If you’re anything like us, then you’re already on your second or third viewing of The Sandman on Netflix…and that’s a good thing. Like the book itself, The Sandman is a show which rewards multiple viewings, where you’re always bound to catch something new each time you watch. Our advice for your next go-round: pay attention to the music. Unlike many of the cast and creators behind The Sandman, composer David Buckley came onto the project with fresh eyes. But as you can hear for yourself, he quickly acclimated to the “wow and flutter” of Neil Gaiman’s world, bringing a soundscape befitting the stuff that dreams are made of.
We recently got the opportunity to talk with the maestro of the Dreaming about setting the tone of a project, how to achieve a dreamy effect in music and the unlikely circumstances which grant the smallest of characters a musical theme of their own.
The Sandman isn’t your first work for DC. You’ve also worked on the video game Batman: Arkham Knight and the 2017 Wonder Woman movie. What are the differences in working on scores for films, video games and television?
I don’t really see them as different. I’m going through the same process of trying to figure out what I can add and what benefits the product. There are obviously some technical differences, especially with video games. I was absolutely flabbergasted at the Batman game—how they implemented audio into the game. And it took them probably longer to implement than it took for the score to be written. (laughs)
I would approach them all the same. Now the caveat is that with Batman: Arkham Knight, this was I think number…three, in the series?
That’s right. (Although whether or not you count Batman: Arkham Origins is up to you, reader.)
So, there was an established tone and an established aesthetic. My job was not necessarily to come in and assert myself and say, “Hey guys, never mind all that jazz. This is what we’re doing now.” That’s not what I was hired for. It was to kind of continue the legacy, which I had the utmost respect for.
And with Wonder Woman, I wasn’t the main composer. I was just an extra pair of hands (to main composer Rupert Gregson-Williams) on a few scenes. It wasn’t my place to say, “This is how this part of the film goes, musically.” It was more me figuring out what Rupert was doing for the overall thing, and then using that in the context of the environment I was working on.
Obviously, The Sandman is different in that there’s no pre-existing material. I mean, someone told me that there was an audiobook, but I didn’t know about the music. I hear it’s wonderful, but I literally haven’t heard it. So, that’s its own thing. This was me coming in blind and being told…it’s going to be quite a ride. It’s unconventional, it’s incredibly eclectic and moves around. And what you score in one episode and what you score in another episode is going to be a world apart, but that’s what we’ve got to figure out.
When you’re writing music for a production like The Sandman, how much of it is actually finished when you start composing? What do you have to work with?
When I came on board, they were still writing the script for one episode, maybe the final episode, and they were shooting and editing. So, there was a whole conveyor belt going on. And I was seeing some kind of, I would say sort of mid-range in terms of finished edits. Perhaps halfway through the process of editing, still waiting on some visual effects. Honestly, with the visual effects, I never saw the final version. That comes at the very end. I’m seeing sketches and some green screen stuff—things to try and help me along my way. But I never saw the final of anything.
Actually, I must watch the opening prologue, because that was such a big deal and I still haven’t seen how that all comes out in the final cut.
It’s really good!
I would imagine so! I tend not to go back and watch things after I’m done with it because it feels slightly weird. But the first thing I did when I got the gig was, I was talking to (series showrunner) Allan Heinberg and we were talking about the comics. And it wasn’t like I lied to anyone to get the job and said, “I’ve read the Sandman comics since I was four,” or whatever. I was very honest that I didn’t know a whole lot about it. “I’m aware, but I need to learn this world.” So, I looked at the source material and had endless conversations with Allan.
Pardon the pun.
…Yes, on Endless, exactly! (laughs)
Weirdly, our initial conversations weren’t musical ones. They were about the mythology and the characters, and also what this show is, in comparison to the comics, and how faithful it is, and how it’s going in its own direction. And then, inevitably, once we’d done a fair amount of that, the conversation turned specifically to music. The first part of it for me was watching whatever was available to see. I can read a comic, I can read a script, I can talk to someone, but ultimately, in order to trigger whatever I’ve got, I need to see something. I need to see a moving image. I need to hear dialogue and the sound, and I need to see how it’s shot, how it’s edited and the cinematography. And that’s when I start feeling, “Ah, okay, I think I can collaborate here.”
I’d like to know a little bit more about the redrafting process. Were there sections that weren’t initially coming together the right way that you had to correct for while working on the score?
At the very start of it, I found it difficult to find a way into it. I think because of the nature of Dream, who’s an unconventional character. Also the nature of the unfolding story, very unconventional, where we shift from episode to episode. It wasn’t obvious. I didn’t have a eureka moment where I thought, “Oh yeah, right, it’s this.” It took a while.
But then I hit on Dream’s theme, the big cue that we first hear in the prologue and is basically omnipresent throughout the show. When that was found, and I developed it, then there was a sense of huge relief for me as I hit on something that I think is the sound of the show. But it took a while. It definitely took a while.
Let’s have a little bit of musical theory for a second. What is the key to making music sound dreamlike?
