November 10, 2010 | By

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Having scored Seasons 2 and 3 of Durham County, composer Peter Chapman isn’t a newcomer anymore, but his music is a fresh mix of the abstract, the impressionistic, the melodic, and the weird.

Chapman took over the scoring chores for Season 2, basing his score around the main theme by Tom Third who mentored Chapman through the rigors of TV scoring, and shares the same interest in fusing traditional and non-traditional musical elements within a digital realm.

Series co-producer/co-writer/director Adrienne Mitchell has said of Chapman:

“He’s awesome. He’s a young composer who’s classically trained and has a kind of instinct that I haven’t seen in a long time. He’s able to somehow get inside the dark recesses of a character’s mind but still connect with them and understand them, and evoke their humanity in the music he’s working with.

“The work he’s done is just stupendous, and in Season 3 he just blows it more out of the water… He’s the kind of guy who will go out and find a piece of metal and a piece of wood and maybe some weird, rusted bicycle bell off a bike, put them together and find a way that they can create a sound. [He’ll] record that sound, then put it into his system, and create an orchestral piece from it in a way that’s haunting and minimal… He’s so avant garde, so unique and interesting, and so perfect for our show in that respect.”



Mark R. Hasan: How did you get into film composing?

Peter Chapman: It was something that I knew I wanted to do. I went to The Ontario College of Art and design [OCAD] for design, and about halfway through the program, I kind of started to realize that this wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I wanted to write music, but how do you actually make a living writing music?

I had to take an elective, and I ended up taking a sound/audio course that was coincidentally taught by Tom Third (who actually did the music for Season 1 of Durham County eight years later). Here’s a guy that’s actually doing it. I remember a trip down to his studio which was filled with all the classic music toys that I’d always wanted.

Then I got into doing a lot of ad work after that. I started just hustling everybody I knew that was in the business and did a lot of free, and then everything kind of tied together a few years ago when I finally hooked up with Arpix Media, the music supervision company for Durham.

It ended up with Robert Carli representing me as a composer, and then it was sort of funny because they all knew Tom and Tom knew me, and they all knew Adrienne, who was the producer, and when Tom couldn’t do Season 2 because he was doing The Listener (2009), they kind of turned around and looked at me and said ‘You should do it,’ so that’s how it came. Durham was my first TV series. Before that it was just a lot of ads and that kind of stuff.

MRH: Did you find the ads helped prepare you for handling different subject matter for Durham County, was Durham a completely different animal and was a bit of a shock?

PC: Durham was definitely a different animal. Cutting my teeth on ads was amazing because you’re constantly thrown into these situations where someone’s like ‘Hey! Write a tango!’ and you’re ‘Yeah, sure… I can… write a… tango.’  Meanwhile I’m thinking ‘I’ve no idea how to write a tango,’ and I’ve got eight hours.’

The music for Durham is kind of out of left field. Only a small portion of it is kind of melodic. There’s a lot of really crazy soundscapes and sound design that goes into the score, so rather than thinking a lot about ‘Here’s my orchestra. What am I going to do with the violins?’ it was more like ‘I need to find a sound to put here that is really freaky and no one’s ever heard. I’m going to use this violin bow on my garbage can and see what happens.’ You end up looking for really far out sounds.

MRH: Adrienne mentioned that you came up with some inventive sounds, and I guess for me, when you’re spotting an episode and you realize the specific point where score is necessary, what goes through your mind, in terms of you thinking ‘I’m going to take this non-traditional thing and I’m going to apply to that, and I think I’m going to come up with a really interesting sound and develop that into a cue?’

PC: Adrienne is very creative with descriptions. I was sitting there in the spotting session.  I was a little nervous because this was my first real spotting session, and we’re watching the first opening sequence – I can’t remember exactly what was happening in the scene – but then Adrienne turns to me and just goes ‘Reverse pterodactyl noises,’ and I was thinking ‘Okay – How – What is that? What does that mean? How am I going to do that?’

