Monday, May 07, 2007

The House Between: Composer's Notes!

(Here's a special treat: composers Cesar Gallegos and Mateo Latosa have submitted a a piece on scoring my online series, The House Between! Thanks guys for sending this in!)

Production Diary: Scoring “The House Between”

By César Gallegos/Mateo Latosa

Our discussions with the director, John Kenneth Muir, during the pre-production phase gave us a good idea of what he was looking for in terms of a score. The overall tone of THB was described to us as mysterious, apprehensive, mournful, and strange.

John was very clear that despite the series’ science fiction trappings, that he didn’t want an electronic (spacey) score. Rather he wanted the instrumentation to feature traditional acoustic instrumentation and for the series to be scored as a drama.

We understood his sentiments, though we knew that this would prove, for the most part, impossible given the limitations we faced. However, we also knew that an electronically created score using samples of acoustic instruments would provide us with a workable alternative.

Ironically, during our first recording session, in which we laid down seven “demo” tracks (including "Ominous," "Sad Chords," "After the Death," "Waiting," Introspection," and "Wistful Thinking") —to give John a sense of our style and approach to scoring the series—the piece he liked most was the one we had been convinced he’d reject ("Sad Chords") because of its use of undisguised electronics. In fact, this piece became the very first one he used (in Trailer #1). As well, the other pieces recorded during this initial session were used on the rest of the trailers and throughout the series.

Character Themes
In most scores, themes will be written for each of the major characters and often for particular locations as well. The score to THB is no exception. Sometimes a generic cue was chosen by the director as a particular character’s theme, for example Astrid’s theme ("Introspection"). Other times, we’d compose a theme based on our perception of the character (Arlo). The rest of the character themes were written to fit the needs of the director. John would send us an email with a description of what feelings a theme should evoke, and we’d get to work.

Purposed Music
Scoring a film or a television show presents the composer, simultaneously, with an inspiration for creativity and limitations on it. Each cue has a purpose to fulfill. It has to underscore the emotional or physical beats of a scene. As well, cues often have pre-determined lengths, which limits our ability to fully develop and resolve musical themes.

Often we had to turn away from musical directions that beckoned… Nevertheless, it became a challenge to think economically, to push ourselves to get each cue to work to work its magic quickly.

Throughout the process we kept reminding each other that, indeed, less is more. Layering on instrument after instrument would only detract from a cue’s ability to fulfill its purpose—concisely—often in only seconds. As well, a score must walk the tightrope between underscoring what is on the screen without, at the same time, drawing too much attention to itself and overpowering the images.

The Process
Similar to the Japanese practice of composing music for “Image” albums, where a preliminary score is produced to storyboard images and discussions with the director, prior to filming we started work on scoring THB with only our conversations with John as a guide. The two alternate (rejected) main title themes were written during this time.

The next step, upon receipt of rough cuts of the first three episodes, was to record a number of demo tracks (as discussed above). These demos were tracked on the pre-launch trailers and one of them was used as the Main Title for Episode #1: Arrived ("Wistful Thinking").

Subsequently, John would send us detailed notes for the cues he wanted for the episodes with specific times and a breakdown of the onscreen emotional and physical beats. We were literally composing to email! Normally, a composer would have a “click-track” to work to, which allows the composer to see the scene he is scoring and note to a fraction of a second the emotional and physical beats so as to allow him to tailor his cues precisely. Must be nice.

Despite this, every episode of THB has its own score. Considering that the original plan had been to utilize library music for the series, this gave THB (we hope) a distinctive and unique musical flavor.

One interesting thing is the way in which the filmed sequences and the score affected each other. When a sequence was filmed and edited into its final form, we would receive precise instructions as to the length of the needed cue and the physical beats to be underscored. But when we got ahead of the editing process and scored an as-yet-unedited sequence, John would occasionally edit the sequence to fit the music. Though not unheard of, this is not standard practice. Most films are scored after the final cut. In a sense, the director allowed the internal logic and structure of the music to guide him editing choice.

