Scoring the Cosmos: A Conversation with Alan Silvestri and Seth MacFarlane

MacFarlaneIt still feels weird that the creator of the wisecracking, puerile, and frequently crude cartoon Family Guy is the executive producer of a series that (in his words) earnestly explores the science of the cosmos. But it seems Seth MacFarlane loves defying expectations as much as he enjoys spinning a dozen plates at once as an undeniably talented voice actor, regular actor, writer, director, and producer (despite your or my opinion of his sense of humor).

He’s also, like me, an unabashed film music geek. “I’ve always loved film scores,” he told me in a recent interview for Film Score Monthly Online. “It’s part of a larger interest in orchestral music, and the sounds that can come out of an orchestra. Film remains the last platform for popular exposure of orchestral music. When I was a kid in the ’80s, I eagerly snatched up any of John Williams’ work, even if I hadn’t seen the movie. And certainly Jerry Goldsmith as well. It was music that was accessible—it wasn’t completely esoteric, as a lot of modern classical music tends to be. But at the same time it was very sophisticated and demanded something of the listener, and had a lot going on. It didn’t dumb itself down for the movies.”

His love of film music naturally translates into a more appreciative—and in his case more oldschool—approach to using music in his own films and TV series. “Whenever I’m in the production process, I think about music from the script stage,” he says. “Oftentimes there’s action written into the script that’s designed to accommodate the kind of cue I want to go there.” When contemplating the music he wanted for Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, he thought of the guy who scored one of his favorite childhood film trilogies involving science: Back to the Future. (MacFarlane actually owns a replica time machine DeLorean.) He met Alan Silvestri several years ago, and the two have been (in the composer’s words) “texting buddies,” but hadn’t discussed collaborating until now.

“I got a call from Seth in mid-December,” Silvestri told me in a recent phone interview. “He said, ‘I’m not going to beat around the bush: I want to see if you’re interested in helping me on this thing I’m doing.’ I immediately said yes, and he said, ‘You better find out what it is first before you do that.’ I went down to LA to have dinner with him and Annie [Druyan], who I had known from Contact days. He presented me with the idea of the show and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and all of it was spectacular, and he said, ‘Now, here’s our little situation: we need literally four episodes by the end of January.’ He was basically telling me, ‘We’re going to need 190 minutes of music in six weeks.’”

Silvestri is no stranger to tight deadlines, but this challenge understandably gave him “cause to pause.” After giving it some thought, he decided to take the plunge into the deep end of the cosmos. “When I said ‘I’m in, and I will find a way to do it,’ their sense was, ‘That would be a miracle, so you do what you have to do.’ And part of that meant there was not going to be time for the normal ‘send a cue down, have a meeting, send it back, fix it, send it down, have it approved’…everybody was just so pressed. It was basically, ‘Take this and write’—and that’s what I did.”

984033_10201690682208406_1342468273_nThe first task was getting the main title right, a piece of music that would set the tone for each of the show’s 13 episodes. That was really the only piece of music where there was any back and forth between Silvestri, MacFarlane, and Druyan. “Annie had some very specific goals she wanted to achieve in the main title,” Silvestri says. “The one that is in the series I refer to as ‘Annie’s Main Title,’ because she wanted certain kinds of sensibilities in certain places.”

Druyan, who was married to Carl Sagan (creator of the Cosmos) and writes and directs on the new series, wanted an unorthodox main title that invited audiences in with a whisper rather than a shout. “The first offering I sent in would be much more the ‘normal’ main title approach,” says Silvestri. “It was weighted more towards, ‘Let’s go on a journey! Look how fantastic this is gonna be!’ Annie loved that aspect of it, but her feeling was, there needs to be some introspection. She wanted some questions, not just all the answers. It moved from being a very outward expression to much more of an introspective one. Of course, when there’s a supernova explosion, there’s an expansion in the music. But she very much wanted to leave the end of the main title with the sense of a question, and I think it works beautifully.”

The theme at the heart of the title actually came from a sequence in the first episode, where host Neil deGrasse Tyson recounts the time when, as a teenager, he met Sagan. “When I watched that scene I just thought, ‘This is such a wonderful way of bringing Neil into the DNA of the Carl Sagan effort,'” says Silvestri. “It was just so lovely, and so beautifully written. That little piece of thematic material came to be known as ‘Carl’s Theme’ for me, which recurs all through the series, and will certainly be there at the end. You hear it in the soft part of the main title, which starts to play on the dandelion where the seed pods begin to fly off.”

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“Carl’s Theme” is a beautiful, simple melody first heard on solo piano, holding an almost fixed position above a series of shifting, unpredictable chords. “I knew that for Carl I wanted something simple, and something that was not contrived,” says Silvestri. “That entire theme was constructed out of the perfect fifth, which—short of the octave—is the purest interval we have, certainly in western music. His theme is just a series of simple perfect fifths. It’s a one-finger melody, and you don’t even have to move that one finger quickly. It’s one note per bar, and there was just something fun about having it work, and having it be emotional. Sometimes you just get lucky.”

With that thematic seed planted in the main title, Silvestri pollinated the Cosmos with Carl’s Theme, then broke down the rest of the series into its different components and scored them accordingly. “There are things like these panoramic beauty shots, so I came up with thematic material that would hopefully communicate the power and glory of all of this,” he explains. “A kind of ‘look at this planet we have here’—and that thematic material travels forward in the series. Then there were moments when we’ve got these little pixelated images of the inside of an atom, and you’ll hear electronic, blippy type things… It’s all vocabulary, where once we had new words, they were now in our dictionary going forward.”

Cosmos is a sophisticated blend of traditional orchestra (recorded in London) and electronics, fusing the grandeur of a swelling body of strings and the intimacy of a solo piano or French horn with appropriately atomic figurations and effects.