I did come up with some reverse Pterodactyl noises as it turned out, but she would usually come up with these very interesting ways of [describing] the sound she was hearing, and I would usually take that and assess the mood of the scene and put it all together, and hopefully come up with something that she likes.

MRH: From your end, you’ve got an existing sense of the abstract. You have a familiarity/interest with those sounds, and I guess maybe from your background you know how to manipulate them into certain ways so you can create musical sounds.

PC: Yeah, for sure. I was really into playing with ‘found sound’ early on when I was playing with samplers.

Actually, two of the things I did for Tom’s class when I was at OCAD was I did a whole piece that was just sounds of me washing the dishes, but then I chopped it all up and turned it into this whole other thing [that] starts off as the sounds of someone washing the dishes, and then by the end it basically turned into almost a bass track.

I did another one where I just took tones of toys and sampled those and made a thing, and more recently I’ve been playing a lot with circuit bending toys. You basically buy these cheap toys at Value Village for $3 (usually they’re little toy keyboards or talking animals) and you rip them open and you start playing around with the different components and short-circuiting them and installing different ‘parts,’ and you can make them do these weird, freak-out noises.

Everybody’s always trying to find the next new sound, trying to do something that no one else is doing. I’ve gotten together a few times with Rob Carli, who’s a really great composer, and we’ve done really weird samplings sessions – sampling pianos in weird ways, or we went to a metal studio and we made a whole library out of playing with pieces of metal.

People are always trying to come up with the next sound that not everybody has. Often I’ll be watching a television series, and I’ll be like ‘Oh, that’s tornado blast from this sound library or whatever,’ and I’ve used that before, and it sort of sucks… That’s sort of where the circuit bending and stuff [comes from]: you try and find things that no one else has to make your sound sonically unique.

MRH: Have you heard the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet (1956)?

PC:  No, I haven’t.

MRH: Forbidden Planet was composed by Louis and Bebe Barron, and they built circuits, and the entire score is just the circuits. The way they described it, they birthed the circuits, they pushed them to the extremes of their existence, and let them flare out, and they took those sounds and using reel-to-reel tape recorders, looped and played with different speeds, echoes, and so on, and eventually they crafted it all together. It sounds abstract but there are particular motifs that do recur throughout the score.

It’s one of the most amazing scores from the fifties, but unfortunately for the composers, because of union regulations, they were not allowed to work on another studio production. They did a couple of short films, but that one score remains an icon of early electronic sounds.

PC: That sounds amazing. I will totally check that out.

MRH: Your search for unusual sounds also reminded of Michael Gordon’s score for Decasia (2002), a sort-of documentary in which disintegrating nitrate film from a wide variety of sources is edited into thematic suites, and for one of the segments, Gordon’s main instruments were rusty car wheels being scraped en masse with gradual orchestral accompaniment.

PC: Neat.

MRH: I think you raised an interesting issue where there are a number of music and sound effects libraries from which composers, sound designers, and sound effects guys draw, and you’re among a number of composers that have noted overused sounds in film, TV or commercials, and I guess that partially pushes you to find and create something new and fresh because you don’t like hearing the same thing again.

PC: Yeah, for sure. A lot of those libraries I find are what sort of inspired me to start taking things in that direction. There’s a pretty famous one called Omnisphere which, when it first came out, was pretty mind-blowing, but now it’s like you can’t turn on the TV without hearing it.

Its whole thing was really weird found sounds and manipulated stuff. A bit of it comes from them taking those sounds and processing them in a way that no one can really tell.

I actually had a funny conversation with a composer last summer, and he was saying ‘Yeah, sometimes you do sort of feel bad because you basically sat back and pressed one key and just made a freaky drone for however long, but at the same time you definitely pay for it on other cues when you’re sweating over a day to get 20 seconds of the right music.

MRH: In your bio it says you also use vintage synthesizers and electronic instruments.

PC: Yup, I’m a big fan of that stuff for sure.

