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Composer Mark Snow puts the super-shivers in a very hot sci-fi show.
Orange County Register
SANTA MONICA, Calif. - Aliens don't give Mulder and Scully the quivers
on The X-Files. What really jangles the daring FBI duo is composer
Mark Snow's moody music score.
Right now, Snow is busy spooking up X-Files' fourth season of
paranormal pursuits in his cozy home studio in Santa Monica. He's also
scoring the first season of Millennium, the apocalyptic saga
of serial killers from X-Files creator Chris Carter, premiering
Friday on Fox. And if it seems weird to hear the sounds of alien abduction,
killer viruses, bloody mutilation and incestuous genetic mutation emanating
from such a sunny, well-heeled corner of Southern California, it suits
the dry-witted Music Man X-traordinaire quite well.
Today, as he does three to five days a week, classically trained Snow
sits at the keyboard of his well-used Synclavier - a digital audio recording
system - and improvises in sync to a videotape of the latest X-Files.
It's the sound that is shivering the world. As you chat in Snow's studio,
a FedEx guy delivers a package from France. It's a kitschy-looking Disque
d'Or - a gold record for selling 100,000 copies of The X-Files
theme in the land of brie. And two other X-Files albums - Songs
in the Key of X and the just-released The Truth and the Light
- have made Snow nuclear-hot.
Yet Snow, 50, looks like an unlikely X-Files kinda guy. Trim,
bald, clad in black jeans and T-shirt, he seems shy and serious when
you ring his doorbell. Later, he warms when you start talking music
of all kinds, as he relaxes with eager cocker spaniels Bixon, Cowboy
and Poppy at his feet and the score for this season's fifth episode
of X-Files in the can.
Q. Do X-Files fans expect you to look weirder?
A. I do surprise them. I've been
thinking about Hair Club for Men and ear-piercing.
Q. So how did you get the X-Files gig?
A. Through R.W. Goodwin, an executive
producer on X-Files who I'd worked with on TV movies. I think
they looked at about 20 people or so.
And for Millennium, Chris and I already had the shorthand.
Q. How did you cook up the X-Files theme?
A. I was having a miserable time
coming up with the The X-Files theme, and Chris Carter was being
real nudgy about it and obsessive about it. And I called my agent and
said, "You know, you might have to get me out of this, because this
guy's driving me nuts."
We did The X-Files main title (theme) five times before Chris
liked what was happening. I mean, he was very polite, but I finally
said, "Why don't you just politely go away and we'll start from scratch?"
Literally an hour after he walked out of the room, I put my hand down
and there was a sound there – that repeated duh-duh-duh-duh. And I said,
that could be the rhythm, now we need a pad under it, a melody. I tried
a female voice, a female chorus, a boy chorus, saxophones, piccolos,
guitars, oboes, trumpets. And I thought "Ordinary, not cool."
Then that whistle thing popped in and I said: "Wow. I haven't heard
that in a long time."
Q. You'd heard the whistle before?
A. Well, you know The Andy Griffith
Show has it - in a different kind of music.
(In fact, Snow studied with Andy Griffith composer Earl Hagen.)
A. There's a real, real special
eerieness to the whistle that plays so well against the show. I mean,
you think X-Files - Nyeeahhh. (Here Snow emits a big, screeching,
But this whistle has mystery and simplicity and transparency.
Anyway, in typical (understated) Chris Carter fashion, when he heard
it he said, "I like it. Hmm. It's good."
Q. What's Chris Carter like to work with?
A. Well, I have seen him get really
angry, but not with me, not about the music. I've seen him get down
on an editor, or a director, or the head of the studio, screaming, "We
need more money."
At the beginning, Chris wanted a lot of music in the show (The X-Files).
And I think he didn't have all that much experience producing this kind
of show. And so in all these scenes where Mulder and Scully are walking
down the hall or sitting in the car, there are long stretches where
we could probably do without the music, but we've established this thing.
So I'm kind of like their third partner, their unseen imaginary friend,
lurking there. And it's held up.
