TV's Mood Music, 11.20.02 ...
If you're a bad guy and you hear a ton of percussion, you're in trouble.
That's the sound of a police chase on ABC's "NYPD Blue."
"The first thing we look at is the tempo, how fast the chase is. We lay down the drums," said Atli Orvarsson, composer and orchestrator for Mike Post Productions. Led by longtime TV composer Post, the company produces background music or scores for "NYPD Blue," "Law & Order" and other shows.
"The percussion track can change if it (the chase) goes to a different level.
It wouldn't speed up; it would get more intense. We'll add a layer of drums," Orvarsson said. "On top of that, we'll put string, bass and keyboard sounds. We try to follow the action in a scene; what happens in a scene dictates what we do.
"We use percussion loops (on a computer); it's techno, hip-hop. We might add timpanis and concert bass drums," he said.
But drama in background music doesn't have to be complicated. A single note by a solo instrument can be powerful.
Just listen to the slow, extended bow of a soulful cello. You might just find yourself in the lab of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" as Gil Grissom (William Petersen) examines a clue.
Not that the music doesn't get gritty in this fall's highest-rated show.
"CSI" music supervisor Jason Alexander (not the "Seinfeld" actor) said he favors organic and electronic music that reflects the drama's pursuit of science. He uses European bands that defy the recording industry's labels of rock, pop and soul. (The theme song, though, is The Who's "Who Are You?")
Approach to music in TV varies according to the show, but some trends are clear. Music today is much more subtle than it was 30 or 40 years ago when every fight scene, every argument had to be emphasized with dramatic brass.
By today's standards, those musical cues are melodramatic cliches, and composers avoid them like an out-of-tune piano.
"It's not as over-the-top," said John M. Keane, composer for "CSI." "But they didn't have all the technology we have today."
Technology allows better manipulation of all sounds including the cars in a background, and that means the space for music is more limited and has to be used carefully, Keane explained.
Today's composers know how to say a lot with a few notes, and they realize simpler is better.
And music today uses much more from non-Western cultures, including instruments from the Mideast, Africa and Asia.
Keane said he realizes "CSI," with its emphasis on forensics police work, is a strange, mysterious world and the music must reflect that. To get that feel for the show, Keane uses instruments such as a Turkish sav, a string instrument that sounds like a mandolin; a du duk, an Armenian wind instrument; and African mallet instruments. Keane creates and records sounds on the 12 to 15 Macintosh computers and PCs he uses for the show.
But despite the popular trends, composers still vary in their approaches to their shows. It's those differences, more so than the popular trends, that give each show its own personality. Without those differences, TV would be nothing more than a (yawn) lullaby.
"You want to stay out of the way (of the acting). If you don't put in a lot (of music), it means more," said Danny Pelfrey, composer for NBC's "American Dreams. "But sometimes you might want to be melodramatic. There's nothing wrong with that. The tone of the show might demand extreme drama; it's not an invalid approach."
Composer Jonathan Wolff said sitcoms allow composers to be less subtle. For "Seinfeld," he used the slap bass, usually an accompaniment instrument, as a lead instrument in the theme, along with hand-and-mouth popping sounds. For "Reba," he uses a lone baritone saxophone against drums to bridge scenes.
And on "Will & Grace," he wrote the fast, wild piano theme song.
"I can be as outrageous as I want to be," Wolff said.
For "CSI," Keane said he tries to keep the music interesting. "We try to do the unexpected and not do the obvious.
"There has to be a marriage between music and sound effects. If there's a ticking clock or a heartbeat, I'll send (the sound effects supervisor) the music," he said.
"I brought in a cellist for the Nov. 7 show. I like the juxtaposition of an organic instrument against the ambience. It's very nice to use one pure instrument against the technology," Keane said.
Some composers and producers see music as a punctuation mark, emphasizing emotional highs and lows. Others treat music as another character in the show. And still others feel music can go beyond being a mirror and bring additional insight to a scene.
"Music is one of the most important parts," said J.J. Abrams, creator and executive producer of the ABC spy drama "Alias" and the writer of its theme song. "The music doesn't tip your hand what's going to happen next. But it helps the audience to feel what they should feel at a moment."
Heck, music can even contradict a scene for the sake of humor. On The WB's "The Gilmore Girls" this fall, Joey Ramone sang a fast version of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World," as Luke (Scott Patterson) and his uncle Jeff pounded down walls with a sledgehammer.
Blake Neely, composer for the network's "Everwood," said he steered away from writing purely sad music for the funeral scene of the wife of Dr. Andrew Brown (Treat Williams). He made the music hopeful. "Our show is about dealing with grief and moving on."
As the art of storytelling has changed, so has the music.
There are gray areas and gray characters on the CBS law drama "The Guardian."
Show composer Jon Ehrlich keeps that in mind.
"It's nothing like it was 10, 20 years ago," Ehrlich said. "The old approach to scoring was like the old approach to storytelling. It was very much about who's black, who's white, who's good, who's bad. It was more paint by numbers. But nobody's all good, and nobody's all bad."
But not everything falls in a gray area. For "Alias," composer Michael Giacchino uses instruments to separate the good guys from the bad: a cello being played close to its bridge for the evil Sloane, a French horn for the CIA's heroic Vaughn.
Composers say the reason for today's more subtle music is as much creative as it is economic.
For "American Dreams," an NBC drama set in 1963 in Philadelphia, composer Pelfrey strives for an American sound through a small studio group with acoustic guitars, piano, a solo woodwind, strings and a cello.
"You don't want to necessarily overwhelm the material with a huge orchestra," Pelfrey said.
Credit: My InKy
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