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FARSCAPE: Music for the Wide-Open Universe

SubVision and Guy Gross discuss their different approaches to the hit show.

By Randall D. Larson     December 02, 2000

Among the intriguing science fiction shows now being seen on cable TV is FARSCAPE, produced by the Jim Henson Company and currently being seen in the US on the Sci Fi Channel. It is also shown in Australia on 9 Network and in England on BBC. With a loose storyline about a marooned astronaut finding a haven along with an accumulation of various renegade aliens aboard a living spaceship, the show finds opportunities for plenty of adventure and action in its wide-open universe. Adding to its effective storylines and engrossing human and alien characterizations is a compelling and eclectic musical score. With the release of a FARSCAPE soundtrack [see editorial link below], the show's music is becoming even more accessible and appreciated.

FARSCAPE's main theme and the episode scores for the first season is the work of SubVision, an Australian team comprised of father-and-son composer Chris and Braedy Neal. Chris has a long history in Australian film music, having been writing feature film and TV drama scores for 20 years. He had previously collaborated with FARSCAPE producer Matt Carroll on several projects including TURTLE BEACH. Braedy (Chris' son) comes from the world of contemporary (rock-dance) music and digital music production-editing. Both composers have solo careers, but they collaborate on drama scores for the US, UK, Europe and Australia under the name SubVision. 'SubVision was one of five production teams to submit demo music to the FARSCAPE producers,' says Braedy Neal. 'After an interview with Brian Henson, Rockne S. O'Bannon, David Kemper and Matt Carroll, we were commissioned to score the first series.'

SubVision's FARSCAPE theme, an appealing and likeable amalgamation of modern rhythms, ethnic instrumentations, and primitive vocalizations, set an immediate tone of otherworldly adventure and intermingled cultures. Coming onto the project initially, the Neals were given instructions that the show's music be fresh and original, avoiding similarities to previous science fiction series.

'In the beginning the producers were adamant that the score was to be a sci-fi first, borrowing nothing from established scoring techniques, like STAR TREK or STAR WARS,' says Neal. 'It had to be raw, tribal, bold. It was this open and collaborative brief that saw the theme take shape. Our approach was therefore new to everyone, and as we delved into pentatonic scales and lots of banging and chanting, the score took on a life of its own and began to evolve.'

As the series went on, the direction changed slightly to a more traditional approach, as dictated by the production staff. 'Our direction was fairly liberal at first,' Neal says. 'The producers loved the theme and the music for the first few episodes. After this, somebody high up in the production must have become nervous, and from then on we were constantly encouraged to make the score more like a 'normal' sci-fi series. This took a lot of the passion away as far as we were concerned.'

For the most part, the composers treated each episode as a unique entity, scoring it apropos to its own dramatic needs, instead of re-using character-based themes from episode to episode. 'The nature of the FARSCAPE series caused our themes to be tied into episodes rather than to any particular character,' Neal says. 'A possible exception to this was the magical undercurrent following Zhann.'

SubVision composed new scores for each episode, without resorting to re-use of previously recorded tracks. Some musical material wound up being reused, where appropriate, to lend a degree of textural and thematic continuity. 'The music for each episode was created with that particular story in mind, whilst keeping a common FARSCAPE edge throughout,' Neal says. 'The end result is that about 80% of each episodes' music is new, while the rest is reminiscent of previous episodes.'

As with most episodic television series, the biggest challenge facing the composers was the short time frame allotted to the composition and recording of the music. 'The volume of music for each episode was huge and it was not unusual in the early episodes for changes and re-writes to be requested of us,' Neal says. 'On top of this, we were mixing our scores in 5.1 surround format which can really sound like mud unless you spend a long time mixing on each and every cue.' SubVision found that the requests for rewrites dropped off once they began to deliver more 'predictable' scores, with less experimentation (and, consequently, less freshness and noveltyone of the reasons the show's first few scores remain its best).

Working on the series, the Neals had between nine and eleven days to both score and record the music for each episode. With electronics taking the place of orchestras, SubVision's scores were constructed on a bed of digital samples and synthesizers. 'Once a cue is taking shape, we add some soloists [including both composers] to give it a live feel,' says Neal. 'Of course we would love more time and a budget that would accommodate some sort of orchestra, but our craft involves doing the best job with what we're given. This is a challenge we face on every production, and one of the reasons people hire us is because we are seen to deliver 'bang for the buck.' It is all creative fun, for whatever budget and in whatever time.'

