Although he has worked on such blockbuster films as “The Transformers” series, “The Dark Knight,” and “X-Men: First Class,” Louisville-born composer Noah Sorota is still a virtual unknown in composing circles. However, for three years, he has been crawling out of the underground, putting his stamp on TNT Television’s Primetime Emmy-nominated, Steven Spielberg-executive produced series “Falling Skies” as primary composer. Bringing a cinematic scope to a television world, Sorota is primed for greatness.
Read on, as we spend some time with Mr. Sorota on the eve of “Falling Skies’” fourth season premiere.
How does a relatively young, relatively unknown composer get chosen to score a Steven Spielberg production?
That’s a great question. [Laughs] I have known Steven for quite a while now. He had heard some music of mine way back when I was a freshman in college. He asked where I was going to school and all that, which was Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY, where I grew up. He came in and challenged me to go to a better music school. He said, “You have some real talent, and if you want to pursue it, you should just go after it.” So, without too much delay, I found myself in LA going to USC for music. And he’s really kept an eye on what I was doing ever since. He introduced me to many different people, one of whom was Michael Gorfaine, whose agency [GSA] now represents me. In doing so, I met a bunch of different composers in town.
And after doing some arranging and MIDI programming for various guys, I wound up at Hans Zimmer’s place [Remote Control Productions] doing additional music and programming, and all sorts of things. Steven eventually began developing this show and had me in mind, for whatever reason, and he phoned me up and said, “I’m developing this show. I don’t know if it’s picked up yet; I hope it is. If it is, I want you to do the score.” And I said, “Absolutely.” [Laughs] That’s basically how it happened. He’s VERY involved with the show, actually. He likes to listen to all the music; he likes to watch all the visual effects and give his two cents. I think he really likes the theme of the show and has a personal interest in it.
How involved is he in the music making process? Or do you have total reign?
I’m hesitant to say that I have total reign, [laughs] but to some extent, I do. Way back in the beginning, I had done a main theme and a sort of theme suite and sent it to him and Daryll [Frank] and Justin [Falvey] at DreamWorks. They all loved it, so it was off to the races at that point. We did all our figuring, as far as size and what goes where by the first couple episodes, and once we settled into a short-hand, to some degree, I didn’t get much input after that. When we spotted episodes, the discussions were more about where the music would go rather than what kind of music it was. It was basically up to me then, but they would come back to me with notes if there was a problem. Since then, I pretty much just have done my thing.
During the second season, though, there was a slight departure. Throughout the first season, I used a lot of synths and non-organic instruments in the score. They started to fall by the wayside. And Steven responded positively saying that he loved how orchestral it was becoming. And I preferred that, too. Since then, I haven’t really used the pulsing, synthy, Moog, doubling hybrid sound that was on the first season. Right now, it’s a pretty traditional orchestral lineup, with an extra, shall we say, set of percussion. [Laughs] There’s a lot of perc!
Although you’ve been working with Spielberg for a while now, does it ever get overwhelming to receive praise from a man whose compositional standard is John Williams?
[Laughs] Yeah, it gets a bit surreal. You end up questioning, “Is he just being nice or does he genuinely like it?” The thing is, he’s such a fan of music, and so knowledgeable. Any moment, he could start humming or whistling an obscure symphony, which I’d be hard-pressed to identify. He’s got a vast and deep musical knowledge. So, sometimes it is a bit intimidating, but is a fan of music and a big fan of scores. He’s a score nerd. He gets into original pressings and reissues and everything.
One time, I think it was “Ben-Hur” getting reissued with all the recording session music on a four-CD set or something like that. It showed up in the mail one day with a note from Steven: “I love this score. It’s one of my favorite scores. I hope you like it, too.” [Laughs] So, when he does give compliments, it is very reassuring that he really likes it. And when you get a comment like, “I like what you’re doing with the orchestra,” that basically means, “Let’s get rid of all the synths.”
Was leaning towards organic instrumentation also a means of making a science fiction world feel more real?
