Interview: Composer Tree Adams Discusses Writing Music for 'The 100'

Interview: Composer Tree Adams Discusses Writing Music for 'The 100'

“For the most part, we’re in this dark, post-apocalyptic brain of Jason Rothenberg.”

That’s how composer Tree Adams describes working on The 100. Since the first moments of Season 3, where we got the initial taste of Adams’ work, his music has become an integral part of the show. That’s not to say that the previous music composers didn’t do a great job, but Adams took the score from a more simplistic television sound to a grand, sweeping, epic level. He expanded on the previously-created motifs and created themes and motifs for many of the characters and story arcs, from the raspy cello used for Clarke when she’s in her self-imposed exile as Wanheda to the ethereal synth tones and bells used for the City of Light. We at TBT Media had the chance to interview the composer recently, discussing everything from his composing process to Octavia’s musical evolution to teasers for the upcoming episode, “Shifting Sands.”

Read on for the full details from the interview!

TBT: First, let’s look back at Season 4— what was your favorite scene to score, and what was the most challenging?

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TA: One of the big ones to me was the whole ‘12th Seal’ kind of thing. It’s got an adventure-y quality to it. There was nothing new instrumentation-wise, within the music I think we go to … a slightly different intervallic usage than we usually do on the show, and it was more adventure-y, in a way, that we haven’t done on the show. I really enjoyed that whole thing with Gaia, and then Monty gets the seal, and they go down… That was pretty cool. It’s epic.

I have to agree — The 12th Seal is one of the most cinematic pieces of the whole season, underscoring the incredibly striking reveal of the hidden bunker under the temple!

I would say the most challenging one was Octavia and Ilian in the cave, when they have this — I don’t know if I can call it a love scene, it was more just her in a reckless abandon sex scene. But the way they wanted to do it musically was almost in like, an old-timey kind of way. The score for that had a sweeping quality that — really I don’t do romantic pieces like that these days, certainly not on this show.

The tempo of the piece, Octilian, is constantly changing; slowing down, speeding up, jumping all around. It’s certainly a very sweeping, classically romantic, dramatic piece of music.

And that was incredibly challenging to me, because I had to throw out all of my tricks and put on a different hat altogether. In the end I was really proud of it; and I thought it came off kind of legit in that moment, kind of its own little standalone moment. But yet I have a couple of little theme things that we did, like this little high string plaintive repeating thing for Octavia and Ilian, and I incorporated those as well to keep it relevant. So that was a cool one as well.

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Many people are saying this season feels like a soft reboot of the show, and it’s getting back to its roots of what made us love it in the first place. But was this season any different to write for than seasons 3 and 4?

We have some new characters, so that’s been kind of fun to play with. We’ve got a different kind of enemy, back to a desolate wasteland. You’ve got the new characters, you’ve got the people living underground, and then you’ve got the nature of the planet, where it’s like, a little more desolate than usual. And then you’ve got some new stuff in space, as well, with Eligius IV. So all those new elements really lend themselves to some musical exploration. For the most part, we’re in this dark, post-apocalyptic brain of Jason Rothenberg.

Even though there are a lot of big changes this season, I’m sure your overall writing process stays mostly the same — can you walk us through how you work with the editors and directors to come up with something amazing?

In the beginning of the season, I sit with Jason Rothenberg, and he kind of talks me through the story. And then I'll come up with some thematic music that speaks to some of the different characters or story arcs. And then I’ll send that in to him and Tim Scanlan, who’s the other producer, and Dean White, the producing director. Those three guys are kinda driving it. If there’s stuff that they’re liking, sometimes it’ll get put in the early directors’/editors’ cuts of things. And eventually they start to narrow in on a producers’ cut; it’s starting to look like what the show will look like. At that point, we’ll get together and we’ll have a spotting session, and that’s where we have the music editor, Carli Barber, who’s been there from the start, and all the producers I just mentioned, and we will go through the whole show and write down every new place that music will start — each of those are called cues.

Sometimes Jason won’t say anything for 10 minutes, and things will just roll right through — it’s pretty obvious, or sometimes he’ll indicate even as it’s going; we won’t necessarily stop; he’ll just say, ‘We wanna shift here to make this sadder or make this more heroic’ or whatever. The editors will have thrown music in there already, just temporary sort of guide music. Some of it will be previously written cues by myself; some of it could be from other projects just to give an idea. I’ll have questions here and there about whether the tone of something is right or ask ‘What is it we’re liking about this temp music? Do we like the fact that it’s using a certain instrument, or do we like the pacing of it, or what?’

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And then I go off on my own, sit down, basically cue by cue, piece by piece, and construct something. And I have to keep track of where different themes are coming and going; which instrumentation we’re using for whom and what. Some cues are more important than others, obviously; sometimes if it’s a heavy dialogue scene and it’s not so crucial to either of their story arcs or their relationship or something that’s driving the whole thing, but it’s more like exposition of some details in the story, the music sometimes is more background-y. But sometimes we flex pretty hard in terms of showing the evolution of the character, or pointing to where things are going as the world is changing, or a story arc evolving. So I have to try and keep track of all that stuff as well. And then I write it all, and I have a team helping me — basically, I write it from my studio at home, I send it to my office where I’ve got a team, and they take the compositions I send them on the MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface] instruments, and they turn them into audio and format them for mixing.

[MIDI will have recordings of sample instruments that will fill out the "orchestra," since this isn't like a movie where they often have a full orchestra at their disposal. But not all the music is digital; the MIDI is combined with live strings, horns, and percussion, as well as an array of additional exotic instruments, played live by Adams himself.]

