As the Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded into television, its musical reach has also grown, embracing diversity both in terms of its composers and the music they make.
English composer Natalie Holt (pictured above) brought unexpected sonorities to “Loki”; Cairo-based Hesham Nazih added specific Egyptian sounds to “Moon Knight”; and American composer Laura Karpman employed a traditional orchestra and choir on the animated “What If…?”
“Loki is sort of a likable baddie,” says Holt, “a grand, Machiavellian, Shakespearean character, so I wanted some kind of gravitas, classical weight, to his theme.”
Yet, in last summer’s six-part series, the Norse god of mischief (Tom Hiddleston) is also playing with time, which suggested more unusual sounds: the wailing of a theremin and its equally eerie French cousin, the ondes Martenot.
“I’d been listening to [Lithuanian theremin virtuoso] Clara Rockmore and [BBC Radiophonic Workshop pioneer] Delia Derbyshire,” Holt explains. “The sound of the theremin has stayed with me and I’ve always wanted to use it somewhere. I just experimented and the character of it really seemed to suit the score.”
She added an electronically manipulated tick-tock sound for the Time Variance Authority and a pair of Norwegian folk instruments (Hardanger fiddle, nyckelharpa) for the mysterious Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) and her link to Loki’s mother Frigga. “I loved these two powerful forces coming together and blending them, giving [the series] the orchestral weight of Wagner but with this unusual twisty edge.”
“Moon Knight” involved vengeful Egyptian gods and their modern-day avatars, and Egyptian director Mohamed Diab needed music that was “classical, Egyptian, yet has an appeal for a normal audience,” composer Nazih says. “You feel the spirit and the vibes of Egypt within the lines of the orchestra.”
Since Khansou, the Egyptian moon god, figures prominently in the storyline, it was an astonishing coincidence that Nazih found himself in the Temple of Khansou in Luxor mere days before his first meeting with Diab. “They opened a room not usually open to visitors, one made especially for meditation and prayers. I stood up, looked up in the sky, and it was a full moon,” he recalled, thinking it a good omen for the project to come.
The moody atmosphere and the frequent battles demanded a large-scale orchestra and choir (62 musicians, 36 singers), all recorded in Vienna and augmented with soloists on Egyptian folk instruments – including the arghul and mizmar, both woodwinds, and the stringed rebaba – in Cairo. “They don’t feel like intruders to the texture of a classical orchestra,” Nazih says, “but they have a prominent presence and sonority.”
“I had a theme for Moon Knight (Oscar Isaac) and one for Harrow (Ethan Hawke); those themes chase one another and sometimes collided,” he adds.
Karpman may have faced the biggest creative challenge of all with “What If…?,” the nine-part animated series that imagined alternate realities for several Marvel heroes including Captain America, the Black Panther, Iron Man, Thor and the Avengers.
The composer quoted the characters’ movie themes, in many instances, but “filtered” through her own harmonic language, “somewhere between modernism and contemporary film scoring,” she says. “These things exist in the MCU, but we find a different angle, a different way to tell the story.”
For Emmy consideration, Marvel is entering episode 4, in which Doctor Strange, in his pre-mystic-arts surgery career, attempts to reverse the moment in time in which his girlfriend Christine Palmer survives the car crash that killed her and disabled him. “That particular episode is the most personal, poignant,” she says. “He uses his powers to undo the mistakes, so it’s a tragic love story. My job was to try and capture what it is to love, and not ever be able to find that love.”
The Watcher, narrator for each episode, is represented in the series’ main title, which features the sounds of shattered glass (for the jagged images of the many characters) and a choir singing, backwards, phrases including “what if,” “Marvel” and “Stan Lee,” co-creator of so many comic-book characters.