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Why TV Shows' Musical Scores Are Getting Better

Jeff Beal, composer for House of Cards
Jeff Beal, composer for House of Cards

Original scores for television have never had the cachet reserved for film music - let alone concert music - and for good reason. Past the early glory days of The Twilight Zone and Lost in Space, which saw greats like Bernard Herrmann and John Williams writing sophisticated scores for the small screen, TV music has largely languished in a sea of forgetability.

But we are now in what many are calling a new Golden Age of TV, with high-profile directors, actors and writers seeking creative refuge in the fertile fields of cable and Netflix. And the music has risen to the occasion, yielding a crop of truly great scores for the likes of House of Cards, Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones.

These scores (and many others) will be showcased at a live concert May 21 at UCLA's Royce Hall, hosted by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Score! A Concert Celebrating Music Composed for Television is being billed as the first event of its kind.

"Music can communicate in ways no other part of the story can," Michael A. Levine, the Academy governor who dreamed up the event, says.

Jeff Beal, the Emmy-winning composer of House of Cards, credits executive producer David Fincher and the Netflix series' instantly gulpable format as reasons for the exceptionality of his music.

"[Fincher] was never interested in what he disparagingly called 'mortar,'?" Beal says, "in the sense that sometimes music just gets you from one scene to the next, and it's not really invested in the scene. He said, 'A character is not just a character - they can be metaphors for power, or aspiration, or sex.' The musical translation of metaphor, to me, has to be a theme, because it's an idea. It's not just a mood - you're giving the music a voice that's actually saying something."

Scottish composer John Lunn is flying in from London to conduct a suite from his Emmy-winning music for Downton Abbey. Lunn credits his ability to use a live, 35-piece orchestra, as well as the show's tapestry of character relationships, for the lush, thematic quality of his scores.

"There are so many different story strands," Lunn says, "and the music works like a sort of shorthand to describe what the situation is between these people. I always think of the music being about the relationships between people, not necessarily about one particular person."

The concert, which is dedicated to ATAS president Lucy Hood, who died in April, also will honor the career of veteran TV composer Mark Snow - best known for his music for The X-Files. Snow has been nominated for 16 Emmys but never won, and the award was created specially for him by his Academy peers.

"The music for TV now is so remarkable and amazing, in contrast with when I started," says Snow, whose career began in the mid-1970s with the likes of Starsky and Hutch and TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. "I don't know where it's going to go next in 20 years, but it's hard to imagine it getting more interesting."

Snow's work on The X-Files is a micro-narrative of the evolution in quality of TV music, as he began the series using primitive synths for his ambient and sparse underscore but gradually developed rich character themes and incorporated live musicians during the drama's nine seasons. "Boy, oh boy," he says, "if I'm lucky ever to get something like that again, it'd be amazing."

Score! A Concert Celebrating Music Composed for Television is at UCLA Royce Hall, 340 Royce Drive, UCLA; Wednesday, May 21, 8 p.m.; tickets are free, but first dibs go to TV Academy members. Details and ticket information at televisionacademy.com


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UCLA, Royce Hall

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310-825-4401

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