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Composer Talk | Composers
Interview with Christopher Tyng
Chris, it’s a real pleasure having the opportunity to talk to you. Thank you for making the time for this interview.
Chris: Thanks Oscar! It’s always fun to get a chance to talk about the creative process on my projects. And hey... I always welcome a break from sitting in front of my piano keyboard!
Before we delve into the many aspects of Futurama, can you briefly tell our readers a little bit about your musical background?
Chris: My start in music was really based in bands. I grew up outside of Boston and was the drummer in my neighborhood - which meant all my friends left their instruments in my basement when they came to jam, because the drums were always the hardest thing to move around - not so easy to load on the back of your bike! Anyways, being a drummer first, I didn’t really learn music in the traditional sense - drummers read and learn different notation than pretty much everyone else. Since I had all these instruments left around, but couldn’t really play anyone else’s songs on them, I just started teaching myself keyboards and guitar by making up my own music on them. And I got bitten by the music bug bad - by the time I was in high school I already had a little studio built up with a four-track recorder and a mixer and some mics and instruments and was just writing and recording stuff constantly. I heard from friends and family a lot - “your music is really visual; you should be a film composer” - but was really focused on songs and going the band route. A very lucky break was being convinced by my girlfriend [now my wife :)] that I should indeed explore music for picture, and that I should then enter the BMI Pete Carpenter Fellowship competition, which was established to recognize one promising young composer a year and bring them out to LA to apprentice with various successful composers at the time. To my great surprise they picked me, and I was whisked out to LA and sort of dropped-kicked into the composing world; it was true trial-by-fire stuff. I still was really entirely self-taught at that time, but for whatever reason people seemed to like the music I was writing and kept offering me opportunities - I was assisting other composers; I was writing the scores for independent films and a few TV shows - and it just sort of never stopped from there. And at some point I attended USC to get a better hold on some of the music fundamentals I felt I was lacking as a composer.
I suspect that at one point in the late 90’s Matt Groening was looking for a composer for his new animated series. When did you first meet him and how did you get the job as composer for Futurama?
Chris: By that time I had an agent, whom I think sent some of my music over for consideration. Matt and co-creator David X Cohen liked what they heard, and called me in for a meeting. I think we all sort of clicked right from the beginning - Matt’s a huge fan of all sorts of music, and we bonded over some common esoteric favorites, and some similar ideas on what the music might be on his new retro-futuristic show... It’s been a blast ever since.
The musical and sonic signature you created for Futurama is incredibly unique, innovative and instantly recognizable. Not only does it incorporate very creative electronic/cuttingedge sounds mixed with orchestral elements but more importantly, it also explores many of the retro-futuristic lounge and ‘space age’ music of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Is this how you would describe your musical approach for the show? What are some of the more unconventional instruments or techniques you’ve used throughout the years that people may not be aware of?
