James Levine Q&A: ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ composer
With credits as diverse as “American Horror Story” “Major Crimes,” “The Closer,” “Glee,” “Damages,” and “Rizzoli & Isles” to his credit, it’s difficult to imagine how composer James S. Levine can come up with so much fresh material every day. “I always approach what I do from a story place,” he says in our exclusive audio podcast. “I try to put myself in the world of the characters, and they feel very distinct for me, so knock wood, every day is a new day in our real world, so if I’m pretending to be a character in my show then every day is a new day. So I don’t get hung up on ‘what am I gonna come up with today?’ In essence, I think it’s just important to start fresh every day and let the material drive the new ideas.
He continues, “It’s always a challenge at the very beginning of a show to establish what feels like the musical character, the musical world that our characters live in. You want to be able to give it an identifiable character, but certainly one that can take you on a journey.”
About his work on “American Horror Story,” he notes, “even though it was the same show, it was an anthology, so every year was a different idea, a different concept that Ryan Murphy came up with. So that of course presented a challenge because it wasn’t just like, ‘Oh, we’re back in the swing of things.’ Every year was kind of like starting a new show all over again, whereas with “Glee” or “Major Crimes,” you’re evolving but you know your instruments, you know your colors, your pallets that you’re going to paint with. With an anthology show like “American Horror,” you sort of have to come up with that again every year.”
In regards to “Glee,” he says, “I was always very conscious about what the musical numbers were doing, and I think we purposefully created a score that felt like its own thing. We never really had a situation were it was like, ‘that’s really jarring how the score comes in against the song.’ We just never experienced that. In the beginning, it took us a while to figure out what we were gonna do with the score, but where you think it might present challenges…it actually, surprisingly, wasn’t that big a deal. Generally speaking, the songs and the score coexisted very nicely against one another, and they didn’t contrast.” He came up with many of the themes after relating the show to his own past as a high school pianist, saying, “ultimately, we wanted the score to be very honest.”
Levine has won seven ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards for his work on “Glee,” “Major Crimes,” “The New Normal,” and “Royal Pains.” Listen to our full interview below for more from this versatile talent.