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Nathan Barr’s Score Highlights Family Evolution In “The Son”

By: Marjorie Galas

Set in Texas in the 19th and 20th centuries, “The Son” follows the McCollough family through 150 years of history, highlighting Eli McCollough’s (Pierse Brosnan) climb from boyhood to reigning oil tycoon.  Noting the importance the score would have ushering the story through multiple decades and several culture clashes, showrunner Kevin Murphy wanted a unique sound that veered from typical the Western motifs.  Composer Nathan Barr’s work fit that bill.

Barr, recommended by “The Son” writer/producer Brian McGreevy who worked with the composer on “Hemlock Grove”, has showcased his unique style on series ranging from “Tru Blood” to “The Americans.”  During his early conversations with Murphy and “The Son” producers, Barr proposed a unique blend of instrumentation that would highlight the characters’ emotional journey as well as outline the raw quality of DP George Steel’s cinematography.  An avid instrument collector since childhood, Barr incorporated pieces he’s collected throughout his global travels, including a guitariphone (a fretless zither played with buttons) and a nyckelharpa (a traditional Swedish instrument dating back to the Vikings).

“It is as if a hurdy-gurdy and a violin had a child,” said Barr.  “It creates a beautiful, open sound.”

Barr also played traditional instruments in unique ways to modify the sound.  For example, he played prepared piano, where objects are attached to the piano strings to modify and sound, and he played the higher strings on an upright base, sourcing a range more akin to a cello than the lower notes the instrument is known for.   These elements were blended with music played on standard string instruments and music modified with plug- ins to achieve specific qualities.

Themes do play an important role in the score of “The Son”, namingly the series’ high octane main title track.  Barr used this selection as a musical definition of Eli, a piece of music that resurfaces throughout the episodes that defines the main character’s growth and developmental arc.  Male vocals also play an important role in defining character growth.  Although Barr performed the bulk of the instrumentation himself, he hired male vocalists for specific selections of the score, including ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons who’s featured in a song in the final episode, and vocalist Frank Fairfield.  The song is so crucial to the scene, Fairfield actually appears on camera singing.

“Music is such a key to this process,” said Barr.   “Kevin really likes to lean on the score and sound effects.”

During the spotting process in the edit suite, Barr would join members of the sound department to access music’s role with the sound design and effects.  The nature of gun play, the pattering of horse hooves and other environmental elements required a leveled balance ensuring the sound design and the score complimented each other.  Silence also plays an important role in the series, where the actors’ dialogue and emotional performances take center stage.  Always focused on highlighting character arcs and storylines, Barr’s score ushers between twenty to thirty minutes of action per episode, from subtle cues to bombastic melodies.