Tribeca, Manhattan: Watching AMC’s serial thriller Rubicon this past Fall, our ears perked up big time. The original score — composed by Peter Nashel — brought the picture to life in such an exhilarating and unexpected way as it advanced an often dialog-free puzzle of a plot, uncovering a secret society and murderous conspiracy. Cool show, amazing music.
And what was so amazing about it? For starters, the music was authentic and you could hear it: the live instrumentation and ambient space, the smallish ensembles, the soloing cello and piano, and the surrounding room sounds. Combined with tastefully appointed, undulating and accenting electronics, Nashel created a kind of electro-chamber music and, well, we needed to know more.
We discovered that Nashel, partner at Duotone Audio Group in Tribeca, was composing this music and recording it with small ensembles each week at Avatar. After Rubicon wrapped, we scored an interview with him and when we visited, found him already hard at work on a psychological thriller of another flavor, Fox’s Lie To Me. He’s also scored a couple high-profile documentaries this year: Client 9 and Freakonomics.
Read on for our conversation as Nashel fills us in on his world and the opportunities he’s discovered in the new golden age of television…
You popped up on our radar via Rubicon. The music, especially in the first few episodes, really made the show in my opinion. Well done!
Thanks! I’ve gotten a lot of really great feedback. I’ve been hearing from all kinds of people steadily — fans of the show, composers and even post-production houses who want to use it as temp music. It’s been really great to hear such positive feedback!
I bet. And I know you’ve been at this awhile — co-founding Duotone back in the mid-90s. Tell us a bit about your background: what’s your primary instrument and where are you coming from as a composer stylistically?
I originally started as a jazz saxophone player years ago, and what I got out of my years of study was a working knowledge of the keyboard. I’m not really a piano player, but I have arranger’s chops on the piano. I can kind of piece things together; that’s how I conceive of everything.
Stylistically, I’m most interested in music that combines real instruments with electronic elements. There’s so much immediacy that you get from real musicians, and air in a recording, and the breath and vibration that you get from real instruments that you just cannot get from synths, particularly when synths are simulating real instruments like sample libraries. Getting a performance out of real players, there’s still nothing like that.
Combined with electronics — when the electronics are done well — it can really take on a quality that people cannot quite place. They’re not sure what they’re listening to. For instance, a lot of the score of Rubicon would be mixtures of sine waves with real instruments, and I’m not sure that people were necessarily able to separate the two because it just kind of created this cool palette. I love how that sounds.
To me, the overall impression it made was more organic than electronic and yet hard to describe — modern-classical, electro-chamber music?
Yes, well I’m also really moved by music whose genre you can’t quite figure out. And I think that stems a little from my love of watching actors who I’m unfamiliar with inhabit a role. I felt that when I watched The Wire, Sopranos, Mad Men. These aren’t huge movie stars that I’ve seen a million times so there’s a part of my brain that can really believe in those characters.
Musically, I like that as well…instead of ‘oh, yes this is that thriller movie score,’ you’re thinking ‘what is that music?’ It’s something unique and somewhat new to you.
In the case of Rubicon, what kind of direction were you given? I’m curious because sometimes it’s what the producers or music supervisor think they want musically that pushes a composer into a genre. So what were those initial conversations about?
In my earliest conversation with the music supervisor, Thomas Golubic, he described Rubicon as a smart series a la Three Days of the Condor. It was such an opportunity for me as a composer because it was very British in the way it was made — with these massively long stretches with no dialog and a plot that moved slowly.
And it was kind of a dream job in that it was really talked about in kind of an abstract way – we talked about the fact that the music could almost be a character, but there wasn’t a ton of incidental background music. The music had to telegraph the interior world of the character — what is the struggle and what is going on — because the character wasn’t necessarily doing much in the scene. Maybe he was just looking around, or looking at some papers.
So it had to do a lot of heavy lifting. And we talked a lot about the music fulfilling that role. But we didn’t talk a ton about what the tone of it should be. I was the one who suggested it have a purely modern feel to it but at the same time bridge that gap between the somewhat unglamorous world of information gathering and the excitement of what they were discovering.
So the music really had function beyond underscoring whatever feeling or emotion the scene was conveying.
Oh big time. It had a couple of different roles. There was the interior world for Will – the main character – I had a very high, half-step two-note theme that signaled the conspiracy whenever we witnessed that in action, and there were a couple iterations of that. There was music that pertained directly to Katherine Rhumor’s character and her journey.
Then, there were incidental themes that pertained to the other characters along with some surveillance / conspiracy themes. There were definite themes that occurred throughout the series. It was great to be able to work this way, almost treating each episode like a short movie – but where I had my palette and my themes that I could return to each week. But it was also a TV show in that the music would signify the interior lives of the characters [as they developed over the season].
And I think that’s the main difference between long form serial TV as opposed to feature film or even as opposed to procedural TV. Working in TV in this longer-form, you have 13 hours as opposed to 2 hours to let the story unravel.
Yes indeed: it’s one, long story arc. And I’m curious — what do you think made you the right composer for this gig? Were the producers or music supervisor interested in you from anything in particular that you’d done previously?
They’d known I’d worked on this documentary No End In Sight and I think that, combined with some of the atmospheric music that I came up with for The Deep End or The Night Listener and my most recent feature at that point, Carriers, which was in the vein of 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead but more of a Lord of the Flies where the people become their own worst enemies, a psychological thriller…I think it was that combination of music that made the people who were running the show, the folks at Warner Bros and the music supervisor feel I’d do a good job with Rubicon.