The composers were given tons of freedom with their electronic score of Emily Dickinson’s younger years for the Apple TV+ series.
When you tune into Apple TV+’s Dickinson, the first thing that strikes you is the music. It will be a huge shock if you, like me, go in completely blind and don’t know that the series doesn’t stick to one kind of tone or one kind of style. It celebrates how strange and weird it is. Composers Ian Hultquist and Sofia Hultquist (whose stage name is Drum & Lace) created something entirely different with their score. It captures the emotional highs and lows of being young and creative with social restraints that you can’t immediately change.
We have seen many period pieces where the score is sweepingly beautiful and grandly orchestral, but the score of Dickinson gives you a pulse–an immediacy. Before you know it, your blood is pumping and you want to demand that Emily Dickinson be allowed to watch a speech on volcanoes reserved for the boys’ lecture hall at the university. The electronic vibe totally amps you up when you should be excited and rebellious, but it also soothes you in inevitable heartbreak.
A score should not simply be window dressing. It should enhance the experience, and the score from Hultquist and Drum & Lace gives you a need to stand up and listen.
Awards Daily: I’m always about how composers work together or how people involved together work with music. How do you balance that out?
Ian Hultquist: I think it’s a little different than co-composers, because we do everything literally sitting next to each other at the keyboard in the same room from start to finish.
Sofia Hultquist: Right now, we are sitting in front of the same screens and the same computer and we’re side by side. We never try to delegate and then go off on our own, because we can play each other’s devil’s advocate. If one of us starts something than the other can take it the rest of the way, if that makes sense?
SH: It gets rid of any of that doubt that might come up. You have another person in the room who can assure you or tell you if you should have another go, and that really works for us. It also works out, because we don’t do everything together on every project. Most of the time, we are working alone and that gives us an opportunity to grow and then we can bring both of our areas of expertise to the table.
AD: There’s a modern sensibility to the show, but it features period costumes and some period talk. Your music obviously has a more modern sound, so was that freedom felt immediately?
IH: Our first reaction was exciting for a number of reasons. It was the first time we got to do a narrative television show. When we first started watching, it was a bit shocking. We were like, “What did they do here?” They were so into the idea of going weird and really pushing us to be contemporary and interesting and try really hard to not sound like any other TV show. That was invigorating.
SH: I watched some of those other shows, like Harlots, that have a serious narrative and then an electronic score, but it tends to be all very timely. Whereas in Dickinson, the first scene has Emily saying, “That’s bullshit” and you’re like, “What?” It then it kicks off into that cool, stylized title card. The care into making each episode a different one. When they approached us, I kind of couldn’t believe it. We get to do the cool project for once? Alena [Smith], our showrunner, is such a joy, and she’s such an academic.
AD: I didn’t know anymore more than Hailee playing Emily Dickinson. I had no idea that it was going to be such a mash-up of styles, so her swearing like that in the first scene of the pilot took me by surprise. And then it launches into the theme music. I love that it’s in your face and loud but it’s just a tease.
IH: I think it’s better to go in blind. I think maybe some people got the wrong impression from the first teaser. They see the shot of Hailee in the red dress and they think it’s Riverdale or it’s sexy Dickinson. Well, it’s kind of it, but it’s not a Riverdale show.
AD: Not to denigrate that type of show, but Dickinson is better.
IH: Thank you. I think so..
AD: Emily Dickinson has a very free rhythm and meter. Did you look at that or take anything from the poetry, or did you want to just stick to the emotional text of the scripts?
SH: The poetry is such a big part of the episodes and the way it’s delivered is very much in line of the academic interpretation of it. We didn’t focus on that particularly because she had a free reign of rhythm and way with words that that was inspiring to do whatever we wanted. She wasn’t conventional, so we got to be unconventional as well.
AD: Can you tell me about what you wanted to do with both versions of the Death theme? We get the first one in the very first episode, and the redux comes later in the season.
IH: For the first version, Death, to Emily, is the sexiest man alive. A GQ Man of the Year.
SH: Let’s not kid ourselves—Wiz Khalifa is awesome anyway.
IH: Death needed to have this theme that was a little scary but a little intriguing and fun. It’s funny, because we can actually see, since the soundtrack came out, and we can see who has been Shazaam-ing it. Hundreds of people have been doing that theme and thinking it’s an actual hip hop song, and that’s another goal of ours. When we go back to episode 9, we get the evil redux and Death is fulling taunting her as a villain.
SH: There needed to be a sense of urgency when that came in—more of an emotional punch than we heard before. It’s the first time that Emily goes to see Death and say, “What the hell is going on? Why are you doing this to me?” We thought it needed to have a little more rhythm and be a little less sexy and intriguing.
AD: I mean, the show made me attracted to Death in that carriage, so I feel like the show did it’s job. On the flip side of that, the show does deal with a lot of heightened emotions at times. The one that I really remember is when Mr. Dickinson strikes his daughter and that low piano comes in. How do you go simple in times with that?
IH: There are a lot of moments where we decide to go as simple as possible.
SH: There’s cues like “Othello” or “I’m Pregnant” which are more mood oriented rather than the straight up electronic. The very electronic doesn’t always work thematically.
IH: We are finding in a lot of things we are doing that less is more.
AD: I did buy the score and I have been listening to it a lot. It’s very easy to listen to.
IH: Thank you.
AD: You’re very welcome. The final track, “I Am a Poet,” has vocals with a gentle throbbing sound to it, and it builds very slowly. What did you want to leave us with musically?
SH: That’s a good observation, because there is a tremulo effect on the vocals that is giving that pulsing motion. At that moment, she’s very confident and empowered, and the vocals throughout the season stood as a way that she externalizes her emotions. We thought it would be cool to bring that back in and have that be an ‘I’m here’ moment. More than a lot of them, that moment resonates with people in the arts whose parents weren’t on board or super support. It stands for that thought of I’m going to do this whether you like it or not. This is who I am. My interpretation of it is that she’s not just a poet but this is who she is entirely: unconventional and not fitting into the mold. We wanted to put that positively.
AD: It’s probably my favorite part of the score. It’s worth the wait.
SH: Thank you.
AD: Why do you think people are scared to have nontraditional music in period pieces? Are people just scared?
IH: Depending on the delivery or the treatment of the music, they might think it will make the show look cheap potentially? I think there’s a lot of examples of it working really well, thankfully. Dickinson, I think, is becoming one of those. The Knick with all that heavy surgery in the 1800’s has a great, heavy synth score by Cliff Martinez. I think people are opening to it more and more, but in the past, people fear they won’t be taken seriously if a bass synth suddenly comes in when it’s supposed to be period.
SH: There is a bit of stigma around electronic music, and the more classical score sound is what fits “an Oscar contender.” Trent [Reznor] and Atticus [Ross] continue to push envelopes and more people are hired to do things like Midsommar or even Joker which is traditional but has electronic elements. People sometimes don’t think working with electronics is as complex or difficult as working with an orchestra.
IH: Still a job!
SH: Finding the right tone with an electronic instrument is a bit harder.
IH: An oboe is always an oboe.
Dickinson is streaming its entire first season on Apple TV+.