Dan Romer interview: ‘Station Eleven’ composer
“There’s something about strings that really emulate human voices,” declares composer Dan Romer about the profound human emotion that string instruments like the cello and violin so often elicit in music. For our recent webchat about his acclaimed original score for “Station Eleven,” he adds that “there’s something about the swell and the shakiness of strings that reminds us of our own voices more than other instruments.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.
The HBO Max limited series is set in the aftermath of a fictional catastrophic pandemic that wipes out most of civilization. Romer’s ambitious score features a blend of immersive, ambient synth elements and plucky, percussive strings on the one hand, and then rousing melodies that evoke the series life-affirming core theme — that in the face of the hardship and loss that follows a world-ending catastrophe like a perilous global pandemic, art, music and theater live on and sustain humanity.
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“Station Eleven” was created by Patrick Somerville, based on the 2014 sci-fi/fantasy novel of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel. Twenty years after a flu pandemic wipes out most of the world, a group of survivors who make their living as traveling performers encounter a violent cult led by a man whose past is unknowingly linked to a member of the troupe. The series has been met with rave reviews from critics, buoyed by strong word of mouth as audiences inevitably draw parallels to their shared experiences of living under the weight of the (albeit less extreme) COVID-19 pandemic in real life. The series has been lauded for its strong ensemble cast led by Patel, Mackenzie Davis, Matilda Lawler, Lori Petty, Danielle Deadwyler, Nabhaan Rizwan, David Wilmot, Daniel Zovatto and Gael Garcia Bernal against a haunting backdrop of a post-apocalyptic dystopia where humanity has been whittled down to a few survivors scattered across the Earth.
In amongst some of Romer’s distinctive cues and motifs, like the faintly Western sounds coupled with castanets used in the track “What If the Wolf Ate the Baby?” or the layering of pizzicato string elements in tracks like “Is There a Doctor” or the evocative “To the Monsters We’re Monsters” is a track like “Don’t Open It,” in which Romer employs a dense, moody cello that takes on added meaning throughout the score. “One of the first ideas that I had for the score that I came up with was on a phone call with Patrick and [director] Hiro Murai where they were saying they wanted a cello to be the sound of the virus. They really liked the idea of one instrument representing the virus and they liked it being a cello. I was trying to think what is a way that that one string instrument, a solo string instrument, could take on this otherworldly unnatural sound because the virus is this thing that is ending all this nature, and I wanted it to feel unnatural. So, the idea popped into my head,” he reveals. “What if we take a single cello and put it through a harmonizer. What if we did robot harmonies on one single cello player and then all the vibrato of every note would match 100% identically to the original note because it just pitch-shifted, so you have all of these all these tones happening so close together, that your brain knows that it’s not a natural occurrence.”