Equipment and Instrumentation
The score was recorded at Mardelante Studio using the following equipment and instrumentation: Sony VAIO VGC-RA826G, Toshiba AE35-S159, Mexican Fender Stratocaster with Roland MIDI Pickup (w/ Ernie Ball Super Slinky Strings, a Fender medium-gauge pick, and a jar of capers), a Ceremonial Mexica prepared Conch Shell from Cancun, Mexico, Alesis S4 Quadrasynth, Yamaha Portable Grand DGX-505, Roland GR-33 Guitar Synthesizer, Roland ED UA-100G Audio/MIDI Processing Unit, Jose Ramirez Classical Cutaway Guitar, PG Music Power Tracks Pro-Audio Version 8.0 Sequencing/Mixing Software, Finale Notebook, Samson R11 Microphone, and Windows Media Player Version 10.0 and one human voice. The recording itself is a mixture of analog and digital elements.

Despite having two composers scoring the series, we worked as a single unit, bouncing ideas off one another, taking turns at the performance and engineering tasks. The word “compromise” never entered our minds—to be quite frank—we’d work out the melodies, chord sequences, keys, patches, and overlays with a spirit of experimentation and openness, each suggestion taking the pieces in new directions. There isn’t a single cue in THB that doesn’t have creative input from both of us.

In the creation of each piece, rather than just composing music that will “fit”, it was more like scoring for the emotion we wanted to portray. Once we “felt” the emotion we needed to underscore—then the music flowed. Composition was an intuitive process separate from theoretical considerations. This made the music “work”. It was encoding emotions into sound using the tools available. There was a joy in doing it. Certainly, we’d show up with chord sequence sketches and melodic notation. But that was just the starting point. We’d talk over each scene, throw out ideas, experiment, play music, turn the process on its head and then go to lunch. Creating the music for THB was a social experience. We felt no monetary pressure…or in other words that pressure was equivalent to our budget. This fact, combined with John’s immediate and positive feedback allowed us the freedom to try new things and methods without worry. It was a very satisfying experience. Like a sanctuary from the everyday world.

Final Thoughts
We are grateful to John for asking us to score THB and as much as we are glad to have finished (whew!), we are happy with the work we’ve produced. We’d been looking for a creative project on which to collaborate for years and are proud to have contributed our small bit of sonic atmosphere to The House Between.

We’d like to thank our families for their patience and encouragement, especially Debee and Tonalli. Also, we’d like to thank our friends for musical and technical advice: Bill Latham, Phil Merkel, John and Kathryn Muir. Finally, we’d like to thank the actors for bringing life to John’s characters and for making them “resonate”. From a composer’s perspective, that is very important indeed!


  1. Anonymous9:41 AM

    Just this weekend, I introduced a new viewer to "The House Between"... after watching the pilot episode, his first comment was "Who did the music?" There's no question that the original score adds a lot to the mood and professionalism of the finished series. Great job, Cesar and Mateo!

  2. astrid9:57 AM

    Kudos, indeed - the music is not at all what I had expected it to be. It's as unique as the house itself. I am tickled to know that the scoring was as personal and intuitive for you guys as the acting was for me... but I am curious, what are your thoughts on the song I composed for Episode 2? I must admit I was worried that it wouldn't 'fit' with the rest of the music for the show, but we were all flying blind to a degree. :-)

  3. Anonymous4:47 PM

    I must admit that all along we had planned to write a piece based on the melody of the song, but we simply never got around to it. We had our hands full just trying to get each episode's score done in time for the editing process! More often than not, we'd finish each episode's score on the weekend before it would be uploaded to VEOH.

    John commented that every other Monday was like Christmas. He'd wake up to find 20-30 new pieces of music waiting for him in email.

    There were a few musical plans that didn't come to fruition. One was a guitar overlay on Arlo's theme, another was the intstrumental variation on the song's theme. There were also a few short cues that were written, but remain unrecorded... Ultimately, our personal and professional commitments reasserted themselves and we had to stop. Nevertheless, we did record nearly all the cues that John asked for.

    I think the only one we didn't get to was a revoiced and rearranged version of Travis's theme. "Ni modo."


  4. Howard Margolin1:13 AM

    When I scheduled John's interview for Destinies-The Voice of Science Fiction, I asked if he could send a CD of music from "The House Between" to play in the background. I was thrilled when he sent a disc with all the music he had received up to that point, and ran it a couple of times during the course of the interview, since it was only about 15 minutes long. I think the new music composed for the series as it has progressed has really evolved to capture the mood of the show. So, Mateo, are there plans for a soundtrack CD for "The House Between?"

