Garnering sixteen nominations for tonight’s 2012 Primetime Emmys, the History Channel’s three-part epic retelling of the famous feud “Hatfields & McCoys” benefited from a perfect storm of direction, production, acting, and music composition.
In a partnership with Tony Morales, three-time Emmy winning composer John Debney [1997 for “The Cape,” 1994 for “SeaQuest 2032,” and 1991 for “The Young Riders”] stepped up to the plate to create a soundtrack that was both heartfelt and entrancing. Read on, as we take sides with Mr. Debney!
The score for “Hatfields & McCoys” seemed to portray a delicate balance between historic atmosphere and modern music sensibility, almost as if you were trying to update the “western” sound for today’s listenership.
That’s exactly what we were trying to achieve. A very good friend of mine, Tony Morales helped me write this, which was literally a mountain of music – about 3 ½ hours of music. And one of the things we spoke about early on was the desire to not just create a western score that would come across as clichéd, but something that captured the rural elements of that time period.
We wanted to use that instrumentation, but create something that is accessible to the people of today. Our goal was to create a very melodic score, so we came up with three or four main themes and worked very hard to come up with a score that we felt was different from anything previously heard in that genre.
Something that struck me about the way the film and the score worked together, was that it took me back to how visceral “How the West Was Won” was, in relation to the cinematography.
Ah, I’m glad you mentioned that. I watched “How the West Was Won” two or three times just to get inspiration for this. It’s one of my favorite films, and Alfred Newman is one of my favorite composers. In fact, it was just on the other night, and I just marveled at how he was able to craft that score. And that was by design – he wanted to invoke that classic western feeling with real themes and drape it in a modern mentality. So, in a way, our focus was to do a sort of update of “How the West Was Won”.
What really surprised me about your work on “Hatfields & McCoys” was how you were able to create an epic kind of sound with minimalist instrumentation.
That was the challenge! It was always one of our major concerns early on, because of the budgetary constraints of TV. At one point, we had the desire to do one orchestral session just to beef up some of the bigger sections of the film, but due to a number of factors, we weren’t able to make that happen. So, we strove to layer things a lot to give it a bigger, broader scope. I don’t know how successful we were at it, but on a whole, I think it came off well, and we’re pretty proud of it.
When one normally thinks of minimalism in soundtracks, the usual instrument combo involves a piano, a guitar, and some kind of percussion instrument. But when I was listening to the isolated score, I was amazed to notice that several different kinds of guitars could be heard. How many types of guitars did you use?
We used A LOT of different kinds of guitars! We went from your normal 6-and-12-string acoustic guitars to different types of resonators (they look like acoustic guitars with a metal sounding board) – we had tenor and bass resonators. We did this to widen the sonic canvas. We also used banjos, Weissenborn guitars.
I also used, quite sensibly I think, something that is called a guitarviol, which is an instrument that looks like a guitar, is strung like a guitar, but can be bowed and plucked like a violin; and it’s made by a very fine craftsman named Jonathan Wilson. A lot of composers are starting to use those, and I think you are probably hearing them on a lot of scores without even realizing it. They have a wonderful sound that is like a cross between a cello and a guitar. We really tried to use everything but the kitchen sink!
Is it difficult at all for a learned, technically proficient composer like yourself to embody the spirit of an earlier time period, like the time of the Hatfields & McCoys, where the music of the region was predominantly marked by feel, rather than skill?
That’s a great question. One of the things that I really try to do when I’m working on something like “Hatfields…” or “The Stoning of Soraya M.” is to make an effort to cast the right musicians to play with. It is one thing to score a really technical piece of music, but it is something entirely different for a group of musicians to play it so you feel it. There is not really a good way to fake that. You can’t really bring in musicians who have either never played this kind of music or has no awareness of it.
So, it was extremely important to cast it properly. We got a couple of really great violinists, a great guitarist named Ben Peeler who grew up on this kind of music, and I was really blessed to have been able to bring in Lisbeth Scott, who was the voice on most of this score. Lisbeth and I have worked on a number of scores together, and her voice became the moral compass of this thing; the more we used her, the more she focused the project. I love every opportunity I get to work with her, but this time, she REALLY brought something special to it. She’s just otherworldly; you can give her a melody, and she will instantly put her own stamp on it.
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