The Primetime Creative Arts Emmys celebrated behind-the-scenes artists on Sunday — including composers recognized for their work on shows like Elementary, House of Cards, and The Borgias. The characters in the series they work on play more than a small role in shaping the shows’ sounds, as EW learned in talking to the nominees in the music score categories on the carpet ahead of the ceremony, which will air on FXX this Saturday.
Starz’s Da Vinci’s Demons won the award for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music, while Downton Abbey won for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series, and ReelzChannel’s World Without End snagged the award for Outstanding Music Composition for a Miniseries, Movie, or Special.
Read on to learn more about the making of the music for five shows.
Da Vinci’s Demons
Bear McCreary gave himself a very difficult task when writing the theme music for this Starz series about a young Leonardo da Vinci: he maid the opening titles music a palindrome — it sounds the same whether you play it forwards or in reverse — a nod to da Vinci’s legendary backward writing.
The composer aimed to “write a theme that was melodic and memorable and sort of felt like a renaissance version of a superhero theme because I’m working with [The Dark Knight trilogy producer] David S. Goyer. And da Vinci’s imagination and his mind — he’s so far ahead of everyone else it’s sort of like a super power.”
Goyer paid McCreary the ultimate compliment when he heard the demo of McCreary’s music for the show: The producer liked it so much that he decided to extend the opening credits so the music could play twice. Originally about 35 seconds long, the main theme music was extended, and Goyer put the graphics artists back to work designing another half-minute of opening credits. That main title design (which you can watch below) also picked up an award at the Creative Arts Emmys.
For McCreary, validation that he had created catchy main titles music actually came from Goyer’s six-year-old son. The producer played the demo at home while his son was in the room one morning, then that night, as Goyer was tucking him in bed, his son began to hum McCreary’s music.
Up next for McCreary: another show in the realm of superheroes — Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Another show that feels like it’s about a man with superpowers also earned a nomination for its main title music. Composer Sean Callery told EW he recalled seeing Sherlock Holmes as a superhero when he read books about the detective as a kid, and those Arthur Conan Doyle stories definitely informed his work for the CBS show’s music.
The opening titles unfold as a transparent ball falls through several odd contraptions.
“Holmes has a bit of a classical precision about him, so I was drawing on some classical music training in my past, with some modern textures,” Callery said.
When David Schwartz found himself faced with the task of composing music for the Netflix return of Arrested Development, he knew he wanted it to feel like Arrested, but he also wanted to infuse something new into the music not seen on the show when it originally aired on Fox. So he added in some prominent ukelele. The inspiration for including the instrument came from his anniversary trip to Tahiti with his wife, where he bought a Tahitian ukelele.
Nominated for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series, Arrested Development was the one comedy nominee in its category. What’s the key to writing a successful comedy score? “I try very hard to write fun music and not write funny music,” Schwartz said. “Not to be punching everything. Although sometimes a score needs both fun and funny.”
Trevor Morris is no stranger to the Emmys — he’s been nominated five times for his TV music. Twice he’s won: for The Borgias in 2011 and for The Tudors in 2007.
But making another repeat visit to Nokia Theatre for the Emmys hasn’t gotten any less exciting over the years. “The rush is just as big as the first time. It’s awesome. The energy is palpable,” he told EW on the carpet.
He said he “really swung for the fence” on “The Prince,” the Borgias episode that was submitted for Emmy consideration for score.
Morris has composed music for several period TV series — The Pillars of the Earth and Vikings among them — and he says he draws inspiration from the shows’ period costumes (including some that have earned Emmy nods, like the 16th century-set Borgias this year).
“I react to color — even though I write music, I react to what I see,” Morris explained. “What kind of red is it? Is it bright red, is it dark red, is it velvet, purple red? Those colors affect the music that I choose to write. The costumes are a big part of transporting me to that place and time.”
House of Cards
This acclaimed Kevin Spacey-starring series had composer Jeff Beal working with a different process in a couple ways: Firstly, David Fincher asked Beal to compose some music before shooting began, an atypical approach. And secondly, writing music for a Netflix show — which doesn’t have commercial breaks — made for some pacing unlike shows aired on traditional networks.
“Before David Fincher started shooting, he asked me to write write some sketches for him on about five scripts,” Beal said. “That was so fun for me because I got to imagine the world musically without having to worry about making something fit a scene.”
Some of those pre-shooting compositions made it into the score, including the main title theme and the theme that’s often used when Frank (Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) are sitting and chatting while smoking cigarettes — both that smoke and the score gave those scenes a film noir tone.
As for the pacing, Beal relished in composing music for a show that didn’t have commercial breaks cutting short scenes that could have been longer. “That sense of elongation in some scenes — there was this really wonderful sense that once you were in it, you stayed in it. That was really fun for me as a composer. I could sort of sink my teeth into it.”
The 65th Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards will air on FXX this Saturday, Sept. 21, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.