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'What If…?' composer Laura Karpman’s favorite MCU score may surprise you

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Sep 14, 2021, 2:04 PM EDT

Every episode of Marvel's What If…? gives a variant spin on events in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and each one naturally requires a variant score to accompany it. No two episodes sound the same, as composer Laura Karpman writes entirely new music for every episode. She evokes certain legacy themes and moods, but she usually leaves viewers with teases only. 

Karpman is an Emmy-winning composer (Outstanding Music Composition for a Documentary Series in 2020 for Why We Hate) and has been nominated many times, recently in 2021 for her work on Lovecraft Country. She scored every episode of that series, just as she scores every episode of What If…? One week, we may hear her version of heist music, and the next we’re hearing a tragic love theme. 

SYFY WIRE caught up with Karpman to talk about how she came to be involved with Marvel, how she is able to juggle so many different musical styles, what her favorite MCU scores are, and more. 

How did you come to be involved with Marvel?

Dave Jordan is the music supervisor for the Marvel stuff, and I think he's been looking for something for me. I mean, you would really have to ask him, but I'm pretty sure that he thought I was right for this show. I think for a lot of reasons, but I think one of them being that the show required someone who was kind of musically gymnastic, somebody who could do a lot of different things musically. Somebody who really understood the orchestra, could handle a big orchestral sound, and do a heist score, do a '40s war movie, do a mystery film. Do a tragic love story. Do all kinds of the multiple kinds of movies within a series season.

I think that's what he was looking for. I remember when he asked me for a reel, he said, "I need everything. I can't tell you anything but I need everything." Generally, when you're making a reel up for something, you read a script or you get really specific directions. But in this case, it was just like, "I can't tell you anything but give me everything.”

In each episode that we’ve seen you evoke themes that we've previously heard in the MCU without actually playing them full out. How do you manage that?

In initial meetings, we talked about Avengers: Endgame as being kind of a model for that, where you grab a theme and then you move on. If somebody appears or you need to really play with something, you do that. And in a lot of cases, I re-harmonized, reworked those themes. In the case of Captain Carter, that's a reworked Captain America theme. It, literally, is a mirror image of Captain America.

You kind of think about what's conceptual to what the episode is trying to do. How do you acknowledge the MCU and the mothership, and then how do you move on, because this is its own thing? That's the tricky balance to the show, I think, and it’s reflected in the musical score.

It's a different little movie every week, the music is always different to the point where sometimes you think, "Well, it has to be a different composer because..." But it's not, it's always you. 

It was Laura all along!

What scenes in the first season of the series have given you the biggest challenge?

Everything, everything. I mean, when I did the Chadwick [Boseman] theme, I had to clear everybody out of the house and take a day. That wasn't a "do it, write music, put it to picture, do it." That was something I really had to work on and it was hard emotionally.

Episode 1 was hard, I think because so much happens and there are so many twists and turns in it. It was really like driving a Ferrari on a windy road, although I've never done that. I'd like to do that, now that we bring it up.

That one was hard in its own way, but other episodes were emotionally challenging. I mean, doing the Dr. Strange episode was... that's a hard episode to score. It's sad. It's tragic. And so, that presented its own thing. Being a film composer is a funny combination of working with emotion and working with your own emotions, and also being a pro and just being able to write it. Just like [Series head writer] A.C. Bradley, she's so brilliant. She's a pro. She's dealing with hardcore emotions. Some things probably come easily. Some things probably are harder. You can always do something, but what something takes out of you on any given day is very different.

Has there been a previous MCU score that you particularly enjoy just as a fan?

Ant-Man [composed by Christophe Beck]. I’m a big Ant-Man fan. I think it's adventurous. I love that woven into the theme itself is the bigness and smallness of the characters. And I think that comes out of a lot of superhero scoring, the best of it, where John Williams really will create the character and the music. If it's Superman, it leaps. The theme, literally, leaps. I think about that, about how do you really reflect what a character does, especially when you do a superhero? How do you really reflect that in a theme?

Has there been a new, not necessarily theme, but musical moment in What If...? that you've gotten to create that you're particularly proud of?

I love the [main] theme. I think that I have to say it's a real pleasure to hear my son walking around the house singing the theme. And then, he showed me on one of the little piano sites, where the kids learn how to play, that somebody actually did it… that was super cool for me. That's nice. I really like the music from Episode 3, that feels like me… but there’s me everywhere in this thing, and part of the fun is playing with other things too.

Another great thing is getting a new album for every episode.

I know. How great is that?

Is that something we can keep looking forward to? 

Yes, and thank Disney for that, because what a gorgeous show of support. I'm not having to pick and choose cues. It's basically just putting them together and sending them out, and I love that they support the show that way.

You mentioned that the T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) episode earlier, it’s a really fun episode and it's zippy and it's adventurous, and then they have the tribute to him at the end and the music mirrors the tribute and not the episode. Was that a choice that you got to make?

Yeah. I think that it's something we talked a lot about, how can we honor Chadwick and where do we do it? How do we do it? That took a minute to figure out how we were going to do it, what we wanted to do, and how we would structure it. That one was hard to write. I mean, what a beautiful man and such a loss to our community. Not only just the Marvel community, but Hollywood in general. What a great actor and a beautiful spirit and a beloved person. I'm honored that I could write music for him.

New episodes of Marvel’s What If…? streams on Disney+ every Wednesday. This interview was edited for length and clarity.