programming is pacing the field of TV music.
For composers, it's where the action is.
orchestral music builds and swirls ominous one moment, comical
the next–supporting and enhancing ever image on the TV screen.
It might be the music accompanying the broadcast premiere of a
block-buster film; it might be the underscore for a TV series'
special episode. But it isn't; it's the music of Cartoon Network's
animated children's series "Dexter's Laboratory" pumping
up the drama as the elementary school age genius title character
maneuvers a giant robot suit to do battle with a similarly suited,
scores for primetime programming have diminished significantly
often being reduced to "stings" played leading into
and out of commercial breaks innovative and sophisticated approaches
to TV music are thriving in children's animation. Such shows as
Cartoon Network's "Courage the Cowardly Dog" and "Powerpuff
Girls," Nickelodeon's "Rugrats" and "The Fairly
OddParents" and the WB Network's "Static Shock"
have little in common stylistically, but each relies heavily on
original scoring to establish a tone and connect with their young
to say that Saturday morning fare is free of dim toons and hackneyed
sounds. But for composers lucky enough to be affiliated with a
strong, creator-driven children's show, the work can offer deep
no restraint on creativity," says Steve Rucker, who, along
with partner Thomas Chase, has scored every episode of "Dexter"
and the related short film that runs with the recently released
"Powerpuff" movie. "In fact, it's very demanding
work; you can be asked to do anything in the course of a few minutes
_ go from rock 'n' roll to over-the-top orchestra to 'Star Wars'
to Danny Elfman quirkiness. The animation can go anywhere, and
the music has to go with it. What is especially great from a composer's
point of view is that the music in these shows gets featured,
not buried; these shows appreciate the value of what the music
is seconded by "Courage's" Jody Gray, who, like most
composers in the TV industry, works with a mix of synthesizers,
orchestral samples and live musicians. Gray has incorporated the
influence of such modernist iconoclasts as John Cage and Harry
Partch into the music behind his title character's battles with
been allowed to create some very sophisticated, wall-to-wall music
for this show," Gray says. "It's a kids' show and it
works as a kids' show, but as a composer, I have the freedom to
follow the Carl Stalling approach and the Stanley Kubrick approach
at the same time. The Stalling approach is classic cartoon, and
the Kubrick approach is that you play stuff that's completely
against what's on the screen _ a goofy scene gets a serious, dramatic
cue, and vice versa. There's a high level of musicality involved
because it's not just little interstitial cues like what's on
most network evening shows now; it's real scoring."
pedigree of animation music was established largely by Stalling,
whose work as composer and music director on Warner Bros.' "Looney
Tunes" created many conventions of the cartoon music genre.
Stalling began his animation career with the Walt Disney Co. during
the late 1920s, writing for some of the earliest Mickey Mouse
shorts. But from 1936-58, he was maestro of the Warner Bros. scoring
stage, providing Bugs Bunny and company with all manner of music
in cartoons intended for adult audiences of the day.
commanded a 50 piece orchestra through remarkably intricate scores,
often changing tempo, mood and style every few seconds. In addition,
he predated sampling by incorporating popular songs into his scores.
Perhaps Stalling's most enduring innovation, though, was allowing
cartoon musicians the same artistic freedom that animators brought
has logged a long career as a record producer for such acts as
New Edition and Coolio but is delighted with the freedom of expression
he enjoys composing for the WB's top rated Saturday morning show
beauty of doing a show like this is that you can draw on a broad
spectrum of styles," Wolf says. "Superhero animation
tends to be music driven, and it can be a virtual playground for
composers. While maintaining fidelity to the story lines, I get
to create and produce electronica, hip-hop, rap, rock, pop and
traditional symphonic underscore. The breadth of creative self-expression
is truly liberating, especially after coming from the field of
record production, where you're invariably pigeonholed into a
is a result of decisions by network executives and show creators
to embrace and support innovative sounds.
has really become a part of kids' lives, and we're trying to reflect
that in all our programming," Nickelodeon and Nick Records
vp talent Shelly Sumprer says. "It's never just an afterthought.
Kids are a lot more mature than they're sometimes given credit
for, particularly in the broad appeal of music that they like
and are willing to listen to. We want to serve them well, and
we also give a lot of room to the shows' creators to pursue the
kind of music they want, so when you look at all our shows together,
we've ended up with a very interesting mix of approaches."
creator Butch Hartman considers his show's music so important
that he has become a lyricist for its built-in song sequences.
poems and give them to our composer, Guy Moon, and he turns them
into songs," Hartman says. "We didn't think about using
songs at first, but we started hitting spots in the stories where
it just felt like it was right for a song. I love the mix of music
we've ended up with because when I first started out to make a
cartoon show, a lot of the shows I remembered from my childhood
were the ones with the strongest music and the songs you could
sing along to. I think hearing a kid singing the song from your
show is probably the best compliment you could get."
innovative TV shows might owe at least a tip of the animated hat
to composer Mark Mothersbaugh, who began subverting children's
music clichés during the mid-'80s with his work on "Pee-wee's
Play house." The distinctive work on "Rugrats"
of Mothersbaugh and his brother, Bob, is instantly recognizable
to millions of children, and the brothers have reached an even
younger audience with their recent work on PBS' "Clifford
the Big Red Dog."
lends itself to music having a more important place in the scheme
of things, and a composer has the potential to be very creative,"
Mark Mothersbaugh says. "There is a lot more freedom in writing
music for kids' shows because kids have a lot less preconceptions
about what music they want to hear; they want to hear everything,
so you can play things bigger and broader and go places that V
on can't go on a show like (the hit NBC drama) 'ER,' where you
need to stay within a genre. A lot of primetime music doesn't
do much to accelerate things or impact the story line; it's in
the background staining the canvas rather than making bold brush
to make bold musical brush strokes is embraced particularly by
younger composers who are finding some of their first work in
of what makes this work interesting right now is that new guys
come up through animation," says James Venable, who has scored
the "Powerpuff" TV show and movie. "It's the new
guys who are the most excited to be working, so there's a high
level of energy there to begin with and there's a willingness
among the executives and show creators to try new things. For
myself, I feel like I'm going back to the roots of animated music,
and we're trying to bring that classic approach through to the
current sounds of today, like electronica and techno."
that another key to creative scoring is respect for young audiences.
arc going to react to the emotions of the music no matter how
old they are, so on all levels I try never to play down to kids,"
he says. "A lot of times, if work is really specific to the
age of a kid, as soon as they get past that age, they turn on
it – whereas if you're just dealing with honest emotions
and thinking of what you create as music rather than kids' music,
kids don't get tired of it as they get older; they don't have
to outgrow it."
feel a need to move on, they might decide to embrace the alternative
works of their favorite kids' show composers
already seen it happen, 'Rugrats' fans growing up to be Devo fans,"
Mothersbaugh says. "The kids write in, and the parents write
in, and they talk about having common ground. They watch the show
together then listen to the albums together and enjoy both. That
warms a composer's heart."
August 20, 2002