TV Goodness was recently part of a round table of writers who got the chance to talk to some of today’s hottest TV composers. They all appeared at Comic-Con 2014 on a panel called “Behind the Music with CW3PR: Scoring for Crime, Death and Resurrection.â€ One of the talented music men we loved learning aboutÂ was James Levine.
Levine’s resume features a long list of TV credits. You can hear his work on everything from TNT’s Rizzoli and Isles and Major Crimes to FOX’s Glee and FX’s American Horror Story (AHS). It’s for his musicÂ on AHS: Coven that he earned an Emmy nomination this year.
James Levine: It was for the final episode of the season. It’s “The Seven Wonders” episode, which is sort of, for me, was musically a really great episode, because we brought everything together. And by the time I got there — total freedom. I knew the music. It was all under my skin. I had written everything really I needed to write. So this was just like…go for it and make everything, all these different ideas and themes work together, different instruments, different sounds.
Highlights of the episode included the opening montage where Stevie Nicks sang the Fleetwood Mac hit, “Seven Wonders.” Then there was the portion where the young witches (Misty, Madison, Zoe and Queenie) battled to be the new Supreme. The testing scenes provided an exciting challenge for Levine.
James: There were certain characters I wanted to hit their character theme so I did that. I also felt that if I hit every character theme, it’s going to be confusing because it’ll be like, who am I supposed to follow through this seven-minute long sequence of them taking this test. So I keyed into the specific characters that I wanted to focus on. And made their themes the real highlight of the piece, but then also sprinkled little other things in there so that you can connect.
Balancing all his different projects is something the music composer has no problem doing. In fact, he enjoys the variety and prefers not to be tied down to one show.
James: If I had to write the same music for the same show and that’s all I ever did…first of all, I would probably not be very happy. And second of all, I don’t think it would serve the better good of all these shows. Because writing a piece of light music for one show is gonna inform what I decide to do on another show. It’s just more experience. It just makes you wiser, hopefully.
Levine is Ryan Murphy’s main go-to guy when it comes to music. They’ve collaborated on Nip/Tuck, Glee, The New Normal and now American Horror Story. The two have a routine down. The lengthy process begins with the written word.
James: I start working when the scripts start coming out, so usually a few months or a month or so before production starts, before they start filming. And then I just read it and try to live with it a bit, take my notes, talk about ideas. I work with some of the editors, some of the other producers, and we start just experimenting and trying to come up with a sound for each season. So the first few months are really hard, actually, because we really are trying to find what the vocabulary of the season is musically. And once we start getting there, it becomes really fun…fast but fun.
He writes the music early so that Murphy is able to screen scenes that already feature Levine’s creations.
James: He doesn’t like to wait until the show is locked and done. We don’t do it at the end. We do it as they’re getting the scenes cut together. So it’s a much more collaborative process from the very beginning, more like you do a film.
It’s been announced that the next season of American Horror Story is going the freak show route. While Levine couldn’t give away any spoilers as far as the plot or the music, he’s excited to be able to play with this new theme.
James: Oh there’s so many things…there’s a lot of different fun things you can do with freak show. An old 1950s carnival? I mean, it’s great. It’s really great.
However, just because a show is set in a certain time period doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll take inspiration from that era.
James: Ryan usually has a very specific idea with regard to style and tone for music. I mean doing Coven and doing a very electronic synthesizer-driven score for a horror show about witches wouldn’t have been something that we’d initially thought about doing. But it just wound up being something that worked.
Listen for Levine’s work when American Horror Story: Freak Show debuts on FX Wednesday, Oct. 8. A couple of teases for the new season:
Interview edited for space and content.
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