American Dynasties The Kennedys CNN - Score by Andy Hopkins | True Stores x FirstCom Music

True Stories composer Andy Hopkins talks about the making of his original score for the CNN documentary series ‘American Dynasties’.

Andy Hopkins, True Stories Music 

I was approached by CNN to compose the music for a new series American Dynasties” initially featuring the Kennedy Family, but ultimately, in future seasons, to go on and feature the major families in American political history, including the Bushs.

It’s always an exciting process, helping to form the style and sound of a totally new show, and there can’t be a better family story than the Kennedys. Love, power, success, glamour, tragedy, its truly fascinating and gripping. We knew that we wanted to make something fresh and CNN were particularly keen to avoid anything too dry or traditional. There was an agreement that the series, rather than being just a blow-by-blow historical account, would concentrate on the characters within the family and show how their relationships and personalities went on to shape world events.

We also agreed that, while an orchestra could give us the scale and epic nature we needed, that this was a 20th century American story  and so jazz, rock, blues etc should all play a part.  Particularly the electric guitar, an instrument America gave to the world and that is the cornerstone of so much great American music.

Musically I started composing for the title sequence, something which encapsulated this incredible family, their influence, the highs and the lows, and the emotional connection that people have with them. How to capture all of that history and personality in 45 seconds? I worked very closely with the Executive Producer and Series Producer finding a sound and theme that we thought gave us the tone we needed. Once we had the theme, we had a ‘family motif’ which was then used throughout the series, disguised in various ways.

From that point it was a matter of dealing directly with Directors and Editors of each episode and finding a relatable, fresh way to chart the history of these amazing people. There were also scenes which required very specific changes or corner-turns which were fun (sometimes infuriating!) musical challenges. One of the biggest challenges in a series like this is the sheer scope both in historical period and geography and context. This was essentially a potted history of the 20th century. We knew we needed to evoke certain eras, but we never wanted to merely recreate historical music. The score was always to be its own thing. We wanted the series to have an identifiable sonic and musical character despite the huge amount of ground it covered.

During a series, the music style often takes on a life of its own. It’s truly a collaborative effort with the Composer, the Editors, Directors, Producers and of course the channel all contributing to the final product. There were a few surprises: impressionistic sound design and synths for some of the sadder stories, 1930’s Berlin jazz, modern sounds such as arpeggiated synths. We needed to inject energy and urgency into the stories, and as is often the case, the Editors and the Directors became de facto music supervisors, helping to steer us in the right direction.

We recorded live strings and brass for the series in Bulgaria and the results were amazing. I also recorded numerous live musicians and played many instruments myself. Live instruments transform a score and inject emotion in a way that non-live music rarely can. It’s often not something people can ‘hear’ it’s something they ‘feel’, and that, as a Score Composer, is exactly what I am aiming for. The score shouldn’t intrude on the viewers experience but it should heighten the emotional experience.

Influence on True Stories

The experiences of working with editors, directors and execs does, after a while, give one a ’sixth sense’ of what will work on screen. Early in my career my conversations would be about instrumentation, musical style etc. Now my conversations are about the characters, the events, the emotional impact – in some ways the music itself is secondary. Music can be used in very different ways with visual images. It can corroborate, support, counterpoint and sometimes even ignore! The golden rule is never distract the viewer. Often this means that score has a very different feel to other non-applied music. As well as being a craft, this is an instinct which we composers learn over the years from our interactions with the people making these films. I think this is what True Stories brings which many other music libraries don’t – a specific roster of composers who work ‘to picture’ with a very specific ethos. We aren’t making tunes for you to listen to at home, we are making a score for your film or commercial which enhances what is already there.

For more like this try:

Political Drama (Tru116) an album of politics, intrigue and spin for documentaries and current affairs featuring work from Andy Hopkins.

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