CS Score Interviews Emmy-nominated Composer Ruth Barrett


Welcome to another edition of CS Score! This week we’ve got a couple of great interviews with Emmy Award-nominated composer Ruth Barrett, who discusses her work on Law & Order: Organized Crime; and Alexander Arntzen, who explains the unique process behind his creepy new score for the horror film Initiation. Plus, we debut an exclusive track from the Irish romantic dreamed Finding You from award-winning composer Timothy Williams.



Finding You
By Timothy Williams

Check out a track from Brian Baugh’s Irish romantic dramedy Finding You from Roadside Attractions, titled “Finley Rocks the Pier.” The Celtic-flavored soundtrack comes from award-winning composer Timothy Williams (Brightburn) and Kieran Kiely (Immortal) and is currently available to purchase!

“While the Irish colors permeate the film, we still wanted to create a dramatic score that covers Finley’s journey of growth, friendship and discovery, with strings, piano, electronics, and a barrage of strummed instruments including several Celtic harps, autoharp, mandolin and an Irish bouzouki,” said Williams of the score.

Ruth Barrett Interview

Emmy Award-nominated composer Ruth Barrett has quickly become one of the most sought-after film and television composers in the UK. Her music is unmistakably original and eclectic, spanning feature films and high-end TV drama. Ruth scores NBC’s crime/drama series Law & Order: Organized Crime. Her television credits include PBS’ Victoria, for which she received an Emmy nomination in 2017 in the “Outstanding Music Composition for a Series” category; Netflix’s Golden Globe-nominated drama series Bodyguard; BBC One’s Bloodlands; Hulu’s The Sister; PBS’s mini-series Sanditon; and more. Ruth’s film credits include City of Tiny Lights and Legacy, both directed by Pete Travis (Dredd); Harry Brown (co-written with Martin Phipps); Toast, directed by S.J Clarkson; and the gritty Paul Abbott penned feature Twenty8k.

Jeff Ames: What drew you to the world of film and TV composition?

Ruth Barrett: Oh, gosh, initially, you mean? Ever since I was a little girl, I was always really moved by music in TV and films. Like, back even when I first watched The Incredible Hulk and things like Flash Gordon and some of the films in the 80s. You know, some of John Williams’ films really inspired me on that subliminal level. And then in college, I got really into writing music for plays and narratives. The storylines just made me want to write music. I did write a few pieces. When I was about 16, I started writing music. And even those pieces that I wrote for piano and small ensemble always had images in mind. Like, one of the first pieces I wrote was called Pictures in the Snow. So, I’ve always sort of had images and storylines in my head, I guess.

Ames: You mentioned John Williams as a sort of inspiration, but were there other composers you drew inspiration from or tried to pattern your music after?

Barrett: I don’t know. I’ve been inspired by so many people — I used to improvise with [Igor] Stravinsky, like I used to improvise and my piano teacher when I was 16 or 17 and we would play “The Rite of Spring” and just jam. I drew inspiration from the contemporary classical, but you know, John Williams uses a bit of Stravinsky-esque stuff in Jaws. And I love like [Krzysztof] Penderecki and a lot those classical composers from the 50s and 60s. I also love people like Vangelis, and [Ennio] Morricone is a massive influence. I just love the color in his music, and the sounds that he creates — the whistling or the guitars that make you feel the sun and the dust and the horses. The way he creates those sounds is really inspiring.

I think that I sort of cherry-pick bits from people. Like some of the music I mentioned. In the 80s I got with Duran Duran and some of the TV music that I liked, like Knight Rider or something, I like the propulsive beats that you get in that and the fun factor that there is. So, like in Bodyguard, I did music for that and I sort of drew on some of those 80s influences for that, you know, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. But then underneath there’s this kind of dark energy combined with a bit of the throbbing beat, the fun factor. So, there wouldn’t be one person. I like drawing from pop music and Prince — I love music from that side — and also from the films. Vangelis really inspires me as well, and composers like Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, what they’re doing is totally inspiring. But I’d love to think that — because I’ve scored a lot of different types of projects and quite diverse things — but that I always try and find something unique in each show; and find a voice for each show that is the show, if that makes sense. So, I hope I have my own sound and I think that sound comes from working with the musicians I work with, and really digging into the sound. I’m exploring the sound. So, I tend to use a lot of live musicians and make a palette for the show. I record a load of stuff at the beginning of the of the show, and then dive into it and create the whole soundtrack from those sounds and from those musicians.

Ames: Absolutely! How much freedom do you have to explore those sounds that you’re talking about?

