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Composer Dominic Lewis Reflects On “The Man In The High Castle”

Composer Dominic Lewis

Dominic Lewis found himself living in a strange reality while scoring the Amazon original series “The Man in the High Castle.”  Now renewed for a second season, the thriller presented an alternative history where Adolf Hitler prevailed in WWII, and the territory we know as the United States is ruled primarily by the Nazi powers.  There is an ample region along the west coast under Japan’s authority.  Lewis was tasked with finding a musical current that would usher the story, and audience, through this alternative universe.

A frequent collaborator with composer Henry Jackman, the two men have contributed music to each others scores throughout the years.  Lewis provided some additional music to Jackman scored films including “Big Hero 6”, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “MI-5.”   Jackman was able to provide some additional music used throughout season one, following Lewis’ careful observations on the series’ themes.   After watching the pilot, Lewis felt the score would be a useful tool that would enable the audience to feel grounded in the complex story.

“There was so much story; it was intimate and character based,” said Lewis.  “The main idea I had was to help people get a grip on the specifics.”

Working off the pilot, Lewis attached specific sounds and instruments to the main characters: a cello accentuated Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) while notes from a French horn accompany scenes with Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank). Lewis then created a fast-paced piano theme that could link the characters throughout the course of the series.

Using classical orchestration as the basis of the score, Lewis also added a unique brand of instrumentation to enhance a dream-like mood.  Through software programs, he twisted and morphed tones and notes, manufacturing a soundscape that was unique and hard to identify.  This augmentation fit perfectly with the series’ twist on an environment that has traces of familiarity yet is completely foreign to the viewer.

“I wanted to use western orchestration as the tent pole then twist it with sound design created from organic things,” said Lewis.  “It’s a completely alien reality.  While some things stayed the same, that was addressed more by the songs.”

Contemporary songs weave through the series, providing a sense of familiarity to the viewers. While the song selection didn’t influence or intermingle with Lewis’ score, he did fall under the spell of the opening credit’s accompaniment: a wispy and somewhat creepy version of “Edelweiss.”   Avoiding incorporate any of the song’s structure within the score, he focused instead on the quality of the underlying strings that slowly build throughout the song.  Using his tonal manipulation technique, he twisted the sound of the strings and layered the newly constructed tones in a ghostly fashion throughout the score, a concept that creates a sense of mystery and confusion.

Lewis was careful not to create a score that would sound like a travelogue: early discussions presented a group decision to stay away from instruments and styles that would be associated specifically with German or Japanese origins.  However, the score does contain a good deal of brass and woodwinds.

“We decided not to be overt, but we had some sparing uses of small Taiko drums and Japanese bells.  We used flutes, but they are regular flutes. ”

While Lewis didn’t get to experiment with many traditional instruments, some a-typical creations came into play throughout the score.  One was a “banjo-lyn” : a combination of a banjo and a mandolin. Another was an instrument he’d bought from a designer named Chaz Smith he’d been anxious to use in a score: a guitar made out of a cigar box.

Lewis had had some television experience before, however “The Man in the High Castle” was his first regular series.  The tight schedule took some getting used to; he was coming up with new material every week and the post process presented lots of changes added on to the new scores he was delivering for the next hour long episode.  Despite the time adjustments, he found the team he worked with to be closer to the movie world.

“Everyone cared so much.  Everyone thought of ways to make it better.  I was proud to show off the work and make it the best it could be,” said Lewis.  “It was amazing to have this canvas.  I’m going through massive withdrawals now.”

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