Changing yesterday’s sound: Hit scores of the small-screen
Feb 28, 2020
Creating a tense and eerie atmosphere in film and TV has a lot to do with the visual. However, it’s often sound that makes the biggest impact – foreshadowing the action on screen, and intensifying its impact on audiences. In recent months, two works in particular grabbed the eyes and ears of their audiences – the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems and the BBC’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If you were to look at the visuals of these two pieces, they couldn’t appear more different. But listen closely, and their scores tell a different story – illustrating the lengths composers must go to in creating an impact on today’s audience.
No humans were harmed in the making of this score
Bram Stoker’s Dracula has enjoyed a long history on our screens. From the first film adaptation back in 1931, to the success enjoyed by the vampire in the Hammer Horror films throughout the 1960s and 70s. Writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, the duo behind BBC fan-favourite Sherlock, were tasked with reinventing the vampire in his latest appearance – and they didn’t disappoint. The pair brought the Count back with a bang – revamping the cast, bringing some of the action to the modern day, and employing a tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign that made ingenious use of light, shadow and glass. And while the visuals onscreen were suitably terrifying, it’s the sound of crying children, screeching bats and feasting beasts that truly get our blood-curdling. The series owes all this to Emmy award-winning duo, Michael Price and David Arnold.
Recorded in London’s infamous Air Studios, the Dracula score is a work of artistic genius that succeeds in bringing even the undead back to life. As Price and Arnold explain, we the audience “live in a world of previous Dracula music”, so finding a new sound for this Dracula was no mean feat. Like the vampire himself, the library of Dracula music carries a legacy all of its own, and it quickly became clear it was going to take more than a few eerie violin sounds to, as Price and Arnold call it, “bring the stench of Dracula into the room.” To say the duo adopted an ‘organic’ approach to the score could not be taken more literally. Like the Count plays with his victims, Price and Arnold took a visceral approach to the vampiric score – shunning all electronic sounds in favour of the organic. From pulling audio of screeching bats and crying children from the depths of the BBC sound archive, to running fingers round the rims of wine glasses filled with blood – we’ve been assured it wasn’t human – and using coffin lids as percussion, Price and Arnold well and truly poured life into their score. In this musical endeavour, Gothic motifs function as instruments whose sounds resurrect the undead, as modern musical genius bleeds life into archaic fear.
A gem of a soundtrack
On the surface, the modern urbanity of Uncut Gems (Adam Sandler’s Netflix foray into the New York Diamond district) couldn’t be a further cry from the Victorian visuals and organicism found in Dracula. But just as Price and Arnold’s soundtrack struck fear into the hearts of audiences, Josh and Benny Safdie combined incongruous audio-visuals to creates a sensory experience that simultaneously overwhelms and terrifies. Their directing and Sandler’s sensational performance plunges audiences head-first into the woes of Jewish-American jeweller, Harold Ratner, in 2012 New York. Like the horror and blood spilled before Dracula viewers, the glittering visuals of Ratner’s opal combine with the noise, colour and threat of New York in a narrative described by one Guardian critic as “so stressful it should come with a panic attack warning”.
The visual in this film would be nothing without the audio accompaniment – a genius score composed by electronic musician, Daniel Lopatin, otherwise known as ‘Oneohtrix Point Never’. Inspired by Greek musician, Vangelis – famed for the orchestral soundscapes of Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire – Lopatin’s electronic score uses a series of synths to negotiate between the cosmic power of Ratner’s ancient opal and the modern, urban cacophony of 2012 New York. Speaking of the composition and his creation of a “musical language”, Lopatin admits he “still to this day cannot tell what the score sounds like”. Whilst he favours the electronic to Price and Arnold’s organic, like the Dracula-duo, Lopatin approached his score by “embracing the past in a surrogate-like way” – referencing the 1970s synth-records of yesterday which inspired his score. Like Price and Arnold’s discussion of their relationship with Dracula’s musical legacy, Lopatin too wrestled with the obstacle of creating a new sound potent enough to bring a familiar landscape back to life. His score competes with the character of the city – not only its ambient urban noise, but the overlapping fast chatter of Ratner and his fellow New Yorkers, just as Michael Price and David Arnold had to find a sound robust enough to navigate Dracula’s overtly Gothic visuals and literary legacy.
The power and success of these two recent scores is deafening – a sentiment echoed by The New York Times’ critique of Uncut Gems:
One thing’s for certain; Price and Arnold’s declaration that a score serves as the “architectural underpinning of any series” couldn’t be more justified. And just as music forms these foundations for a TV show, it should do the same for a brand as a building block of their identity.