Barrett: I don’t know. I think it depends on who you’re working with, and how much freedom they give you as a creative. I think I’ve worked on a lot more TV stuff than I have on film. So, I can’t really say, but some projects, I have a lot more freedom. I mean, I’d say Law and Order: Organized Crime, I feel like I’ve had quite a lot of freedom; and they’ve really embraced the sound. They said, “We want to reboot this, and we want a renewed sound for this series.” They loved a show that I’d done called Collateral. So, that’s what drew them to me in the first place. They wanted to, apart from that being a guide, they said go get inspired by the show, get inspired by the characters; and that’s what I think excites me with it is that when you’re allowed to just dig into the characters and the storylines and come up with something. So, with this, you’ve got Elliot Stabler, and he’s been in Italy for a while. So, it’s kind of like, okay, Italy, that’s fine. We all know this guy; we all know who he is and there’s all this history. But what’s new about him is that he’s got a bit of Italian flavor on him. It sounds corny, but I figured I’ll use a mandolin or something. There are some Italian gangsters in it, so I might use some Italian opera references, and they’re like, “Now, these guys are from New York, you know? They’re not like Italian Mafia, you know?” But I like to use it because the storyline is about the family, this gangster family. You don’t want it to sound like The Godfather, but there’s a hint of the Italian opera flavors in there. But it’s very hidden within the fabric of the show, and I like to have these things in the cooking pot; and parts of the character deeply rooted in it.

Ames: That’s interesting because Law and Order has been around for a long time. Did you feel like you had to keep the musical identity that the show had already established in previous iterations, or did you really try to create something new?

Barrett: Yeah, I think that’s why they hired me as well. That’s why they kind of reached out. They wanted a new sound for this particular spin-off, which is different again because it’s a different format. It’s an arc over eight episodes. So, it’s more filmic in that way. It’s not one story per week, it’s an arc. So, I could really go to town with creating the themes. And the thing is, with TV, there isn’t a lot of time to do it. But because the people on the show are just so amazing, the energy that they have inspired me because they were so enthusiastic. Arthur Forney, the executive producer, he’s just like, “Let’s rock and roll! We want you to do your thing,” like, “Go for it!” And when I did the first demos, I played them to the music editor and he was like, “Okay, wow, you’ve got a lot of tune percussion in there. You’ve got a lot of live instruments, kind of punk rock viola shredding away there.” He was like, “Some of the sounds, I don’t know if he’s going to totally go for it, it’s quite bold.” I’d rather start from a bold place than start from somewhere and then try and build it up, you know? And then temper it down if necessary, but Arthur just loved it … and then he just wanted more. And then that’s it, we’re away!

So, I wasn’t shy about it. Sometimes I think the British sensibility is to be — without dissing the American way — maybe be a bit more subtle about it. But I think what it is, is it has this epic quality, but without knocking you over the head. It does have these big boom booms in it, which maybe I would shy away from in other shows, but for some reason, this show can really take it because it is epic. And the characters and the performances are just so exciting to watch. And you know, Christopher Meloni just totally sizzles on screen. The energy that this one has is amazing. So, I think it can take pretty epic music.

Ames: I think that segues into my next question. TV music has evolved quite a bit over the last decade, because shows like Game of Thrones, The Crown and Victoria, they have these big, epic, sweeping scores. How has the landscape for TV music changed since you first started? And in what ways has that helped your career?

Barrett: I feel like TV is entering this new phase, there are so many more high-end shows being done that are attracting bigger and bigger stars. So, that’s really exciting. I think it’s becoming more like film. Almost on par, really. A lot of people now watch these big Netflix shows and they attract a lot of viewers. So, I think that’s what’s changed. Maybe there weren’t so many of those shows that required that kind of bold, epic style of soundtrack early on.

Although, at the start of my career, I was really lucky to work on some shows like Wuthering Heights, and I was really allowed to be quite bold with that. I used drums and folk violin — I was gonna say electric guitars … I did use electric guitars! I guess because it’s Wuthering Heights, it can be a bit darker. But that was one of my first jobs. The director on that really wanted me to be bold. And once you do something like that, then you get asked to do bold stuff.

Ames: Did COVID affect your scoring process at all?

Barrett: COVID has been tricky and it’s affected Organized Crime. Like, it was pushed back quite a while. Then they got it up and running and then it got hit again. So, I think it is going off-air for a couple of weeks, which is actually quite lucky … I’m on Episode 4, which is done in just days, but the level of the production values is so high, and it pushes me to do something extraordinary as well. I’m recording with seven different musicians who are all working in different studios and sending the music in — working, collaborating with these specialized musicians who are like artists in their own right. So, I’m busy writing the material, feeding it to them, getting their performances in, and then putting it all together with my husband. He’s my engineer, and he also plays electric cello on it. Our house is just like, I think we kind of maybe bring down the National Grid sometimes. It’s a completely separate identity to the other shows. I just find that exciting — the color of the different instruments. It gives it real energy and flavor.

Ames: You’ve been nominated for an Emmy before for Victoria. What would it mean to get another nomination, or possibly win?

Barrett: An absolute dream come true! Yeah, it would be awesome. Honestly, I just love the Emmys. It is the pinnacle of awards for TV. It’d be really exciting to get a nomination and winning.

