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Interview: Composer Volker Bertelmann on Scoring New Orleans from Germany in ‘Your Honor’

Showtime’s limited series Your Honor is a stark, moody depiction of law and crime in New Orleans. One of the ways in which that tone is achieved is through its memorable music, which comes from composer Volker Bertelmann, who made the Oscar shortlist last year for his work on Ammonite.

Awards Radar had the chance to speak with Bertelmann about what drew him to the project, recording an orchestral score during a pandemic, and two of the best film soundtrack from 2020.

Q: What attracted you to Your Honor?

A: First of all, there’s a great cast. And there was a fantastic director, Edward Berger, who I worked with on Patrick Melrose, the series. And I also felt when I worked with him the first time that it was very comfortable. He gave me a lot of trust, and for a composer, that’s always fantastic, when you can actually try things out and you’re not restrained to fulfill certain things without trying out others. I was very attracted to the project. It’s a crime thriller but with a lot of suspense and not so much like an action-thriller. In general, I like action a lot. I’m a big fan of tension, even though the most well-known films I’ve done are mostly very subtle piano scores. But I’m a big fan of drums and drive, and distortion, and stuff like that. That was all attractive to me.

Q: This is a remake of an Israeli series. Had you heard or have you since heard the score for that show?

A: No. Not at all. It’s good that I didn’t hear it beforehand. Mostly, I’m not listening to anything that is similar because otherwise you can get close to that or suddenly something sticks in your mind, and you in a way copy it. Maybe sometimes you copy it anyways, but you don’t know about it, so that’s easier.

Q: Were there any clear musical or cinematic inspirations for the score?

A: There was an inspiration with certain instruments. I was trying to find the tonality that is dark, and at the same time, there’s a certain part of the series that took place in the courtroom, and I had the feeling that this courtroom needs a specific instrument. I know that a lot of law series used trumpets and horns for that, and I was thinking, let’s go the classical way, because I had never worked with a solo brass instrument on a score. I also find that the more scores I’m doing, I can try colors and I can expand a little bit just from the instrument that I’m known for, which is piano or prepared piano. That was one thing, and I tried a couple of ideas with a glass harp that I used for one of the main themes. That was maybe the most inspiration, to search the sound and get feedback from Edward and Peter Moffat, the showrunner, that they just said, hey this sounds great. This is the temperature. A lot of times when you send your first cues in, that’s mostly the decision maker already. You can sense their intuition, and then everything is much easier. But this first moment, the first delivery, I would say, is always a complicated one.

Q: Did you have any desire to incorporate the music of New Orleans into the music of the snow?

A: Well, that was the first conversation that we had. There is also a lot of source music. In the bars, there’s not always original New Orleans music, but that was the question. Do you want some New Orleans music? And the first thing is to ask a German guy from a small German village to create New Orleans music, it’s always a little tricky to do. Of course I can get the knowledge, I can get inspiration from traditional music. There’s always a way of listening to it. But that was my first question. Edward was keen on making the music a bit more universal, but what I kept a little bit, and I don’t know if you remember, for example, there’s a scene at a cemetery. It’s called Burial. This track has a lot of South Sicilian burial ceremony track, it’s very slow, and it has this full-on melody, but at the same time, it’s a bit like New Orleans brass. These cross-sections that are played at funerals and at these ceremonies that are happening in the street. There is a slowness and melancholy in that city that I really love. That goes straightaway into my blood because that’s something that I love to do.

Q: Are there any other standout tracks that you can just think right back to them and say, well, that’s where that is in the show, and that’s the mood I was trying to capture? Or is that how it works for everything?

A: No, I mean, I have four themes that are occurring all the way through. One is the theme that I mentioned with the glass harp, that’s Adam’s theme, one of the protagonists. I also used it for the end credits theme because I thought it was very strong. For the court theme, I used trumpets. One track that sticks in my memory because it also involved sound research was the accident scene in the beginning, in the first episode. It was hard when I got the film and I heard that there was music underneath it. I was like, oh my god, that’s really difficult because the accident and the whole first episode is so realistic and it’s getting so under your skin that it’s very hard to compose a lot of motives. Adam’s asthma breaking all the way through made me want to find instruments that create breath, like a bass clarinet instrument, where I just recorded the sound of breath. This was a very difficult one, but I found a sound that was claustrophobic and was more sound-based and I used that as a sound source when it got tense and you felt like the air is getting soaked out of the room. I used that element from the accident, and there was very helpful.

Q: Were there any challenges to working on the music for the show during a pandemic?

A: I was, in a way, lucky because a lot of the things that we discussed and specifically the first episodes were before the pandemic. I was even in Los Angeles the day before the lockdown in Germany happened. I was in Los Angeles and we had a discussion about the next episodes. But we already had a pretty clear picture about the music and how we wanted to achieve it. I had a little problem arranging a recording session during that time. With a series, it’s not so easy because series are delivered in chunks, and to find the time in between to record orchestra, after you write the score, and you deliver all the notes to the orchestra and so on, you need quite a good workload to divide it into chunks and then record whatever for episode one to two. And then you do another chunk in another section. And we were very lucky because most of the orchestra, we could record in one long chunk. We had nearly everything for all the episodes in one recording session, and I had to do it in Los Angeles. So my real plan was to come to Los Angeles and be there for the first chunk, to record that. But then I couldn’t come. I had to sit here and we had to find a place to do a remote session. And remote sessions work well because you can hear the orchestra through your monitors and your studio. So that was in a way an advantage. But besides that, I was pretty lucky with the production.

Q: You also composed two of my favorite film scores from last year, Ammonite and Summerland. Can you tell anything about your process for those two scores?

A: The two are different because Ammonite was a work of collaboration with my good friend Dustin O’Halloran. The work with Dustin is always a pleasure. He’s a great guy. I really love working with him. Whenever we get a project offered, we look at our calendar and see if we can make it work. We love working together. What’s nice about collaborating is that you can send things to each other, you can have a look and figure out what’s better than something else. It’s nice to see somebody else working on a scene? Or you can say, today was not my best day, and then somebody else has a better idea. That’s a big relief and it makes it very organic. With Summerland, that was a different one because it comes from a first-time director from London. I did that all myself and I wanted to do a mainly orchestrated score, without any electronics. I come from a hip-hop and techno background. My music has a lot to do with dancing and the bass and drums, and driving, and stagediving, and all that, physical music. And at the same time, I love fragile music. With Summerland, I challenged myself and I said, I only want to work with acoustic orchestral, instruments, and do nothing else and try to find the full scope in that. There are composers out there that are only doing things like that, and I just want to make sure that I challenge myself to get the ability to have variations in my work.

Q: I think you’ve certainly accomplished that. Do you have any projects lined up?

A: Yeah, at the moment, I’m working on a big film that is called Against the Ice, which is with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the main actor. It’s like a survival film in the polar area. It takes place around 1804, and it’s about the conflict between the US and Denmark about Greenland. They had a kind of battle over who it belongs to. We had no drones and no helicopters that could fly over and just see everything. You had to go by sled dog. I also have lined up a first-time director film by Dev Patel. It’s a fantastic high-speed thriller called Monkey Man.

Q: This is where we’ll hear all the hip-hop music, in both of those projects?

A: You will hear a lot of electronic and the very heavy, heavy beats. I’m already programming a lot of things in advance, because I can only create things when I’m free of pressure. So a lot of times I’m working in advance to create sound pools. With programming, if you want to a very beautiful nice program, you need to go into the details. Very hand-signed computer work. I’m working on that.

Your Honor is available to watch anytime on Showtime.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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