MRH: How hard is it to maintain some of them, because they were pretty complex machines?

PC: It can definitely be hard. Rule No. 1 is you don’t take them to gigs – that’ll ruin one pretty fast.

This is terrible, but I have an old Oberheim synth that I got recently which I love, but every once in a while one of the oscillators will stop working, and the way I’ve found to fix it is you hold down the oscillator that’s not playing, and then you just sort of lift the keyboard up and drop it, and then it usually starts working again. I think it’s just a loose chip. There are synth-heads out that that’ll probably kill me for saying that.

For a lot of synths you just sort of get used to them. [With another type I have], you’ve got to turn them on 15 mins. before you play them because they’re going to start going out.

There are quite a few good techs in Toronto that actually restore them and do quite a good job. I used to work in a vintage instrument store called Paul’s Boutique, and we worked with a lot of repair guys that dealt with a lot of that stuff, so it’s not pretty bad. The only time it’s pretty bad is when it’s parts that just aren’t available anymore, but I’ve been pretty lucky so far.

MRH: Do you find it has been advantageous to be a composer in Toronto, or does it matter what city you live in at this point?

PC: I’ve only lived in Toronto while I’ve been a composer. I do think it would a make a difference where you would live.

I grew up in Halifax and I love Halifax, and there’s always a part of me that always wanted to move back. However, I don’t know that I could have the same kind of career in Halifax that I do here. I don’t think there’s as much work going on there, in terms of this, whereas here there are whole sections of this city that are dominated by production companies and ad houses.

I hear ‘the next step’ is to move to L.A.… I’ve a friend that lives in L.A. and is constantly trying to make me [move down] just so he can have another friend there, but I don’t know if L.A. is my scene.

MRH: With Durham County’s scripts, a lot of time is spent developing characters and stories far in advance. Is that a huge advantage to you, in terms of scoring material that isn’t vague or unresolved?

PC: Yeah, I think it is… Adrienne is extremely clear as to what’s going on. A trick that I actually learned – I guess this is a fairly common thing among composing – but depending on how early I get the [edited shows], you can usually start composing later on in the season.

I remember Tom once telling me you start at the end and then work backwards, and I’ve read that in a few places. The idea is that if there’s some huge, cataclysmic event that happens later on in an episode or later on in a season, once you score that, you can take little motifs and elements of that and start using that earlier to foreshadow.

The listener may not jump up and go ‘Hey, I know exactly what this composer did!’ but on a subconscious level it’ll be ‘Oh, I’ve heard this before – This is the big climax that we’ve been leading to.’ It does definitely help.

MRH: And finally, how is Season 3 different for you, compared to Season 2, in terms of themes or the overall musical tone?

PC:  It definitely changed a little bit in that I think I grew a little bit in this one.

The second season was very much based on a palette that Tom had established in the first season… There were a lot of motifs [and sound palettes] that were referencing first, but the vibe of the show is starting to change in the third season.

We’ve all sort of grown comfortable with what I’ve done in the second season, so I could start taking it to the next level a little bit, but the third season I would actually say is a little more melodic. I definitely started bringing in more orchestral elements; it’s a little more grand at times but still intimate – at least in the first few episodes, because by the end it gets pretty crazy.





An interview with Durham County‘s creative team of Adrienne Mitchell and Janis Lundman.

____________________ would like to thank Peter Chapman for discussing his music, and series co-producer/co-writer/director Adrienne Mitchell & Leah Visser at Amberlight Productions for setting up the interview.

Check out Peter Chapman’s website.

Visit the series’ official website and Back Alley Films.


Additional links:

The websites of composers Tom Third and Robert Carli.

A database of vintage modular synthesizers

An article (Parts 1 and 2) on experimental films, including Decasia.


All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This interview © 2010 by Mark R. Hasan


Related links:

DVD / Film:  Durham County – Season One (2007) — Season Two (2009) — Season Three (2010) Forbidden Planet (1956)

Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD / Film:  Forbidden Planet (1956)


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