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Composer James S. Levine Is The Dark Musical Voice Of "American Horror Story"

Profile of James S. Levine, the Composer of the hit FX Series, "American Horror Story" Created By Ryan Murphy and Starring Jessica Lange
Courtesy of Getty Images

Currently, FX's "American Horror Story" is one of the most revered and intriguing horror shows on cable television. The show is unique it's storytelling by transitioning the same actors (Oscar Winners, Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates) into different characters each season. The shows composer, James S. Levine will continue to be apart of the horrific antics for the fourth season, themed "Freak Show."

James was under the radar for a long time while working with Oscar winning composer, Hans Zimmer on films such as "Pearl Harbor" and "The Weather Man." He then branched out on his own and began composing for major television shows like FX's "Nip/Tuck", NBC's "The Blacklist", "The Closer", "Major Crimes", "NCIS: Los Angeles", "Royal Pains" and FOX's "Glee."

For this very special interview with James, we candidly talk about American Horror Story, his involvement in the series, his vast musical library of music for the series, Glee and his future projects. So sit back and enjoy James' thoughts.

Please tell the readers what got you interested in music.

JL: I grew up in Boston playing piano in bands, musicals, and writing songs. I always knew I wanted to make music for my career and had the opportunity to visit a friend who was working as a composer in Los Angeles. After spending about 2 seconds with him in the studio I knew that’s what I wanted to do!

What interested you most about working on “American Horror Story” project?

JL: Collaborating with Ryan Murphy and working in Horror - a genre I had little experience with. I was excited and motivated by the challenge of finding my own voice for a modern horror story.

Do the musical themes come to you naturally as you are watching an episode for the first time?

JL: Generally the first time I read a script or see a frame of picture the wheels start spinning. Sometimes these ideas are fueled by conversations I’ve had with a show creator, director, or producer.

Do you often collaborate with the showrunners or episode directors when writing music for a television series?

JL: Always! For television the collaboration is most often with the showrunner or series creator.

Is there a specific favorite piece of music that you’ve written for a series, such as a particular character theme?

JL: I have a few favorites that stand out to me: Rachel Berry’s Theme from “Glee”; there have been three main themes for each season of “American Horror Story”; Brenda Johnson’s themes from “The Closer”; and the piece that closes the pilot of “Damages” which recurred throughout the series.

What interested you most about working on “American Horror Story” project?

JL: Collaborating with Ryan Murphy and working in Horror - a genre I had little experience with. I was excited and motivated by the challenge of finding my own voice for a modern horror story.

As the anthology series has changed, how did you go about changing the music to fit with the new seasons’ themes? Did any of your themes carry over from season to season?

JL: Each season is treated as its own unique series. New musical themes, new instruments, new tone, and a new aesthetic is created for each season.

How much music have you written for the series so far to date?

JL: Hours and hours of music!

Will there be a soundtrack released of your music for the show? If you were to put together a soundtrack, what would it consist of?

JL: That’s a great question. We have had discussions about it! I would likely select what we consider the greatest hits from each season. Ryan Murphy is a very big fan of establishing themes that become familiar to the viewer. We’d begin with these themes and then add in moments or character specific cues that are stand-outs.

Let’s shift to a more cheerful and unforgettable series, “Glee”. How did you get involved with the series?

JL: I was asked to be involved at the pilot level by Ryan Murphy and worked with the creators, producers, and cast from the very early stages of production to establish the score and work on set during the filming of the pilot.

How do you go about scoring around the songs that are featured in each episode?

JL: The songs and score are produced separately and often the score is used to enhance or support the drama of the characters while the songs are mostly literal story points and featured performances.

How do you approach writing the music for each season?

JL: I begin reading the scripts as early as possible and start writing themes for new story points and characters. In “Glee,” the general instrumentation and orchestration remains fairly consistent from season to season but I will always try to find new elements to introduce in the score that may be specific to a particular season.

What has been one of your favorite songs the Glee members have sang on the show?

JL: “Don’t Stop Believing” really is the anthem of “Glee.”

Of all the music you’ve composed for the series, which season was your favorite to score?

JL: Rachel’s Theme from the pilot and first season, the Kurt/Blaine Dalton Academy love theme, and Sue’s Journal!

Which project (film or television) has been your favorite to work on and why?

JL: It’s very hard to say. I feel so lucky to have worked with so many incredible creative individuals and on so many successful projects. I truly believe that every project informs another, even if they are wildly different. Working on a vast array of projects really allows one to gain the confidence to take chances and make unconventional choices musically.

Do you enjoy working more in television or film?

JL: I think both are really incredible and I really have no preference.

Please tell the readers about your future upcoming projects.

JL: I’m really looking forward to my summer series’ and the next season of “American Horror Story!”

Very Special Thanks to James for the very insightful interview and getting know such a fine composer such as yourself. Thank you for the opportunity. Also very special thanks to Ashley Patterson, the most awesome collaborator one could ever be blessed with. Thank you.

American Horror Story currently airs on the FX Network with Season 4: Freak Show Coming Soon.

Here is James Levine's Bio:

"James Levine is the go-to composer for television icon Ryan Murphy, having collaborated on four shows and a film together. James has composed the music for hit series such as FX's "American Horror Story" franchise, starring Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters, and "Nip/Tuck," starring Julian McMahon and Dylan Walsh, Fox's "Glee," starring Lea Michele, Chris Colfer, Jane Lynch and Matthew Morrison, TNT's "Rizzoli & Isles," starring Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander, "Major Crimes," starring Mary McDonnell, and "The Closer," starring Kyra Sedgwick, and USA Network's "Royal Pains," starring Mark Feuerstein and Paulo Costanzo.

James's education and career began in Boston where he attended Tufts University, while also studying with renowned instructor Craig Najjar. It was there that he gained recognition as a pianist, musical director and advertising composer. His passion for scoring film and television brought James to Los Angeles where he began work with Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer. This mentorship and collaboration led to James composing additional music for films such as "Pearl Harbor," "Something's Gotta Give," "Madagascar" and co-scoring credit for Gore Verbinski's "The Weatherman." Since 2001, James has been honored by ASCAP and BMI with 20 film and television music awards, including those for most performed underscore. In 2011, James founded the "Law and Audio" production music brand with Extreme Music and Sony.

Levine's music can also be heard in NBC's "The Blacklist," "Ironside," "Do No Harm," "The New Normal," FX and Audience Network's "Damages," CBS's "NCIS: Los Angeles," TNT's "Raising the Bar," Sony/TriStar's "Running with Scissors," and Warner Bros.' "The In-Laws.""

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