Netflix tunes in TV academy to composers for ‘House of Cards,’ ‘Orange is the New Black’ and more

At a recent panel, TV Academy members were reminded that Netflix isn’t just a place to binge on their favorite shows, but to take a second to enjoy the music as well. Composers for four of the streaming service’s original series — “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Lilyhammer” and “Hemlock Grove” — gathered at the Pacific Design Center’s Silverscreen Theater to dish on the how they create the musical score we hear each episode.

Steven Van Zandt is the star, producer, and composer for “Lilyhammer,” Netflix’s first original series. The drama centers around New York mobster Frank Tagliano (Van Zandt) who rats on his former associates and then flees to Lillehammer to go into hiding.

On how “Lilyhammer” beat “House of Cards” out of the Netflix gate: “They had bought ‘House of Cards,’ but they were still working on it, so they wanted to put something out before ‘House of Cards’ was going to be ready, and this was for once in my life perfect timing. We didn’t have a full episode. I just put together a trailer, and they said ‘let’s do it!’

On how the show was able to keep and make Norway a character on the show: “I asked them [Netflix] ‘do you want us to dub it because it’s a Norwegian show so it’s in Norwegian? Do you want us to dub it or not because I know Americans hate subtitles’ and they said ‘No, I want it the way it is,’ which was really cool. The idea was so weird to begin with that I thought I’d try to have a theme song that would capture that sort of cross-cultural thing so I was trying to make the theme song half Norwegian folk music and half New York jazz. That’s kind of the direction we maintain throughout the show. What I’ll do is mix the themes between the Norwegian folks music and fiddle indigenous to Norway and a couple scenes later do the same thing with the saxophone or trumpet and I get to keep that flavor of those melodies more coherent, more consistent.”

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Three-time Emmy champ Jeff Beal reaped his 11th and 12th nominations last year for his work on the first season of “House of Cards.”

He revealed that creator David Fincher gives him great guidance: “Although he wasn’t involved as a director, David was still very involved, especially in season two as an executive producer. After season one finished he actually sent me a piece of music and said ‘This is the direction for season two.’ It was a piece of music from ‘The Comfort of Strangers’ and it was beautiful, very operatic. So kind of the shorthand, when I met with Fincher he said if season one was ‘The Godfather,’ then this season is ‘The Godfather: II.’ The stakes are even higher. Kevin Spacey’s character is literally going for the brass ring, and it’s just darker. And I said ‘Jeez David I thought season one was pretty freakin’ dark!”

As for one of Fincher’s odder requests: “Dave is very involved in every aspect, and he came up with this crazy idea in between season one and season two and he says: ‘I want to do an arrangement of Stings song ‘Demolition Man,’ but with a string orchestra instead of the band.’ So I worked on the orchestration of this and he goes: ‘I want a choir doing this.’ And if you’ve ever heard a Sting song you know how fast the words go and I thought ‘Wow this could be really tricky,’ but we figured out a way to do it and as part of that orchestration my wife Joan, who is a wonderful opera singer, I was working on this arrangement and I just thought man this needs some opera singer just screaming at the top of her lungs. There’s nothing scarier than a soprano just wailing at you. I know. I’m married to one.”

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BMI winner Gwendolyn Sanford, who composes for “Orange is the New Black,” was happy to boast, “I actually can say I got discovered in Hollywood. Not a lot of people can say that, but it actually happened to me.”

Sanford was discovered through her children’s songs, which she says she’d send out to her neighborhood preschool and play a few shows. “One of our very first fans was Jenji Kohan (creator of Orange is the New Black) and she had a two-year-old son, and ended up having two more children, So she kind of grew up with her kids listening to our music. She asked us to audition for ‘Weeds’ in its second season, I think it was just one of her ideas, ‘Hey we should get that children’s band that we love so much to audition’ and that’s just who she is. She’s very spontaneous. That’s Jenji though, she’s always got a wink and a smile. She’s always making trouble somewhere.”

On how the actors improvise to music on set, and how she’s able to use that: “I always feel like every scene has its own tempo, and sometimes we start there. When they’re dancing in the rec room, sometimes what they’re playing isn’t exactly what ends up on the scene, and that’s kind of the music supervisors job to take a look at the song and see what tempo they were playing when the shot the scene and replace it with something similar and cheaper.”

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Two-time Emmy nominee Nathan Barr is doing double duty these days. “At it’s worst, it’s about one episode a week of ‘The Americans’ and ‘Hemlock Grove’ the same week. So it’s a lot. I have a wonderful assistant who helps me on the technical aspects, but I kind of insist on writing everything myself and perform it myself as well. It can be tough.”

His influence comes from the characters: “Season one is super dark, crazy story. And musically it opened up all sorts of opportunities for me. One of the lead characters, Olivia, she’s sort of this very classical put together lady and she’s one of the more bizarre characters on the show. So she helped form the classical sound of the show and we went from there.”

On improvising the music after the episode is completed: “I don’t read scripts because I just love reacting to the show. I just sit down, put the computer on record, and I just start improvising.”

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