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Contemporary Music Informs A Period Story: Composer John Debney On Scoring “Houdini”

Composer John Debney layered classical instruments over electric guitar while recording the score for “Houdini.” Photo credit: Lisa Margolis

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

When John Debney learned a mini-series was in the works focusing on Harry Houdini, he was determined to throw his hat into the consideration pool. The recipient of three Emmy Awards (including a nomination for the History Channel’s mini-series “Hatfields & McCoys”), an Oscar nomination (Passion of the Christ) and twenty-three A.S.C.A.P. awards, composer Debney contacted a producer he’d previously worked with who was attached to History Channel’s “Houdini” to express his eagerness to score the two-part special.

“I’ve been a life-long Houdini fan. He was a fascinating guy who rose to fame in an ever changing period of upheavals and political unrest,” said Debney. “He rose from obscurity to become the world’s greatest performer.”

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With a vast knowledge of Houdini and a willingness to think outside the box, Debney landed the job. After discussions about the approach with the director and production team, Debney began working on a more contemporary score for a period tale; a technique seldom applied to television. With just under eight weeks to complete the score, Debney found he had enough time to experiment and present ideas to the producers in the early stages of production. While the aggressively electronic music filled with dark, edgy rhythms raised some eyebrows, everyone agreed the style was a perfect fit.

“The idea of contemporary was not the obvious choice but did give the piece a great edge. Houdini was ahead of his time; there was something intellectually interesting about this style with his story,” said Debney. “Something wonderful happened – the story became ubber relevant.”

Throughout his career, Debney has scored a diverse and eclectic range of television series and films. Projects have included animation (Chicken Little, A Pup Named Scooby Doo), Independent (The Stoning of Soraya M), Horror (Predators), Romantic Comedies (Valentine’s Day), Sci-Fi (Doctor Who Online Adventures, SeaQuest 2032), Comedy (Elf), Action (Machete) and Comic/Super Hero (Iron Man 2). Always eager to challenge himself, he’d only dabbled in contemporary electronica before in the 2013 thriller “The Call.” Influenced by the sonic layering of musicians including Trent Reznor, Debney began experimenting with electronic sounds for “Houdini.” Feedback and Hip Hop drums samples are also interjected throughout the score, along with a classical cello theme. Reflecting on Houdini’s Eastern European upbringing, he hired a gypsy violinist who improvised with him in the studio until he found the right augmentations that contrasted with the heavy synth texture.
Although the History Channel and the producers gave Debney a full license to be creatively wild, ensuring the score served the plot and characters remained paramount to Debney. He paid particularly close attention to set design and location and incorporated themes that serviced the visuals, such as period instruments as well as sounds one would hear in London, Europe and Russia. While the score was written on piano, Debney laid down the backbone of the score on electric guitar, an instrument he began playing at the age of six. He also performed and sampled many additional string instruments, including the autoharp, mandolins, a 1935 Gibson high strung four string guitar, a traditional instrument called the tiple, bowed cymbals, bells and other auxiliary percussion.

“You work intimately with the film every step of the way; you are at the service of the film,” said Debney. “Harry was a bad-ass; he did lots of crazy things and was constantly facing death. The music plays a character in this film, something like his alter ego, highlighting his background, his emotions, his subconscious.”

While creating the perfect sounds was a primary goal, Debney also focused on using silence strategically to avoid wall-to-wall sound as well as allowing the audience to connect with emotional points. He also used specific devices, such as an electric guitar theme that strengthens as Houdini develops as a performer throughout the series. Another important device was the introduction of cello sounds to represent the bound Houdini had with his mother.

“It’s a reoccurring theme with a solo cello; it’s not a melody but a reoccurring pattern,” said Debney. “It’s a subtlety that helps propel the story forward.”

Once Debney found the best direction for the score, he not only composed the music that was used in the special, but also provided additional music that ultimately wasn’t needed. While there is no way of knowing whether that music may be used for a future special or promotional release, he is particularly thrilled that the full score was prepared by Lakeshore Records as a two volume recording, available for download on iTunes.

“Lakeshore Records always does an incredible job and they have done wonderful work here,” said Debney. “They really supported the underscore and score albums. Finding a two volume soundtrack on iTunes is very cool.”

To hear selections from “Houdini” and many more scores written by John Debney, please visit: