Michael Penn’s Masters of Sex

July 8, 2014 | By

MastersOfSex_S1_BRJust uploaded is a podcast interview with composer / musician / songwriter Michael Penn, best-known for scoring P.T. Anderson’s Hard Eight (1996) and Boogie Nights (1997), and deservedly lauded for his work on HBO’s Girls and Showtime’s superbly produced Masters of Sex, which begins its second season July 13th.

For MOS, Penn made use of the vintage sounds from the Novachord, and although this precursor to electronic synthesizers isn’t the dominant instrument in his MOS scores, it’s an important part of the show’s musical palette, linking some contemporary sounds and styles with the soft sounds of the late fifties / early sixties.

Like the Novachord, during the sixties there also existed the Mellotron, the British variant of the original American-built Chamberlin instrument which itself was a precursor to the concept and application of modern sampling: unlike the Novachord which used vacuum tubes to emulate the sounds of an organ and orchestra, the Mellotron drew its sounds from instrument samples that were played back from magnetic tape loops.

Both the Novachord and the Mellotron / Chamberlin resembled organs with their keyboards and foot pedals, and relied on the era’s tubes, but the Novachord was a behemoth. As you’ll hear in our conversation, Penn describes the instrument’s unique qualities, quirks, and how he applied those sounds to his addictive main theme, heard in the show’s Main Titles as a tango set to a naughty montage of suggestive images.

As with prior podcasts, I’ve added some background visuals for the YouTube version, and in the extract of Penn’s theme music, I created a montage using some original footage which relates to the tape and tube-based instruments in our discussion. (If you haven’t seen the show’s suggestive title sequence, it’s archived on YouTube.)



Those interested in the creation of the montage created for the podcast can read further info at Big Head Amusements.

MellodramaTheMellotronMovieAdditionally, I’ve added a review of a great doc that may have slipped below your radar, Dianna Dilworth’s 2008 doc Mellodrama: The Mellotron Movie (available online from Bazillion Points), in which Penn and a multitude of other composers (Jon Brion, Fabio Frizzi, Claudio Simonetti) discuss their own unique relationships with what Penn aptly describes as “a contraption.”

Seriously: the mechanics of Harry Chamberlin’s invention is incredible for actually working; the pragmatic and logical thought that went into fulfilling the needs of a musician (Chamberlin was an accomplished organist); and for preceding the modern use of sampling to build up the sounds of a budget music production, or a full film score from scratch. Here’s the trailer that provides snippets of the doc’s great material and loving detail of the gizmo’s sounds and innards.

I’ll post a review of the Masters of Sex: Season 1 Blu-ray (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) as we get closer to Season 2’s debut, but coming next are a batch of reviews (a hefty mix of horror, eros, and loaded Twilight Time Blu-rays like Martin Ritt’s The Front) held in stasis due to several production and post-production activities that required some heavy time – a contract to edit and mix interview footage into a series of podcasts was followed by my insistence to create a montage for the Penn podcast from scratch, and I had to do a series of camera tests prior to filming Marilla Wex’ Lost and Found play at the Toronto Fringe Festival.

Wex’ play received a review of 4/5 NNNN’s from NOW Magazine, and I taped two performances using a vintage JVC tube camera. The footage is in SD, but there is something unique about the pastel colours and softer image typical of Saticon tubes:


Marilla - cycling

Frame grab of Marilla Wex in Lost and Found, shot on a JVC BY-110UL16 Saticon tube video camera.


Marilla - Gonna call Dad

Frame grab of Marilla Wex in Lost and Found, shot on a JVC BY-110UL16 Saticon tube video camera.


The blog at Big Head Amusements features some additional links of the aforementioned test footage (garden + human subject), but do try and see Wex’ show, as Sunday afternoon’s performance was sold out, and I hear the remaining dates are filling up fast.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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