From “Glee” To “Coven” – Composer James Levine

James Levine created a special theme to accompany Jessica Lange’s character in “American Horror Story: Coven” (Photo credit: FX Network)

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

Composer James Levine enjoyed performing selections of his music for members of the Television Academy Arts and Sciences during “Score!” the organization’s festival celebrating the scores created by many of the industry’s finest composers. In addition to meeting other well-respected composers and icons of the field including Mark Snow, fans of TV shows including “Glee” and “American Horror Story” had the opportunity to hear scores in their purest form.

“People have been watching television for years. The sound quality isn’t’ the same as it is in theaters, but it is getting better,” said Levine. “Writing for TV informs the process. Before the final dub, we’ll play the music over a home theater set up to hear how it will be presented on TV.”

See Also: Ten Minutes With: Composer John Frizzell 

Levine enjoys the process of refining sounds for specific sources. When creating the score for “Glee,” Levine spent a great deal of time searching for the right qualities that would represent the various dynamics of high school set rock/drama/comedy. In searching for the best sound, Levine reflected on the basic foundation of “Glee” – first time experiences. Levine recognized the halls of high school contained the universal feelings every individual goes through: the first true loves, the first true fights, the first true betrayals, the first true successes.

“There’s a real-ness to high school that we have all experienced. It was important not to make light of what was happening,” said Levine. “There is a balance of levity and hard experiences. It was important to respect the moments and not make light of what was happening.”

Ultimately, Levine recognized the sounds found within the physical high school building would provide the perfect instrumentation for the score of “Glee.” Sounds included voices, marching bands, rehearsal room pianos, and pep rallies. Each specific character would have their own musical theme. For example, cut throat gym teacher Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) is embodied by the sounds of a marching band, while choral teacher Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) is defined by the melodic keys of a piano. The overall theme of the score is the human voice, presented in a series of pops, blips and wordless riffs that consciously play under dialogue.

Levine also scores “American Horror Story”, another creation of “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy. Each season of “American Horror Story” is a self-contained story highlighting new characters, experiences and settings. Having just completed its third installment, Levine enjoyed developing the season’s unique sound while staying true to the qualities of the horror genre.

“It’s a great opportunity for a composer. I get to be true to the horror/thriller genre while experimenting with different instruments to push the boundaries of discomfort,” said Levine. “For ‘Coven’ (the third installment of American Horror Story) we used an electronic score with a rhythmic base and highlighted it with mangled, plucked instruments that get refined when I put the sounds into a computer.”

As with ‘Glee’, Levine has frequently found specific instruments and sounds to assign as motifs for characters and situations. One example from ‘Coven’ is the instrumentation built around Jessica Lange’s character. Levine used a collection of bells and chimes (including ethnic bells and the glockenspiel) that were sampled, tuned and added to the soundtrack. During quieter moments during Lange’s presence on the screen, Levine would incorporate the bell motif.

While Levine has worked on a wide variety of projects and a large group of directors, he’s repeatedly collaborated with his longtime partner Ryan Murphy. Beginning in the early 2000s with the series “Nip/Tuck” Levine and Murphy have developed a strong short hand that aids in the creative process. The two men have a trusting relationship that has helped each grow and strive in their creative endeavors.

“There was a very dark scene in ‘Angel of Death’ (an episode in American Horror Story: Asylum – the series’ second season) where I wrote a classical piano piece that was really pretty and light,” said Levine. “The piece wasn’t what Ryan had though would fit the scene and he wasn’t sure about it, but he was willing to trust it. The music added a new perspective to the scene where death became hopeful. The best compliment I can get from a director is ‘I never thought it could be that way.’”