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Behind the Theme: My Big Score

Updated: Jul 9

This week, Chris Dole (Arden) released his latest show - My Big Score. The show features interviews with audio drama creators and other podcasters in which the subject describes their favorite score. The first episode features Sarah Shachat of Wolf 359 discussing Howard Shore's score for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

My theme for My Big Score is one of my favorites I've worked on this year. It features woodwinds, entirely live players (zero software instruments), and a strong melody - all of which are my core musical interests at the moment. The theme also shows the journey a piece of music can take before it finds a home.

First off, you can give the theme a listen here:

This piece started out as a theme for another show I am currently scoring. I was creating a proof-of-concept collection of 3 or 4 musical ideas for the show, and this melody was one of them. My ideas almost always develop the same way - I read the script, take in the concepts / characters / etc., and record ideas into my phone by either singing or playing guitar or piano. This piece started with a piano improvisation.

I used to create themes by searching for an idea on an instrument and laboring over every note until I had the entire idea fleshed out and ready to be recorded. The problem with this approach is that you can easily take an entire day creating something that either you or the director won't like tomorrow. By sitting down and improvising or singing into the phone, I can have 5 ideas sketched out in 30 minutes. I've come to the conclusion that the core idea is 95% of the success of the music. Now, that remaining 5% is what people can dive into a fall in love with over time, but the core power of the music lies in the most simple phrase.

So I presented this initial idea to the producer of another show and it was passed on. As fate would have it, Chris reached out looking for a classically-inspired piece with a strong melody for his new podcast, My Big Score.

Chris' brief follows:

I'm writing today because I'm looking to commission a theme for a new nonfiction podcast. It's called My Big Score and every episode is me interviewing a different creative about their favorite film score.

Looking for that kind of rousing, warm swell in the A-section, with something maybe a bit darker in the B (and even a C-section, if you want to get spicy lol), then moving back to the A for a triumphant conclusion. The vibe that I've found in recording episodes of the show so far is that these conversations get a lot deeper than anticipated because I'm speaking to incredibly creative, passionate people about a subject they never get to talk about and often have very personal feelings attached to their choice of topic.

There are a few things here that I greatly appreciate to have as places to begin from. First, Chris expressed the elevator pitch of his show - Interviewing creatives about their favorite film scores. From this alone, I know that the music needs to feel artistic and well-crafted in order to support the premise that the subjects of the interviews are artists. I also know from this that I have to somehow stand alongside other great film scores!

From that first paragraph I knew that I needed a memorable melody, interesting orchestration or timbres, and a piece that evolved or developed. I gravitated toward a memorable melody because when I think of film scoring my mind goes to John Williams and Ennio Morricone - two of the greatest melodists of the art form, and whose work is recognized by a large audience. I felt that a surprising timbre was necessary to capture the subjects - artists. And I felt that the piece should evolve or develop over time to stand in contrast to many contemporary pop styles that loop phrases for 3 minutes (I can love repetitive music btw!)

The point in going into such detail is that every decision around the framework of the piece is decided by the brief of the commission. These limits give me a musical world to construct that will be in service to the greater vision of the show.

Combined with my piano sketch that contained the melody and chords, I could now start to plan the theme out. I imagined a sea or thick layer of fog that the melody could emerge from. This base layer, which ends up creating the harmony or chords of the piece, is orchestrated using Flute, Violin, Clarinet, Cello, and Moog synthesizer. I love to combine woodwinds and strings of similar ranges to add the top end harmonics of strings with the gentle mid-range of winds (scroll down to the video on waveforms for more of an explanation on this). The Moog is my favorite bass sound (tied with a Fender Jazz bass), and for something atmospheric I knew the Moog could be programmed to drift in and blend like the soft attacks of winds and strings. Other than the bass, each of these instruments takes turns playing the melody, furthering the organic feeling of the piece - I imagine the melody moving like a cloud opening up a spot for the sun to shine in a bit before closing the gap for another to emerge.

Chris explicitly stated that he wanted a B-section, or in other words a new part that somehow counters the main melody, or A-section. For an example of this, check out the first minute of Beethoven's fifth below:

At the 00:45 mark you'll notice a change in the emotion. This speaks to the main and very recognizable A-section, but counters it or responds musically almost as if to say, "but what about this?"

My B-section comes in at 1:06. You can scrub to that second and listen here:

The B-section rises with motion of the notes and rhythm in a manner that is juxtaposed against the main melody. It still has some DNA of the A-section though - for instance instruments take turns repeating the new musical phrase. And while winds and strings lead the A-section, the B-section prominently features brass. Brass also has a more metallic tone (caused by resembling square waves when played at higher intensities) which creates a very obvious contrast from the gentle sine-like tones of winds and soft strings. Here is a video on waveforms that helps explain some of these tonal differences:

Towards the end of the B-section, bells emerge with tape echo creating a double-speed rhythm. Then we get a recapitulation of the A-section and the theme is out.

I love the music and am glad that Chris gravitated to the melody, and I am particularly proud of the fact that every single note is played by a human on an acoustic instrument (other than the Moog!). Of course this is harder to mix, more expensive, and probably not even noticeable to the common listener, but I truly believe that subconsciously the inconsistencies of a human performance through air into a microphone has an emotional power that software can't replace. And the effort required of this approach naturally leads to greater care and craftsmanship. My intention is to keep musicians payed and to approach every piece of music as an opportunity to discover alongside others. Thank you Chris!

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