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Emmy Watch: Your Honor Composer Volker Bertelmann Gets Under Your Skin With Emotional Score

June 21, 2021 08:30 | By
Your Honor

Bryan Cranston in Your Honor

The spirit of New Orleans can be palpably felt throughout the Showtime series, Your Honor. Taking place in The Big Easy, it has a foreboding feeling of the impending doom about to happen involving the town’s judge [Bryan Cranston] and his son [Hunter Doohan], which composer Volker Bertelmann, SCL, tapped into when creating the chilling and slow-burning music.

Bertelmann has provided soundtracks for a large number of films and TV shows, most recently Netflix’s Stowaway and the feature film Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet. Reuniting with director Edward Berger [Patrick Melrose] to score Your Honor, he was inspired by the ominous notes and sounds that can be heard in the streets of New Orleans which often underscores the city’s celebrations and sometimes its tragedies.  

For Your Honor, many of the cues were created with string ensembles and woodwind instruments to illustrate the melancholy and the unavoidable destiny about to befall the characters. 

Bertelmann spoke with Below The Line from his home in Düsseldorf, Germany where he spent most of lockdown continuing to work despite the distractions of his family all sequestered together. He talks about what inspired the emotional themes which he describes as “underneath your skin kind of music” weaving throughout Your Honor.

Volker Bertelmann

Volker Bertelmann (Photo: Carsten Sander)

Below The Line: How did the project initially come to you?

Volker Bertelmann: I worked on one series and one film with the director Edward Berger, who is based in Berlin. He is the director of the first three episodes of Your Honor. He was the guy who started the whole process of finding the right color, the temperature of the music, as well as the editing. He’s a fantastic director. He’s calm and has a lot of knowledge about music and we interact with each other very well. We worked together before on Patrick Melrose and sensed there was a great energy that we had. Even though this was the first time working with other directors in the episodes he asked me if I would be interested. 

BTL: What is it like to work with multiple directors?

Bertelmann: That means you have three different conversation streams. You have to adjust the conversation to a new team. I have to say I was really pleased, because in the first three episodes we were really quite clear about the direction. Once we had this nailed down, all the rest was much easier. We had the themes, we had the colors, we had the instruments and everything that was necessary to move on. In a way I’m a fan of writing individually but at the same time it’s very important to keep the consistency of the music in the blocks that are done by different directors.

BTL: Let’s talk about the colors and the temperature of the music.

Bertelmann: For everyone that watches a picture, there’s an intuitive reaction to what you see. When I saw Your Honor I was thinking that the series is about fate in a way. The fate is always circling and getting into smaller circles, getting more and more dense. There are moments where you understand that life is on such thin ice where one moment can change your whole life drastically. The music needed to be emotional with the characters and not be too superficial in terms of action kind of sounds. It also needed underneath your skin kind of music. Music where the first episode stops, you can’t imagine that something like that happens to someone. That sticks with you into the next episode. So my feeling was that the score shouldn’t be too fast and a darker area where it’s a little bit like music that is played under a blanket. Every now and then you open the blanket and it’s like, “Waaahhh!” and then it goes down. That was one of my instincts that I had. I also had specific feelings about certain key scenes where I felt these should be full on stand alone themes. 

Your Honor

Cranston and Doohan

BTL: Can you give an example of the musical cues that were inspired by scenes in the show?

Bertelmann: For example in the first episode where Michael [Stuhlbarg as the character Jimmy Baxter] is cleaning the car is one cue where the percussion and the banging on these metal things describe how he is feeling. For me, it was banging on a drum and just creating this anxiety. One scene is a cue called “Burial” from Episode Three that’s actually the ceremony where they bury Baxter’s son [who was accidentally hit by a car driven by the judge’s son.] For me that is actually like a burial in an old Italian town or burials in New Orleans which has strong music. There was always the question, should we include New Orleans music, which is very obvious but straightaway we said it didn’t need that because the color of the music has this kind of melancholy and sadness but also feeling alive. So we had original music be the source. The burial has that kind of style for me even though it’s normally a brass band but we have a string ensemble that is playing. I thought of a New Orleans track or a tune that is played at a Sicilian funeral where everybody plays the same note at the same melody but it’s always a little bit out of tune. “Burial” is one of my favorite cues because it also starts very simple and grows and gets bigger with these waves bringing you inside of the funeral. 

BTL: How would you describe your process when creating cues?

Bertelmann: Sometimes I make the clip very small on the screen so I don’t get used to it. I try to get away from the picture every now and then just to refresh my impression. Sometimes I’m just jamming with the scene and creating. Sometimes the scene gives you inspiration but when it’s finished it sometimes fits better over there! Or the director takes your cue from “the accident” and puts it under the scene “here and there” which works so well. So the music is not sticking to the original scene that you made it for.  

Your Honor

Michael Stuhlbarg in Your Honor

BTL: What instruments did you use to illustrate this melancholy so to speak?

Bertelmann: It’s interesting, because for a pianist it has a very small amount of piano cues. I had the feeling that low instruments like cello and a glass harp for sounds that are playing the melody. I wanted to find melodic instruments that are replacing the piano. We did a lot of the lower droney stuff, like heavy breathing, with bass clarinets for example. It has a little resonating like the saxophone but you can also record the breath. The inhaler [the judge’s son Adam uses] plays a big role in the series and the breathing in the very beginning when Adam has this accident, the cue is him merely breathing and some breathing instruments that are echoing his anxiety to lose breath. I thought straight away that I needed an instrument that was a woodwind, and we distorted that into a white noise wave, and here and there you can hear the breath coming in.

BTL: What are you most proud of in the score you created for Your Honor?

Bertelmann: What works the best is the melding of the melody and the textures. It has moments of quite a grandesque score and then with the flugelhorns and the trumpets is more classical. I love the cue that has this grand kind of attitude and then others that are raw like an experimental indie record. With Your Honor, both worlds were fitting and could create these switches of coming out of a drone and a cello melody starts to take over and then the strings are coming in. In the end it has the drama and the moment where you can exhale and the music elevates the sadness into a zone that makes it a little easier. I’m proud of that diversity of the score.

Your Honor can be watched on Showtime On Demand.

All pictures courtesy Showtime, Photographer: Skip Bolen, except where noted.