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Scoring for Television: A Talk with Composer Bill Brown

Musical composition is an overlooked, under-appreciated art form that is only now finally seeing a welcomed resurgence in popularity. Before the digital boom, composers were well respected figures in the film world. John Williams, Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone — these names were renowned, even among non-cinephiles. Somewhere along the lines, however, it became possible to emulate an entire orchestra with just a computer and scores were being pushed out cheaper and faster than ever. At the same time, filmmakers found themselves using more and more pre-made music to score their films (just think of the amount of nu-metal in 90s horror). But, in the past few years, the art of the soundtrack has been an important factor for a growing body of individuals. This is a needed evolution, because there have never been a lack of composers, just a lack of appreciation for their hard work. One of these composers is Bill Brown, who has been steadily making a name for himself across various genres since the mid 90s. He has contributed to major films like Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, television shows like CSI: NY, and even the iconic video games Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six (among many more). With his latest work for the second season of the SyFy original series Dominion set to premiere next month, we caught up with Bill Brown to talk about his process, the difference between composing for different mediums, and, of course, to talk a little bit about the impact of Star Wars on his formation.

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Diabolique: Scoring is a pretty specific niche in music, how did you find yourself in this world?

Bill Brown: I’ve been writing music since the age of six in some form or another. When I saw Star Wars for the 25th time or so, I had a feeling I might want to do this for a living. [laughs]

Diabolique: At what point did you become cognizant of film and television music?

BB: I’m not 100% sure. My Dad had some old vinyl with some film score classics like Spartacus, etc. that I listened to when I was young even before Star Wars came out. I think it was Star Wars that really made an impression though.

Diabolique: Did you play in bands growing up?

BB: A bit, yes. But I was always happiest writing and recording in the studio. I guess the difference between now and then is that in my teens I was mostly writing songs, sometimes very epic songs that had like fifteen sections, but songs nonetheless.

Diabolique: Outside of film music, what kinds of bands and artists inspire your work?

BB: It’s funny you ask that as I was just thinking about bands like Foo Fighters, NIN, etc. that I have always enjoyed listening to – and that translates directly into what I’m doing now for Dominion using rock guitars, bass, vintage synths, etc. I’ve always had a passion for music with an edge, or with something emotional, deeper going on in it.

Diabolique: When you were breaking in, who were your go-to composers — I am assuming John Williams? Has this changed as you’ve aged?

BB: Yes, [laughs]. Williams is up there for all of us I think. I’m a big fan of film scores, so the list is long and varied. But I think I had the same group of go-to’s like Barry, Goldsmith, Silverstri, James Newton Howard, Tom Newman, Howard Shore, etc. etc. I look at all of their work / careers with a lot of admiration.

Diabolique: You’ve worked with extremely prominent directors, how does working with someone like Oliver Stone differ from someone seemingly more independent, experimental in spirit like Gus Van Sant?

BB: In both of those cases, I actually worked more with their music editor and film editors. Those were very specific gigs where they needed help in certain areas – that was right at the start of my career and was pretty exciting for me.

Diabolique: I’m very interested about your collaboration with Mann, since he’s definitely known for his use of music. Did you find Mann to be a director especially gifted in understanding the importance of composition in film?

BB: Michael was really cool to work with. I came in at the last minute to help score the final reel in the film Ali and tie that score into the end credits song with a string arrangement. He was very thoughtful in the way he would discuss the scene with me in dramatic terms only. We never discussed “music”, he just communicated what was at heart of that final fight sequence for him, and what the music needed to do contextually / dramatically. That was a lot of fun for me at the beginning of my career for sure.

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Diabolique: You also have crossed different genres of composition. How diverse is the process of scoring games from film and television? Do you prefer one medium to the other? 

BB: I usually get to really stretch in different directions musically depending on the medium, which is great. The bottom line is that I’m trying to find something that is honest, organic to the project and really exciting musically to serve whatever I’m writing for. The rest (differences between mediums) is just technical stuff – which I luckily have a lot of experience with.

Diabolique: Along those lines, is working on television much different than film? It would seem as if you’d actually have to write a great deal more music than you might have to for a film?

BB: Yes, a lot more music depending on the project of course. I’m currently writing around 33 minutes of music for each episode of Dominion, which could be half of an entire film score potentially just for one episode. (It depends on the film / show of course) With television, my goal is to find a sound and thematic direction for the show, and then be able to reference that palette throughout the season, which is similar to my approach for films, just over a longer period of time.

Diabolique: Beyond theme songs, I don’t think TV scoring gets much critical credit. Why would you think that is?

BB: From what I’ve seen, when the show is a critical hit, the score gets attention. I’m not sure if it’s equal to other aspects of the show, but that seems to be how it works. I think there’s so much material on TV spread across different audiences as compared to blockbuster films that it’s difficult to break through and get that credit or attention, unless the show really makes waves.

dominion__syfy__season_2_poster_Diabolique: Tell us a little about Dominion, and your involvement?

BB: Working on season two so far has been so much fun because it has this rich, detailed, biblical / post-apocalyptic narrative to work with. The story and characters allow me the room to do so much with the score – writing themes and using ancient instruments along with rock guitars, vintage synths and more. It’s an incredible opportunity to stretch into big, epic soundscapes and create emotional, cinematic music that helps tell the story in exciting ways.

Diabolique: Why do you think you were chosen for the show?

BB: A good friend of mine, Deran Sarafian, who is directing and producing for Dominion Season 2 shared some of my previous scores with the team including my music from The Devil’s Tomb, which has a very similar vibe to it. I met with the show’s creator Vaun Wilmott a few months back and was immediately inspired to start writing and creating sounds. I’m still inspired when we get together to spot the episodes!

Diabolique: Does the show allow you to expand into new musical boundaries?

BB: Absolutely, I’m surprised myself with how fresh and new the score is sounding to me. I’m able to flex these muscles that in the past I’ve only been able to use on films and games. There really are no boundaries in this show. Everyone is so supportive and excited to hear new modern sounds, big epic scoring, anything that takes it to the next level. It’s so much fun. The whole Dominion team and also the fans have been so supportive of my coming aboard, I’m doing everything in my power to create my best work to date for the show. We’re all doing our best to take it all to the next level for season 2!

Dominion Season 2 is set to air July 9th on the SyFy Channel. To find out more about Bill Brown, vist his website:  www.billbrownmusic.com

About Joe Yanick

Joe Yanick is a writer, videographer, and film/music critic based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the former Managing Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Noisey.vice.com, and Stagebuddy.com. In addition, he has worked with the Cleveland International Film Festival as a Feature reviewer. He is currently a Cinema Studies MA Candidate at New York University.

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