SCORING TO SURVIVEHe knew! Composer Russ Landau knew that Richard was taking home the million bucks last fall, and he didn't tell a soul. We had the option of knowing, 3/01/2001 7:00 AM Eastern
He knew! Composer Russ Landau knew that Richard was taking home the million bucks last fall, and he didn't tell a soul. “We had the option of knowing, and David [Vanacore, his musical partner] and I discussed it,” he says. “We didn't want to know, we wanted to watch the show from a viewer's perspective and not have things given away and score it that way. You don't want to open that Christmas gift until Christmas morning.” But then he found out anyway. His job can't be done live, in real time.
Russ Landau is the man responsible for coming up with the haunting introductory score to last season's smash CBS hit Survivor. To hear him explain it, the process wasn't easy, and all he knew was that it had to be big. “I think I wrote 14 or 15 very big, cinematic, over-the-top orchestral themes,” he recalls. “But the show was reality, and it was drama, so it was dramality. They mine for stories during the show, so it does have a drama quality to it. But is it funny? Is it serious? Is it dangerous? Is it adventurous? Well, it's all those things, so how do you get that?”
The theme came to Landau after a vacation that he and Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett took with their families to the ski town of Mammoth, Calif. Once back in Los Angeles, Landau wrote “Ancient Voices.” “For me, at that point, the concept was Lord of the Flies and MTV's Real World,” he says. To get that mood, the composer turned to a recording of Russian folk singers Tamara Smyslova, Elena Sidorenko and Masha Nefedova that had been collected by musician Paul Winter for an Earth Beat album. The women's voices — Landau explains they are singing “Yippee Ki Yeah” — were edited, made into a loop and then processed.
Landau was relieved once he found the magic score; after all, writing a show's theme is tricky. “It is kind of like writing a song for an artist,” he explains. “You have to pull in all these sources and try to figure out what's going to identify this show, this series. What's going to be its brand? You're putting a stamp on the show, so it's very critical. It was trial-and-error until finally we found something that the show was about.”
Though he started his musical life studying as a classical guitarist, Landau earned his living as a bassist and record producer before turning to keyboards, samplers, computers and scoring work. “And I'm a really bad trumpet player,” he adds with a laugh. He edits, and his studio is stocked with an assortment of software, including Logic Audio, Performer and Cubase. His keyboards include a Kurzweil 2500-X (his controller), a GigaStudio (which replaced 14 Akai S2000s), Kurzweil S5000 and three E-mu Emulator-IVs.
Still, Landau prefers working with live musicians. “At the end of it all, we use a combination of synthetics and real, but nothing can replace a real orchestra,” he says. “There's nothing like having humans playing their parts together. As much as I love the ease of writing — and I say ease reservedly — with computers, pencils and paper, an orchestra is the most pleasurable way for me to write. It's so much fun to sit in the middle of an orchestra and conduct and hear your music come alive. I use the tools that are available to me and what the budget sort of dictates that we use.”
It wasn't budgets but time that dictated Landau's work with partner Vanacore during Survivor's first season. Their first assignment was to come up with 10 three-minute pieces that could be used throughout the season. “We gave those pieces to the [picture] editors, and they started cutting to the music, which gave the show almost a music video kind of look,” Landau says. “It worked out kind of nice, because then we could do these wacky kind of groove pieces with our elbows in the music, and the editors would take advantage of the elbows.”
As the show progressed, the relationship between the film editors and the composers changed. “The film editors started editing the music, which provided all kinds of interesting results that I actually really liked,” Landau recalls. “Where as I edit from a sound point of view — I'll cut something on the beat, I'll cut from the melody or whatever seems musical — they're cutting from a visual point of view that created these jarring edits.” From week to week, they'd take that collaborative effort, smooth over some of the edits and rescore others before delivering Tascam DA-88s locked to picture.
Looking back over the first season, Landau remembers a couple of tough scenes. The first revolved around Richard's use of a spear to hunt fish. “He was pretty damned cut throat, and it was kind of horrifying,” Landau says. “He was maiming fish, and I had to find a way to soften the blow so that it was palatable to watch him. So I had to come up with this happy, hunting, tribal thing that would make it seem more ritual and natural.” Then, of course, there were the rat scenes. “When they were getting ready to chop the heads off of the rats, you can't make fun of it, but you have to soften it a little bit,” he explains. “It's pretty tough, and we had to find ways of softening it by making it more adventurous and lighthearted in a way without being funny.”
One of the other challenges that the team faced was the fact that they couldn't compose consistent themes for characters that might not be around another week. According to Landau, though, they were able to do some fun things. “Richard did have his own quirky cues, because he was a quirky guy,” he says. “B.B. was fun to write for, because he was so cantankerous and you'd want to outline that. Everybody loves Rudy. I love Rudy. Rudy was sort of like a father figure. Colleen, there's nothing you could do wrong with Colleen; she looked great no matter what. Greg was quite interesting. He got these very psycho-quirky melodies, because he was kind of a psycho-quirky guy.”
While he won't discuss characters for Survivor 2, Landau is happy to talk about the show's new opening theme. The conch shell has been replaced by the didgeridoo, which was recorded live from the Undara Lava Tubes using a Macintosh PowerBook, Digi 001, a global star satellite system and Rocket Network technology. Aboriginal didgeridoo player David Hudson performed the track. Rocket allowed them to track Hudson's performance and beam it back to Wild Wood Studios in Los Angeles, where it was mixed in real time.
The didgeridoo will be a main staple of the season's soundtrack. “It is almost like voice,” Landau explains. “There are so many different kinds of sounds that you can make with one. It's like singing, so there's a lot of different textures that we can fold into the music. It doesn't just have to be drones, it can be animal calls and spiritual calls.”
Landau is excited to be working with Hudson and learning more about the Aboriginal history. “This is a cultural collaboration, so we can really get into having all of this great world music all come together,” he says.
When all is said and done, is there a small part of Landau that is worried his theme song will go the way of the Gilligan's Island theme song? “What would be wrong with that?” he answers. “It's television, after all. It seems that somehow the theme has managed to become woven into a minor part of the American culture right now, and that is a huge honor for me, to have something that everybody seems to know. We're writing pop music, and TV themes are part of the pop music lexicon, so that would never disturb me. If it has that longevity, then great, fantastic.”
David John Farinella is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.