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Tuned In Contenders: Composer Laura Karpman [Exclusive]

Jurnee-Smollett-Bell-as-Rosalee-and-Aldis-Hodge-as-Noah-in-WGN-Americas-Underground

Although I didn’t watch the series when it originally aired earlier this year, when I did start watching Underground I ended up bingeing all of Season 1 in 2 days. Suffice it to say, I’ll be watching Season 2 in real-time and I’m bummed I have to wait until 2017 for new episodes.

The good news is that if you’re also missing the show, I’ve got a bit of a hiatus helper to tide you over. And because the music (and the concept of the show) is so fresh and unexpected, I’m hoping this series will get some Emmy attention this fall.

I had the privilege to talk to composer Laura Karpman about the series, how she and co-composer Raphael Saadiq approach the sound of the show, some of her favorite moments from the season, what we can expect in Season 2 and what she’s been up to in the meantime.

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TV GOODNESS: How did you hear about Underground and what made you want to do it?

Laura Karpman: “Well, who wouldn’t want to do it? [Laughs.] It’s such a great show. Raphael [Saadiq] and I had collaborated on Black Nativity and we were looking for other projects. When I read about this I thought, ‘Oh God. This is perfect,’ and I got in touch with my friend Tony Scudellari, who runs the television music department at Sony. I said, ‘Don’t you think we’d be great for this?’ And he thought so, so he set us up with the showrunners and it all went from there.”

TV GOODNESS: How did you come to the decision to use mostly modern music?

Laura: “That was really driven by Misha [Green] and Joe [Pokaski], the showrunners. From our very first meeting with them, just really discussed how the show would shape up conceptually. They both had these ideas about music really being a driving force in the show, both in terms of score and in the life of the material.

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

It wasn’t that we were gonna ignore the period, but it shouldn’t restrict us. It should just be one of those things that whatever feels right for the scene is the music that we use. It’s not like, ‘Oh. It’s taking place in 1856 so it’s got to be all music of that period.’ Sometimes it needed to be or sometimes there would be a banjo or a fiddle, but it might get processed or changed or put in a groove.

It was always about this morphing, developing sense of time. There are a lot of reasons for that, I think. One of the major reasons for that is that even though it’s a show about this era in American history, I think there are obviously issues that are still very much a part of contemporary American society. We’re very much still talking about race in a real way in this country, so this idea of it being something in the past is just not correct and I think they wanted music to reflect that.”

TV GOODNESS: I know John Legend is an executive producer on the show. He contributed one of the songs this season, right?

Laura: “He co-wrote the main title.”

Underground Main Title:

TV GOODNESS: Do you talk to him at all about the music or was it just for that one piece?

Laura: “Oh, no. It’s all the time. He comes to all the spotting sessions. He is very much a part of the dialogue of what goes on musically. He’s not a ‘in name only’ kinda guy and he’s a wonderful presence.”

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

TV GOODNESS: There’s a scene in the pilot I really love. There’s this great juxtaposition of this slave spiritual and modern music. Can you talk about how that came together?

Laura: “That was a hard one. From the script level, this was always something that they wanted to have, the back and forth between the party scene and the funeral scene. In fact, that was a pre-record that we did.

So there was a vision they had for a song at that point. Raphael and I chose that spiritual and we did the arrangement for it and then that went to the set. The cast recorded it and they did this amazing job. The guy who sings the lead is Jurnee’s husband [Josiah Bell]. And I don’t know if you noticed, but we sampled from that for the end credit as well.

But going back and forth between that and the contemporary song was something that was designed from the script level, shot with that in mind, shot with having tempos that would go back and forth and then ultimately really beautifully reflected in the final product.”

TV GOODNESS: It was such a powerful scene and I think the music just made it that much better.

Laura: “When we heard the cast sing that, our jaws just opened. They did such an amazing job.

I’ll tell you something, one of the magical moments of the whole series was when we all got together for a tweeting party, when the first episode aired. The entire cast was there and they started signing in this restaurant right here in LA along with [the episode], it was just unbelievable. It was one of my favorite moments in life. It was incredible.”

TV GOODNESS: As far as the music goes, are there any artists or specific types of music you made a conscious effort to include or stay away from? I love that you use spirituals for the more “period appropriate” music, I guess you would call it.

Photo Credit : Sony Pictures Television

Photo Credit : Sony Pictures Television

Laura: “There were no rules. There are all kinds of little details which are wonderful. Rosalee’s theme, that all comes from period music. It all comes from negro spirituals of the 19th century. Even the score’s thematic material comes from that period, but there’s breathing and the distorted drums sounds, all that is a contemporary sound.

The sound of Raphael playing his base and completely distorting it and using that distortion like a scream, that’s part of our sound. You’ve got traditional scoring, you’ve got orchestral instruments, you’ve got banjos, electric guitars, everything. Any time you have an acoustic instrument it’s changed and done something with. We have an electric baritone violin. You’ve got harmonica, you’ve got sampled drums. You’ve got real drums, set drums, you’ve got djembes.

The reason why this gig is so cool is because of that. It’s like, ‘What does this scene need? Ok, what are we donna do?’ Raphael and I listened to a lot of Kendrick Lamar’s latest album [untitled unmastered], listened to this use of sampling, use of, I don’t know what you want to call it, like neo-jazz, acid jazz meets hip hop.

All of that was a part of our thought, a part of our language. It’s just super cool. We get to do what we want. You can’t go too far out, you know what I mean?”

