TV's Top Tunesmiths Strive to Serve Drama with Music
The current TV landscape is energized by the work of such exceptional composers as Danny Elfman (The Simpsons), Mike Post (NYPD Blue), James Newton Howard (ER) and Mark Snow (The X-Files).
The red-hot composer of the moment is W.G. Snuffy Walden, whose thrilling and heartfelt theme music for NBC's The West Wing recently won him his first Emmy Award.
Walden's music, which has struck a responsive chord with viewers as well, sounds so inevitably right that it's hard to imagine any other theme opening the Wednesday night hit. Another one very nearly did, however. "When they originally were cutting the film together to present it as a pilot, they used some of the music John Williams had written for the Olympics," Walden explains. "It was big and fast and moving and great. But Aaron (Sorkin, the show's creator) also had told me he was interested in something edgy, with almost a rock edge and a big beat, Phil Collins-ish. So I wrote a couple of musical sketches like that.
"At the same time, I was writing (the musical underscoring) for the first
few episodes. ... In episode three, I had written a musical cue for a
scene in which everything had worked out and we were all feeling very
'American'. I played the cue for Tommy (Schlamme, director and executive
producer), and he said, 'Wait. That's our theme.' So I took the essence
of that cue, and this is where we wound up."
Snow can empathize, because he certainly struggled to find that distinctive
theme for The X-Files.
"I put my hand down on the keyboard where I had some echo machine in place, and I heard that repetitive sound in the accompaniment that opens the piece, the 'deedle-ee, deedle-ee, deedle-ee.' I thought, 'Hey, that's good.' For the melody, I went through everything, woodwinds, voices, saxophones, and they all sounded very ordinary, until I stumbled on that whistling sound. I was floored when it turned into this huge musical cult hit."
Snow subsequently became the go-to guy for dark projects such as Carter's own Millennium and Harsh Realm and spooky Dean Koontz TV movies, so he relishes an opportunity to try something completely different, such as the rousing, swing-inflected theme song to TNT's Wall Street drama Bull.
"(Bull executive producer) Michael Chernuchin told me he loved swing music and wanted something in that vein," Snow says. "Originally, I wrote the same tune but the orchestration was full-blown traditional swing, with trumpets and clarinets, just like Gene Krupa or Benny Goodman. He loved it, but the studio thought it was too old-fashioned."
"I was caught in the middle, a very awkward position.... I knew (the studio) wanted to hear something with smacko rhythm up front, so I did that and took out the trombones, trumpets and clarinets. Everyone thought it was the greatest, and it made everyone happy. There were times I didn't know where we were heading, but I'm glad it turned out well."
While Snow says it isn't especially tough to find varying sounds for different Carter spookfests, Walden ironically says he found his West Wing assignment easier than coming up with the right theme for Once and Again, the ABC drama by his TV mentors, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz.
"The first musical cue I ever wrote was for Thirtysomething, so Ed and Marshall trained me, sometimes brutally, those first few years, teaching me about what they did. They taught me how to write music like a scriptwriter," Walden says. "(With Once and Again), to go back in with them and not do what we had done before was a whole challenge in itself, and all three of us struggled to find something that reflected their style of writing, my style of playing and do it with a fresh take."
Snow says he gets a kick out of hearing other musicians play around with his X-Files theme, although he would just as soon never again hear the techno-dance travesty devised by one Australian band ("very square, very aggressive, hostile, loud"). Walden has a Windham Hill solo album scheduled for release in early 2001. That CD will include a specially composed "West Wing Suite" as well as a track with the theme as it is heard on TV.
"I have had more than my share of exceptional experiences in television, with Thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, The Wonder Years and I'll Fly Away," Walden says. "I've been blessed, but (West Wing) is one of those rare beasts. The number of Emmy Awards alone sets it above and beyond (the norm) and is representative of what is going on with America's relationship with the show. "I knew from the start that it was a good show. What I didn't think would happen is that we would reach out and touch so many people so deeply."Source: John Crook, November 2000.
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