and fun.” The challenge, he adds, was “walking the line” in terms of tone as the series swung wildly from comedy to tragedy.
English composer Martin Phipps returned for Season 4 of “The Crown” (Netflix) and, with the arrival of Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) at Buckingham Palace, considerable new material was required. The main Diana theme began with a simple harp melody — “delicate, but purposeful,” Phipps notes. Choral sounds figure prominently: women’s voices represent “Diana’s femininity amongst oppressive patriarchal surroundings,” he says, while men’s voices hint at “our dread at how we know this story will turn out.” A single French horn suggests her growing loneliness and isolation as time passes.
Phipps also adds analog synth sounds but, surprisingly, not necessarily for the 1980s on display. “It’s always important to me that I’m scoring the emotional journey of the characters, not the time or place that they’re in,” he says. “I’m drawn to those synth sounds more because they represent the bright breath of fresh air that swept in with her character.”
The Mosquito Coast
The makers of “The Mosquito Coast” (Apple TV Plus) sought out Brazilian composer Antonio Pinto on the basis of his music for the 2019 bio-documentary “Diego Maradona.”
With that template in mind, Pinto went into an L.A. studio and, in what the composer describes as a “five-day tornado,” generated most of the musical material that would form the foundation of the score. The series — a rewrite of the Paul Theroux novel about an American family that flees the U.S. for mysterious reasons and ends up in dangerous, drug-war-torn Mexico — “is a very raw thing,” says Pinto. “They’re always on the outside. The story gets rougher, with more tension, more action.” His music reflects that, with an edgy, unrelentingly dark tone.
Pinto himself played all the key instruments — guitar, cuatro, cello, percussion and electronics — and continued experimenting with “strange sounds” upon his return to Brazil, collaborating long-distance with music editor Mark Wike to assemble all of it into seven episode scores.
Star Trek: Discovery
Throughout the third season of “Star Trek: Discovery” (Paramount Plus), one special, minute-long melody recurs. “It has to do with this frequency they hear from across the galaxy,” composer Jeff Russo says. It’s heard as a lullaby to a child; becomes the theme for tragic lovers Adira and Gray (Blu del Barrio and Ian Alexander); and is broadcast in space. “It was meant to tie the entire season together.”
In addition, the composer (who also scores “Star Trek: Picard”) got to write his second operatic aria for the series: a grandly dramatic Andorian one, after the more serene Kasseelian piece he penned for the first season (both sung by L.A. opera veteran Ayana Haviv).
He also found opportunities to reference both the original “Trek” fanfare and the “Voyager” theme when the Discovery finally connects with 32nd century Federation headquarters. Complicating matters: recording 40-plus musicians individually and mixing them into a coherent whole during a pandemic.
“Perry Mason” (HBO) tells the backstory of TV’s most famous lawyer as a down-and-out private eye in Depression-era Los Angeles. Director-producer Tim Van Patten sought out composer Terence Blanchard for his jazz credentials but also subscribed to Blanchard’s belief that “jazz is supposed to be experimental, to be forward-thinking, not looking backwards.”
Although Blanchard’s familiar trumpet and bluesy piano are present in the eight-hour series, so are his more modern musical concepts. As Blanchard describes his process: “Taking sounds that relate to the period and then combining them with other elements” including string quartets and synthesizers.
“The wild part about doing ‘Perry Mason’ was that each episode was a moment of discovery about Perry’s world, sonically,” adds the two-time Oscar nominee. “This thing kept evolving. We were all discovering it as it went along.”
“Jupiter’s Legacy” (Netflix), a 20th century superhero saga told in more complex 21st century terms, demanded a similarly daring musical approach. Composer Stephanie Economou saw fine cuts of all eight episodes, enabling her to “make some conceptual musical decisions early on,” she says.
The climax of episode 7 — a flashback to the moment superpowers are granted to the team — would be scored with “this big majestic choir piece” based on the main theme, with Latin lyrics based on Mark Millar’s original comic-book text. As Economou explains: “I thought, why not make vocals part of the tapestry of the score? So by the time we got to these pinnacle moments in the series, it felt really earned.”
Yet it was also a family drama, “so it needed to have this emotional intimacy,” she notes. That meant music for specific characters, especially Sheldon, the Utopian (Josh Duhamel), whose motif became the main theme of the series. “He is a broken man, and we often see him in these intimate, fragile moments,” she says of the irony of the music’s heroic tone. “So you’ll hear the theme on a solo French horn drenched in reverb, like a distant memory.”