Scoring ‘The Sandman’ Dream World with Composer David Buckley
David Buckley’s score for the television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s comic book series The Sandman is a masterclass in blending an enormous array of characters, realms and times into some sort of a cohesive and connected musical statement.
For fans of The Sandman, a live action adaptation has been a long time in the making, with several false starts along the way.
However, their patience has been well-worth the wait, as the series is beautifully made with a top-notch score from Buckley.
WHO IS DAVID BUCKLEY?
While not completely unknown in the world of film music, The Sandman is most likely Buckley’s most high-profile assignment to date.
His previous projects include the score for films Jason Bourne and The Nice Guys, television shows Lincoln Lawyer and The Stranger, and video games Batman: Arkham Knight and Call Of Duty: Ghosts.
Buckley credits his unique breadth of portfolio with landing him the job to score The Sandman.
Originally born in London in 1976, Buckley grew up tinkering with the piano and performing in choir. Strangely, his first encounter with film music came when his choir performed on Peter Gabriel’s score for Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ.
After completing musical studies at the University of Cambridge, Buckley moved to Los Angeles where he apprenticed under composer Harry Gregson-Williams and contributed additional music to scores by Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer.
NEIL GAIMAN AND ‘THE SANDMAN’
The Sandman is a comic originally created by Gaiman and serialised in 75 issues that ran from January 1989 to March 1996.
The comic details the epic story of Dream, aka Lord Morpheus, the anthropomorphic personification of dreams, King of the Dreaming Realm, and one of the seven Endless – siblings who each represent an aspect of life.
The series is widely regarded as one of the best graphic novels ever created and was among the first graphic novels to appear on The New York Times “Best Sellers List”.
Several adaptations of The Sandman have been attempted for television and film, but all have stopped either in development or shortly after work began.
DAVID BUCKLEY’S SCORE FOR ‘THE SANDMAN’
Buckley’s score for The Sandman weaves themes for several characters, various timelines, and a wide range of chronological events into an interesting and cohesive musical work.
Let’s dive into a handful of the cues and see what we find.
‘THE KINGDOM OF DREAMS’
“The Kingdom Of Dreams” is the main title theme and also features the primary theme for Dream. We hear this theme many times throughout the series, most notable at the show's intro, but also during many sequences involving Dream.
The theme is notable for its use of a somewhat ancient instrument, the viola da gamba (viol or viole). This is a Baroque-era instrument quite similar to the cello.
Buckley doubled Dream’s theme on this antiquated instrument and an analog synthesiser, in a subconscious attempt to mimic The Sandman’s broad timeline.
Dream is a character that exists in myriad dimensions and across multiple timelines, often inside the same episode, so having a primary theme for the character that blends instruments from seemingly disparate eras of music is a fitting choice.
The theme itself is rich in symphonic colour, employing both a full orchestra and choir to match the expansive world of the show.
Opening with a weirdly modulating bell figure, a toy piano sound first iterates the melody with some dramatic and slightly spooky sound design underneath as the orchestral strings slowly enter and take over the melody for its second iteration.
A variation occurs next with the brass section dominating and bringing forth a darker, more sinister theme before the full orchestra mixed with the choir returns for the theme's final statement.
The cue “Dream’s Escape” coincides with Morpheus’s escape from the clutches of English occultist Roderick Burgess.
In a ritual gone astray, Burgess was attempting to capture Dream’s sibling Death in order to bring back his beloved son from the dead. However, Burgess mistakenly captures Dream and holds him captive for over a century, leading to chaos in the dreaming world and a sleeping sickness over mankind.
The cue opens with a flourish of synths warping around strings until a timpani roll reveals Dream’s main theme again in the brass.
The cue takes a darker turn, propelled forward by a steady drum beat and tremolo-bowed string part until a final recapitulation of Dream’s theme boils over into a gentle ambient field. All in all, the cue essentially re-packages material from Dream’s main theme in interesting ways that help to create suspense, motion, and intrigue in the on-screen action.
‘THE OLDEST GAME’
“The Oldest Game” accompanies Dream on his descent into Hell to visit Lucifer Morningstar in an attempt to retrieve his lost helm, which Dream believes a demon has stolen.
In order to gain back his helm, Dream challenges the demon to a sinister game in which Lucifer herself acts as the demon’s proxy against Dream, a challenge that is nearly too much for Dream to handle.
However, despite Lucifer’s best attempts, Dream emerges from the challenge victorious and regains his magical helm.
The cue is a long-winded one, following many twists and turns with varied instrumentation.
Opening with a familiar toy piano sound, a haunting, high register violin motif emerges, shrouded in a dark mist. A thunder clap signals the emergence of a dissonant woodwind chord, as a plodding, trudging drum beat ensues as we see a line of the damned marching in chains through Hell.
A variation on Dream’s theme floats over the top of this drudgery as the tempo quickly accelerates and coalesces around a bizarre, modulating sound that is like a demonic, twisted voice echoing endlessly across the scorched landscape.
The music suddenly turns direction and we hear a clear iteration of Dream’s theme, this time portrayed in a straightforward manner in the orchestra. A heavy drum emerges underneath, calling back to the drum beat we hear at the beginning of the cue.
But again, the music fades into a new section. An ambient pad rises up with a more frantic string section driving the action. A variation on Dream’s theme is picked up and the orchestra again quickly builds up to a crescendo before a final epic chord sums up the passage.
Intense and visceral writing combine with a superb use of theme to make a successful cue for this episode.
MAKING USE OF THEME AND CHARACTER
The success of Buckley’s score for The Sandman rests on his exceptional use of theme to develop characters on-screen combine with his ability to capture and communicate multiple layers of time and dimension.
We can hear the main theme for Dream echoed, re-orchestrated, and developed many times throughout the series in novel ways.
For a show that is so widely spread through realms and timelines, it is extremely rewarding to have a handful of musical motifs to grasp onto and guide us along with Dream on his fantastical journeys.
For more Film Scores, read:
- Unforgettable Film Scores of the 21st Century
- Film Scores to Listen to in 2022
- A History Of Sci-Fi Film Scores
- Hans Zimmer Film Scores
All Images: Netflix
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Writer | Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a multi-instrumentalist composer, performer, and writer currently bouncing between Trondheim and Berlin. He apparently has the eyes of the devil, enjoys leopard prints, and will read your tarot, but not your future.