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“If you can be in a band, then you can write for TV,” says Tom Third, a recording artist who once put out albums on Nettwerk Records, and now composes music for The Listener, a drama series about a paramedic with ESP, which airs on CTV and Fox International.
Third’s simple statement comes with many ifs: if you can write with the psychology of the character, plot direction and genre in mind; if you’re versatile and capable of different styles and sounds; if you can record them using computer software such as Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton or Cubase; and if you can do this in a week per episode, sometimes less, but two weeks max, depending on whether it’s a half-hour or one-hour show.
Gary Koftinoff, who scores the supernatural medical drama Saving Hope on CTV and NBC, believes, “You’re probably not going to get hired for a TV series if you’re in a band – even a famous band. You still have to know how to score a scene. If you don’t have any credits behind you, chances are pretty slim.” He calls it “scoring your way up.”
Words & Music spoke with Third and Koftinoff, in addition to several other well-established TV composers – Jim McGrath (Republic of Doyle, Degrassi: The Next Generation, CBC), Keith Power (Hawaii Five-O, CBS), Ari Posner (Flashpoint, CTV & CBS) and Rich Pell (Call Me Fitz and Less Than Kind, HBO Canada) – about the challenges of writing music for a weekly TV series.
None of them minded working in an area of the music business that’s behind the scenes, where recognition is given only when the end credits roll and at such ceremonies as the Gemini Awards, and the SOCAN Awards, which includes categories for best scores.
Egos also have to be put aside for another crucial facet of the job: the composer isn’t the boss. Everyone from the executive producer, to the producer, to the director, to the television network can weigh in on the music.
“It’s a collaborative process,” says Third. “People will ask you to change things, absolutely, but I’ve also fought for things too. I’ll pick my battles.”
“You don’t get very far in this end of the music business if you get too attached to your pieces,” says Posner, who co-writes the score for the police drama Flashpoint with Amin Bhatia. “It really is about servicing the vision of the producers, or the directors, or whoever it might be.”
It could be likened to an A&R person rejecting a song for an album. If a piece of music is not right for the scene, they won’t use it. Koftinoff says it’s important at the beginning of a project to find out the person that’s going to be making the decisions on the music. “You have to assess who it is that you will be passing the music by first – do they have clout? Do they have a lot of say?”
Power – the only one of the six based in the U.S. – says, “On a show like Hawaii Five-0, it’s essentially one person’s decision, and that’s the creator of the new version of the series, Peter Lenkov. There are sometimes notes from the editor, but it’s primarily the creator.
“I saw the pilot, and it was ‘temped’ [using a temporary score] with million-dollar film scores, so that was the benchmark. The mission was to make the show, week to week, sound like a million-dollar film score, and we do our best with the four days every week that we have.”
For his part, Posner was sent clips at a very early stage of Flashpoint. The show had a different name and hadn’t been picked up by CTV or CBS yet, but he was always kept apprised of revisions to the plotline. “[The direction of the music] was largely done with the pilot episode,” he says.
In Flashpoint, he says, out of the 42 minutes of the show, usually 39 minutes require music. “It tends to get exhausting,” says Posner. “There are weekly deadlines and airdates that have to be kept up with. That burden is kept easier by keeping a library of music, and we have a great music editor [Joe Mancuso] who helps us find cues and re-use things, but each week there’s still a lot of new music that has to be written.”
Once a U.S. network was onboard, “there were more people weighing in on decisions,” says Posner. “Generally, in our case, the notes didn’t come back on the music end; they came back more on story and picture and performances.”
For Saving Hope, Koftinoff sat down with the director. “We talked about the fact that the show had this ghost walking around the halls, and the score had to have a certain ethereal quality,” he says. “It was a human drama as opposed to action, so it had to have an emotional quality,” Koftinoff says.
McGrath – who scored nine seasons of teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation and still works on it with primary composer Tim Welch – started working on Republic of Doyle in 2010, for which he created a unique sound.
“It was a long, and arduous, and horribly difficult process,” he laughs, explaining that the premise is a throwback to ‘70s private eye shows, like The Rockford Files, but set in Newfoundland. “Musically, I tried to go in that private eye direction, but ‘70s cop music is kind of cliché so I gave it a twist – a Celtic, Newfoundland flavour to it, which is the weirdest thing I’ve ever tried to do, and it’s really fun.”
Pell, who works with creative partner Dylan Heming on Call Me Fitz, says the music style was figured out by show creator Sheri Elwood, and its purpose was unique. “In so many shows, the music is just transitional,” says Pell. “You’re just adding icing on mood, or getting [the viewers] to feel a certain way, emotional manipulation.
“She wrote the music into the script,” he says. “In Fitz, the music is like an extra character in the show because it represents so much cool stuff about the rat pack and that era, and what Fitz thinks of himself. There is background music in the show, but a lot of the music plays Fitz’ internal dialogue.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Third says he wasn’t given much direction for The Listener because he was onboard from the pilot phase, and could help create the sound. When the network got onboard, however, he says some risks [e.g., a grungier indie rock sound] got phased out. “When we got into scenes that were more dramatic and emotive, an electric guitar wasn’t doing the job creatively,” says Third. “Then, as we found our footing, we actually brought back those elements into the show.”
Says McGrath, echoing what television composers generally feel, as does almost anyone from the cast and crew of a show: “The one thing it seems that producers want is for their show to sound like their show. A classic example is Seinfeld. Whenever you heard that slap-bass, that lick, you knew it was that show. Similarly, 24 and Lost had a very specific vibe.
“All great shows have a distinctive flavour to them.”