When we originally started, I was thinking, “This is sci-fi, there’s aliens, so we need to have some kind of spacey element,” so I put in a lot of synths and processed sounds, and it worked. But as I got into it, I kinda wish I could go back and redo it, because it’s a post-apocalyptic world and no technology really works anymore. The only tech that really works is the older stuff, like short-wave radios. That’s why vehicles they get running in the show are primarily pre-1970s – before electronic chips. So, yeah, I thought getting rid of that stuff would be more real to the world, making it more organic. Also, historically, when you get into the big, sci fi landscapes, having a good-sized orchestra helps with the scope. It makes it more cinematic.
Speaking of which, you have a good bit of experience in the film world, where, unless a character goes through a significant change in the movie, you write one basic theme for them and stick with it, altering the emotional content as necessary. With “Falling Skies,” since it is television, have you had the opportunity to allow character themes to evolve beyond the basic premise?
Yeah, and that has been something that has been a lot of fun. In the first season, there were basically two main themes – one for the Mason family and there was a main theme of the show that was used whenever they triumphed as a group, or over the end credits. But as the show developed, there was a love theme that popped up and all sorts of sub-themes, and new themes that have come and gone. Now, [laughs] I’ve got a music stand full of paper with all my themes jotted down, because I forget them if I don’t use them.
And as we go, they get developed, but I don’t always use them when I could; only when it’s important and when I want to draw attention to something. You can very easily over-use themes on a TV show, especially something that’s a few-seasons long. Right now, there’s about an average of 30-minutes of music per episode. That gives me about five hours of music every season. That’s a lot of music! We’re in our fourth season now, and you don’t want to hear the same theme the same way every time. So, I have been very judicious when I use themes and how they are used. I’ve had fun playing with the themes and turning them on their heads.
Since the show revolves around a tight-knit group of people, is it ever difficult to introduce new characters musically?
Sometimes; it depends. Some characters have longer arcs than others, and some just don’t warrant a theme of their own. This season, though, there is much more that I have to deal with, as far as new material, and trying to bridge the gap between the old and the new. It’s both challenging and fun to add new things to the world; it just keeps getting bigger and more complex.
Does it ever surprise you that a science fiction drama has found legs, which gave it staying power?
It does and it doesn’t. Things that I think are going to be successful often fall flat on their faces, and things I scratch my head and go, “Why do people watch this,” are actually popular. So I just give up and like what I like. I am glad that it’s done well with a bit more of a mainstream audience. I think they’ve done a really good job with gaining a wider audience for “Falling Skies” than, say “Battlestar Galactica,” which was popular, but was confined to a rather niche crowd. There’s a strong family element, and it’s not just guys fighting aliens and blowing things up. There’s a lot of drama, and mystery and intrigue, and even romance. They’ve done a really good job of making this accessible to as wide an audience as they can. And I think it’s worked out well.
When “Falling Skies” premiered, the media cooked up a weird rivalry between it and “The Walking Dead.” Did you ever get caught up in that at all?
You know, I never did watch “The Walking Dead” series. I remember reading about that, and I wondered if it was just because they were both post-apocalyptic/post-world with people running around trying to stay alive, and occasionally shooting something. I don’t know if it was just that or if it was more than that. It seems like the sci-fi element distances us from it, but I don’t really know, because I haven’t seen that series. I do remember the comparison, though.
You are now in your fourth season of the show, and there has yet to be a soundtrack released for “Falling Skies.” What’s the story there?
Yeah, I wish that were different. Every year, I get on the soap box and start banging the drum to try to get something going. I would really like to do it, and we’ve gotten kind of close a couple times, but TNT holds the copyright and owns all the music. I don’t know if they don’t think it would be successful from a financial point of view or if they don’t think it’s worth their time. They just don’t do that with their shows, so there really is no infrastructure for it. It could be a combination of those things, but as a result, there still has been no soundtrack release. I do try every year. And I get emails all the time from people asking if they could get certain tracks and praising the music. Maybe one of these days, we’ll convince them.