From Children’s Songs To “Orange Is The New Black” – Composer Gwendolyn Sanford

Gwendolyn Sanford worked to create music that reflects the diverse cast of “Orange is the New Black.” Featured: Beth Fowler, Constance Shulman, Lin Tucci, Vicky Jeudy, Adrienne C. Moore, Samira Wiley and Danielle Brooks. Photo credit: Netflix

It was during performances for the kindergarten set of her original songs where “Orange is the New Black” composer Gwendolyn Sanford first met show creator and producer Jenji Kohan.

“Jenji was one of the first moms to come to our shows. Her three kids grew up with our music,” said Sanford. “When she was looking for composers for ‘Weeds’, she thought of us as a possibility. We were selected out of one hundred other composers. She started us on a new journey.”

Sanford’s journey has taken several interesting twists over the years. She was raised by music-loving parents whose spontaneous house-hold hootenannies were a regular occurrence. More interested in acting, Sanford studied drama at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. Late in her academic training, Sanford learned how to play guitar and discovered her talent for song writing. Despite regularly nailing roles in local and repertory theaters, she “retired” from acting at 22 to form a band, Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang, and pursue music full time. Her introduction to scoring came when she was asked to write a d a song defining Buck O’Brien (Mike White) – a man-child eager to resurrect a childhood crush – in twisted indie “Chuck & Buck.” The resulting tune, “Freedom of the Heart”, struck a chord in children’s music lover’s hearts.

“It was like acting for music – it felt like I was connecting with an old muscle,” said Sanford, reflecting on “Freedom of the Heart.” “After that we wrote more children’s songs, but I would never have written a children’s song if I hadn’t been asked. Sometimes you just have to say yes and just go down that path.”

After scoring 73 half hour episodes of “Weeds” Sanford was excited by the challenge the tone the hour-long “Orange is the New Black” presented. She recruited composers Brandon Jay and Scott Doherty to craft a submission for consideration. They got the job, but were asked to present completely different music.

“The first try (focusing on piano and cello) was beautiful, but too beautiful,” said Sanford. “We went back and started looking at Piper walking into prison. Using a guitar with a delay, we played with the element of time ticking by. After two to three tries, we nailed the sound.”

The key to creating a successful score for “Orange is the New Black” has been constantly diversifying musical styles. The prison is a melting pot of individuals representing diverse ethnicities, ages and backgrounds. No character has a particular theme or track to illustrate their constantly shifting emotional journey. Sanford and her team use a wide array of styles emphasized by unique embellishments. For example, to highlight story elements surrounding Chang (Lori Tan Chinn) this season, Sanford layered a bossa nova beat with a tenor banjo and vocals to steer the audience away from stereotypical sounds.

Each season has welcomed a new array of sounds and styles to the musical “toolbox” Sanford and her team utilize. To emphasize the spiritual tones that arise in concert with Norma’s (Annie Golden) backstory, sitars and temperas have been laced into the musical texture. These join innovative sounds Sanford has constructed by utilizing unconventional objects. These include drum samples captured by banging on dynamite boxes, and high pitched vocals augmented with the howls of Sanford’s dog Duncan.

“During the screwdriver scene in the first season, Jenji wrote in a cue that she wanted a sound like the screaming inside one’s head. I was experimenting with singing a high pitched tone and Duncan joined in at the end,” said Sanford. “He has a credit for that.”

While Kohan, the producers and the editors often clearly indicated musical cues throughout the script, Sanford and her team have a great amount of flexibility in both suggesting adjustments to musical entrances. Their given a great amount of freedom to create new and unique sounds that are approved during spotting sessions.

“Jenji can be specific but for the most part she leaves us alone to create something unique,” said Sanford. “Then we show her our basket of wares. She’ll smile and nod or say ‘Can we see that again?’ Then we know we have to redo that piece.”

Sanford is extremely grateful for the opportunities she has had working with Kohan over the past ten years. Throughout that time, she’s continued to explore a wide range of musical styles. Some of her experimentations have appeared in her band’s albums, including one focusing on Americana and Country and another merging Celtic, folk and jazz. Up next, Sanford and her team prepare for more musical experimentation in season four of “Orange is the New Black.”

“Why play by the rules?” pondered Sanford. “The world is too big to be tied to just one style.”