TV GOODNESS: You’ve already talked about the funeral/party scene, which was an amazing moment. Can you talk about any other favorite cues or musical moments from Season 1?

Laura: “Oh, yeah. There’s so much. Episode 7 [“Cradle”] when we had the children’s choir. We did all of those arrangements. Instead of going to license music, that one was all on us. So we did all public domain music, which we dug up with the exception of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” which, of course, is based on negro spirituals and then built our own arrangements and used the children’s choir.

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

I think that, for everybody, was an especially moving and important musical episode — not just musical, but subject-wise. That was a big moment. “Run & Gun,” which is Episode 5 is basically an epic chase, that was a bucket load of fun to score. There’s so much. There’s Ernestine’s scenes. I can’t remember which episode it was where they’re hallucinating. Which one is that?”

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

TV GOODNESS: Is near the end. Is it Episode 8?

Laura: “Yeah. Maybe 8 or 9 [It’s Episode 9, “Black & Blue.”] That one was totally fun to score because it’s like, ‘How do you get into that hallucinogenic state and then how do you break out of it?’ It’s endlessly, endlessly interesting. Honestly, I love every job that I have, but this one is a special one. This is, I don’t know if it’s once in a lifetime, but it may just be.”

TV GOODNESS: Wow. That’s great. I know Season 2 is about to gear up. When do you get back to work?

Laura: “Isn’t that a good question. [Laughs]. Can you call them and let me know? That would be great information to have. [Laughs.]

I don’t know. What happened with the last [season] was there were a lot of on-set needs, so we got into that right with shooting. I haven’t seen the scripts for this season yet, so I think they’re trying to figure all of that out.

Jurnee [Smollet-Bell] got pregnant, so I think they’re probably weaving that in and probably have bigger problems than music right now — just trying to figure all that out. But it will also probably be fantastic for the story.

So, I don’t know. Some shows, you now what’s gonna happen. This one, the experience of it is just like the show; you are on the edge of your seat. You could get a call one day, ‘We need this for the set in 2 days,’ and then you do it. Or it could be, you wait for 2 months. I don’t know.

Because the show is so fluid, because it so off the chains, literally — I guess that’s either a great metaphor or a bad one — and because it’s so avant guard, really in it’s own way, it’s not a typical situation.”

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TV GOODNESS: Are you working on anything else right now that you can tell me about?

Laura: “Yeah. Lots of stuff. I just finished Eleanor Coppola’s feature debut called Paris Can Wait. That’s with Alec Baldwin and Diane Lane. I’m super excited about that. That’s coming out.

We just had a documentary film at The Cannes Film Festival, called The Cinema Travellers, which is super groovy. I have an opera going up with summer at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival New York and the thing I’m very, very excited about is that I’m the creative director of a concert this summer, which is The Alliance For Women Film Composers. We’re doing a concert at Grand Performances of all music by women media composers. That’s groundbreaking.

And the final thing is, and who knows what’s gonna happen with this, I’m one of the finalists for Governor of the Motion Picture Academy in my branch. So, either I’ll get it or I won’t, but I did make it to the finals. It’s pretty crazy.”

TV GOODNESS: That’s amazing. I was looking at your bio and you’ve done all this great stuff, so that’s really exciting.

Laura: “I don’t restrict myself to genre. I love everything that comes around. Whatever projects feel right and interesting and where I can be of use, I’m interested in.”

TV GOODNESS: I know you’re also an instructor as USC in the film scoring program. How has that influenced your work and the projects you take on?

Laura: “How does the teaching influence me?”

TV GOODNESS: Yeah.

Laura: “I like teaching. Teaching keeps you on the edge. I think what’s most interesting about it is to see where the students are at, where they’re coming from. Listening to what the new generation is doing, it’s surprisingly fresh or old-fashioned, which is interesting in and of itself.

Listen, it does help you hone in and focus your own process. I think that’s true, but it’s mostly just good to give back and know what’s going on, know the new people coming up are and to be in that loop.”

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TV GOODNESS: Do you have a dream collaboration? Is there anyone you’d love to work with?

Laura: There are lots of people. Mira Nair, Tony Kushner, Kendrick Lamar, Ella Fitzgerald, but she’s dead. Do dead people count?” [Laughs.]

TV GOODNESS: Sure. [Laughs.]

Laura: “I don’t know. Langston Hughes, I’ve already collaborated with him, but I’d love to have met him. William Kentridge, who’s a South African animator and director, Steven Spielberg again. I’d love to do an action film, like a superhero film. I’d love to be working on one of these new female-centric films that everybody’s promising we’ll see.

But I’m happy, too. Elenaor Coppola was a fabulous collaborator. Misha, Joe, Raphael and John are all fantastic collaborators. And I’m not just saying that. Right now [is] a real golden period in my collaborative life. It’s really exciting. I want to collaborate with my son, and that means I want him to listen to what I tell him to do. No, I’m kidding. He’s only five and a half, but that would be good. [Laughs.] No, it’s good. It’s all good.”

TV GOODNESS: I know that you’re obsessed with jazz. Do you have anything jazz-centric that you’re working on now? Or anything coming up?

Laura: “I’m gonna be doing another opera based on Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, the tennis match, which is super exciting. And the next season of Underground.

Edited for space and content.

Season 2 of Underground will premiere on WGN America in 2017. Missed Season 1? WGN America is marathoning all ten episodes on Saturday, July 2nd.

Interested in our other Tuned In Contenders? I also talked to Jeff RussoGabriel Mann and Mac Quayle.

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