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‘The Leftovers’ composer Max Richter on scoring this new HBO series

HBO’s very dramatic series, The Leftovers, focuses on the residents of a small town three years after two percent of the world’s population disappeared without explanation. Viewers get to see how they, and the world in general, struggle to come to terms with what happened.

Created by Damon Lindelof (Lost) and novelist Tom Perrotta, and based on Perrotta’s novel of the same name, The Leftovers is the story of the people who weren’t “chosen.” Lindelof and Perrotta executive produce the series along with Peter Berg and Sarah Aubrey.

The following is a Q&A, courtesy of HBO, with British-born, Berlin-based composer Max Richter, who in addition to scoring The Leftovers, feature films and documentaries, makes albums, writes ballets, plays concerts and more. For the show, he creates different themes based on characters and plot points. Read on…

What is your contribution to The Leftovers, and how did you get involved with the show?
I’m writing the score. My background is in classical music, contemporary music, and I also make my own records. My other projects this year are a ballet for the Royal Ballet in London and a new record. Damon and Peter were both fans of the records, so rather than micromanage the score, they really wanted me to do my thing, which is great. So the score in The Leftovers very much shares the DNA of my own releases. It has that sort of emotional texture and grammar, rather than being a TV score in the traditional sense. I think that’s unusual both in terms of our process, and in the way that the score functions in the show.

Laurie is affected by Matt's sermon

You have worked on documentaries in the past (HBO’s Prison Terminal, How to Die in Oregon and My Trip to Al-Qaeda) as well as feature films (Waltz with Bashir, Shutter Island, Disconnect). In what way is composing for television different from film?
This is the first TV show I’ve ever done. The main difference is that we have so much more time with the characters. We don’t have to try to reveal everything in one hit, or tell the whole story in one go. We have a lot of opportunities to revisit the characters and look at other aspects of them.

It’s like walking around a sculpture — it’s not a flat object. You can walk around it and see all its dimensions over time. That’s wonderful for a composer, because it means we can have that piece of music be refracted through new situations or make transformations in the piece to reflect the new landscape around it.

What is the role of music in The Leftovers?
We have themes that accompany certain bits of the story or certain characters. We’ve created a family of themes, which make up the architecture of the score. As the emotional texture of the theme changes, the instrumentation may change, or the tempo, the way it’s used or the dynamics may change. The themes are the raw material that we form in a sculptural way to illuminate what’s going on in the show.

Can you describe these themes and explain how they enhance the story?
We have a departure theme, which kicks off Episode One, and recurs in various transformations later in slightly different versions of piano or strings. There’s quite a bit of orchestral music, mostly with strings, and there are also a lot of instruments such as celestes and harps, which I’ve used to illustrate decay — the note starts and then fades to nothing.

As musicians, we talk about the decay of a sound. At what point does it go to zero? At what point is it gone? A lot of the emotional energy of the show is about that, about the moment of disappearance, and then what comes from that moment. There is an impulse, and then it fades to nothing. So I’ve built a lot of the score with that sort of quality.  I felt that was a nice image for the story: things fading away.

Kevin checks iin with Deputy Dennis

We have a set of themes about the Garvey household. Kevin [Police Chief Garvey, played by Justin Theroux] has this amazing, stoic endurance; he bears more than his share of slings and arrows. Therefore, his music has a tender quality. Kevin is a very interesting soul.

We also have a sequence of ritual music, which is more orchestral and includes choral voices, and that’s about the idea of “The Beyond.” There are many ideas of what that “Beyond” is in the show, whether it’s a religious idea or something more puzzling.

There’s a fourth sequence of music that recurs throughout the show in different intense moments that serves as an overall comment about the world of the show and the search for peace and resolution. I call that “Dona Nobis Pacem,” or “grant us peace,” which is pretty much what all of the characters are looking for in their own way.

A lot of the music is built on these sort of circling structures, which don’t really resolve. There’s deliberately no real resolution in the music. It’s always open-ended, and it leaves questions.

Can you describe the different elements that go into the music?
The piano is played by me, the electronics are from my studio in Berlin, the soloists are friends of mine or people in my band, and there are orchestral recordings, so it’s a mix. The orchestral recordings are interesting because they have a particular texture that has to do with how we record. We recorded in a studio outside Berlin where German expressionist films like Murnau’s and early Billy Wilder were recorded. The recording room is from that era, the ‘20s, so it has a sonic fingerprint, which is perhaps similar to other rooms from that time, e.g., Abbey Road Studios. The room itself has a dark texture, and the orchestra goes to work there every day, so the room and the orchestra together have a fingerprint. A lot of the score is quite somber, with not too much going on — this helps us find our own way through the work of the show.

holy waynesmall

Berlin is interesting right now, because as well as being one of the real centers of classical music and great orchestras, it’s a mecca for electronic music. Some of the electronic textures have a very experimental flavor and a searching quality.

What interested you about working on this show?
They sent me the script of the pilot and it was such fantastic writing, I just zoomed through it. Damon was really enthusiastic for me to do the show and wanted me to do my thing, which is always nice! The whole working process has been great. The notes I get back from Damon are always considered and very thoughtful, and it just gets better all the time. He’s got phenomenal instincts for how to make the architecture of the show intelligent and elegant. It’s been a pleasure to go through this process.

What have you found to be the biggest challenge in working on the show?
The biggest challenge is trying to elevate what we’re doing all the time, trying to do the best version of every idea and get to the heart of it. On a production and music level, it’s been great fun, but the challenge, with anything like this, is that the production schedule can be very fast.

Photo: Yulia Mah

Max Richter. Photo: Yulia Mah

What has been the most satisfying part of working on The Leftovers?
The amount of freedom I’ve been given — it’s unusual. There’s also great enthusiasm for trying different ideas, and that’s exciting. Working with this team has been a privilege and I just really enjoy seeing the story unfold.


For more on The Leftovers, check out our interview with VFX house Dive regarding their work on the show.

Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi – Episodic Shots

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