The Composer of The 100 on Composing for Genre Television

By  · Published on January 21st, 2016

Television is no longer made up of just two genres – comedy and drama. There is sci-fi, fantasy, reality, horror – television has even started creating hybrid genres like dramedies, docudramas, and docucomedies. So what exactly is genre television when there are so many different genres to choose from? Genre television is shows that create specific, but familiar looking worlds that play by their own rules allowing for creative exploration and the combination of different ideas.

An easy way to create a familiar world that shakes things up is to set things in a dystopian landscape. This has become a popular location for movies such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner. But television is getting into the dystopian genre game with shows like The Walking Dead and The 100.

Where those on The Walking Dead are trying to survive in a zombie apocalypse, The 100 features young adults trying to survive on earth after a nuclear apocalypse. Airing on The CW, The 100’s young cast could be written off as another show aimed at teens with storylines revolving around relationships more than survival, but the trailer for the show’s first season proved The 100 is full of high stakes, intimidating surroundings, and surprisingly mutated creatures.

Composing for a dystopian sci-fi drama that is as much about the characters as their surroundings is no easy task, but composer Tree Adams has taken on the challenge. Adams describes The 100 as, “Surreal and medieval in a sort of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings way. It’s easy to get lost in, but it also has a gritty edge to it. It’s rusty and dusty with a bit of Mad Max in there.” Any show that can boast itself as a combination of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Mad Max is the definition of genre television. And as Adams points out, “This makes for some fun musical exploration.”

The music of The 100 is a huge part of the show boasting a combination of epic instrumentation, electronica, and sweeping orchestral swells. It might sound like it is a little bit of everything, but in a show that also combines all these different influences, it is up to Adams to make sure everything works in harmony with each other.

Genre television may be reinventing the rules, but it still needs to speak a familiar language. If you are going to create a show that draws inspiration from popular titles like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, you still need to stay true to what fans of those series will expect. Adams explains, “I want to be conscious of the fact that we have a fan base out there who have probably devoured other shows like Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, and the like. And while each of these projects have their own musical fabric, we are all in essence contributing to a common lexicon.” Making sure to keep in mind the influences one is drawing from (and the fans you bring in with those influences) is the key to working within these new landscapes without alienating the original source material.

The 100 may draw from other shows and films, but it definitely has its own distinct look as it reinvents the familiar landscape of earth. The basic premise of The 100 has one hundred juvenile prisoners sent back to earth to see if it is inhabitable post nuclear war. But the group soon discovers they are not alone when different factions of people who survived the apocalypse make themselves known. Music becomes the tool that helps viewers gain a deeper understanding of these new characters and the very different places they come from.

“One town, Polis, has a sort of magical feel to it so we use a harp, woodwinds, and a specific, reprising string melody. For the Farm Nation we employ a more organic palette with skin drums like Oud and Daf. For Ice Nation, we us a Yal Tamboor (a Middle Eastern string instrument) and some crystalline upper register synth patches,” explains Adams. This is not a unified world, but the one unifying element is the tribal, almost primal, feeling the music sticks to throughout the series – regardless of what town or clan it is featuring.

Adams explains, “We use a lot of low brass and a lot of pulsating ostinato strings for tension. We use a great deal of percussion from all around the world as well. This really helps imbue the show with a tribal flavor that seems to suit it perfectly.”

Creating the sound of this distinct world and all it’s different elements is only one half of the equation. The other half is the characters themselves and making them as notable as their surroundings. Adams pointed out that one of the biggest hurdles was the size of the cast, saying, “The challenge is that there are so many characters so we don’t want this to turn into Peter and the Wolf where they each get their own instrument. Often, I’ll use a melodic figure to denote a character or a relationship like a love theme. I have one melody that we use for the end title that is essentially our heroic theme, and this motif can be applied to any of the characters at any given time.”

Adams notes his favorite character to compose for is also the series’ hero, Clarke (played by Elize Taylor) saying, “Clarke is a lot of fun to compose for. She’s always embroiled in something with dire consequences and her character has many different dimensions so it can be really fun to paint all of her different sides. She can be a heroic leader, a treacherous huntress, vulnerable, a temptress, stoic, furious – it’s a fun bag and I always try to give her some soul.”

Clarke may be the heart and soul of the series, but she is not without a slew of villains to contend with. Adams admits there is also something innately intriguing about composing for the bad guys, adding, “That’s where you really get to air out some odd new melodies and textures and push the envelope. We’ll use a lot of non-western instrumentation like the Duduk, the Psaltry, or the Zourna to give it a bit of an other-worldly feeling at times. And then I’ll mess with different synths and sound design options like modulating delays and other effects that can imbue the score with an unfamiliar or off-kilter quality.” Simply put, “Bad guys rule.”

As the show heads into it’s third season, new characters are being added and new territories are waiting to be explored which means new music will be needed to keep The 100 the layered and interesting world they have come to expect. Adams notes, “It can be a challenge just to write this much music, this fast, and then to go the extra mile and record cello, violin, vocal, duduk, daf, Oud, and percussion. It can be exhausting, but I’ve got a great team at my studio to help support me. It’s a lot of fun though and I figure I can catch up on my sleep when we wrap in March!”

The third season of The 100 premieres this Thursday, January 21st on The CW.