October 20, 2010 | By

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Even if you’ve only seen the Heroes pilot, it would be hard not to be moved by the refreshing scoring approach by series composers Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. Their music is sometimes ethereal, with light touches of exotic sounds from an eclectic collection of ethnic instruments, or the fusion of addictive percussion motifs that propel scenes while giving us a hint of a character’s psychology.

There’s also the haunting vocal contributions of Shenkar that amplify the yearning and exhaustion of characters struggling to maintain or establish some sense of normalcy when their sense of security is hacked away by human monsters hungry for greed, power, or revenge.

Melvoin and Coleman have been scoring films and TV series for about 14 years, but they also enjoyed a dynamic career as members of Prince and the Revolution, and it was through Prince’s move into feature films that the two composers gradually eased into film scoring.

The popularity of Heroes has moved the spotlight on the show’s composers, but they’re hardly newcomers in the scoring field. Melvoin and Coleman scored the entire six-year run of Crossing Jordan, and that series was undoubtedly a great training ground for working under tight schedules while creating haunting themes and underscore for a complex cast of villains and ephemeral victors.

With a CD of music from Season 1 just released by La-La Land Records, fans can finally enjoy some of the most refreshing music in TV, and in our conversation with Lisa Coleman, you’ll get some insight into how the sound of Heroes was created.



Mark R. Hasan: I understand that you’ve been collaborating with Wendy Melvoin for over twenty years. Has your working relationship as co-composers changed over time?

Lisa Coleman: It changes in the context of what we’re working on, because we each have strengths in different areas. I’m the keyboard/piano player and I do more of the string arrangements and that sort of thing, whereas Wendy is a lot more rhythm-based.

What’s really great about collaborating is having that extra set of ears there to do the meta-brain activity… I’ll start playing something on the piano or a string line or something like that, [and] where I can concentrate on the harmonic beauty or dissonance or something that I think it needs, Wendy can watch and really be affected by it, and tell whether or not it’s working, if it’s too much, or whether it needs to be pushed more or less.

When we’re doing an album project where it’s drums and bass and that sort of thing, Wendy really excels at that… We both play drums, but she usually ends up doing most of the drumming and is a great bass player… It’s a really beautiful partnership.

MRH: How did you get involved in film music, because you both came from a different background, even though your earliest work included Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) and Under the Cherry Moon (1986)?

LC: We really wanted to score those films, but the film companies and the suits at the time felt more comfortable hiring a professional composer. We hadn’t done anything yet [and] there were a couple of little string pieces that we had done for albums that they placed in a couple of spots, but really, we didn’t get our first break into film scoring until the Kinks came to us for a song for Dangerous Minds (1995).

We had written a song called “This is the Life.” It was a ballad, and they needed a piece to represent Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, so somebody had heard that song and really liked it and came to us [for] a new version for the film, and in doing so, we met producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.

Mark Isham was scoring the film at the time. I’m a huge fan of Mark Isham, but they weren’t happy with the style that he was doing for the film and they wanted something more contemporary. So at first they paired us with Mark, and we tried that for just a day, and… it wasn’t fair for anybody to be pairing us, so Mark was extremely gracious and kind of just backed off and said, ‘You guys should just do the film. I don’t think they’re happy with what I’m doing. You guys are great.’

He was so supportive, and we sort of got the film handed to us. That was a huge break… because we had both abilities to do string and piano or funky drums and bass, so it kind of fit perfectly.

MRH: In your song writing, certainly for non-film projects, you’ve done a lot of melodic work, and I wonder if that’s helped you in developing themes for characters?

LC: Absolutely. That is very important, and in a show like Heroes, it’s been great with so many lead characters to give everyone a little theme. It is important to have a little bit of a melodic stance. Really the fun part of scoring is putting a simple melody into different situations; you can play it scary, happy, silly or dreamy, and it makes scoring actually a lot easier because you don’t have to write music all the time – you just write moods. If you come up with a motif for a character or a situation, you’re much better off, and that’s pretty much the job.

MRH: How did you get involved with Heroes, because I had heard of Tim Kring when he did a really short-lived TV series called Strange World (1999)?

LC: That was a young Tim Kring, but then he got a couple of jobs writing for TV shows, and eventually developed Crossing Jordan (2001-2007)… We got hired to do that series because we had a relationship with Allan Arkush who had hired us on another short-lived series called Snoops (1999), which was a David E. Kelly show, and of course David Kelly was married to Michelle Pfeiffer, so he kind of knew of us, and trusted Allan when he came up with the idea [to hire us].

[Allan is] very musically eccentric and wanted something different for this show, and he had heard that we were into scoring and he was wondering, ‘Who can I get that’s kind of different? What are Wendy and Lisa doing? Let’s have a meeting with them.’ We met Allan, and we just hit it off as friends, and we’ve done pretty much everything Allan’s ever done since Snoops.

