How Television Synth Soundtracks Are Getting More Immersive Than Ever
It's well accepted now that we're living in a golden age of television drama. The proliferation of streaming services and associated binge watching seem to have led to increased demand, in particular, for intense, character-led pieces.
This, of course, is a stark contrast to the grand spectacle of superheroes and space opera that increasingly dominate the film theatre schedules – to the point where many Hollywood's greatest writing and directing talents are gravitating to the small screen in significant numbers.
With that being said, one fascinating side effect of this is that mainstream audiences are now finding themselves immersed in some very highly-realised, experimental sound design and composition.
The combination of long-duration viewing and normalisation of hi-fi sound for television creates a perfect storm for appreciation of often deeply weird electronic music. More people are enjoying it separately from the visuals, as well.
The most prominent recent example of this is the Golden Globe win for Hildur Gudnadottir’s Chernobyl soundtrack (and an Oscar for her Joker score). It's a piece of staggering intensity that reflects Gudnadottir’s “method” composition mode. It saw her spending time in a Soviet era power plant, psychologically soaking up the unique atmosphere and recording ambient sound.
It's not just about conjuring up generalised emotions of foreboding, danger or doom though, but is an exquisitely realised examination of space and scale – amplifying the sense of small, vulnerable human bodies being exposed to vast and inexorably advancing hazards.
The music is so affecting, and so detailed, it really rewards close listening – separate from its initial function. From the first hit of percussion which opens the soundtrack album, this is music that you'd expect to be soundtracking an art installation or performed at an avant-garde electronica or classical festival.
And of course there's Stranger Things, which is one of the biggest pop cultural phenomena of recent years, not least because of its music. The scoring work by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the Texan band, Survive, combines genuine eeriness with 1980s synth kitsch, perfectly matching the mood of the show.
Just as the show manages to nod to E.T., Ghostbusters, The Goonies, Steven King, John Hughes and all the rest without being corny about it, it echoes the soundtrack work of John Carpenter, Wendy Carlos and Tangerine Dream, but with just enough upgrade to stop it being mere pastiche.
This music has taken on a life of its own to the point where Dixon and Stein have been touring it worldwide, recently playing a headline show at London's super prestigious Royal Festival Hall to premiere the music for the show's third season.
And in between the bleak realism of Chernobyl and the sci-fi fun of Stranger Things, lies a whole sonic universe for the exploration. The use of British composer Anna Meredith's synth explorations in the Paul Rudd starring dark comedy Living With Yourself is a crucial part of the show's surreal wit, her unorthodox structures and sounds mirroring the endless narrative surprises.
The tracks may have been taken from her Vermints and Anno albums, but rearranged in the show's soundtrack album, they get new life. Jason Hill's work for David Fincher's serial killer drama Mindhunter is extraordinarily listenable considering the degree of tension that runs through it.
Played alone, separated from the onscreen action and the 1970s or 80s pop that adds period colour to the series, it's a thing of shimmering beauty. Far more demonstratively, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' cues for Watchmen create stirring moods. The creepy-crawling beats, distorted sounds and occasional snatches of voiceover on the three volumes of original soundtrack albums create a whole aural dramatic experience of their own.
And there's plenty more out there too. Brian Reitzel's work on American Gods, Mars and Cannibal, and Dan Romer's more conventionally orchestral but strikingly minimalist cues for Maniac all reward deep listening.
They're all available on music services – even on vinyl in many cases – which clearly shows that they're serving a purpose well above and beyond just acting as sonic seasoning for the onscreen action.
There is practically a new art form emerging here: as television is now taken as seriously as films, so composers have to get their heads around writing for 15 or 20 hours of drama at a time instead of merely two or three.
And the deep and long viewing of these series is priming people for serious immersive listening, perfect for appreciation of the out-there ambient, drone, neo-classical and even industrial or noise music that are seeping into our living rooms.
There's an ocean of sound lurking in the background of 21st century popular culture, just waiting for you to dive in.
Cover Credit: Netflix
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs