Guesswork, Inspiration, & Time

Music Composition and the Creative Proccess

I don’t really know how to write music for a podcast. But I decided to do it anyway. Cameron and Edgar made it easier by crafting such an intriguing setting and characters, and the cast’s performances really drove my conception of the final ‘sound’ of the show. I knew that the music needed to integrate cleanly with all the other aspects of the episodes - not too much, not too little, a little bit of tension over here, some resolution sprinkled through. I’m fascinated by the creative process, and writing music for a scripted show is such a different experience than writing for a band. I thought that putting that experience into writing would help me absorb its lessons. Maybe that sort of thing interests you, too.

Before I started composing, I wanted to think through the instrumentation, to create a palette that would hold the work together across all the episodes while giving me enough range to keep things interesting. I knew that each episode would need it’s own theme with variations as the scenes developed and the mood changed. Piano, electric bass, and a crunchy open tuned guitar are the heart of the Perdition’s Teeth soundtrack, with synthesizer, percussion, modern electric guitar, and string samples adding texture and variety. The timbre and relative prominence of the instruments have a powerful influence on the emotional content of music. I needed to get this part right.

My original plan was to use a lot more synth, along with electric bass, a few different electric guitar sounds, and piano. This also reflected my level of comfort playing piano - I could do a lot with a synth pad without needing to bring in a pianist. This early draft of the main theme has a darker and more spacious feel than the final version.

Although I enjoyed the moodiness and sense of foreboding in this composition, as we got deeper into the recording process, I realized that this wasn’t working the way I had hoped. Mixed with the dialog, the synthesizer lines felt jarring, instead of providing the B-Movie ‘Twilight Zone’ vibe I had envisioned. This entire piece was scrapped in favor of the barreling piano riff that runs underneath the show’s introduction.

Realizing that the introduction music had issues was the start of a long process of editing and revisiting - going back to first principles and re-conceptualizing the sonic qualities and emotional content we wanted to achieve. Acoustic piano replaced the synthesizers, and the electric guitar became a crisp, crunchy element instead of the clean strummed chords heard above. The whole show shifted in tone, and jazz and blues style elements came to the front. The synth pads are still there, but moved to a secondary position, adding depth instead of dominating the piece

During the writing and rehearsal process, I wrote several long versions of character themes in order to develop different tones and motifs that would represent those characters in the show. Some of these themes made it into the show, but most did not. As the vision of the finished episodes clarified, I took licks or small bits from the character themes, and combined them to create the episode themes and the transitions between scenes. This version of the villain’s theme reflects my changing ideas about the texture and mood for Perdition’s Teeth, and some aspects of it actually reached the finished episodes.

The piano line is intended to have a driving, almost marching feel to represent the inevitability and determination of the enemy’s will. Sustained strings in the background are meant to give a haunting and atmospheric wash over the whole progression. This song also established the tonal center for the entire show, creating a sense of continuity by returning to these chord tones whenever a piece is seeking resolution. By juxtaposing different types of progressions around a single tonal center, the mood changes profoundly. The same high A note can sound triumphant, ominous, or heart wrenching depending on the context. Bringing that note back in a different context creates depth with unity.

Inspiration is a tricky thing. Sometimes an entire piece will clarify abruptly, and I struggle to write it down before it fades. But most songs come together in bits, with lots of starts and stops. The opening theme for Episode 1 came slowly, and many different versions were discarded. Going from synth lead, to piano, to finally slide guitar, it took a lot of trial and error to set the emotional dial at the right point. Once I realized it should be a blues piece, the whole thing came together in an hour or two.

Writing down chord names and bonking them out an instrument isn’t that hard, but figuring out what to play, and why, takes a lifetime. When I get stuck, I go back to listening, to try and find the feel and the groove that fits the scene. Yoko Kanno’s fingerprints are all over Perdition’s Teeth. I spent a lot of time with Kind of Blue as well, and learned a few Yatsunori Mitsuda tunes. Trying to drive through writer’s block can sour an entire session - there’s a time and a place for blind determination, but burnout is real and the good stuff can’t be forced. A lot of unproductive evenings have been completely turned around by dropping what I’m doing, going back to the well, and refreshing my mind with the power of a really excellent record. Then immediately recording the first thing that comes to mind. That rips the lid off and the creative flow can start again.

Perdition’s Teeth is the most complex project I’ve ever been involved in. As a musician, I’m a different person today than when we started, and I think that’s a good thing. Episode 2 will be out in a few days. Thanks for listening. - Alex