I met the talented composer Halfdan E at a meal at the Danish ambassador’s for the stars and creative team of such shows as Borgen and The Killing – and I discovered we had a connection. I’d written the introduction for the Norvik Press edition of Dan Turrell’s Murder in the Dark, and Halfdan had collaborated with the late writer on the CD ‘An Introduction.’ I asked the composer about his work on Borgen:
‘One of the things that tend to grow bigger by the hour when you start working on a score for a TV series, is the ambition for the title sequence and thus the music. Visuals need to be catching, music needs to be absolutely ear-catching. But not only that: in this case, the directors wanted it to reflect the ups and downs of life of the prime minister, but also the stress and cynicism of political life, the intrigue – but also the loneliness, the few warm moments, the bitternes and so on and so forth. A rollercoaster of an intro, in other words, all dispatched in music and in only 40 seconds. Not forgetting a catchy melody, a strong identity.
Everything that left my desk was either too melancholy, too pathetic or too heroic, and I was about to despair when I accidentally overheard my neighbouring composer practise a very fast Bach piece, and that more or less was the key to the Borgen intro. Bach has a way of always exploring the consequences of just shifting one note in unexpected ways, which can totally change the direction of the piece, and that was what became the method: to change direction for every two bars or so, to get a constantly shifting emotional impact, ending in an open mood that sets the scene for whatever comes up in the episode.
This way of dealing with the intro became the key to the rest of the score, at least the part of it that borrowed from the ‘classic orchestral’ world.
We already started discussing the music on a script level before any film was shot. Normally most composers prefers to have images to score, but in TV series the production turnaround is usually so tight that you need to start working on the music as early as possible. So we sat down and put keywords like ‘needs the elegance and production value of the classical orchestra, yet also an electronic, more ambient angle. Needs to underline that we’re dealing with the top levels of power of Danish society, and so on and so forth. End of discussion: you need to write something for a real orchestra. I did that, and for once dared to hire an external arranger, as I mostly do that myself, but I needed to buy myself time. So off we went, writing and arranging, and finally we found ourselves in the Studio Smecky in Prague with 54 musicians and a great conductor.
Unfortunately, what we had put together sounded absolutely wrong, not out of our neglect, but partly because my compositions for the series were very dramatic in a way that may have sounded ok on piano or guitar, but absolutely corny played by an orchestra – partly because the whole idea of scoring with an orchestra was wrong. I scored something that was meant to sound like a giant machine grinding away endlessly underneath the action, a score devoid of sentiment but open and transparent like modern buildings of steel and glass, to leave room for the actors to express their emotions. What I brought home with me was something sounding more like ‘Gone with the Wind’, altogether too romantic, too large and constantly overshadowing the acting. I simply had to let it go. I dumped the whole session worth 10K and thus most of my initial salary, and went back to my samplers and synths. I guess that was a lesson learned: that the orchestra is an instrument on par with a synth. As Ellington said, ‘if it sounds good it IS good’ – they’re all just instruments and you need to pick the right one for the job.
Finally, in hindsight, the reason why this score (I hope) works is because it keeps a constant pulse underneath the lack of action. Borgen is not an action- packed series,but the action goes on inside the characters: though experiment I realised that I needed a way to bring that action to the table, as we had no car chases, blue blinking lights or murder victims. At the same time, we needed something that was transparent, as there’s great many spoken words in a political series. So, the music tells you that there’s something going on and that it’s dramatic, as the picture tells very little about this. At the same time, you really need to be able to hear the dialogue, all coming out of those tiny little speakers in your flatscreen telly. Quite a job…
‘Borgen’ and ‘An Introduction’ scores both available on CD from www.plantsounds.net