In fact, David Duchovny (who plays agent Fox Mulder) sent me a picture
of himself signed, "Thank you for giving subtext to my performance where
there isn't any."
And I appreciated his candor.
Q. What's the Mark Snow sound?
A. I bring a sense of real instruments
A lot of composers start here (Snow gestures at his Synclavier), and
their sound is very cold and unmusical. It's very important to me that
X-Files sound as musical as possible - human, warm and emotional,
although still in the electronic setting.
And you have to weigh each scene on its own. A little electronic music
goes a long way. Scully's father comes back as a vision - that had to
be really emotional, but really emotional in X-Files language.
That meant not a cornball, florid, over-the-top melody but a simple,
heartfelt melody like Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.
Sometimes you have to lay low with it and go simple or neutral, because
what's happening on video is so wild. Charles Nelson Reilly telling
an anecdote, or The Men in Black show up - it's so abnormal that big
music or busy music would really hurt it.
In the global conspiracy shows, you don't really get into ethnic sounds.
It's more the straight-ahead big X-Files. But these so-called
boutique shows, as I call them, give you the ability to experiment.
We did a lot of African chanting and drums on last week's show, about
an African man who put a curse on people and turned them into albinos.
And I never do any special sounds for Mulder or Scully. It's always
about the situation they're in. Sometimes I come up with a musical theme
that recurs that's about the protagonist, the killer, the bad situation,
but for Mulder or Scully - never.
Q. How do you work?
A. First, Carter sends me a VHS
copy of the next X-Files to watch. The next day, usually, I get
a video to score.
An easy day is scoring seven to 10 minutes of music. A killer day is
scoring 20. That's the limit.
(The average 45- to 46-minute episode of X-Files uses about 38
minutes of Snow's music.)
If I have a real tough schedule, I love to get up very early, like 6
a.m., and be in the studio before 7 and really jump on it. I don't like
to write at night. I'm not obsessed, but when I get into it I'm really
focused. I rarely have writer's block. I don't need a writing room in
the woods or at the beach. For me, if this was in the North Pole, or
it's dark, or it's Hawaii, it wouldn't mean nothin'. I get the sound
from what I see in my head.
Then, after I score, my audio engineer, Larold Rebhun, comes in and
adjusts the echo and EQ and highs and lows, and then he plays it for
me. And I make my adjustments - too much violin, not enough piano. Later,
Chris comes in, or one of the other producers, and sits right where
you are and says, "It's a little strong there". Or "We need a ping there
where the girl gets hit."
Q. How did you segue from studying classical music at Juilliard to TV?
A. I came to L.A. cold in 1974.
My wife's sister, Tyne Daley, was married at the time to Georg Stanford
Brown, who was on Aaron Spelling's The Rookies. So I took my
first demo tape - which was a joke, it was ridiculous - to Aaron Spelling,
and he said, "That sounds good." And that was my first job. Other shows
came up, and very slowly I started to break in.
Q. Was that actually your name in the music credits on the pilot of
NBC's new sci-fi show Dark Skies?
A. Yes. You know, NBC told me the
show was really something else, more of a '60s period piece, not sci-fi.
Then I saw it.
(The Fox network was not pleased to have Snow, the sound of The X-Files,
working on a rival network's show. Snow no longer works on Dark Skies.)
Q. So what are your best and worst X-Files moments?
A. The best thing is getting a scene
that's just full of great character revelations to score. The hardest
thing is when it isn't good, or when you get a long, shlogging chase
scene to deal with. But I'll have to say we get very few bad moments
on this show.
You know, I could see X-Files was a cool show the first time
I saw it, but I didn't expect all this. I mean, when I got the job I
didn't feel like Steven Spielberg had called and offered me Schindler's
And I certainly would love to be doing big movie scores. But I'm 50.
I've been doing this for 20 years. In terms of TV work, you know this
is as good as it gets.
Source: Kinney Littlefield; The Orange County Register
(Santa Ana, Calif.) October 24, 1996
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