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Q&A: Dave Porter (Composer)

Series composer Dave Porter uncovers the geographical influences on his music and his uncanny ability to predict the season’s ending through sound.

Q: It feels as though the Southwest is a big influence on the score.

A: Definitely.

Q: Have you spent much time in the desert?

A: I actually haven’t, outside of a few solitary journeys to Joshua Tree. But that plays into how I feel about the desert. I’m an East Coast kid, and what I love about the use of the desert in the show is that it seems so beautiful, and yet so inhospitable and alien at the same time. It’s similar to how I feel about the ocean. It’s an easy conduit to internal self-examination because you’re forced to go there by the magnitude of what you’re surrounded by.

Q: Sometimes, the music almost sounds sci-fi.

A: I’m not sure it goes that far but I do think one of my roles for the show
is to be unsettling, to be unexpected. Because everything’s not
alright. One of the ways I try to reflect that is to use a lot of
different instruments that are less used in television, or instruments
that you might not think of together… Asian pitched percussion and
gongs mixed with kalimbas, shakers and drums from Africa, Native American flutes
and rattles, and also, non-acoustic instruments like synthesizers.

Q: How would you compare composing the score for Breaking Bad to Saved, another TV series you worked on?

A: I think I was influenced by different strengths of those two shows.
Saved was a paramedic drama that had a lot of rock-driven source music.
To fit into that world, I kept an eye on the visual action. Whereas on
Breaking Bad, I get to highlight the surreal moments and the show’s unsettled
nature. I actually feel like I concentrate more on the relationships
and conflicts between the characters, and sometimes the conflicts
within one character: Walt’s two sides, or Jesse and Jesse’s past.

Q: That’s much more internal.

A: Yes. That’s absolutely a fair statement. For this show, I’m never
called upon to cover a scene with music just to amplify the action or
heighten the acting. All those things are so good already, I really
have the opportunity to try to get inside the characters’ heads.

Q: Is there any one head that’s hard to get into?

A: Jesse is probably the toughest because we definitely don’t want him
to be the stereotypical young guy gone wrong. He’s much, much deeper
than that. For him, I ‘try to use subtly more modern tones and beats
as well as some guitar and electric piano. All of which I generally treat in some
way. It’s all in keeping with my idea of having everything be a little
off-kilter. If I’m using electric piano, it’s going to be run through a
sweeping filter and a distortion box to make it something you’d not quite expect.

Q: Can you tell me a little about the show’s theme music?

A: Doing a theme is really tough for a TV show because when you create it, you’ve only seen the pilot. And of course you want the theme
to represent the show as a whole — before the show has even been built. I
had a lot of discussions with Vince about where to go with the theme.
There were actually several versions on the board, at one point. I tried
a lot more cerebral choices at first, because I was thinking about all
the internalized conflict. But in the end, I really focused on what Vince told
me about the show having its roots in a post-modern Western. That led me to think
— maybe what I want from the theme is not necessarily what’s happening in the pilot, but a glimpse of the scale of what’s to come. So what came out of that is something
that’s startlingly aggressive. Strangely bold. The theme is played on a
Dobro which is a kind of resonator, a guitar made out of metal that
you’d associate with the Southwest. Played very loud and very bold, with a big mix of ethnic percussion and some scrap metal sounds played in an
unusual time signature. You can imagine I was most amused when the
final scene of the season ended in a junk yard.

Q: Maybe you made it happen.

A: Perhaps I did. A fortuitous bit of foreshadowing that I didn’t intend.

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