Chris: Wow! I think you nailed it - that’s pretty much exactly how I’d characterize the musical approach on our show. Right from the start, Matt [Groening] had a very clear idea of the vibe he was going for with Futurama - the visual aesthetic of the show was going to be a take on the 1950’s and 1960’s sensibility of what the future was supposed to be like. Matt and I felt that the music should have similar roots, and so we wanted to pay a nod to the “space-age bachelor pad” era - artists like Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Jean-Jaques Perry, Yma Sumac - and all of the sorts of “futuristic” stuff they were doing with orchestras and popular music back then. Synthesizers had just come into vogue around then too - so we knew we’d definitely have theremins, Mellotrons and other vintage funky keyboards galore. There were also clearly going to be musical nods to the sounds of classic sci-fi and space adventure films and their scores. The other thing that was apparent from the beginning [and has been true ever since] was that the narrative premise of the show allowed for an almost endless diversity in story lines, which in turn has required an incredible diversity of musical styles and scores to support them. And then there’s the whole a-thousand-years-in-the-future component; we’ve had to in some cases invent the sounds of instruments depicted in the show that don’t actually exist! I won’t reveal what actually makes the sound of the “Holophoner” - an instrument that Fry plays in several episodes - as I think that’s a sort of fun mystery for fans. I have not yet seen a fan explanation that gets it right though; I can tell you it’s performed live and not on a synthesizer... :)
We’ve definitely done some pretty nutty things with the musicians throughout the seasons. I learned pretty quickly that an actual theremin is pretty uncontrollable and hard to record along with an orchestra, so we figured out a cool use of an electric violin run through guitar processors that sounded exactly like one. Our harpist, who is definitely one of the best classical musicians in the world, played her priceless instrument through a pickup and into a Roland Space Echo - she was working both harp pedals and guitar pedals with her feet! We use “Boo Bams,” which are a sort of “drum marimba” which were used in a lot of space-age bachelor pad music, but I don’t think have been heard in hardly any other music since. For one sequence where I wanted the music to sound like it was going back in time [along with the Planet Express ship] to the musical period and sounds of the 1920’s, I requested that the Sony scoring stage provide a collection of metal trash cans and oil barrels, which we “auditioned,” placed in the middle of the orchestra, and then stuffed a rather expensive vintage microphone into to record the entire orchestra through - when it was crossfaded in time with the picture the music went from modern stereo to the sound of an old-time mono Victrola. The musicians sometimes find some pretty wacky things written on their scores. All in all, the sessions were always pretty high-spirited and fun; I think they were pretty popular with the musicians who came to record with us.
Incredibly, much of what you have composed for Futurama (from the very beginning) still sounds very fresh and modern. Sometimes artists use certain electronic sounds or synths that get overused and become dated. Has this been a real challenge for you or do you simply create the best work possible without thinking about how it will sound five or ten years from now?
Chris: That’s a nice compliment and a great question. First I think because any “modern” elements to the Futurama music are really rooted in “retro-futuristic” references, we’re not doing anything that can be tied too closely to the actual music and scoring trends that have occurred during the time we’ve produced the show. I think actually we’ve escaped that pitfall mostly because we aim to make the score on the show sound “timeless” more than “current.” And I think using an orchestra has certainly helped that as well. There’s also the fact that each episode can often be completely different musically - from the most intimate, to the most wacky, to the most epic space battle themes - and that’s something that has probably kept the show sounding fresh, episode to episode. I don’t think you can worry as a composer about how your score will be perceived years later - the needs of supporting the story are really paramount and take precedence, and dictate the palette of sounds and creative decisions I make in scoring the show.
Oftentimes, fans of the show will overlook the emotional and touching aspects of the series because the comedic bits are absolutely brilliant. One of the episodes that stands out as incredibly moving (and remains my all-time favorite) is Season’s Three ‘The Luck Of The Fryish.’ Undoubtedly, the music plays a major role in how the story unfolds, reaching one of the most heartwarming endings seen on animated TV. A definite tearjerker. When you were faced with episodes like this one or Season’s Four ‘Leela’s Homeworld and ‘Jurassic Bark,’ for example, what were the discussions you had with the producers regarding how dramatic the music had to be and where known songs would
be used instead of score?
Chris: One of the “rules” that we established from the beginning, for how the score would work in the Futurama, was that we really always try to play the story “straight” - even though the circumstances onscreen might become completely absurd, or the main emotional thread interrupted for comic effect. I always treat the score as playing the emotion as legitimate and real - we never play the jokes with any of the traditional “ha ha” animation musical cliches. Often that’s what helps to create the dichotomy that makes the comedy in the show that much more pointed. So whenever we have a real emotional moment or storyline, I’m really just following the same rule, and as long as the characters don’t deviate into a joke, the score can really bloom into a truly emotional moment.
