Los Angeles-based composer Laura Karpman is no stranger to writing music for television. Through 109 IMDB credits, more than half are devoted to work within the television medium. She was awarded four Emmys for her music contributions to the PBS documentary series “The Living Edens,” and was also nominated for seven additional Emmy awards throughout her career.
Karpman’s current project sees her reuniting with “The Black Nativity” composing partner, Grammy-winning musician/producer Raphael Saadiq to create the compelling musical backdrop for WGN America’s bold new series, “Underground,” a tension-filled drama depicting the development of The Underground Railroad in 1857 Georgia.
Read on as Laura Karpman describes working on a meaningful television program that bears the potential for cultural ramifications.
Mark Morton: With two musicians assigned to compose and another musician on board as executive producer [John Legend], how were the writing duties allocated?
Laura Karpman: It was really different for every episode and even for every cue. Basically, Raphael Saadiq and I originally met when we were working on “The Black Nativity,” and we both bring very, very different skills to the table. Sometimes, we would start a cue together (in the same room at the same time), sometimes I would start something, and he would come over and layer on top of it, and sometimes just the opposite would happen. He would start something, and then send it over to me. It really depended on what kind of cue it was, what the stylistic requirements were, and who was best on first at any given dramatic moment.
MM: Was it the experience on “The Black Nativity” that caught the attention of the producers to the idea that you were a good team?
LK: When I saw this come through the pipeline, I called Sony producer Tony Scudellari and said, “Hey, Raphael and I really enjoyed working together, and we’d love to go up for this.” He loved the idea, so we had a meeting with Misha [Green] and Joe [Pokaski]. John Legend came on a little bit later, but he was very involved with aesthetic choices, song selections, and he was there at every spotting session. He listened to all of the music and took notes on it, along with the other executive producers.
MM: It sounds like there could have been too many cooks in the kitchen, but that situation never materialized.
LK: No, it didn’t. Raphael and I have very clear ideas of who does what well, so there’s no issue there. And John Legend was amazing, he was lovely. He participated in a significant way, and yet didn’t get in the way of the grind of delivering a weekly television show. He chimed in when he needed us, and he let us do our work. It was fantastic. It was a great working environment.
MM: Does working in television allow you the opportunity to explore new avenues and techniques of composition that you wouldn’t normally have with film, or does television present its own set of challenges that do not exist in the film world?
LK: Absolutely every job is different, and it really depends on who is there, and what the requirements are. I think we had a pretty good degree of freedom with this one. Misha and Joe wanted something different, they didn’t want anything typical or ordinary. So, they pushed us, which was great. Listen, I haven’t done that much series television, so I come it with great latitude and without an idea of what it is per se. What does the drama require, and what can we do to make it happen? In the case of this project, I think we had a tremendous amount of creative latitude.
MM: What surprised me when listening to the music were the traditional horror film score tropes that would pop in now and again; things like pulsating percussion amped with screeching strings.
LK: Well, when you’re talking about a slave drama, the show is a thriller, but we’re talking about real-life horror. The score is everything. There are intimate, moving moments between people, there are sensitive, gentle moments with babies being born and people falling in love. But there is also a tremendous amount of cruelty, and there are people running away from the greatest injustice in all of human history. I’d say that’s pretty horrific. There was absolutely no adherence to the sense of period, musically. The only things that came out were a banjo, a washboard, and a bunch of guitars sitting in my recording room. But whenever we used a period instrument, we did something to it. For the most part, it was not approached from the period. However, we arranged negro spirituals and a couple of other pieces of source music. Other than that, it was something that informed us, but it was not something that bound us.
MM: How do you find a linear balance, when you are not restricted to what you are creating stylistically?
LK: Well, you come up with the sound. We knew that we wanted to take every single thing and do something with it. And we also knew from producers, and our own aesthetic, that we wanted to incorporate contemporary sounds. We did R&B and hip-hop, but there is also a lot of classical scoring in there. And it can change on a dime, where you are in one world one minute and in a completely different world in the next. It’s a really fast-paced show. It has a sound, but it’s a unique sound, because it’s a combination of where I come from aesthetically and where Raphael does.
MM: I think you would have to put a contemporary spin on the music to appeal to a 2016 television audience.
LK: The thing about it is that it is a very compelling story, and ‘when it happened’ is less important than ‘who it is happening to’ and ‘how it is happening.’
MM: And you’re starting at a tension level of 10.
