Soundtrax: Special Edition Episode 2020-3a, June 15, 2020
Composer Jefferson Friedman (born 1974 Swampscott, Massachusetts) received his M.M. degree in music composition from The Juilliard School, where he studied with John Corigliano, and a B.A. from Columbia University, where he studied with David Rakowski and Jonathan Kramer. He also studied with George Tsontakis and Christopher Rouse. His successful career as a classical composer brought him some notable attention and commissions, including three compositions requested by Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra; other major orchestras that performed his work include the Chicago Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He received a Grammy nomination for his String Quartet No. 3 and won the Rome Prize and other prestigious fellowships. In 2012, Friedman decided to branch out and relocated to Los Angeles, focusing on film and television work. The adult-oriented Harley Quinn animated series debuted in DC Universe in 2019, following Harley as she endeavors to step out of the Joker’s shadow and become the criminal Queenpin of Gotham City, aided by her best friend Poison Ivy and her own crew of supervillains.
Q: How did you get starting composing for films and television? What prompted that interest?
Jefferson Friedman: I wrote classical music for the first twenty years of my career and then moved to L.A. to film and TV. It was something that I always wanted to do. I always considered it something I would do as an offshoot of my classical career, but I sort of lost faith in the classical music community and came out here because I got nominated for a Grammy. I stayed with a friend of mine who’d been doing film and TV. It seemed like he was having a very good life and so I decided to just change career paths, basically.
Q: One of your first scoring assignments was for the TV series POWERLESS, which also had to do with superheroes, from the perspective of a company that cleans up their collateral damages. You shared scoring duties with Craig Wedren. How did that work and would you describe the kind of music you provided for this show?
Jefferson Friedman: Craig is the guy I was taking about when I came out here, and he sort of shepherded me into this new phase of my career, and bought me onto some projects. We shared duties on the show fairly equally. Each of us had our own storylines and scenes that we would do. That show had a rough go because there were a lot of competing interests that wanted the show to be different, and so while I think the original intention was to have it as more of a DC Comics related series, it ended up being just a sitcom in the DC Comics world. The music was.. I wouldn’t call it neutral music but it was the kind of music I would write for a sitcom were in superhero or not.
Q: You and Craig also shared scoring duties on the hospital drama, NEW AMSTERDAM. What were the musical needs for this series and how was that experience for you?
Jefferson Friedman: It’s not over yet, we got renewed for three more seasons—so fingers crossed out it works out! Craig and I spit composing duties on NEW AMSTERDAM. I tend to do most of the ER-room, high-intensity medical sequences, and he tends to do some of the jazzier stuff, and then we split the work on the more emotional, piano-driven sequences.
Q: How did you become involved in scoring HARLEY QUINN?
Jefferson Friedman: The showrunners for HARLEY are the same showrunners for POWERLESS. I think it was at the final mix when they were doing POWERLESS, they mentioned to me that they had this new HARLEY QUINN show in development, and I mentioned “Well, I’m available!” and they said, “Well, of course we’ll use you!” So it was because of having a prior professional relationship with Pat (Schumacker) and Justin (Halpern).
Q: As you were preparing to come onto the show, were you familiar with the character and her other iterations in animation and live action, and how did that—or did it—affect where you thought you might want to go with the music for her character?
Jefferson Friedman: Yeah, I was very familiar with her. I’m a comic book fan and I think she’s a really interesting character. So from all of the different versions of her, I sort of abstractly came up with her theme and her music. I made a point of not listening to music from any DC-related properties as soon as I started writing the score, just to make sure that I was saying something that was my own and not being influenced in the moment by anybody else’s score.
Q: The pre-show leader for each episode’s opening, with the DC superhero pantheon, is given a different piece of music. How did this idea come about, how does that music reflect on the episode’s storyline, and are you involved in providing or selecting those bits?
Jefferson Friedman: I write every single one of those. The first episode we did, which was actually the third episode in the series, when we sat down in the writers room to watch the music review after I finished it, the episode came on and the DC logo started and there was silence; I made a joke about how “I forgot to write something for that!” assuming they were just going to use the standard music they do for all the DC logos, and they were like, “Well, actually, there is no standard DC logo music!” And I was like, “Oh, wow! Well, why don’t I write something different for each episode?” They liked that idea. The music for that almost always relates to and leads into the first scene of the episode. Every once in a while the episode will start dry and so it’ll just be related to something thematic about the episode or one of the character’s themes that the episode revolves around.
Q: The show’s actual title theme is a short bit of rock and roll which seems to mirror Harley’s own manic and high-tension character. How did this come about?
Jefferson Friedman: In the first episode the transformation from her Harlequin look to her punkier, Suicide Squad look, was inspirational—just to try and make her theme match her costume design, and her hair and makeup design. It’s punk but it also has carnival elements to it layered in—a lot of that keyboard material makes it sound carnival-ee! But it definitely and intentionally has a punk sound to match her punk look.
Q: How did you work with the producers or showrunners on this series when it began, as far as defining the character of Harley Quinn as depicted in this show – and what kind of musical design were they looking for and how did that develop into what we’re seeing now in Season 2?
Jefferson Friedman: We had a meeting before it all got started—me and Justin and Pat, Dean Lorey, and Jen Coyle, who’s the lead animator. We sat down and I just presented my ideas to them about what I thought, and they said, “Yep! That’s exactly what we were thinking!” We were pretty much always on the same page as far as how the show’s going to sound and how it’s going to work musically. Having worked together on POWERLESS, they’ve become friends of mine at this point so we definitely know each other and share similar sensibilities. That’s part of the reason they hired me, I think.
