How ‘Tales From the Loop’ Takes a ‘Less Is More’ Approach to Music
“Collaborating with a composer who is iconic was something else,” marvels Paul Leonard-Morgan of working with Phillip Glass on Amazon’s “Tales From the Loop.” The two composers tinkered around with musical ideas while Leonard-Morgan visited Glass in New York and “it was just an organic place from there.”
The music for the series set in Mercer, Ohio, where residents live above “the loop” (which when unlocked, explores the secrets of the universe), soundtracks the town’s increasingly strange events, its sonic palette deftly avoiding sci-fi tropes.
Leonard-Morgan talked to Variety about his “less is more” approach and the unexpected instruments he and Glass used to construct scales for the “Loop.”
You’ve worked with musicians and bands before when scoring video games such as “Battlefield Hardline,” but this was your first time collaborating with another composer — and not just any composer, Phillip Glass. Tell us about the process.
I didn’t know if we’d hit it off or not. But we did. I went to meet him in New York, and we sat in his kitchen and had coffee. We talked about life in general. When we did start talking about the show, he said, “How do you envision this? Am I fleshing this out? Am I doing the tunes? Or are you doing chords?” He mentioned he had only collaborated with two or three composers before. We went up to the piano and we started looking at the visuals — because nothing had been shot and he started playing some chords. I started humming tunes and it was a case of baby steps. We went back and forth with notes, chords and swapping ideas over email. It was just an organic place from there. What was interesting was coming up with the actual sound and we were looking for a sound of the loop itself.
The chords and melodies worked almost independently from the show itself. Was that intentional?
The music is so integral to this series. There’s a sequence with 19 minutes and no dialogue, it’s just music. There’s another sequence in episode eight which is six minutes and it’s a montage — without giving it away — that explains what happens in the story. The showrunners said to us, “We really want to stand out, outside of this and the melodies are going to be so important.” As a composer, you just don’t get those huge compositional moments.
When Phillip and I started doing this we came up with the theme. It was this loop used over and over again which became the title sequence. That’s why the music has gone down so well outside of the show because it’s this beautiful and melancholic melody. There’s a sense of thoughtfulness and hope to the music and series. We’ve been getting emails from people in quarantine saying how the music has helped them get through coronavirus and surviving lockdown and they’ve been listening to it on a loop. You just don’t get those moments as a composer where the melodies are just going to be so important and integral to them.
How did the recorder come into play as a key instrument for you?
I started playing this tune in my studio with the recorder, which is fundamentally the most basic instrument around. We were looking for this little motif for every time something weird is going to happen in the loop world. It would hint at things without overwhelming what was happening. When people heard it, even if they weren’t aware of it, subconsciously something weird was about to happen. And that was the idea of the recorder. Philip and I would swap notes and he’d say, “How about playing this on the recorder?” I’d try something out and then send it to him and it was this wonderful organic process. Normally, when you’re composing, you have two weeks to work on something. We had two and a half months to work on the pilot. That just doesn’t happen.
What other unique instruments did you use for this?
The sound of the loop was an experiment. We incorporated the recorder and an Egyptian Ney. We also had a lithophone (a xylophone made up of different sized stones) which were then balanced on metal and wires. It worked out really well for the uniqueness that we were after. But my secret weapon was the piano and the cello. You’ve got the piano playing this beautiful, simplistic stuff. You have a cello playing the melody over the top, and by the end of it, less was more.
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