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The series is also essentially wall-to-wall music, and Silvestri was presented with the challenge of giving the score a sense of variety of movement and mood to avoid getting into a rut. “Each show really turns out to be like one piece of music,” he says. Not only that, but within each episode are the interwoven components of Tyson’s narration (“Uncle Neil is gonna tell us a story,” was how Silvestri thought of it), fact-heavy scientific montages, and animated miniature stories. What he came up with in response to this grab bag of material—forged in the fiery crucible of an unforgiving deadline—actually revealed itself as an opus of delightfully listenable themes and motifs. Rather than meticulously plotted “incidental” underscore, the music of Cosmos is made up of little vignettes, standalone pieces with inherent logic and thematic cohesion that both serve the series by orienting the audience with the comfort of recurring ideas as we’re rapidly hurtled through a universe of information—but also thrive as music in a way a lot of film (and especially television) scores rarely have the opportunity to do. The result is a body of work that is among the richest and most rewarding of Silvestri’s entire career.

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It also helped that he was given the license for sincerity and direct emotionality. “There’s nothing wrong with earnestness in a score,” says MacFarlane. “I think that’s what’s missing from a lot of film scores today, and I think it’s hungered for…it’s just not being used enough. That’s one of the things I love about what Alan’s doing, is he’s playing the wonder, he’s playing the earnestness of our awe of the universe in his music. It just gives the show enormous presence. The fact that he’s using a 50–90 piece orchestra, depending on the episode, also makes a huge difference.”

“The score doesn’t just address the kind of kinetic aspect of what we’re seeing,” adds Silvestri. “The attempt was to really let this be emotional. When you see a shot from the Hubble Telescope of thousands of galaxies, that’s a very emotional event, and there’s no reason why the music can’t follow the emotional curve we have when we see it. The beauty and the wonder and the mystery of science is actually very emotional, and I wasn’t shy about moving to that zone with the music—even if on the surface it would almost seem like counter-programming with the images. I remember with this beautiful, somewhat silent image of Halley’s Comet as seen from space, this broiling thing moving…I wound up scoring that with solo piano. There was something about this silent, beautiful, powerful thing that was very personal all of a sudden.”

10004071_10201594152955235_484817505_nCosmos was simply the perfect alchemy of a veteran film composer in his element (wonder and emotion), a subject and enormous conceptual canvas teeming with musical possibility, and an executive producer with a deep (and almost anachronistic) respect for the art of scoring to picture. “I feel like a score, and certainly it’s the case with Cosmos, is as much an integral part of the movie as any of the actors,” says MacFarlane. “It’s not the kind of thing where we’re done cutting it together and I say, ‘Now where does the music fit in?’ There are certain spaces that are allowed for, from day one, with the knowledge that music is going to take the lead role. With Cosmos, where you essentially have wall-to-wall score, there are moments in many of the episodes where Alan’s music just transforms the entire tone of the scene. I think that’s what a score should do. In recent years there’s been maybe a fear of score and how it might, in certain films, make something seem insincere or less raw. To me that’s nonsense. I look at Cosmos without music and with music, and they’re two different shows.”

It was also an extremely rare scenario where the composer wasn’t asked to spend a lot of time creating elaborate synth mockups to audition each cue before moving on—and the outcome speaks for itself. “There were no demos,” says MacFarlane. “Part of it was schedule, but part of it was: the more I do this, the more I realize that’s just a better way to do it. The technology has pushed composers into this corner where they have to demo absolutely everything, and send synth tracks so everybody can give notes on everything. It’s a bad trend that just needs to go away. When you deal with a guy like John Williams, he plays you some themes on the piano and then he goes and writes his score, and you hear it when you get to the scoring stage. The more I do this, the more I realize that’s how it should be done. Because there’s an enormous amount of time and expenditure of effort to make these mockups so a director and producer can hear the music. It’s time that is taken away from orchestration, time that the composer could be using to actually make the score better.

“If you hire a composer and you trust that composer, he or she should be treated like an actor. This is the person you hired, this is the performance they’re going to give—and you can give bits of direction, but to go in and nitpick every little piece will drive a composer nuts, just as it will drive an actor nuts. We found that it worked great. When the scores came back, we had a composer who knew how to handle an orchestra, who was a serious musician, and we got wonderfully legit music. This was all Alan.”

The sweet finish to this cosmic adventure, for admirers of the music like me, is that Silvestri has released every note of the score himself. Sequenced by his longtime coordinator/programmer Dave Bifano, Silvestri worked with a London company to distribute four volumes of Cosmos via digital download—an almost unprecedented treat for lovers of film music. “Everything that was written for the show is on these four volumes,” he says. “And we interspersed in there the original main title, the second draft of the main title, and of course the final main title. We’ve literally used every note written for the show.”

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Cosmos propagated a trend of earnestly thematic film and television music, and of eschewing the laborious and shackling practice of mockup auditions? MacFarlane is certainly doing his part (“Yeah well, hopefully it’s contagious”), as evidenced by Joel McNeely’s throwback, unapologetically sincere western score for the director’s A Million Ways to Die in the West. (MacFarlane deliberately tested the theory of whether “earnest” music would offend modern ears by only temping his western with film music prior to 1990 for test screenings. “There was no smirking,” he says, “there was no giggling. They bought it 100 percent.”)

Based on their first collaboration, I can only hope MacFarlane and Silvestri—these two unlikely but clearly compatible artists—team up again. “He’s just a guy like Henry Mancini, in that he can really adapt to any style,” says MacFarlane. “His scores all have certain signatures that are audibly recognizable as Alan, but each one is very much specific to the movie it’s designed for. One of the things I like about his work is that he’s just constantly surprised me.”