The various landscapes and alien personalities that peopled them throughout the FARSCAPE universe gave SubVision plenty of inspiration, which found voice in a number of memorable musical textures and a fair degree of musical styles that were new to both composers. 'The show does not really reflect either of our personal musical voices,' says Braedy Neal. 'When we are designing any score we try to become part of the story rather than place our own influences upon the story. This often means that we have to study new forms and scoring methods before beginning a new work.'

This also led to a happy amount of musical freedom, at least during the show's early episodes. As more restrictions by the production company were put on what they could do, the experience of scoring FARSCAPE became less fun. 'The reality of working in television is that the constancy of demand inevitably impacts on such creative parameters as thinking time and finessing, which is not the case in one-off forms such as cinema release features. It is for this reason that feature movies remain our preferred medium.'

As the show's second season got off to its start, SubVision returned to provide the scores for the new episodes. But after the 5th episode was scored, Chris and Braedy Neal abruptly found their services no longer in favor. Veteran Australian composer Guy Gross was brought in to assume scoring duties with episode 6, The Way We Weren't. 'We still do not know exactly what went on behind the scenes and probably never will,' says Braedy Neal. 'We were originally promised the entire score of series 2, but this promise was not honored by David Kemper, who assumed control of the series in its second year. We were swept out with most of the key creatives from Season One, who had been commissioned by the outgoing producer, Matt Carroll. Guy Gross keeps studios at the FOX lot on which FARSCAPE was made and is a respected Australian composer who obviously found something in common with David Kemper. We were sacked by mail and given no reason.'

Enter Guy Gross, a classically trained composer with as much experience scoring for synthesizers as for 80-piece orchestras. Nominated for a British Academy Award (BAFTA) for his scores to THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT series, Gross had scored independent and feature films for 20 years when he was called in to compose music for FARSCAPE. 'The FARSCAPE producers first heard my music when I was brought in to score the 3-minute US trailer because SubVision were busy scoring the first season,' says Gross. 'In season two there was a change of direction, and I was asked to join the team.'

As the musical direction for the series evolved from the tribal experimentation of its first season into a more traditional scoring approach, Gross was able to bring this sensibility to the FARSCAPE scoring stage. 'I'm a traditionalist,' said Gross, referring to his classical music training. 'You'll hear lots of solid harmony and counterpoint in my scores for FARSCAPE. A lot of Bachian progressions that would make my harmony teacher proud. In many ways, what I have ended up doing is really cliché in a sci-fi scoring sense. But I've never been afraid of clichés. On the contrary, there are times you need something familiar from which to expand. For me the score is rarely intended to speak for itself; rather it reflects ideas, emotions, and performances already contained in some way on the screen.'

While obliging the show's action sequences, Gross enjoyed the opportunity to emphasize the underlying emotional subtleties more than the multicultural tonalities of the setting and characterizations. 'I love manipulation,' says Gross. 'FARSCAPE gives the composer a great opportunity to mess with the audiences emotions in extreme ways. I am encouraged to score the bad guys really mean, the action really bombastic, and the love scenes totally syrupy. It's a composer's dreamno subtleties. On the other hand, I love gently manipulating the dynamics of a scene with underscore that follows each word of dialogue, or raising of an eyebrow. I think this lends weight to the already excellent performances and helps lead the audiences into the direction the scene was intended.'

In contrast with the more obvious dynamic of SubVision's scoring approach, Gross's music can be described, for the most part, as more subtle and understated. 'A major part of my musical approach is through harmonic shifts,' said Gross. 'I find a gentle change of key or tonality at the right place can really help the audience understand a scene. For example a cadence at just the right time can tell the audience that we have finished with 'that story idea' and the rest of the scene is less important. Or visa-versa. Also a subtle yet unexpected musical change can draw the attention of the audience in the middle of scene which may ensure they notice some particular piece of information or story twist.'

Like SubVision, however, Gross avoided composing themes for each character and instead gave each episode its own musical identity, while maintaining a similar texture consistent to the show. 'Only Scorpius has his own music sound,' Gross said. 'I wouldn't go so far as to call it a theme. It's a synth sound that I use percussively under what ever I need the score to be doing. I stayed away from recurring themes. I find it becomes tiresome to keep hearing known themes. It's more appropriate for feature films that are only 2 hours long and thematic development helps shape the film. But to hear melodies repeated every week doesn't feel right for me. I prefer to give each episode it's own themes which help set the tone of the episode.'

