Emmy-winning composer Trevor Morris creates the sound for a diverse group of television shows, including NBC’s Emerald City and Netflix’s Iron Fist.
Trevor Morris felt music in his life from his earliest childhood memories. Thanks to the encouragement of his grandmother and a music-influenced eduction, Morris now scores some of the hottest television shows airing and received Emmys for his work on The Tudors and The Borgias. He sets the mood for the visceral thrills of History’s Vikings. His Iron Fist synthesizers underscore the whiz-bang martial arts choreography.
But his lush dreamlike, lullaby-influenced work on NBC’s Emerald City merits new Emmy consideration. Based on L. Frank Baum’s Oz series and directed by Tarsem Singh, Emerald City uses brilliant visuals, extravagant costumes, and Morris’s haunting themes to return modern audiences to the Land of Oz. Morris is deeply proud of the work and of the theme-based approach to creating the score.
Listening to Trevor Morris describe his passion for music, it’s clear why Emmy pays close attention to the 7-time nominee. His grandmother would be proud.
You displayed a talent for music early on. How did that evolve initially?
My grandmother who I credit for introducing me to music. She used to tell me when I was old enough, I would climb on the piano bench before I had memory of it. I feel like music’s always been a part of my life as long as I’ve had memories. My earliest memories were my grandmother sitting me in her lap and playing the piano for me. Then, I started taking piano lessons and went to a school of the arts where I took violin and cello lessons. It started at a very early age for me.
Was your grandmother able to see you succeed in the industry?
To some extent. Unfortunately, she passed away before I moved to Hollywood. She’s a big influence on me for sure.
Tell me about composing a song for Pope John Paul II.
Yeah, that was my first compositional effort. I was 13 years old in our Catholic school for the arts. Basically, everybody sang for the choir, and everybody played a string instrument. The Pope was coming through our small town in Canada, and since we were a Catholic school it was kind of a big deal. My mother conspired with the principal to commission me – I think it was $50 which was a lot of money when you were that old – and the idea was to write something that our graduating class could sing for him during his visit. I wrote a composition for a 4-part choir and piano. Unfortunately, we never got to sing it for the Pope, but we did sing it during the graduation ceremony, which was pretty cool.
That’s such an amazing experience. I have a 12 year-old son that’s deep into music. How do you think your musical education benefitted you outside of your direct career?
There are lots of studies about how music helps with things like self esteem. It’s also very mathematic even though it’s an artistic endeavor. There’s certainly no downside to it. I studied it a lot in my life and then took a break from it. I continue to learn new things even today. It’s really tragic that it’s pushed to a second tier of importance in terms of education. We have a lot of composers in the Los Angeles area, myself included, who do a lot of fundraising on our own to try and keep schools alive and kicking with music programs. It’s really important to all of us, and there are a few foundations that support it – Education Through Music L.A. and the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation. Just trying to put instruments in kid’s hands, trying to get them involved in music period.
That’s really fantastic work. I’m so glad you do that. OK, let’s fast-forward to your current film and television scoring opportunities. I’ve talked to a lot of composers who have dramatically different processes. How do you get engaged with a project typically?
It’s probably the most challenging part of the job, finding a point of entry. Everybody wants music that’s completely unique and you’ve never heard before even thought there’s only 12 notes. [Laughs] If I’ve become better at anything in my career it’s that I’ve improved how to tell a story through music, to express a narrative through the language of music rather than through a script. I try to find my way into the story first. What does the story, the movie, the show want? I try to find something musically that’s attached to the aesthetic you’re working on. It could be the way it’s shot. I react very strongly to color. Saturated color, desaturated color, black and white – they all have very different looks in my head, and that relates to how I think of music.
I tend to focus on the story first, the characters first, and then try to write a melody or two. I’m a melodic writer. I write themes whether they be for a character which is old fashioned but I still do it, the theme for an environment, the theme for an idea… that’s usually my point of entry.
So, I want to talk about a few properties you’ve most recently scored. With NBC’s Emerald City, what was your inspiration for the score?
There’s a great example of a story we all know, retold in a very unique way, shot in a very artistically darker way. I remember very clearly thinking to myself that the Yellow Brick Road needed a theme. It’s not a person, but it’s a place. It’s where Dorothy meets Lucas and eventually becomes their love them, and it’s the first thing I wrote and played for the producers, which they all loved. Then, there’s a theme for Dorothy, but rather than a theme for the Wizard of Oz, there’s a theme for the Emerald City as a place, a geographical location when you’re in that world. The thematic writing isn’t always attached to the characters in a Shakespearean way.
“The Yellow Brick Road” from Trevor Morris’s Emerald City score
What’s your favorite theme you’ve written for the show? Is it the “Yellow Brick Road” theme?
I’d have to go with the “Yellow Brick Road” theme because I’m very proud of it. My goal was to write a melody that’s simple, like a lullaby, but have the color of the music be very complex. It was this blend of simple melody but with exotic chord changes, and it had to have some grandeur to it. It’s probably the theme that most glued the series together. It appeared in almost every episode in some way.
You also scored Netflix’s Iron Fist which has a significant 80s-synth vibe. What drove this interpretation?
It came from having a conversation with the producers and the writers. I ask this on every project, “What is the story we’re telling?” We started off with wanting to be modern, which denotes a synthetic kind of thing. In the show, he comes back from the dead, so to speak, so he listens to his Walkman that he listened to as a kid in the 90s. There’s an ode to that in there. We decided to give ourselves some rules. There’s no orchestra in it. There’s not a drop of strings, French horns. None of that stuff. Taking those heavy-hitters off the table, it leaves you to find a unique way to solve these problems. That sound is also very fashionable right now, which I think is great.
Did you ever think about incorporating more Asian sounds into it? Is there something there more subtle that perhaps I didn’t catch on first listen?
It’s cleverly woven in there. This is probably the biggest debate we had – how much music to put in the Dojo scene or in a Kung Fu scene. We tried it all, several instruments that would represent a traditional Asian culture, and the producers didn’t like it. They thought it was too traditional. What’s in there are some of those Japanese flutes, but they’re heavily affected. It’s very subtle.
Talking about the Emmy race, you have five nominations and two wins for Outstanding Main Title Theme Music on The Tudors and The Borgias. What was that whole experience like for you at the time?
Amazing. The Tudors was my first nomination, and I won. That’s sort of rare, an unspoken truth that first-time nominees rarely win. It was an amazing experience. The thing that’s interesting about the Emmys versus the Oscars is that, with the Oscars, the entire body votes on everything. So, the score category is usually a bit more of a popularity contest – not necessarily the best music wins. The Emmys is 100 percent peer-group driven. Only composers vote for composers, so what it means to me is that you get nominated by your peers and, if you win, you’re voted on by your peers. It’s pretty special. It’s not the reason why you do what you do, but it’s really cool to be recognized on that level.
Emerald City is available for streaming on NBC.com. Iron Fist is available for streaming on Netflix.