LK: Yeah, we are! The whole opening is Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” and then the next cue is ours, which accompanies more running. You approach it the same way you approach everything. There’s a theme for the main characters, there’s a ‘running theme,’ a ‘freedom song’, there’s a kind of spy theme for the abolitionists. So there are many things that come from a very traditional scoring standpoint. I think that how we get there is what is unusual. And we’re super-proud of it. What was really neat about it, was that you could throw just about anything out there, and they would either dig it or not.
MM: One thing that really stands out is the power of the human voice, which you utilized in so many different ways in the show.
LK: I’m really glad you said that, because the woman who did the singing is a dear friend of mine. There is so much to be said about that. There is a lot of singing in the show, on-camera, off-camera, score-wise, and it’s a super-powerful part of the show. In the seventh episode, we actually use a children’s choir for the period spiritual songs, which we turned into contemporary arrangements. We did “All the Pretty Horses,” “Move Daniel Move,” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” which is played right at the beginning of the episode. But yes, the voices, for obvious reasons, are part of the conscience behind the score.
MM: I’m not just referring to the songs. Vocals seem to penetrate nearly every area of the score, be they singing, chanting, humming, and otherwise.
LK: Oh yes, definitely. And it continues to be everywhere, and used as a tool for scoring throughout the show.
MM: And just as powerful as the human voice in the music is the ominous strength of silence. Was that a challenge, knowing where to use and not to use music?
LK: It’s all a matter of taste. Spotting is just what you do, figuring out where music should go and where it shouldn’t. You sit down with the executive producers and make those decisions. A lot of it came from us, and a lot of it came from them. It really was part of the collaboration. I think it really is the most important part of any scoring escapade.
MM: Were you inspired by any actors’ performances to write specific music for them?
LK: Well, Rosalee [played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell] is incredible. The show opens with her theme, and it comes back during the whipping scene. Ernestine will evolve through the series. The woman who plays her, Amirah Vann, is an incredible actor and made most of her career in theater. She is a fantastic singer herself, and she sings in one of the episodes. She will just blow you away. I think her performance and the nuances of her performance are just brilliant. I also love the abolitionists. They really come into being later on in the show. As they evolve and their relationship evolves, they turn into these almost sexy characters. I love following them as a composer. But Amirah Vann, who is the head house slave, turns in one of the most spectacular performances I’ve ever seen in my life.
MM: “Underground” is jammed full of really strong character performances. Were you ever hesitant to place music in an area that was spotted for it, despite the power of the performance.
LK: Yes! You know what the show is about. It’s hard to score. And sometimes it’s hard to watch. You have to get inside of who these people are and the drama of the situation, and gird your loins for some really tough stuff. And that’s what this is, it’s tough, tough, tough heartbreaking stuff.
MM: Would you say this is one of the more challenging projects of your career?
LK: I wouldn’t say that it’s challenging in that it’s not harder than anything else, because it wasn’t. We had so much freedom to carve our own space. When things are really hard, musically for me, is when I feel restricted; when I feel I can’t be who I am. And I definitely could be who I was on this show. And I think Raphael felt the same way. We could express ourselves freely, so in that sense, it was not difficult. The material itself is difficult, but I feel really, really good about it, because it’s important. When you’re dealing with race, it is challenging. And you have to have uncomfortable conversations, and that is part of being a good citizen of this country is about – trying to figure out how to have those conversations and not being afraid to have them. And that’s what we did for ten episodes. I hope we have more.
MM: There’s a line in the first episode that just resonated when it was spoken, and I am wondering if it had a similar impact on you. During the scene where they are planning their escape, Noah [played by Aldis Hodge] comes in with a blood-spattered rubbing, shows it to everyone and says, “I don’t know much, but I know that says ‘freedom’.”
LK: Yeah, you know, just having a ‘freedom song’ as one of the major plot points is a dream come true. It’s so much a part of the fabric of the show. Having a song that is a map to freedom is some pretty powerful stuff.
MM: Having had such a prolific career as you already have had, what draws you to new projects?
LK: Social justice means a lot to me, and feeling like I am participating in something that has significance outside of whittling for an hour and a half. I feel very privileged to be able to make a living as a composer. It’s mind-boggling how I feel just to do that. To be able to accomplish that, especially as a woman in an environment that has so many obstacles already thrown in our way, I feel is very significant. Sometimes just continuing to work and being a part of this community itself feels like a significant accomplishment. I love to work, and I want to keep working. Writing music and my wonderful family are my passions in life. I feel lucky just to be able to do it.
Keep up with Laura Karpman on Facebook, Twitter, and at her official website.
Catch “Underground” on Wednesday evenings at 10pm Eastern on WGN America.