Recording conditions have remained fairly consistent throughout the show's two-year run. Gross meets with supervising director Andrew Prouse once weekly to discuss how music should be used in the episode in production. Occasionally the producers and the episode director will join the session. 'We discuss starts and stops, and emotional intentions,' says Gross. 'In terms of style, apart from the general traditional orchestral approach, I try and set a unique tone to each episode.'

Not surprisingly, the pace of television scoring gives Gross his biggest challenges, just as it did his predecessors. He has two weeks to score and record each episode. 'When I'm 'in the zone' the music just flows, and I can meet deadlines and even spend a good few days conceiving my approach for the episode,' says Gross. 'But when things are tight and you've just got to produce, then things get a bit hairy. I really dislike missing attention to detail. So far with a two week turnaround things have been okay.'

Gross's FARSCAPE scores are created electronically, using an array of three EMU Ultra XT's and two Kurzweil K2500s and an extensive orchestral sample library to create orchestra sounds electronically. Gross chooses his sound palette based on what he can achieve with these instruments. 'As long as I compose with the actual sounds I expect to finish up with, this isn't restrictive,' said Gross. 'That way there are no surprises. For instance, I'd never write a violin solo because I know it's just not realistic enough with samples. But I have no problem expressing myself musically with the vast palate of sounds I have even though there are some instruments I can't do.'

Working completely on synthesizers, Gross is able to mix the score as he is writing it. 'As I finish composing each cue I mix it internally direct to the computers hard drive,' Gross said. 'It easier to redo a mix or a cue if necessary than to have to do a day or two of mixes at the end of the scoring process.' As a classically trained composer, Gross uses the electronic means of composition to achieve music in a predominantly classical mode. 'I use a computer to compose in a very organic way,' he said. 'It's not too thought-out eitherrather more gut responses to the picture and dialogue. I trust my instincts a lot.'

Even though the second season continues to use SubVision's title theme for the show, Gross is under no obligation to use their theme in his episode scores. 'It's a great opening theme, but I'm lucky not to have to use it because I'm not good at scoring in their style,' said Gross. 'It's best to let people do what they do best!'

Since leaving FARSCAPE, Chris and Braedy Neal have found plenty of work elsewhere to maintain their musical adrenaline. They are currently writing and recording the score for a new teen series for the Disney Channel called THE CRASH ZONE, and both have ongoing solo projects. 'These days we are pretty much constantly working on US film and television scores because we are set up to produce the quality that US productions require at a fraction of the cost they are used to paying. The lousy Australian dollar exchange rate is actually working to the great advantage of our clients and ourselves!'

Compared with his other film scoring work, Gross finds his experiences on FARSCAPE very positive. 'Most of the fan-email I get is positive,' he says. 'A few times people miss SubVision's approach to the series in certain scenes. The producers seem to like what I'm doing. In terms of how it sits with my other score: it's not too far away. I'm a great fan of traditional scores, and where possible my work reflects this. I hope viewers get swept into the stories and that perhaps in some part that was due to me.'

Working on the show has been an extraordinarily rewarding experience for all composers. 'FARSCAPE Season One was the most enjoyable TV series either of us have ever worked on due to the sheer quality and scope of the production,' says SubVision's Braedy Neal. 'Every creative department was at the peak of their trade, and it was a privilege to be counted amongst them. Even when we were pressed for more music in less time, it didn't matter because the end result was simply a great piece of international television. Scoring for a feature is very different because there is generally more time and money available. If there were ever a FARSCAPE movie and we were hired to score it, then the quality of the underscore would be similar to the quality of the current opening theme. Series 2 was a very different experience. We felt the on-screen quality of the show was waning and the producers were in the process of removing many of the key creatives from series 1 - in the end, this included us.'

Looking back at their work on the series, Braedy Neal feels SubVision brought a real sense of originality to FARSCAPE. 'Although there were stumbles along the way, we feel that we helped to take the show out of the typical sci-fi genre and into a tribal, dirty and dangerous musical area,' he said.

When asked where he'd like to be working in another five years, Gross responded: 'Season 7 of FARSCAPE - can you tell I love my work? Seriously, I'll still be scoring films. Hopefully there'll be enough interesting work in Australia to keep me musically satisfied and feed my family.'

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