Modern-day cowboys, cable-news magnates, corrupt school administrators and England’s Royal Family: Over the past year they’ve all been portrayed on cable and streaming services, and they all needed music.
Brian Tyler, who is usually busy with feature films like “Crazy Rich Asians,” took on scoring the entire 10-episode second season of Paramount’s “Yellowstone,” which stars Kevin Costner as a Montana rancher. Says Tyler: “[Showrunner] Taylor Sheridan really was making an extended movie.”
Tyler played most of the featured instruments himself: “a lot of different guitars, dobros, charangos, mandolins, percussion, drums, piano, cello, cimbalom, hurdy-gurdy,” he says. “That folksy sound we know as ‘western music’ is really a hodgepodge that immigrants brought from all over the world.”
In order to keep on schedule, Tyler read scripts and wrote music even before seeing cuts of the episodes. “I would write really long suites and thematic ideas,” he reveals. Then, Tyler recorded them with the London Philharmonic, later layering his solo instruments over the orchestra as appropriate.
The season finale, entered in this year’s Emmy competition, was “an unfolding tragedy,” Tyler adds. “They’re gearing up for a suicide mission. What was the music for that? Militaristic? Machismo? Not at all. It is the saddest adagio for cello and piano. You want to drive home what they’re feeling.”
A tragedy of another kind — how Fox News chief Roger Ailes treated female staffers at the network, leading to his downfall – is depicted in Showtime’s “The Loudest Voice.” “The music had to played from the point of view of Roger Ailes, not how we feel as outsiders about Ailes, but how he saw himself,” says composer Marcelo Zarvos (“Fences”). “This deranged man who became more and more paranoid and aggressive as he saw his power eroding.”
Zarvos, for the first time, undertook an orchestral score for a TV series. Producers wanted “a big orchestral sound” for something “operatic and grandiose,” reflecting Ailes’ own personality: “one foot in the Wagnerian world, low strings and the darkness of the cello.”
But music also needed to suggest “the fast pace of a news network,” which required electronics and drum sounds created in his studio. “This back-and-forth between the emotionality of the slow strings and the propulsion of the synths and percussion was almost like a battle between the two,” he adds.
Michael Abels, who taught at a private school before shifting into a full-time composing career after the success of his music for “Get Out” and “Us,” responded immediately to the challenge of the HBO film “Bad Education” — the fact-based story about an embezzlement scandal at a competitive Long Island public school.
“Classical music really lends itself to creating that hallowed-halls-of-ivy feeling,” says Abels. “It’s the sort of music that the Frank Tassone character [played by Hugh Jackman] genuinely likes to hear. But there’s also very minimalist music that represents the beginning of the unraveling [of financial misdeeds], and gradually the whole thing comes apart.”
A highlight of Abel’s score is the school anthem that features a choir singing in Latin. “It’s an aspirational anthem that schoolchildren might sing,” he says. “The lyrics [say], ‘teach us, inspire us, oh our redeemer, we will learn’ — a [student] anthem praising their fearless leader.”
London composer Martin Phipps joined Netflix’s “The Crown” just as the third season was starting filming. Creator-producer Peter Morgan wanted “something simpler, less grand, more minimal,” Phipps reports, “something that could make the audience lean in and engage with the characters in a way that perhaps they hadn’t in the past two seasons.”
After getting “briefs about themes and characters” from Morgan, Phipps “literally wrote an album’s worth of music for him, 12 or 15 tracks of just ideas,” the composer recounts. “He would say things like, ‘I want suppressed power, just bubbling away underneath.'”
Morgan said he didn’t want “The Crown” to sound like “a Sunday-night BBC drama.” So Phipps’ music could not be “stuck in period-music land. … It’s about creating an interesting, singular world and sound palette. That can include electronics, or whatever might connect with our characters.”
The most challenging episode (and the one entered for Emmy) was episode 3, set primarily in Aberfan, Wales after a coal-mining disaster killed 84 children. “I had to make the audience feel emotion for somebody who couldn’t feel emotion. The Queen was unable to feel what she should feel in a tragedy like this, and somehow I had to communicate that to viewers.”
For a dialogue-less sequence where Elizabeth walks through the village, Phipps found that “a high French horn doing a very simple little motif hopefully captured the conflict within her, the emotion she wanted to feel, and the sadness that we felt, putting ourselves in her situation.”