Jazz Tangcay talks to Siddhartha Khosla who breaks down the sound of This Is Us
Siddhartha Khosla’s score on This Is Us is one that is fused in his Indian heritage. His composer’s toolbox is not made up of a typical orchestra with strings and percussion, rather his score is composed from Indian instruments, wooden tables, and his own voice right in his garage. The sound is still very cinematic, but all organic as Khosla explains.
I caught up with the Emmy-nominated musician to break down the score and his musician’s toolbox to create that handmade timeless sound we hear in the series.
The Sound of This Is Us
This is Us is ultimately a story about a family. As we saw in the last season, the show is about this larger connectivity of life. It’s this idea that your great grandfather or great grandmother could have done something that is seemingly small and benign, but it ended up having a huge impact on you in some way. And because something like that has a huge impact on you, in turn, that’s going to impact the people that follow you.
The show is in a very special way is about this larger inter-connected part of life. For me, it made me reflect on my own personal story. My parents are Indian immigrants. They came to the United States in the 70s with eight dollars in their pockets. They came here to live the American dream and while they were trying to pursue the American dream. They were in school full time; they had jobs full time, and then I was born. They had to make a very difficult decision to send me back to India to be raised by my grandparents for the first couple of years of my life.
As you can imagine, the difficult choice that must have been for new parents and also new parents who left everything behind to come to the USA to build a new life here. At the time, it was $24.00 a minute to make a phone call. So, the only way my parents communicated with me was over a cassette tape on which my mom would sing me old Hindi songs.
So much of my early education is music with my mom singing these old Indian songs and listening to the music my grandparents listened to. Indian music is a part of me and who I am. It doesn’t necessarily enter every project I work on.
With this series, when this show started connecting with me and there was this lifeforce. It’s not just about this family; it’s about all the people that this family touches. It made me bring in some of those influences from my childhood and some of that old classical Indian music that I grew up listening to.
This season with Vietnam, this show became a military drama at points. For me, bringing in very tonal and atmospheric sounds that were very Indian inspired.
I used a tanpura on the score which is something that sitar players will jam over. There are definitely George Harrison inspirations in some of the score. That’s where that all comes from.
Dan Fogelman is the other piece of the score. We’re friends from college and a show like this which at its core is about a family that is coping with the loss of their father. Dan has been very open about how he lost his own mother at a very young age. This show is informed from that place in his heart and that loss. I know Dan so well; I’ve known him since I was 17. Often when I’m scoring the show, I’m scoring it for him. There’s definitely this very strange meta experience I have working on this show because it allows me to dive in on this very deep level.
The Vietnam Boat Explosion
For the sequence, this is the most horrific moment. This is Jack’s younger brother, Nicky. We’re learning about the story between Jack and Nicky. Jack always talks about how he lost Nicky in the war. We all we led to believe, or we assumed that meant that Nicky died. But, their relationship died.
He’s high as a kite and is playing with this young boy and this grenade and it slips and kills the boy. A lot of this scene is about the horror of that moment.
I spoke to our director Chris Koch, and he said we could use sound design to create that horror, or we can do it in the score. He said, “I’d like to see you do it in the score.”
I’m using a tanpura. I’m using the harmonium which is like an Indian accordion. It’s all these drony sounds. I’m using that to create this wall of sound around that scene.
There are these frenetic moments that are so uncomfortable like when the boat explodes, and Nicky begins to experience that loss of hearing and the tinnitus. He’s in shock. I used the vibraphone this metallic instrument and I took the violin bow to make the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. That created this really high pitched piercing sound which was uncomfortable to listen to, but it put you in Nicky’s body as he’s going through that shock.
It’s a mixture of these handmade sounds, and that’s this score, a lot of it is handmade. There are a lot of clicking and ticking sounds, almost like a bomb about to go off. That’s my wedding ring hitting the side of the snare drum. All the percussions you hear are just my fingers on the snare drums.
I use wooden tables, my voice and Indian instruments. I created this homemade and very organic, but still wide and cinematic thing.
There was no orchestra on the This is Us score. I think that’s also the charm of the sound of the show. I’m playing the acoustic guitar. I’m tapping the tables to make all the drum sounds. There are no real drums; it’s just me playing the table. I’m doing the humming. The idea for me was to create a palette that could live in multiple timelines. Part of the reason I opted for something so organic was no matter where we go in time, there’s always going to be a guitar, a voice and a wooden table. The idea was to create something timeless.