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Composers for ‘Severance,’ ‘Boba Fett’ and Other Series Push the Boundaries of Sci-Fi Scoring

The scorers for “Severance,” “Foundation,” “The Book of Boba Fett,” “Halo" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth" find fresh ways to accentuate the strange.

Adam Scott in 'Severance'
Courtesy of Apple

Science fiction has been the springboard for musical flights of fancy as long as TV and movies have been around. And this year there have been multiple examples of composers rising to the occasion for ambitious multi-part television series, .

Severance is a rare TV project for Theodore Shapiro, a composer better known for his features (“The Devil Wears Prada”). Ben Stiller, who directed six of the nine episodes, relies on Shapiro for his film scores (“Tropic Thunder,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) and sought him out for this psychological thriller about a mysterious corporation whose workers undergo a medical procedure that ensures their work lives and home lives remain completely separate.

“As soon as I started reading scripts, I started writing themes,” Shapiro reports. One of his early musical ideas interested Stiller, and that turned into the “Severance” theme. “With that, this score really became rooted in one chord progression and a melodic idea on top of it.

“It plays (as) mystery,” Shapiro explains. “There’s a fundamental mystery at the core of this show. [Each episode] peels back layers, essentially getting at the question, what is happening here at Lumon Industries? What does it all mean? And deeper questions like what is the nature of self?” The piano-and-strings combination provided much of the score with “a very intimate, chamber sound that felt right,” he says.

One of the most interesting musical effects in the Apple+ series is a stuttering, distorted radio-frequency noise that is in reality “a reversed piano note” that Shapiro digitally manipulated with an abrupt cutoff. “It represents the fraying of the self,” he notes.

Foundation has become one of the most ambitious TV projects ever for composer Bear McCreary (“Outlander”). Based on the novels by sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov, the Apple+ series is a 10-part, galaxy-spanning future epic of ruthless emperors, brilliant scientists and inevitable clashes with the destinies of entire planets at stake.

Creator David S. Goyer enlisted McCreary early. “I had been thinking about the show for five years,” McCreary says. “I’d been developing new software for one year. Then I spent a month or two writing themes, so when it was ‘go’ time, it really poured out of me.”

The software innovation was inspired by “Foundation” character Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) whose advanced mathematics predict mankind’s future. “We developed a random number generator that would create orchestral colors, thus giving a sense of mathematics to the music. I could control the harmony, the color, which orchestral instruments get triggered – I could shape the chaos into something emotionally pleasing.”

The “dazzling, sparkling textures” that resulted were only a part of the fabric of the “Foundation” tapestry: a 90-piece European orchestra, 32-voice choir, “old-school, tried-and-true techniques layered atop this very modern, computer-inspired idea.” Ancient instruments (viola da gamba) and international ones (duduk, erhu) added unique colors to various characters and storylines. “There was a lot of world-building; all of these planets needed to have a sense of culture,” McCreary adds; some music was even written before shooting and incorporated into the story.

Ludwig Göransson (“The Mandalorian”) and Joseph Shirley collaborated on The Book of Boba Fett,” Lucasfilm’s seven-part addition to the “Star Wars” canon on Disney+. Göransson composed the main themes (that’s his voice humming throughout the score) and Shirley arranged the music for each episode, adding original material as necessary.

The unusual vocals (mostly sung by a nine-voice baritone chorus) gave the title character “a tribal, primal, almost ceremonial” sound, Shirley says, that worked for the flashbacks to his past, “where he’s connecting with the Tuscan raiders and becoming a part of their tribe, their family.” The more modern timeline, covering his years as a crime boss, required “more of an orchestral, classical mystic theme,” Shirley says.

The entire “Boba Fett” score needed “a grittier texture, savage, harder hitting,” than the “Mandalorian” music that won Göransson two consecutive Emmys (and to which Shirley contributed additional music in its second season). They used a brass-heavy, 75-piece Los Angeles orchestra, he reports.

For the emotional scene in episode 3 where Boba Fett’s Tuscan family is massacred, Shirley wrote an original motet (“really solemn, almost ceremonial”) in the “Star Wars” Mando’a language (the words, translated, mean “family is more than blood… my friends, my friends…”).

For Halo,” the Paramount+ adaptation of the popular video game, composer Sean Callery (“24”) alluded to the classic game music but, as the series “needed new themes, new sounds and new colors,” although he notes that “there are things in all nine episodes that harken back to certain story points in the game.”

The opening seconds of the theme, for example, allude to the Gregorian-chant choir from the game, but done with female vocalists and solo cello. “I was very conscious about respecting the body of work that came about before my involvement,” Callery says.

He spent a year crafting fresh music, including a theme for Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) that suggested he was “fundamentally discovering who he was, reaching for his authentic truth.” Kwan (Yerin Ha), the girl he rescues, needed music of “innocence and strength,” Callery says.

“There is a religious, spiritual quality” to many of the themes, he adds. The nine-part series took a year to score, with multiple Los Angeles sessions for 51-piece orchestra and 12-voice choir. “This required so much precision and coordination, working with multiple voices who had creative input into the music.”

Jeff Russo (“Fargo,” “Star Trek: Discovery”) remembers his initial conversations with “The Man Who Fell to Earth” showrunner Alex Kurtzman: “Let’s not try and make a science-fiction-sounding score. It shouldn’t be tech-y or synth-y. We want to play it like an emotional drama.”

He worked on the series for 18 months, writing for a 70-piece orchestra recorded over eight sessions in London studios. “I really wanted to give it a lot of feeling,” Russo says. “The performances are so spectacular that I didn’t need music to fix anything, so that freed me to think only about the narrative.”

There is one main theme but much of the score consists of “character-connection themes,” including music related to Faraday (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Justin (Naomie Harris) and Josiah (Clarke Peters).

As for the 1976 David Bowie film – the current Showtime series is a sequel – the titles of each episode and subtle references peppered throughout the show seemed a sufficient tip of the hat to the musician-actor. “I felt like I didn’t need to do much of that,” Russo says.