The single cue, other than the remarkable main theme, that has stayed with me throughout the years due to its effectiveness plays during the final scene of Season’s Four episode, ‘Three Hundred Big Boys,’ when Fry enters into this caffeine-induced state of hyperspeed after drinking 100 cups of coffee. The ongoing mayhem experienced by the characters in the fire has this very powerful action music until Fry drinks his100th cup of coffee, and then, it all changes. For about a minute your music transcends and adapts to the time boundaries set by the visuals in striking fashion. I’ve often wondered how was this scene handed to you; what were the instructions regarding what the music had to do in order for the viewer to experience Fry’s state of consciousness?
Chris: Well, that’s another great question... and unfortunately one I don’t think I can answer off the top of my head! By the time we finish the last episode of this season [about a week from now], we will have completed 140 episodes of the show. At last count, I think the total number of pieces of music I’ve written for Futurama is right around five thousand cues! I definitely remember the scene, but I can’t for the life of me remember what I wrote there. I’m glad it worked though!
At the time, ‘The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings,’ from Season Four was considered to be the final episode of the series. And it was until the series was picked up again about seven years later. This particular episode has one of the most interesting storylines and also features Fry’s opera inspired by Leela and played on the Holophoner. Did you know at the time that it would be the last episode you would score and if so, did this influence how you wrote the music?
The opera was remarkable indeed. Even Zap Brannigan demanded an EN-core.
Chris: I don’t think we knew that at the time; so no - I was focused on creating the right music for the story. Ken Keeler [one of the writer/producers on the show] really deserves a lot of the credit for the opera though; that was really his baby.
If I am not mistaken, you've scored over 80 episodes for the series. Which episodes do you cherish the most, both as a composer and as a regular viewer?
Chris: Actually 140 episodes! “Roswell that Ends Well” is definitely one of my favorites. “Bender’s Big Score” I thought was a really clever and funny storyline. The upcoming finale for this latest season is pretty awesome too.
Volume seven of the series was released on Blu-Ray and DVD [last week] alongside the extended remix of Futurama’s main theme. I just downloaded the mix off iTunes and have to say that this is what fans have been waiting for a long time. It sounds absolutely fantastic. Can we also expect an album release featuring music from the various seasons in the not too distant future?
Chris: Boy, I hope so! It’s all up to FOX though; we actually sequenced a really great soundtrack compilation and gave it to them - and as yet they haven’t done anything with it. Let’s hope that the fans’ requests for this reach the right ears, and they do it!
The DVD release includes a bonus feature titled “Christopher Tyng’s Big Score: A Jam Session with Futurama’s Innovative Composer.” What can you tell us about this added extra?
Chris: That was a total blast. My studio is kind of crazy high-tech; I can walk around from room to room, record any instrument anywhere, while controlling the whole thing from an ipad. So I thought it would be fun to do a version of the Futurama theme where I do just that. The camera essentially follows me in realtime as I walk in, pick up an ipad, and layer instrument after instrument throughout the studio to create the theme. At one point you can see another pretty cool feature of the studio; the entire control room is a turntable, so I can rotate different workstations into the same speaker field “sweet spot” when I’m working. There’s a cool shot where the camera is on the turntable as I spin the whole room - if you don’t know what’s happening, it’s a little surprising!
Finally, can you tell us about any other upcoming projects? What’s next in terms of Futurama?
Chris: I’m currently working on the second season of USA Networks’ “Suits” which is a really great show and will return for a third season. As far as Futurama goes, as long as the fans keep loving the show, I hope Fox will keep letting us make them!
I consider Futurama to be one of the best TV shows ever made. As a huge fan of the show and your music I just want to say thank you, Chris. You’ve been an inspiration to the next generation of composers.
Chris: Thanks Oscar! I’m a very lucky guy to get to be able to do what I do. If the music on Futurama is a success, it’s because of the creative collaboration of everyone involved, not just me. And if what we do on the show can provide inspiration for someone else to follow their own musical passion and dreams, well... that’s pretty great icing on an already awesome cake!