Exclusive: Composer Charlie Clouser talks inspirational sounds for Childhood's End

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Dec 20, 2015, 6:52 PM EST (Updated)

If you were a fan of electronic music in the '90s, then there's a good chance you know the work of musician Charlie Clouser. A member of Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails during that decade, Clouser's also produced and remixed music for Rammstein, Marilyn Manson, Helmet and White Zombie.

In 2003, Clouser transitioned into scoring with the television series Las Vegas, but is maybe best known for his creepy scores for all of the Saw films, and more recently for his work on American Horror Story and Wayward Pines. For Syfy's Childhood's End, Clouser stepped away from his traditional synth music and created an aural landscape that helped underscore an alien invasion that leads to the complete rehaul of human culture on the planet, not exactly a small feat to achieve.

In an exclusive chat with Blastr, Charlie Clouser reveals his inspirations for the miniseries' score as well as what sci-fi music has impacted him throughout his life.


Where does the process start for you when taking on a project to score. Is it the script?

A lot of times, I'm bad at interpreting how a script is going to feel when it's done. I go to the script after some conversations with the creatives, who will sometimes tell me things not apparent in the script. I'm subject to being profoundly affected by the actor performances and the cinematography, so I use the script as further research.

Was it director Nick Hurran that provided the vision to catch your interest?

Yes, it was talking with Nick and ([producer] Todd Sharp. All through my childhood, I was a sci-fi nerd, so I was well familiar with all of Arthur C. Clarke's work and was surprised this hadn't been adapted to screen until now. Although it's been regarded as a really tough [story] to bring to screen, I think they did a great job making a story that feels contemporary and adding more depth to the characters to make it more relatable.

Was there an overall mandate they wanted from your score?

The first few discussions were about having the score mirror some of the underlying themes, such as the fear and awe of when the aliens first arrive, the personal dramas and bigger-picture themes such as the death of the religion and the not very happy ending to the story. The early discussions were about having some melodic themes that would mirror those arcs.

How did you achieve that via the score?

One thing I did try to do was early on in the story, when the aliens first arrive and there's chaos and confusion, there a wider spectrum of wild sounds in the score in the first third of the story. As it goes on and the focus narrows on the characters, then the spectrum of sound gets narrower and more focused. By the third night, all of the chocolate frosting in terms of the sounds I was using was boiled away and we're left with a much simpler sonic palette of strings, choirs and a solo cello and piano.

Are there any prior sci-fi score influences in this piece?

The only real nod to science fiction scores of the past that I made in an overt way was to one of my favorite pieces. One of the first pieces of music that I ever heard as a child  that blew my mind was the atonal and dissonant choir music by György Ligeti for 2001: A Space Odyssey. I did make my amateurish and feeble attempt to evoke that otherworldly wonder by using similar textures. It's effective because it's not some far-out synthesizer noise. It's a sound you've never heard before with a familiar texture.

Did you create an Overlords cue?

As I was riffling through my zillions of samples of things I've created and gathered, I found one sound as a trademark for the alien ships and the appearances of Karellen  [Charles Dance]. It's very subtle strings playing a dissonant chord, pitch-shifted a few octaves so it doesn't sound like strings or a synthesizer. It's a cross between ghostly voices and howling wind. I would tuck that into the background as an audible character.

Is there a cue you are most proud of in the Childhood's End score?

I'm just finishing compiling an album release of the score where I am trimming down three and half hours to one hour. Before I was finished with the score, my most challenging cues were when Karellen  reveals himself. But now, listening as a whole, I think the most effective cues are the last couple at the end of night three. It's when Milo [Osy Ikhile] is talking to Karellen, and he knows what's going to happen, and it's not good. It's a very gentle cue with some strings and cello, but they are strong. To be able to follow the emotion of the characters makes me more satisfied.

Let's do a Quick Fire of some of your musical influences ...

The most influential musician to you?

Howard Shore's scores for Seven and Copland. They are dark and moody and great.

Composer who ups your game?

Reinhold Heil.

Most influential score?

The original Jerry Goldsmith score to the original Planet of the Apes in 1968. At the time, it was music I hadn't heard before with a weird jumble of sounds that fits with what you saw on screen. It wasn't conventional orchestra, but it just worked.

Full orchestra or minimalist?      

My background is the electronic side. With something like Childhood's End, it's a human drama about everyday people dealing with extraordinary situation, so I favored normal orchestral sounds, because I didn't want the music to distract.  

Instrument you love using?

I have soft spot for any bowed metal instruments like the waterphone, which is a classic horror movie gadget that was used in Apocalypse Now. It was invented by a sculptor in Hawaii who used it to talk to whales. I have a few different versions, and I don't use them with the water inside them. I create bowed notes in pitch that have an unsteady quality.

Your favorite score of 2015?

The score to Ex Machina. It was unexpected, and I was really impressed with the sonics. It works as an album and with the picture.