Q: How does the music for HARLEY QUINN both reflect and controvert the established style of super hero film music as we’ve come to know it over the past decades?
Jefferson Friedman: It is parody on a certain level, so there is definitely room for parodying that type of music. But more interesting to me was, anytime there’s a character on the show that’s played totally straight, like Batman, I wanted to make their theme play totally straight too. So the theme I wrote for Batman is my version of what I think of as the Batman sound. When it came to the main characters, I tried for the most part to give them unique and newer kinds of sounds. Basically I’ve got three kinds of sound throughout the show: one’s like standard super-hero music, another is a more contemporary version of super-hero music, and the third is just my own whacky ideas of what the score should sound like.
Q: HARLEY QUINN is a notoriously fast-paced, tempo-shattering, wildly uproarious, and change-moods-on-a-dime concept that doesn’t necessarily allow for long moments of music. How do you keep up with its segmented musical moments?
Jefferson Friedman: It definitely changes tone very quickly, and tries to do a lot of different things in each episode. Again, it’s just sort of following what the show is and try to make it more of that. In the same way I wanted to complement Harley’s costume design, hair, and makeup which was seen, I used more drastic moves in the score than I would in a lot of other things, just because that’s the way the show works. Transitions are obviously important, sometimes. But this show is just so amped up that in order to keep up you just have to throw a lot of stuff at it.
Q: While this is an animated show and it has its share of fantastic and ribald moments, you aren’t really scoring this series like a cartoon.You’re following the attitude, which is part of the language of the show, which is rather unique, to say the least.
Jefferson Friedman: Yeah. I mean, at least for me, it just wasn’t even an option. I honestly don’t even know that I really thought about it consciously too much, it’s just a matter of trying to be true to the show.
Q: How have you musically treated the friendship—etcetera—of Harley and Ivy as it’s grown into what we’re seeing in the second season?
Jefferson Friedman: They have their love theme, which they’ve had from the very first episode. For the entire first season it had the same instrumentation because, even though I called it their “Love Theme,” obviously they were just friends in the first season. So it’s that kind of Rhodes keyboard and synth-based Roland TR-808 drum machine 808 sound, but as the second season progresses and starts to take their relationship to a different place, the instrumentation changes. The orchestration becomes bigger, and now that they’re sort of a transitional period of their relationship it becomes I trade out the Rhodes keyboard for piano and trade out the ambient synth sounds for strings, and something that was sort of groovy turns into something that’s really poignant.
Q: Are you able to use live players for this or is it all out of the box, or how does it work on this show?
Jefferson Friedman: The only time that I’ve used anyone other than myself, playing-wise, is the “Beneath the Sea” musical number [Season 2, Episode 9, “There's No Place to Go But Down”]. That one’s all actual musicians because I felt, I’m going to do a big musical number I need live musicians! But everything else is in the box. I play all the guitar and bass guitar on the show, and I even played the clarinet for the “Law & Order” opening DC logo, in Bane’s pit [Season 2, Episode 7].
Q: Speaking of that song-and-dance number, which is wonderful parody of Disney’s LITTLE MERMAID. Would you describe how it came about?
Jefferson Friedman: Sarah Peters, who wrote the episode, wrote the lyrics, and then from her lyrics I wrote the song. I’ve worked on a number of projects out here that when Legal gets involved it becomes really annoying. So I did everything I possibly could to try to avoid legal issues, especially if you’re parodying something that’s made by the most powerful entertainment company in the world! So when “Under the Sea” went down, “Beneath the Sea” goes up. Obviously we used a different chord progression. The groove is Calypso—there was nothing we can do to get around that—but melody is intentionally as different as we can get in that context from “Under the Sea.” And, yeah, I think my song’s better!
Q: Are they any special moments where you felt the music worked especially well or was particularly satisfying to you in the first two seasons?
Jefferson Friedman: Their kiss, after they come out of the pit, I think is one of my favorite things I’ve ever scored. And then I also really love the Ice Skating fight [Season 2, Episode 4, “Thawing Hearts] with its riff on The Nutcracker; that was another favorite thing to score and I think I turned out really, really well. And then in that same, Mr. Freeze’s death scene was one of my favorite things to score.
Q: What’s been most challenging for you in composing music for HARLEY QUINN so far?
Jefferson Friedman: I mean it’s everything but the kitchen sink, you know?! Everything you hear on the show is out of my shop, so having to write all the source music and everything from top to bottom is just a mountain of music to write for every episode. But thankfully I’ve got two weeks per episode, instead of one week, which is the norm these days. But with even that it’s just a very, very music-heavy show.
Q: About how much music do you write for each episode, if there’s an average?
Jefferson Friedman: I think maybe two thirds of each episode has music on average, I’d say. At the least!
Q: Any possibility of a soundtrack release coming up?
Jefferson Friedman: I’m trying as hard as I possibly can! I don’t know how hard it’s going to be, but people are asking for it online and obviously want to get it out there. So I’m working on it.
Thanks to Jordan von Netzer of IMPACT24 PR for the photos of Jefferson.
Randall D. Larson is the author of several books and many articles on film music, and numerous soundtrack album commentaries. In the 1980s, Larson edited and published CinemaScore: The Film Music Journal, which eventually merged with Soundtrack Magazine, for which Larson served as senior editor until its demise in 2002. Larson is the author of hundreds of articles in fields as diverse as music, fantasy and horror fiction literature, public safety/emergency communications, and has authored several books on these topics. He specializes in examining music in science fiction, horror and fantasy films. Randall can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org followed on twitter at https://twitter.com/randalldlarson and https://twitter.com/MusiqueFantast1