With an increase in film-style production on television shows in recent years, their soundtracks and original scores have also had a similar rise in quality. Amy Jay Britton looks through some of them
Film is one of my great loves. Whereas television is something you either have time to watch a lot or not, there is something about film that is more to do with making time; even if you do not have the luxury of hours to watch a lot of them at your disposal, absorbing each element of the art form, ideally settled into the retreat that is a cinema or gallery, is something that I find enriching and rewarding. When I say “every element,” naturally this includes soundtrack and score too. But recent years have seen so much change in the way we consume media that the feel of television has often reached merged into something much more ‘filmic’, including in its use of score.
There are certainly many distinct examples of this (I am aware that there may be some very worthy examples that I fail to name as the fact I do not have Netflix or any similar service leaves me not only without a modern-day euphemism for sex but also probably unaware of lots of relevant contemporary television) , acting in the way film scores would do but also adapting many of its traditions for the small screen medium. Take for example James Lavelle’s score for “American Horror Story” Were horror soundtracks have traditionally been sweeping dramatic pieces perfectly tuned to blare from cinema surround-sound in particularly panic-stricken moments, Lavelle created something much more measured and understated, with the sound of traditional horror soundtracks still very much at its core. It seems to fit perfectly with the moments of split-second still black screens that make up the unconventional editing, lulling into a false sense of security.
The minimal and beautiful nature of Mogwai’s original score for French drama Le Revenants seemed to follow the shows unique, genre-defying nature in a way which flowed with the story and the elegantly still cinematography that showed anybody expected a traditional “zombie” show would be very disappointed. Mogwai’s score felt like a breath running through the body of the concept. Adding twists on traditional themes is perhaps the best way to adapt from one medium to another. “Deutschland 83” and its currently screening sequel “Deutschland 86,” sealed its feel as a very modern take on the spy thriller with moments of crisp sounding eighties synth, whilst another spy thriller-but-not-as-we-know-it , the hugely popular and acclaimed “Killing Eve” used a mix of classic songs and original score to such sublime effect that it was the inspiration for this piece. Where previous spy dramas were an exercise in masculinity, “Killing Eve” was not just female-centric, but actively feminine, turning the genre completely on its head with the sexual undertones of its power play.
The original score by the Unloved, the act formed by David Holmes with vocalist Jade Vincent, was so fitting and stunning that it felt like part of the storytelling itself, Vincent’s sensual vocals the perfect match. The rest of the soundtrack was just as fitting – scenes in Paris saw the charming vocals of classic Gallic chanteuses such as Francois Hardy and Anna Karina giving the city an aural and yet again distinctly feminine identity, and a later scene were Eve’s speculative description of the enigmatic female assassin she is playing cat and mouse with gives way to Cats Eye’s “Girl in The Room” to devastating effect, Rachel Zeffira’s stunning vocals sounding tailor-made for that moment. (For further evidence of harnessing raw female power through score, see also the carefully selected music for “The Handmaid Tale,” defiant closing tracks such as Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” and X-Ray Spex “O Bondage! Up Yours!” giving a hint of potential triumph amongst the traumatically bleak, seemingly endless adversity.)
Francois Truffaut famously claimed that “before television, people had stared at the fire,” as reflection of the human demand for moving pictures. But would people have been less entranced by a fire which blazed with odd silence? Visuals alone have always drawn the demand for sound, with silent films often warranting the appearance of a live pianist, and bit by bit the compound of the two elements – from projectors and pianos to computer screens – has shrunk in a way that can be almost beneficial to the contributing artists, in the sense of the instant, democratic nature of television. Yes, I know this is a factor in the amount of weak television out there, but for those contributing to soundtracks it can contribute to a career breakthrough or revival of interest, as a strong enough piece of music can instantly prompt the viewer to look it up and make themselves aware of the artist.
Whilst some of the aforementioned scores have been so expertly handled by established musicians, television could be the perfect medium to recruit new, talented composers and give them a whole wider audience than cinema. Of course, cinema has spent many years worrying that film would take over, and I certainly don’t think it has or even ever will. But with an increase in expansive and quality productions warranting the very best in soundtracks, the fire that we are staring it has developed a whole extra dimension; that of the visual storyteller holding hands with the aural and taking a detour through our living rooms on the journey.