Interview by Sam Hughes
Sam Hughes speaks to composer, Bill Brown. Bill is an award-winning composer and creative force behind the musical scores of fan-favorite TV, film and video game thrillers, dramas and super-hero adventures. Widely recognized for his experimental approach to developing a unique sound and for creating dynamic orchestral landscapes, Bill is best known for composing the compelling musical backdrop for all nine seasons of the hit CBS series CSI: NY. His music can also be heard on season two of Syfy’s post-apocalyptic thriller, Dominion.
Before we discuss anything else, tell us about how your journey into music composition began…
I’ve been writing music in some form for most of my life. After I saw Star Wars, the 22nd time I think (laughs) I was obsessed with film music… with incidental music for whatever medium. I’ve been obsessed with it ever since!
What would you consider the biggest turning point in your career?
There have been several of those, but I would have to say the biggest was meeting director / producer Deran Sarafian. I scored a spec commercial for Deran back in the 90’s, and then he called me to score a film called “Trapped”, then CSI:NY, and now Dominion season 2!
Where do you usually draw your inspiration from?
Definitely from the project itself. If it’s good, a project will have a soul of its own that informs the direction of the score. Ideally, the score will take on a life of its own and become another ‘character’ in the narrative. In the best scenarios, I’m given the freedom to experiment and come back to the director and producers with new ideas. I was lucky to have some time before season 2 of SyFy’s “Dominion” began to work on theme ideas inspired by my conversations with Deran and Vaun Wilmott (the show’s creator and show runner) along with a new epic palette of sounds for the show.
Dominion is one of your most recent projects, what is it like writing music for the Syfy series?
It’s amazing! The cast and crew are all incredible! Everyone is so talented, grounded and supportive. The writing is so good, it just continues to inspire me – I feel I’ve taken my own craft to the next level working with this team for sure. I’m looking at scoring in a more organic, old school kind of way using themes and more live instruments.. I’ve gotten so much amazing support from the Dominion team and fans, I’m just so grateful I can’t even express it in words really. The only thing I can do is write something else today that really kicks ass.
What were you given to work on to begin with and how much creative input do you have on the direction of the score?
When we started this past spring, I was talking with Deran on the phone on an almost daily basis about the filming / production of season 2 already in progress in Cape Town South Africa. He would share what it was like there, how epic the new sets were, etc. After my initial meeting with Vaun, I wrote several key themes for season 2 in the matter of a couple days and sent them to Deran. He told me he played one of those themes, “Michael’s Theme” through speakers on set while filming a battle sequence that takes place in the season premiere. It was exciting because the theme was more emotional, still epic, but grounded in melody and very emotional. That classic style of scoring was where we both wanted to take things, adding a modern twist in the sounds to it. So in the next weeks, I went into the studio and recorded guitars, cellos, modular synth parts, and programmed epic choir parts, etc. etc. – the theme was a big hit with everyone all the way up to the top of the network, which was a great relief for me. Since then, I’ve really taken the reigns with the creative aspects of the score and it’s so amazing to have the trust of the whole team. It really allows me to take my own craft to the next level!
As season 2 of Dominion progresses and different characters are being taken in different directions has your palette of sounds changed since the first episode?
I knew before I started the first episode of season 2 that I would be adding ancient woodwinds and some other ancient stringed instruments in the upcoming episodes because the narrative takes us back to the beginnings of the Archangels stories in flashbacks. That biblical, epic sound was always part of the plan. The full sound was really all there in the season premiere as I was already creating that sound using instruments like electric cello and more.
During flashbacks, like the one in episode 5 of Alex being beaten, do you get to vary the sounds to match the different environment/feel, or do you maintain the sounds you’ve been using?
I’m definitely playing with the sound palette depending on where we are in time and place. There are more modern moments, more ancient moments… But the thing that connects them all is the soulfulness of the themes in whatever context we hear them in. My goal is always to bring something to the scene that wasn’t there before, I’m supporting the scenes, but I’m also somehow adding another layer that wasn’t there to take them to the next level and hopefully help draw the audience into the narrative even further.
You’ve also composed for many video games, do you find your methods change between formats?
Just the technical stuff. Games are sometimes a lot more intense in regard to asset management because there can be so many moving parts, but the process for me is the same. Get inspired by the project, experiment and unlock its musical signature, and write some cues!
Another show that you scored was CSI:NY for 9 seasons. Since you scored that show for so long, what did you do toward the end to keep it fresh?
I always wrote new thematic or motivic material when I would start each new episode. CSI:NY was different because each episode was a new start, a totally new story. So it was important to me to create something unique for each one while maintaining the sound of the show that I established early on. There were a few times where we had 3-4 episode narrative arcs, where the episodes were actually connected in sequence, and that was fun as I could take a big idea and flesh it out over several episodes – which is what I’m doing now with Dominion over the entire season! Which rocks!
Are there any new programs or equipment coming out soon that you are excited to try?
I’m always beta testing new programs and equipment so there’s always something exciting waiting for me! Right now I’m excited to really dig into my analog synths and effects on the next episodes of Dominion and feature them for some scenes, combine them with the epic orchestral palette I’ve created for the show.
What lies in the future for you now?
I’m really excited about what remains to be created for Dominion season 2. Right after we finish the season, I’ll be heading to China to meet up with a new game company and discuss the next project. Should be interesting!
Finally, if you could have a drink with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
My wife… She’s sitting here waiting for me to finish so we can go out!
You can check out more of Bill Brown over the following links: