Join composer Eli Hamada McIlveen of audio drama network Fable & Folly as and take a trip into the music of a (mostly improvised) sci-fic comedy story. An immersive listening experience. Headphones recommended.
The piece of music we’re listening to in the background is the theme to the podcast Civilized. It’s a regal intro theme with a vintage sci-fi feel and today we’re going to break it down and get into why and how it was made. You’re listening to How I Make Music, where behind-the-scenes musicians get to tell their own stories. Every Wednesday, we break apart a song or a soundtrack or composition and get into how it was made. My name is Eli Hamada Mcllveen. I’m a composer, sound designer and writer from Canada, and this is How I Make Music.
Civilized is a dark comedy sci fi series that’s also completely improvised. There’s a small terraforming team who have crashed landed on a far-off planet, and they’re doing their best to survive. And they’re pretty terrible at it. So this is the opening theme to the show and introduces us to the world via this opening narration read by our actor Risa King. And kind of kind of builds the mood until Mike comes in with “Civilized”.
Early on, some of the influences we had for the feel of the show itself drew on science fiction. Both my partner Sean and I watched a lot of Doctor Who as kids. A big part of the sound of the music was the analog synthesizer of the day. Your Arps, your Moogs, your Polysixes. Here’s the synthesizer lead to the Civilized theme.
I got really into electronic music in high school and used to raid used record shops looking for old records and one of them was Synergy. It’s the project of a guy named Larry Fast, who was the synth player on a lot of Peter Gabriel’s early stuff. Pure synthesizers. One of the best known tracks is one called Legacy. Here it is.
Peter Howell was the guy that did the The Leisure Hive in 1980. It sounds like this. It’s got the same kind of military drums with its synthesized horns, but it’s got the kind of feel I was aiming for. It’s got that marching band kind of feel. So I wanted to capture a little of that. So that’s that’s why I chose this ensemble. It’s two horns, tuba, timpani snare drum and synthesizers. Oh and piano.
Quartal and quintal harmonies
So I did what I usually do. I noodled around on the piano to create some interesting melodies and harmony under them, and I started playing with quartal and quintal harmony. Quartal and quintal harmony use the fourth and fifth. A stack of those. So right at the beginning of this piece, you’ll hear the synthesizer. It’s a I think it’s a model of a Solina string synthesizer that’s playing this big stack of fourths. And over top of that there’s an arpeggiated synth that’s playing those same notes. And that adds some motion and a little bit of glitter. They’re like the stars twinkling in the distance or something like that.
The melody itself the main melody uses a lot of fifths and it has these great leaps that make it sound kind of heroic, I guess. You get those sounds typically in brass parts. I guess they evoke things like fanfares or bugle calls, because a bugle doesn’t have any vowels. So it’s pretty much limited to the harmonic series. So the bump, bump, bump bump up, up, up, up, up, up up. Those are the notes that you have at your disposal. So those big wide striding leaps, give it this big open kind of optimistic feel, I think. So as a composer, I lean on my very limited playing ability. I I know a bit of bass and enough piano to kind of be dangerous, but reality is I’m kind of like an author that types with like one finger on each hand. Yeah, I’m not sure where to go with that! So these big leaps in the melody give it this very forward looking feel. I I use the word heroic. Yeah, the opening phrase actually reminds me this one phrase in the opening titles to Deep Space Nine. Similar, I hadn’t heard that theme a whole lot. Before I created the theme to Civilized, I didn’t have a TV during that era.
So also that idea of writing for small ensemble. It’s something I started doing on Alba Salix which was our first audio fiction show. And for that, I don’t really have the tools on hand to pull off a decent sounding orchestral score. So I did drums, bass, guitar and recorder creating a folk rock sound. We also do an actual play podcast based in the Alba Salix world called The End of Time and Other Bothers. I decided to see if I could do the score as pieces of a concept album almost. So I’ve created this imaginary prog rock ensemble with bass drums, guitar and Hammond organ. Maybe all these pieces can add up to a big concept album when we’re all done.
So this is the synthesizer lead to the Civilized theme, an earlier version of it. There’s a tiny bit of pitch bend right near the end of this second phrase, just it goes a little bit sharp. And I don’t know why but I just like that a lot, I don’t. And then there’s just a real slight scoop to it.
I’ve mentioned the timpani and the snare drum. And there’s also synthesized drums, which are another classic beatbox sound, they’ve got that sort of crickety sound to them. And that’s just sort of subtly ticking along in the background. And then to kind of further animate this whole scene that we’re setting, there’s these great big whooshes like rocket engines, zipping by nebulae, or clouds of luminous, whatever that are that are drifting past the imaginary camera in my mind.
So in preparation for this episode, I actually wrote out the score to this piece, it’s not something I usually do. But it was a fun exercise to just go, what the heck did I actually write in the first place. “Synth lead” doesn’t say much, but “monosynth with the portamento turned up a little bit”… that gives you a bit more to go on. The portamento setting lets you adjust the sound for a very quick transition to a slow sweep from one note to the next. I’ve tried to notate what the sounds of the synthesized instruments in particular sound like. Analog synthesizers also typically use filters a lot. It’s like the tone control on a stereo, where you’re cutting out certain frequencies. In this case, it’s that all the high frequencies are backed off. And we open up the filter slowly to give it this big, rising feel. These aren’t things that would typically come up in an orchestral score, but it’s kind of fun to to inject them into written notation. As I said, I’m totally winging it and sort of learning to notate stuff as I go. So that’ll be available on the Patreon feed for How I Make Music. That was like me desperately trying to remember every scrap of music theory I ever learned.
Demo Station – Marching Orders (Bugle Calls)
Peter Howell – The Leisure Hive
Synergy aka Larry Fast – Legacy
Dudley Simpson – Theme From Dr Who
Dennis McCarthy – Deep Space Nine
ABOUT THIS SHOW
Discover new fiction podcasts in an immersive, sound-designed listening experience with their music composers. In this show, we challenge audio drama music makers to break apart a song, soundtrack or composition and get into why and how it was made. Immersive listening. Headphones recommended.
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