Composer Mark Snow puts the super-shivers in a very hot sci-fi show.
SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Aliens don’t give Mulder and Scully the quivers on The X-Files. What really jangles the daring FBI duo is composer Mark Snow’s moody music score.
Right now, Snow is busy spooking up X-Files’ fourth season of paranormal pursuits in his cozy home studio in Santa Monica. He’s also scoring the first season of Millennium, the apocalyptic saga of serial killers from X-Files creator Chris Carter, premiering Friday on Fox. And if it seems weird to hear the sounds of alien abduction, killer viruses, bloody mutilation and incestuous genetic mutation emanating from such a sunny, well-heeled corner of Southern California, it suits the dry-witted Music Man X-traordinaire quite well.
Today, as he does three to five days a week, classically trained Snow sits at the keyboard of his well-used Synclavier – a digital audio recording system – and improvises in sync to a videotape of the latest X-Files.
It’s the sound that is shivering the world. As you chat in Snow’s studio, a FedEx guy delivers a package from France. It’s a kitschy-looking Disque d’Or – a gold record for selling 100,000 copies of The X-Files theme in the land of brie. And two other X-Files albums – Songs in the Key of X and the just-released The Truth and the Light – have made Snow nuclear-hot.
Yet Snow, 50, looks like an unlikely X-Files kinda guy. Trim, bald, clad in black jeans and T-shirt, he seems shy and serious when you ring his doorbell. Later, he warms when you start talking music of all kinds, as he relaxes with eager cocker spaniels Bixon, Cowboy and Poppy at his feet and the score for this season’s fifth episode of X-Files in the can.
Q. Do X-Files fans expect you to look weirder?
A. I do surprise them. I’ve been thinking about Hair Club for Men and ear-piercing.
Q. So how did you get the X-Files gig?
A. Through R.W. Goodwin, an executive producer on X-Files who I’d worked with on TV movies. I think they looked at about 20 people or so.
And for Millennium, Chris and I already had the shorthand.
Q. How did you cook up the X-Files theme?
A. I was having a miserable time coming up with the The X-Files theme, and Chris Carter was being real nudgy about it and obsessive about it. And I called my agent and said, “You know, you might have to get me out of this, because this guy’s driving me nuts.”
We did The X-Files main title (theme) five times before Chris liked what was happening. I mean, he was very polite, but I finally said, “Why don’t you just politely go away and we’ll start from scratch?” Literally an hour after he walked out of the room, I put my hand down and there was a sound there – that repeated duh-duh-duh-duh. And I said, that could be the rhythm, now we need a pad under it, a melody. I tried a female voice, a female chorus, a boy chorus, saxophones, piccolos, guitars, oboes, trumpets. And I thought “Ordinary, not cool.”
Then that whistle thing popped in and I said: “Wow. I haven’t heard that in a long time.”
Q. You’d heard the whistle before?
A. Well, you know The Andy Griffith Show has it – in a different kind of music.
(In fact, Snow studied with Andy Griffith composer Earl Hagen.)
A. There’s a real, real special eerieness to the whistle that plays so well against the show. I mean, you think X-Files – Nyeeahhh. (Here Snow emits a big, screeching, throaty sound).
But this whistle has mystery and simplicity and transparency.
Anyway, in typical (understated) Chris Carter fashion, when he heard it he said, “I like it. Hmm. It’s good.”
Q. What’s Chris Carter like to work with?
A. Well, I have seen him get really angry, but not with me, not about the music. I’ve seen him get down on an editor, or a director, or the head of the studio, screaming, “We need more money.”
At the beginning, Chris wanted a lot of music in the show (The X-Files). And I think he didn’t have all that much experience producing this kind of show. And so in all these scenes where Mulder and Scully are walking down the hall or sitting in the car, there are long stretches where we could probably do without the music, but we’ve established this thing. So I’m kind of like their third partner, their unseen imaginary friend, lurking there. And it’s held up.
In fact, David Duchovny (who plays agent Fox Mulder) sent me a picture of himself signed, “Thank you for giving subtext to my performance where there isn’t any.”
And I appreciated his candor.
Q. What’s the Mark Snow sound?
A. I bring a sense of real instruments to X-Files.
A lot of composers start here (Snow gestures at his Synclavier), and their sound is very cold and unmusical. It’s very important to me that X-Files sound as musical as possible – human, warm and emotional, although still in the electronic setting.
And you have to weigh each scene on its own. A little electronic music goes a long way. Scully’s father comes back as a vision – that had to be really emotional, but really emotional in X-Files language. That meant not a cornball, florid, over-the-top melody but a simple, heartfelt melody like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
Sometimes you have to lay low with it and go simple or neutral, because what’s happening on video is so wild. Charles Nelson Reilly telling an anecdote, or The Men in Black show up – it’s so abnormal that big music or busy music would really hurt it.
In the global conspiracy shows, you don’t really get into ethnic sounds. It’s more the straight-ahead big X-Files. But these so-called boutique shows, as I call them, give you the ability to experiment. We did a lot of African chanting and drums on last week’s show, about an African man who put a curse on people and turned them into albinos.
And I never do any special sounds for Mulder or Scully. It’s always about the situation they’re in. Sometimes I come up with a musical theme that recurs that’s about the protagonist, the killer, the bad situation, but for Mulder or Scully – never.
Q. How do you work?
A. First, Carter sends me a VHS copy of the next X-Files to watch. The next day, usually, I get a video to score.
An easy day is scoring seven to 10 minutes of music. A killer day is scoring 20. That’s the limit.
(The average 45- to 46-minute episode of X-Files uses about 38 minutes of Snow’s music.)
If I have a real tough schedule, I love to get up very early, like 6 a.m., and be in the studio before 7 and really jump on it. I don’t like to write at night. I’m not obsessed, but when I get into it I’m really focused. I rarely have writer’s block. I don’t need a writing room in the woods or at the beach. For me, if this was in the North Pole, or it’s dark, or it’s Hawaii, it wouldn’t mean nothin’. I get the sound from what I see in my head.
Then, after I score, my audio engineer, Larold Rebhun, comes in and adjusts the echo and EQ and highs and lows, and then he plays it for me. And I make my adjustments – too much violin, not enough piano. Later, Chris comes in, or one of the other producers, and sits right where you are and says, “It’s a little strong there”. Or “We need a ping there where the girl gets hit.”
Q. How did you segue from studying classical music at Juilliard to TV?
A. I came to L.A. cold in 1974. My wife’s sister, Tyne Daley, was married at the time to Georg Stanford Brown, who was on Aaron Spelling’s The Rookies. So I took my first demo tape – which was a joke, it was ridiculous – to Aaron Spelling, and he said, “That sounds good.” And that was my first job. Other shows came up, and very slowly I started to break in.
Q. Was that actually your name in the music credits on the pilot of NBC’s new sci-fi show Dark Skies?
A. Yes. You know, NBC told me the show was really something else, more of a ’60s period piece, not sci-fi. Then I saw it.
(The Fox network was not pleased to have Snow, the sound of The X-Files, working on a rival network’s show. Snow no longer works on Dark Skies.)
Q. So what are your best and worst X-Files moments?
A. The best thing is getting a scene that’s just full of great character revelations to score. The hardest thing is when it isn’t good, or when you get a long, shlogging chase scene to deal with. But I’ll have to say we get very few bad moments on this show.
You know, I could see X-Files was a cool show the first time I saw it, but I didn’t expect all this. I mean, when I got the job I didn’t feel like Steven Spielberg had called and offered me Schindler’s List II.
And I certainly would love to be doing big movie scores. But I’m 50. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. In terms of TV work, you know this is as good as it gets.