Then Allan got hired onto Crossing Jordan and suggested us to Tim… When Tim came up with the Heroes idea, he wanted us to do that with him, and it was such a lucky break. It’s been a dream working on that show because the usual protocol is to write the music and then do playback for the directors and the executives, and they give you notes and then you go back and do rewrites.

With Heroes, we’ve just been able to watch the show after they put their first edit together, and then we take it away and we have about five days at the most – lately it’s been like three days – to write the score. We just deliver it, and they mix it.

MRH: One of the things that impressed me about the pilot episode and certainly the one or two episodes that followed, is there’s a huge amount of information that has to be processed by the viewer and a huge amount of characters that they have to warm up to.

That’s got to have been one of the bigger challenges where you had to write music so people would bond with the characters and understand them, because one of the hardest parts in making a pilot is getting people hooked on the show.

For example, I can recall that I didn’t like the pilot for Homicide (1993-1999), and I didn’t like the show’s jump cut style, but later on I watched it and a few episodes again, and then I warmed up to it, and I think the music helped because it’s new characters with which you have to bond.

LC: Absolutely. There are choices that you make when you are scoring, like whether to just emphasize a character. What we really wanted to do and still try to do is to create an atmosphere, so that in that entire hour when you’re sitting there watching the show, it’s not too jarring… Every time it cuts to another scene and another character and another place, there has to be this cohesive quality… There’s so much information and you don’t want to overwhelm the viewers, but you just want to make them feel a certain way.

For instance, there was a scene where Claire rushes in to save a man from a burning train, and where typically you might do heavy drums and percussion and action style music, we went the other way and we made it dreamy, and it was just this hollow glass pad sound and a voice, and they took out all the production sound so it was really quiet. It just made the scene much more psychologically affective because it was this little girl in a cheerleader’s outfit discovering she could save this guy. Her uniform caught on fire, but she wasn’t hurt, and it was very odd, and it wasn’t like a cop show scene.

We ended up scoring a lot of scenes like that; when something action-oriented would happen, we went counter-intuitive, and made it more like a dream sequence rather than an action movie.

MRH: I think that’s one of the reasons I noticed the music in the pilot because it had a very interesting sound. You’ve incorporated some instruments that maybe aren’t unusual, but they’re used in unusual ways without transforming the scores into a kind of world music style, and that approach elegantly ties together all the disparate characters from around the world, and some of the characters who’ve have converged in New York City.

Your approach is maybe unusual for TV because sometimes there’s a reliance on going for standard action writing and the use of sounds from music libraries.

LC: We buy the same library discs as everybody, but I’m really super-sensitive to that, and when I watch TV or see a movie and hear a sound that I know, I cringe; we really do take our time to use it in a different way or put in an effect or tune it down.

I’ve always played samples “wrong” so they don’t sound like how they’re supposed to sound, but that also seems to lend itself to the show because these are humans that are kind of being morphed into super-humans or have these powers or abilities that kind of change into whatever ‘the normal’ is, so when you make a sound ‘more than normal,’ then it goes along with the feeling of the show.

Thank you for noticing that, because it is something that we take time and work on, and it was part of the mission – having the show take place all over the world. Even though we do sometimes go to Japan and play Japanese instruments, we like to mix it up more, because the world is becoming more and more integrated… and it’s so unimportant to be specific in that way, I think, especially with a show like this where it’s a human story, and everyone is coming together and sharing something.

So yeah, we buy the same libraries as everybody else, but we just mess them up and distort them and put delays and tune them down. The libraries are incredible, and they get better and better. Every time you buy one, you hear ‘the new one’ and go ‘I want that one,’ spending thousands of dollars on libraries, but then if you use the pure sample, you’re going to hear it some place else, and that’s not composing; it’s a scrapbook or something.

MRH: With Heroes now in its third season and the changes that have gone on with the characters, how do you adapt themes and keep the sounds fresh so that people can still identify closely with the characters?

LC: Well, a lot of times we just go back. We evolve the sounds and explore the themes, and then there will be scenes where we just have to go right back to the pilot sounds and just go pure Heroes. Sometimes there are even shots of Hiro or Claire and we have little sound things that we’ll put over their faces, and it really does seem to be affective.

[It’s also] because the directors and the writers are very involved that way too, and they refer back a lot. There’s a lot of mythology and rules that recur and are explained and are developed throughout all of the episodes… It’s good because it helps the heart and the sentimentality of the show.

It’s been difficult with the writers’ strike and the show changing and people getting fired, you know. We lost a lot of viewers, so it kind of feels good when we go back to the roots of the show; even though it’s only three years old, it’s very satisfying for fans when they [see and hear] those kind of things.

We love the music that we do. We get a lot of compliments on it, and it is pretty much different than anything I hear, and it’s a labour of love. We’re friends with Tim and Allan, and we’re fans of the show and just love doing it, so it’s exciting to get the score CD out there.



For more information on Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, visit the composers’ website.

For additional information on Shenkar, click HERE.

Visit the official Heroes website HERE.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This article and interview © 2009 by Mark R. Hasan


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

CD:  Heroes (2006)

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