The music is a big part of the show, and I think that the sound design done by the sound designers is a big part of the show. Sometimes, when we were looking at music for episodes, we would talk about the interplay between those. There were notes from the studio saying, “Can the sound help the audience understand where we are at the moment?” Like, when we are in the Dreaming, can the music delineate itself more from the present tense?
We would use things, like, reverb spaces would often change things very much. If you were just to take a piano and put it in a huge cathedral with cavernous reverberation, it would feel dreamy. What I did throughout the score is, I played with manipulation of sound.
Every composer now sort of says, “You know, I recorded a cello, and then I destroyed it.” That’s kind of like the in-vogue thing, where they take a conventional instrument and then completely screw with it. I really didn’t want to do that. That felt kind of grand and ostentatious and self-serving. I wanted to do something that was a little bit more—and what I’m about to say sounds quite pretentious, but I mean it, so hopefully it doesn’t come across as such—but I wanted to do things that you sometimes feel. You finish watching and get to the end of a scene, or the end of an episode, and you sense something, but you couldn’t necessarily put your finger on it or couldn’t articulate what it was. I wanted certain things to fall in between the cracks and be in the shadows.
You asked for music theory, I’ll give you a lesson on that. So, Ethel Cripps has a theme, a kind of plaintive melody which is played on an alto flute—so, a deeper version of the normal orchestral flute. And I had this wonderful player, who played in Abbey Road in London. She played this, and I recorded it separately so I could have control over it.
I would put it in my software program, and I would duplicate that alto flute line, and I would pitch shift it by two octaves, so there would also be a version of it that was significantly higher, and then I’d pull the level of that down massively so you’d barely hear it. And then I’d start putting little odd effects on it, like maybe playing it slightly backwards, or delayed, so it’s a little bit…off. But I play it so low, the manipulated version, that you wouldn’t really hear it. But if I muted it, and took that away, you’d miss something.
What better place to get subconscious than in the Dreaming, right?
Well, exactly! This is what I wanted to do! Even the bells, the very first thing that you hear. This is a sound I associate with the Dreaming—these bells, and they’re slightly warped. If you listen to the first couple of notes on the soundtrack, the first bell notes are bending slightly. Just slightly. They almost sound like a record, the “wow and flutter” (a term used for frequency fluctuations often heard on warped records). It’s just got this very slight warp in it. It’s small, it’s subtle, but I certainly began to feel that taking these traditional instruments and not smashing them apart, but giving them this extra layer of oddity that runs pretty much throughout the entirety of the show. I felt that was what I could offer to The Sandman, and what I thought was right for it.
In later stories, we’ll get to know Dream’s other siblings. Destiny, Delirium, eventually Destruction. Do you already have an idea of what you’d like to write for them?
Right. I have absolutely no idea. It hasn’t come up in conversation. You know, one of the early conversations we had is who gets a specific musical identity, and who doesn’t.
Oh, I’d love to hear this.
One point to make about this is if everyone does, it’s not going to resonate. It’s not going to mean anything. If you play a melody for someone once, you can’t really say that’s thematic. Something becomes thematic when you can use it and manipulate it, and let it live through a period of time. If John Williams just went (imitating the first two notes of the Jaws theme), “Duhh-dun,” and that was it, we wouldn’t call that one of the most iconic themes ever. It’s the fact that he can maneuver those two notes, reiterate on them and put it through different lenses and different perspectives.
In a story as rich as this, you have to strategize who gets a theme and who gets more of a repercussion of what Dream might do, or what the Corinthian might do. Rose Walker has a theme. Fiddler’s Green has a theme, even though he’s not really much in it. I wrote this very English pastoral tune for him. You only hear it a couple of times, so it doesn’t quite transcend to full-on theme status, because he’s not on screen that much.
It’s being sort of adult about it. Lushing Lou (a drunken sex worker in Victorian England seen only briefly in in Episode 6, “The Sound of Her Wings”), she doesn’t have a theme—actually, that’s not true! I’ll tell you something about Lushing Lou!
Early, early on, I don’t think I’d sent them any music, they said, “Oh, we’re shooting this scene with Lushing Lou.” She was singing this sort of Victorian parlor song outside the pub and they sent me the lyrics and they asked me, “Can you write something that perhaps would have been sung in the Victorian era?” So, I got my iPhone and just sang it into my phone, this little melody. And they said, “Oh, that’s great,” and then she sang it.
When I watched the episode, about forty seconds after she sings her song, there’s a very small transitional cue. It’s about twenty seconds that takes us, I think, into the next scene in the pub, and it’s another 100 years later. And I thought, “What do I do with this twenty seconds? What’s the sort of DNA of this piece of music?” And I thought, “Oh! I’ve written it!” And I used Lushing Lou’s Theme. I did that with piano and strings just to take us into the next scene with Hob Gadling.
So, yes! The most unlikely character for a theme possible, but she has one! I’m so glad that I’ve come to that realization with you.
Stream, download or buy the Sandman Season 1 Soundtrack right now by clicking here.
All eleven episodes of The Sandman, starring Tom Sturridge as Morpheus, are now streaming on Netflix. For more dreams, fables and recollections, visit our official Sandman TV page.