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Emmys: 10 Music Nominees Reveal Their Toughest Scenes and How to Battle 'Composer's Block'

John Lunn
John Lunn
 Dominic Nicholls

Competitors for best series music composition and main title theme talk to THR about the shows they wish they could work on and how they get inspired.

THR: When composing a new episode or project, where do you start?

Robert Duncan (Last Resort): One of the things I like to do when I’m just coming up with sounds is to try to find something that’s native to the environment the characters are in and use that in a musical way. Almost half-joking, I asked my assistant, “Can you find me a submarine?” A couple days later, he called. … He found a maritime museum in San Diego, and it had an old Cold War-era Soviet submarine. He said they would let us on board with recording instruments, and I could make a percussion library there. We went down at the crack of dawn, three hours before it opened — actually, it’s on YouTube. There’s a video of us going into the submarine and just banging around with mallets and brushes and all sorts of things.

Nathan Barr (Americans, Hemlock Grove):  I have a really big collection of all sorts of instruments from around the world in my studio, so for me the process is really to sit down and start picking up some of those instruments and just improvising. … I have a lot of different band organs, and I have a human-bone trumpet. I have a lot of one-of-a-kind instruments.

Brian Keane (Copper I look at the film once through with a notepad and write down the essence of what it needs, then I confirm that with the director. The reason why I watch it once is that’s how a viewer’s going to watch it.

STORY: Emmys: 'Portlandia' and 'The Simpsons' Among Early Winners

THR: Do you ever get writer’s block?

Trevor Morris (The Borgias I don’t really believe in writer’s block. The reason is, in scoring for television and film, all the ideas you need, all the inspiration, is on the screen. It’s not like writing a song, where you’re in a dark room and wondering what you should write about. … There are good days and bad days, of course, but I never am stuck for an idea with a show as awesome as The Borgias.

Keane: I have, on occasion, had writer’s block in the first couple days of a new project. And I think how I pull out of there is probably fear and adrenaline.

THR: What music do you enjoy listening to on your own time?

Morris: I grew up on Rush, being a Toronto boy. But if I’m working out  or in the car, I usually listen to, like, Linkin Park — and then at night, when I’m cooking, it’s usually jazz, like Miles Davis.

Mole: Earth, Wind & Fire and The Doobie Brothers. For me, that kind of music is just never going to be bettered.

Duncan: Peter Gabriel. I love his scores as well as his pop music. The richness with which he layers his music has always been inspiring to me.

STORY: Emmys: 8 Showrunners and Writers Reveal the Emotional Hurdles in Their Nominated Episodes

THR: What’s your favorite TV title theme?

Beal: I’m a trumpet player, and I remember very well the theme for The Bob Newhart Show. It was this cool, jazzy but very sophisticated big-band thing. I remember that was really fun and stuck with me.

Barr: The Incredible Hulk. The original TV show, way back in the day — it had that really sort of haunting piano theme.

Callery: You have to look at things like Hawaii Five-0, The Twilight Zone, Route 66. But in terms of real themes and just magic, then you’ve got to think about The Beverly Hillbillies — there’s too many! I’m glad themes are around still. They’re kind of like folk songs.

THR: If you could score another current show, which would you choose?

Lunn: I do like Mad Men and admire the music they choose to end each episode.

Beal: We started watching Sopranos this summer, after James Gandolfini passed. I love the show, and it works great with songs. But I love the show so much, I wonder what it would have been like to score.

Barr: I love Downton Abbey. Those sorts of period dramas are really appealing to me: They often require music that’s sort of lush and beautiful, and the characters just are wonderful. I think that would be at the very top of my list. 

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