  5. Anonymous3:34 PM

    This is the third time I've tried to reply, Howard. The previous two seem to have disappeared into the mist.

    Yes, there will be a soundtrack CD. We are cleaning up some of the recordings (removing hiss, mostly). And once that is done, we'll be choosing the cues that will be put on the album. We gave John nearly two hours of music, so not everything will fit on one CD. Besides that, many cues are simply different versions of the same thing. John often requested 20 second, 40 second and 60 second versions of character themes, for example, to give him more choices.

    Also we often revoiced performances to get different results. For example, all the different variations on Arlo's theme are the same performance (on an electronic keyboard that does not make any sound but just records which keys we played and how hard we hit them) with different patches (FAIAP, instruments) chosen.

    There is no need to have four versions of the same piece on the CD, of course. So we will choose which one we like best.

    If anyone would like to suggest a cue that they liked for inclusion on the CD, just let me know! My favorite's include the music in Episode 4 when the resident's try to save Bill ("Saving Bill") and the music under his delirious ravings as he spills his secrets to Astrid as he slips in an out of coma ("Bill's Coma").

    I am also fond of the piece underlying Bill's explanation of Project Habitat ("Anything is Possible").


  6. Anonymous3:38 PM

    Now why I put apostrophes in my plural forms I have no idea! Embarassing. As usual, for an editor, I caught the mistakes AFTER the goddamn thing went to press!

    Mateo :-)

  7. Anonymous5:02 PM

    Is this the same Mateo of POWYS Media fame? If so, you are one very, very multi-talented dude. Look forward to the CD.

  8. Anonymous7:42 PM

    Damn! Now my head can't fit through the door! (I hate when that happens!)


  9. Lee Hansen11:12 AM

    I think the only one we didn't get to was a revoiced and rearranged version of Travis's theme. "Ni modo."

    That's a shame. I really liked my theme as it was. But revoiced and rearranged would have been glorious. You guys did an OUTSTANDING job with this. As I told John when he previewed the first episode with your music, that it made all the difference in the world. It really helped make the series that much better in presentation. Thank you both for putting the final piece in to make this show awesome.

  10. Anonymous4:20 PM

    will the house between song be on the cd too?

  11. Anonymous4:26 PM

    Thanks for the compliments. It is always a thrill when people like your work.

    Our biggest obstacles were a lack of time and busy lives. As a fellow anonymous poster noted, I also work on the books at POWYS which keeps me very busy!

    John had never heard any of our music (Cesar's or mine) before--this is our first musical collaboration. So his decision to ask us to score the series was based on our working relationship on John's novels for Powys. (Cesar had photographed the cover for John's novel, The Forsaken, with Vicente Gallegos-Aguazul.)

    We discussed the project and, I believe, John sensed that I "got" it. I approached Cesar to work on THB with me. Cesar is a very busy individual: psychologist, teacher, father, Aztec about multi-talented! But after thinking it over, he agreed to do it.

    We worked well together. And having been friends for 20(!) years, it was easy to express ourselves and share ideas without worrying about egos. And Vietnamese pho is the grease in the wheels. :-)

    John refers to the final piece of music used in the series in his production diary entry for "Departed". I can't mention the title of the cue (it would be a spoiler!), but I look forward to seeing how it fits with the final filmed sequence.

    That anticipation of seeing how one's work is ultimately utilized in the final film is something that only those who worked on the show can experience. We don't do any of the music editing (putting the music into the episodes) so it is always a thrill to see what John does with it! I'm sure that is a feeling shared by the cast and crew.

    Finally, the Travis character informs a lot of the music. Lee, you'll understand when I say that many of the musical cues feature melodies that repeat, such as the music underlying the "boredom montage". Consider it musical commentary.


  12. Anonymous4:30 PM

    Kim's "The House Between" song? You know I hadn't thought of that. That would be appropriate! But that is not my decision (as it's not our music).

    So, what do you think, Kim? It could be "THE HOUSE B...onus Track"! :-)


  13. astrid5:57 PM

    Use it! Use it! John should have a good cut on CD. :-)