August 27, 2014

Film: Catching up with…Composer Noah Sorota

 

The composer shares his thoughts on the new season of “Falling Skies.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF NOAH SOROTA

Film: Catching up with…Composer Noah Sorota

Noah Sorota talks about his life and conducting his music for the new season of "Falling Skies."

On the surface, TNT’s “Falling Skies” appears to be a summer season sci-fi actioner loaded with CGI and more CGI. While aliens are ever present, the crux of the show carries an emotion and heart that is the calling card of its executive producer Steven Spielberg.

Helping to bridge the gap between the action and drama is composer Noah Sorota, who took a break from working on the new season, to share how he fleshes out the emotional moments while knowing how to use which notes to create a unique sonic world.

Topanga Messenger: At its core, “Falling Skies” really is a drama centered on family and survival. Is your first impulse to create intimate pieces to reflect that or do you try to capture the bombastic quality most action scenes require?

Noah Sorota
: My first impulse/reactions are to the emotional aspect of the people or situation on screen. I try to always come at it from the point of view of the characters and what they’re feeling. I use that to help me figure out what to say, or even how to say it. “Falling Skies” has a lot of heart to it with lots of different relationships. Characters, emotions and those are usually what drives the writing for me. These are the moments, for me anyway, that make the audience invest in the characters and their situations drawing us into the story more than the action moments do.

PHOTO COURTESY OF NOAH SOROTA

Film: Catching up with…Composer Noah Sorota

Noah Sorota on the scoring stage conducting his music for "Falling Skies."

From a scoring perspective, usually I can watch an action scene and know without much experimenting exactly what it’s going to need (i.e., rhythmic figure here, accent that, mark that, change it up there, then new tempo for the chase to amp up the tension, then crescendo up to the explosion). It is the more emotional, or relational stuff that usually takes more thought process. What am I supposed to draw out, or support in the scene?

There is often more than one point of view to a scene and which one do I help tell? Am I reacting as the character reacts? Does the audience already “know” something the character doesn’t so the music is with the audience and its perspective? These are the kinds of questions you hope a director is around to help you figure out how they want the score to help tell the story. Action always takes longer for me to write (more notes, more going on), but less time to figure out.

The more intimate or personal moments have fewer notes to write than a chase scene for example, but there is more that goes into choosing those notes and how to use them . At least, that’s how it is for me.

Steven Spielberg is the executive producer and “Falling Skies” carries an epic/blockbuster movie to it. How would you describe the difference between composing for film compared to television?

The gap isn’t that big from television to film as one might typically think. There are a few different technical considerations to be aware of as one is working, in either case, but aside from those, I approach a show like “Falling Skies” and a “blockbuster” movie, as you say, the same. My job as composer is to help tell the story through the music and really the story dictates how I am to do that.

I don’t believe the medium should have a whole lot of input into the matter of how one approaches the score. “Falling Skies” is one of the first television shows I’ve ever worked on so I think my approach stems from what I learned working on movies. In a serial television show like “Falling Skies,” a composer has a longer story arc to address than a film. A movie might be about two hours, or three in extreme cases, where a season of “Falling Skies” is ten or twelve hours depending on the season. I have to be conscious about that as I write and not overuse and overdo things. There is more time to develop musical ideas as characters develop and new story lines are introduced through a series.

Listening to some of the Season Four pieces, there appears to be a forlorn quality to it. Do you have an emotional mantra in mind when composing for the season ahead? What’s your mind-set when starting new work?

That could be just the snippets you heard! I would say Season Four is like the others before it, in that it runs the emotional gambit (mystery, love, anger, loss, threat, spooky/weird, aliens after us and everything in between)!

An emotional mantra? No, not really. I do try and keep things inside the “box” that the show’s producers and I built during the first few episodes when we started season 1. You work hard to create a “sonic world” or identity for the music to live and breathe in, so keeping it in that world is important and serves to unify everything in a way only a score can. Emotionally, we’re going to go all over the place, so hang on!

Starting up a new season (or new project for that matter) is always fun for me. I start thinking about all the possibilities and potential there are for the new stories that need telling (or scoring). With that comes the challenge of bringing new musical ideas, themes, or instruments into the world that has been established in the case of a new season. It’s an opportunity to write some new stuff and develop what’s there already a bit more and continue to build upon what we’ve already heard. A similar thing happens when I start a new project. I get to do all of that I just mentioned, but I also get to build “the box” in the first place!

With that said, do you have more fun composing action scenes compared to drama?

That’s like asking which child is your favorite! It’s all fun. Variety keeps it all fresh and exciting. In fact, I often hop around the different acts when I’m working on an episode simply to look for contrasting pieces. I’ll work on a big long action sequence, then I’m off to find a tender dialog scene to work on and then it’s over to the mysterious, scary alien cue. I find it more refreshing to work that way and I don’t start writing the same riff over and over because that’s all my mind can think of anymore.

I tend to get very “into” whichever piece I’m working on at the moment. If it’s a sad, super emotional, gut wrench of a scene, I’m really working hard to get my dissonances just right and figuring out how to resolve them at just the right time for the payoff and totally getting into it. Conversely, when working on the action stuff, I’ll get what I call “musical myopia,” where I’ve spent far too long orchestrating a two-bar passage because I’ve just geeked out on the brass voicing. In other words, yes it’s fun and I enjoy the challenges both drama and action provide.

You are also known for your violin work. To have that so prominent in the score, was that a conscious decision or was it more organic?

Is it prominent?! If that’s the case, I have to say it’s innate then! I don’t start with the idea to use a lot of violins necessarily. I know the instrument very well as it’s the instrument I really started to learn music on.The string family instruments, in general, are extremely expressive and have a wide range of sounds they can produce, which makes them fun to write for. Strings tend to work well under dialog and can sit well in the background and not draw attention to themselves but, at the same time, can generate a lot of motion or none at all. Their versatility makes them incredibly useful, and probably one of the reasons so many composers use strings so often.

One question I always ask: Who are your influences? Who is your favorite band, favorite composer? If you’re stuck on that hypothetical island, what’s the one piece you’re listening to?

Influences are actually tricky for me to answer objectively. I will tell you that these days when I listen to music it’s usually orchestral music.

I go through different phases. Sometimes that means film scores as one might think a film/TV composer would (usually of the John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri variety), while most of the time it means listening to “classical music,” but by that I mean music written in, roughly, the last 200-300 years or so, not necessarily music only from the “classical period.”

Favorites in that category are many and wide ranging, but to name a few: Stravinsky, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Mahler, Beethoven, Copland, Barber, and on and on it can go. I like thematic music that develops and reuses material in a creative way and I get really into the relationship between instruments and how they’re used in any given piece (the orchestration). I also really like listening to Itzhak Perlman play anything; he’s a brilliant musician. I also love Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer for their musicality and musical expression.

As for the hypothetical island… maybe Mahler’s Third Symphony. I say this not because it’s my “favorite” piece of music, but because of it’s sheer size and length. There’s a lot to sink your teeth (ears really) into and it’s over an hour and a half! Lots to hear before you start getting tired of it.

What’s next?

Good question! I don’t have anything on the books immediately starting up when I finish “Falling Skies” season four right now. There are a few personal projects and pieces I’m going to dig into over the summer, and we’ll see what happens after that!

Season Four of “Falling Skies” premieres June 22 on TNT.