Alexander Arntzen Interview

Alexander Arntzen is a rising talent who has scored a number of short films, documentaries, and feature-length films such as Victim(s), Behemoth, and Speechless. His latest score for Initiation is a creepy, propulsive, exciting score that should delight horror fans itching for a unique musical experience.

Here’s the plot synopsis: During a university’s pledge week, the carefree partying turns deadly serious when a star athlete is found impaled in his dorm. The murder ignites a spree of sinister social media messages, sweeping the students and police into a race against time to uncover the truth behind the school’s dark secret.

Jeff Ames: What drew you to Initiation?

Arntzen: I was already drawn to Initiation due to my longtime collaboration with the director John Berardo. I had already scored the short film concept of the film, Dembanger years ago. It was really exciting to see the project come together over the last couple of years and now to have everyone see it is so exciting. John’s vision has always been so cinematic and really allows the music to shine in all the right places which was so fun to create.

Ames: I love the propulsive beats you use in your score — particularly in the tracks “Stall” and “Run” — it’s really intense! Describe your process and how you discovered the film’s musical identity.

Arntzen: Thank you! Yes, I wanted the Score to go between moments of relative calm but always a level of unease with electric pads and atmospheres, to when the Killer is around, it becomes vastly more visceral and “in your face”. The more you can draw people into a level of comfort only to rip that out from under them out of nowhere, the more successful a Score like this will be. You have to keep them guessing and on their toes the whole time.

Ames: There are so many horror films and horror film scores out there, how do you think your score for Initiation separates itself from the rest of the pack?

Arntzen: Very true! I think the fact that this film relied heavily on the topic of social media, I tried to make the predominant base of the score entirely electronic. Although the film has many throwback elements to classic slasher horror, the goal was always to create something modern and fresh. It still relies on many tropes, but I hope that we have wrapped the film in a new sound that distances itself from other films like it from the past.

Ames: Was there an opportunity on Initiation to step outside your comfort zone to try something new? Or experiment with new instruments or styles?

Arntzen: Yes, very much so! Since we already had a strong idea of what the Score should sound like, it gave me a lot of extra time to consider the more unique elements of the Score. We incorporated the sound of Drills into the Score. As the killer gets closer, the sound of the swelling drill-like noises get louder as well. I also recorded my own voice doing rhythmic breathing noises and pitched it down a couple of octaves and through some other reverbs, delays, & distortions on it to sound like a monster. I’m a big fan of including “found sound” into my scores, so it was a blast to include these elements into on top of everything else.

Ames: Compared to other genres, what challenges does the horror genre present?

Arntzen: I think the biggest challenge would be that at the end of the day, you gotta make the music terrify people. Scare them, make them dread what is about to happen, or what is happening in that very moment. The suspense of disbelief in movies might be the highest in Horror, because lives are on the line. You want the audience to really be invested in the outcome for the protagonist and hoping they survive all the way to the end. If you don’t accomplish this, then there’s no tension to be had, and you’ve lost the audience.

Ames: Is there a particular track or moment in the score you’re most proud of?

Arntzen: I really love track 11, “Reveal”. It is the biggest moment in the film as everything has come to a head. There’s such a mixture of emotions while the main theme is being played in its most fleshed-out way in the whole film. Everything is building to that moment and I’d like to think that between the visuals, acting, sound, & music, that it hopefully gives people goosebumps!

Ames: What is the overall effect you’re hoping to convey to audiences with your music?

Arntzen: I wanted the music to really set the overall atmosphere of the film. There is a dark fogginess that surrounds the score that gets increasingly darker as the film progresses. The further down the rabbit hole the characters go, I wanted the audience to have the same feeling through the music.

Ames: Talk about yourself a little — what drew you to the world of film music?

Arntzen: I’ve always been a huge cinephile. When I was in elementary school, I started to realize one of the main reasons why I loved films was due to how the music made me feel throughout the movie and especially in those really climactic moments of greatest sorrow or triumph. Once I found out that it could be an actual career, there was no going back, I was hooked!

Ames: Do you have any composers or artists who influenced or continue to influence your style?

Oh for sure! I think the music of John Williams, Hans Zimmer, & Danny Elfman certainly shape the backbone of my musical style in film scoring. But I also love listening to Top 40 radio pop music like Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, & OneRepublic. Of course with horror, in particular, I am a huge fan of the Score for the Saw franchise by Charlie Clouser. I love the idea of blending and bundling up all these different artists and more and making it my own sound.

Ames: How has your music evolved over the years since your first project?

Arntzen: I think when I first started scoring films, I was much more traditional. Everything film needed a proper theme or themes that you could easily hum and recall. Now, I have dived much deeper into scores that don’t always rely as heavily on that approach. It’s more about the unique sounds and design of synth instruments and the overall feeling the music gives than any one theme. Hopefully stretching what we perceive as music to widen the possibilities. If I have my druthers though, I prefer something that accomplishes both: A memorable theme coupled with unique sounds that haven’t been blended together before. That’s what always keeps things interesting for me in the work I am so grateful and lucky that I get to do every day!