Jazz Tangcay talks to composer Kris Bowers about the music cues and use of silence in ‘When They See Us.’
Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us is a masterpiece, a haunting, timely and important series telling the story of Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam, looking at the injustice they endured at the hands of America’s criminal system.
Every aspect of the Emmy-nominated series packs a punch. Even more powerful is Kris Bower’s score. Bowers uses a sound to enhance that uncomfortable moment, that heartstopping moment. That moment where we, the audience aren’t breathing, feeling the tension and anxiety.
For the latest, Through The Lens, I spoke with Bowers to break down two aspects of his work; the use of silence and the one music cue that serves throughout the series.
The use of silence in the score.
When I first started on the project for most of the episodes, there was a decent amount of temp music in there, and that was because I think they were trying to get a feel for the show and moving quickly. It’s tough when you’re piece-mealing music and trying to get a feel for something. It’s hard to feel what the shape of it is going to be.
Once we started getting more of my score in there and doing my mock-ups, it helped us find places to use silence. We were able to feel it as a full story and a full arc. There are moments where we heard music for a decent amount of time, and we could feel the moments where we needed to take a breath and have a respite to reflect on what’s happening. Even though the story is continuing, there might be a bit of a pause in the momentum of the story. We would reflect that in the music.
In Episode Two, where Patricia Meili first walks to the stand. Originally, we were going to score that whole moment. The first version of the score that I did, I felt it needed to be as spare and silent as possible, didn’t have much going on. There was just one high violin and a low bass tone that’s held with other sound design things, but the main thing was this big long-held note that held tension. Once we tried it without any music there, it had so much more of an impact. Especially as those scenes before it had decent amounts of music, and we were about to go into a longer cue as she starts to talk about what happened to her. That silence was much more of punctuation and created more tension where you’re holding your breath the entire time because there’s nothing happening. Sometimes, music can help us breathe in moments of tension and anxiety. I think the audience doesn’t realize why they’re holding their breath and it’s probably because there wasn’t any music.
The other moment is when Korey is left alone. That’s another moment where we wanted the audience to subconsciously realize that Korey is going to be the last piece of the puzzle that’s going to help the police officers and detectives put the nail in the coffin.
They’ve been trying to piece it together. So much of this show with music is about, we already what happened and how it ends and how it all turns out. One thing to try to figure out to keep the audience engaged and for them to have moments of tension and realization is there in a small moment like that. You have the scene before, where one of the parents is successful at saving her son. It’s one of the most heroic moments we have in that first episode. There are so many times where we have a small lift, and then immediately after that, we are brought immediately down.
This is a subtle time where that happens. It seems like we have this win, and we see that Korey is still there and he’s by himself. That silence is where we see that he might be the key to that puzzle.
Developing the score for the characters.
Most of the themes, except for Bobby and Antron, are derived from this one-night cue that happens at the end of episode two. We scored this out of order. We worked on one first, then we worked on two. When we finished two, we found a lot of thematic material, and because we had worked on one, gotten on to two, Ava (DuVernay) felt more confident with the sound we had developed, so it made sense for me to pull some of the major themes we had established.
So, with that one night cue, I created variations for each of the parents, mainly on mother and son moments. With Ray and his dad, that scene they have in episode three, the music there is still based on that one night cue.
It’s the same with Yusef and his parent, and Kevin and his mom. The theme for Bobby and Antron was specific to itself. It’s one of the first cues that I wrote. That breakdown in communication for the two of them and what’s happening is so heartbreaking. You can easily look at that as this man is selling his son to the police, but he’s doing it out of fear which is a horrible and disgusting thing. He thinks he’s doing it out of love. He has so much love for his son. The cue – if you play it on the piano, is almost pretty, and there’s this weird darkness to it. I added sounds to add to the darkness, but there’s a hint of beauty to it. That beauty is designed to mirror Antron’s innocence through all of this. That first time when his dad says, “You’re going to listen to me and do what I tell you.” There’s this look that’s a loss of hope and sadness. We really feel how much of a boy he is at that moment. As the relationship develops, that theme develops. So, in episode two where he is asserting himself and telling his dad that it’s his life on the line and he says, “You aren’t going to mess this up for me.” There’s still that undercurrent theme that is there. There are stronger piano chords that are trying to evoke strength, but at the end of the day, it’s still on top of this eerie and melancholy cue. The last time we hear it in Episode three is when Antron comes to see Bobby on his deathbed. It almost feels like a funeral piece at that point. It’s something that spoke to me because of how close I am with my father. The dynamic that Bobby and Antron have in episode one feels so similar to the dynamic that my father and I have. I couldn’t even imagine my dad doing that or asking me to do that, or how much that would break my heart. I couldn’t help but react to it pretty immediately.
Listen to Kris Bower’s score below: