The ambitious scores of Game of Thrones, Utopia and new US drama The Knick are bringing a new dimension to music on TV
Have you heard how good TV is these days? By that I don’t mean the quality of the writing or the acting – I mean have you actually listened to how great music on TV is sounding at the moment? It’s hard to think of another time when so much high-quality and varied music was being produced, with a widened sonic palette suited to the increased fidelity on home cinema systems or lossless Blu-ray sound reproduction. Until quite recently, all TV music was designed to blare out at you in mono; now the constantly evolving soundscapes and artistry of music on TV has risen along with the technology. Our ears have never had it so good.
There’s quantity as well as quality. Consider an older show such as, say,Starsky & Hutch. A classic title tune, to be sure, but week in, week out, they would have to drag out the same, overly familiar cues and themes for the car chases or punch-ups. That repetitive, musical shorthand just won’t float today. Composers and musicians are arriving at TV work from a range of backgrounds and disciplines.
Game of Thrones is certainly one of the current high benchmarks of TV music. We get a full orchestral score by Ramin Djawadi (Pacific Rim, Iron Man) topped by a hugely catchy theme tune that’s so rousing it even works when sung by a cat.
We also get different themes for different locations, characters and – more often than not – a piece of music for the end titles that’s unique to that particular episode. It’s lavish stuff. There’s quantity and quality to the score for the new version of Cosmos. In the classic old version, affable stoner space scientist Carl Sagan would zip around the galaxies listening to Vangelis’s Heaven and Hell (it was the 1980s). The producers of the 2014 remake got way more than they asked for when they hired Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) – four albums’ worth to date. He has just snagged two deserved Emmys for his troubles.
As fine as those scores are, they’re very much on the conventional side of things. But today’s TV has plenty of room for more experimental, sonically ambitious soundtracking. This is also where the more unconventional talents come in. For instance, there’s Brian Reitzell’s endlessly inventive work for Hannibal, which blurs the line between music and sound effects. An ex-rock drummer who has worked with Air and Redd Kross and soundtracked 30 Days of Night and Friday Night Lights, Reitzell created a score for Hannibal that contains plenty of strange, exotic percussion instruments. It even comes loaded with morphing electronic tones that weave in and out of ranges too high or too low for human hearing, so depending on what speakers you listen to it on (and the condition of your lugholes) it will sound slightly, subtly different to everyone.
Cliff Martinez is another ex-drummer, this time for Captain Beefheart, Red Hot Chili Peppers and others, who follows his work on Drive and Solaris with one of the finest scores of the year with a wildly anachronistic arrangement for Steven Soderbergh’s new Cinemax drama The Knick. Martinez’s music, all squelchy arpeggiating sequencers, sounds more like dubby, malfunctioning house than something appropriate for a medical drama set in the New York of 1900. But it fits perfectly. You also get track names that would make a death metal band blush, such as Aortic Aneurysm Junior and the delightful Son of Placenta Previa. A little less out there is Mogwai’s sterling work for French zombie mystery Les Revenants. It’s a wonder more bands don’t do soundtrack work; part of the writing process for many musicians is to try out their chord progressions in different ways. So rather than throw away these dead ends, why not repurpose them for soundtracks where much of the work is based on variations of themes? Playing a tune slower or faster, sparser or with more instrumentation is what a lot of the work is about.
Much of this music is available to buy, either on downloads or on some great limited-edition record releases; Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s suitably paranoid, glitchy, twitchy score for Utopia is coming out on perfectly appropriate yellow vinyl. It also works for soundtracking your own day: I’m currently re-reading Dracula, and Abel Korzeniowski’s music for Penny Dreadful is proving the perfect accompaniment. You could give Les Revenants a spin while driving down empty country lanes, and Bear McCreary’s soundtrack for The Walking Dead works terrifyingly well on headphones for a rush-hour commute or supermarket shopping trip. Why not stick on the Hannibal soundtrack while you’re cooking?
What’s strange about all this great music is that it’s so rarely written about. There are plenty of sites devoted to soundtracks, but they tend to fall into the cracks between TV and music coverage – a shame when soundtracks regularly reach more ears than the bands that populate the music press.
So what are your favourites of the current crop of TV tunes?
Originally posted in The Guardian | TV and Radio Blog