Futurama

The very particular and weird influences for the retro-futuristic sound of Futurama

Contributed by
May 16, 2018

This month, SYFY WIRE is interviewing some of the best composers in TV and film to get insight on the theme songs and scores that stick in our heads long after the credits roll.

Creating music for a far-off future may not be easy, but it was a task composer Christopher Tyng was more than up to facing when it came to Futurama. The animated series saw pizza delivery boy Fry wake up from an accidental cyro freeze just in time for New Year's Eve 2999. From there, we explored the 31st century with him and his merry band of strange robot and alien pals. Drawing us into this future was Tyng's music which joined us as we met new aliens, planets, and technology throughout the seasons.

Tyng's theme for the series sets the stage for what viewers can expect as they follow along with the Planet Express crew. It's fun, catchy, different, and yet you might also think it sounds a little familiar. That's because Tyng, now the composer for USA's Suits, looked to an older era to be inspired for this future. A time Tyng described to SYFY WIRE as "a really oddball period of music… [where] there was a real interest in branching out from what happened before and everything was on the table."

We spoke to Tyng about how this era inspired his work, creating that classic theme, and his favorite memories of the show.

How did the opportunity to work on Futurama come about?

Matt [Groening] is an amazing lover and collector of music. I think he has an ear out always for something that he thinks is interesting and different. I believe he had heard some music of mine prior. There were a couple people he had in mind for the show and I was lucky enough to be one of them. I wrote a little music for him and he thought it sounded like the right fit for the show and it went on from there. It's circuitous sometimes. You don't expect certain dots to connect. You do something that leads somewhere else and it's fascinating to see how it all stacks up. It's not all entirely intentional.

What were discussions like around what the theme should be for the show?

Going back to Matt and his love and wide knowledge of music, of the people I know most of whom are in music, we like to think we have a fair amount of knowledge in various styles of music, but honestly Matt has the biggest record collection of anybody I've ever met. I think the theme was borne out of a lot of discussion, but borne out of a couple of ideals and that was that the show itself was centered in this sort of '50s and '60s idea of what the future was supposed to be. That was the visual style of the show, kind of the Chrysler Building aesthetic of what was going to be the future.

It was sort of a natural progression to say if that's going to be the visual style of the show, shouldn't the music side pay a nod to the same era? Matt — and this was one of the things that connected us early on — had a love of the lava lounge period of music. The Les Baxters and The Martin Dennys and this time where music was also very experimental in a futuristic — it sounds like retro-futuristic now — but a futuristic sound.

It was really a nod to some of the style coming out of that same period. Matt pitched this crazy idea of, what if there was a bad high school band in the '50s trying to do "Louie Louie" and they're playing the melody on tubular bells. It was such a funny idea that we kind of ran with it and then all of the other stuff going on at that time period in music, crazy old synthesizers and very experimental things that were unusual and wacky. We decided that it would be fun to pay homage to that musically so a lot of those elements became the palette from which the theme was born.

How did the music evolve over the seasons?

I think with all story centered projects the story is king. When you are working as a composer both in movies or television, as the stories evolve, the music follows suit. That's also one of the wonderful things about this particular job is that on any given story arc the opportunity to do something completely different is there. It never gets old. What I hear from fans is that you can identify Futurama instantly if you're not even in the room if you hear the music. It has a consistent sound even through its seasons.

We used a live orchestra. We kept the same palette of sound, but I suppose it evolved if the show went in an action bent. I think it's what gave the show such heart and the poignancy of the show, being an animated series. It has the ability to make you think and obviously laugh, but also to tug on your heartstrings a little bit. I can think of a couple episodes that we had an outpouring of fans saying "oh gosh that was so emotional" and it's always gratifying to do something that can play on multiple levels.

Do you have a favorite piece you created for the show or an episode that still stands out to you for its music?

That's hard. It certainly is and will always be one of the great highlights of my musical experience because it was so varied and we really got to explore so many things musically because the stories explored so many different ideas. It's really hard to pin down.

There is an episode where Fry is trying to finally win the heart of Leela and he learns how to play this instrument, the holophoner, which is a made-up instrument. It didn't exist so we also needed to come up with the sound of it. It was sort of a hybrid visual audio instrument that could not only make music but create visuals and cast a spell over Leela. That was a fun episode because I combined a variety of instruments live to create the sound of the holophoner and to this day fans are trying to figure out what actually made that sound. I'm not going to reveal it because it's too fun to let people still guess, but it's always fun to read what people think it is because no one's got it right yet so that was a pretty fun episode.

We embraced the musical style of that period, but we also embraced the working style. We would do crazy things on the orchestral stage. One of the episodes was when all the string players held up their music and all that was on it was fake African chants so the whole string section was chanting as opposed to playing their violins which makes everyone laugh and gives the whole recording session this sense of exuberance and excitement. It brings out this energy which I think was always a part of the music in Futurama. The music often times sounded like the wheels were almost coming off the bus and that was because our sessions were sort of engineered to be zany. We would stuff microphones in a trashcan and stick the trashcan in the center of the orchestra.

This very traditional very sophisticated environment which is usually taken pretty seriously, we would inject a lot of almost physical humor into our sessions and it would bring out a side of the whole orchestra that I think they loved and we used to hear these were their favorite sessions to come to because we worked very hard and we accomplished a lot of music in a short amount of time, but we had a lot of almost reckless fun doing it. I think that translated into the music which was fun to hear. We would record our rehearsals and before we even went for the actual take, oftentimes the rehearsal was the best version of that piece of music because it had that sense of frenetic energy that suited the show a lot. The whole show for me occupies a very unique and special space in my life because it was a lot of creative freedom and enthusiasm for being inventive. That's Matt's style.