They will take the MIDI and do orchestration prep work for recording. And then we’ll have strings, horns, drums, you know, various recording sessions that they prepare over at my studio there. So I’ll meet everybody there, and we’ll get together with the ensemble, and we’ll record, and then I have a guy who mixes for me over at that studio, named James Brack, and James then has the impossible task of assembling all of these crazy elements. Then we go through it together, and I drive him crazy with adjustments.

Then we make stems, so that everything is controllable on the mixing stage. When I say mixing stage, that’s different from mixing the music; they have what’s called a dub stage, where they get together with Charlie Crutcher, who handles the sound. He gets all that stuff together, and I give all the music stems to Carli Barber, the music editor, and they get together, and Tim Scanlan sits there on the dub stage and mixes everything together. It’s a really difficult job, I mean, it’s like doing Star Wars, you know, with all of these incredible sound effects, and very thick-layered music; trying to pull out all of the good stuff, all of the ear candy for everyone; it’s laborious. A very difficult job, and Tim does a great job with that. And then Rick [Norman] and Ryan [Davis] mix it all in like a week, and then they show it to our fearless leader, Jason Rothenberg, and then Jason gives us notes. And then we go back in and make adjustments. It’s crazy.  

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Wow, it sounds like it’s quite a group effort!

It really is, and you know, there’s no ego in it. Everybody just wants the story to be good, because we all live and die by how good the story is, and we want it to be a great show! I’m always joking— once in a while I’ll have written a really cool cue, but say, like, a rocket is exploding, or Raven’s piloting us to some crazy place, but you’re just gonna hear rockets. I always joke ‘Wow, that was the best cue I ever wrote, man!’ But you gotta let it go.

Well, that’s what the soundtrack is for, right?

Yeah, exactly. You know, once in a while on the soundtrack you get to hear something that kinda got buried. And it would be cool for Charlie and for Peter D. Lago, the sound guys, if there was like, a sound effects soundtrack as well. I’m sure sometimes the music is burying them. It happens.

Sounds like we need to start pestering Warner Bros. about getting a sound effects soundtrack!

@MathurGaurika on Twitter asked, “What does he like to give the most emphasis to when composing character themes? Is it their emotional turmoil? Their circumstances?  their characteristic traits or like a culmination of all?”

It really depends on the situation, you know? I mean, the thing with which you’re always making your choices is ‘how does it best serve the story?’ So it could be any of those things that are driving it. You know, sometimes, there are some characters that you need to really feel that emotion or some relationships where it helps to bring out the emotion. Sometimes something is more about a texture or an atmosphere, and it somehow helps bring you into the world more than about how someone’s feeling. You’ve just gotta figure out what position you need to play in the moment to serve the story best.

Season 5 picks up a staggering 6 years after Season 4 ended — considering that people change a lot in 6 years, it must have been daunting task to update the characters’ themes and motifs for their grown-up versions. Did you need to fill in a lot of blanks in his mind as to things that may have happened during the time jump?

You know, I had questions — when Jason and I sat down and looked at what was gonna happen during the season, he didn’t go that micro. So I didn’t know, for instance, that there were certain relationships that had been going on, and what had happened in the ship in that time, so I had a few moments where I had to say ‘hey, by the way, does this relationship keep going, or are these guys gonna end up enemies by the end of the season?’ You know, cause it’s good to know where it’s all going; that’s really helpful. But otherwise, no, I mean, some of these things have been ongoing.

Bellamy and Clarke, whatever the nature of their relationship is, it’s a very crucial one to the story; it’s always been there, and it’s always gonna be there. And it’s inherently emotional. I’m gonna always be evolving that. Kane and Abby have sort of an ongoing thing in that way as well. One very interesting one is Octavia, obviously; she’s really evolving throughout the course of these past few seasons. I actually started to create a new theme for her last season, the Skairippa theme, and I’ve moved it into the Blodreina theme, and it’s interesting; once in a while I’ll invoke either one, depending on what’s going on. So there’s a lot of interesting stuff there. And the Murphy and Emori thing is interesting too, because they were obviously an item, but we start in a ‘not-item’ kinda place. So you’ll have to see how that goes; it’s interesting. There was a lot of fun stuff to play with there.

In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Howard Shore transitioned from a tin whistle to a flute for his “Concerning Hobbits” theme to show the passage of time and the maturing of the characters. Did you do anything similar?

That’s interesting. I would say, again, with the Octavia situation, the Skairippa theme was an orchestral thing, it had some warmth to it. It was treacherous, but it had traditional orchestral instruments. The Blodreina theme has some of the same, but it now morphs into a much grittier synth thing, and that’s sort of a similar evolution there.

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Another difference between Season 5 and previous seasons is that we have a new major character that’s only 12, compared to most of our major characters being in their late teens and now mid-20s. What was it like writing for such a young character? What instrument(s) did you gravitate toward for Madi?

Well, it’s interesting — initially, I don’t know why, but I kinda got in Harry Potter mode, and was using the celeste sounds, those bell tones, but Jason was like, ‘Nah, let’s ease up on that; I don’t want her to skew too young.’ And also, you know, she ends up being kind of a badass. So for her I don’t know that there’s been as much of an instrumentation choice as much as we show a little evolution in her character. She begins with certainly more innocence. Innocence is definitely one of the defining qualities to her music, I would say, early on, and that goes somewhere, for sure, over the course of the season. I can’t speak to where that goes, but somewhere other than innocence, as you can imagine.

Probably the most-anticipated reunion after the Season 4 finale saw the characters all split up was between Bellamy and Clarke, and we finally got to see it this week. Some observant fans pointed out that on Adams’ SoundCloud, the track we hear behind their reunion is entitled “You’re Real,” when the dialogue Clarke says into Bellamy’s shoulder was “You’re really here.” Did the line get changed?

You know, that’s interesting. I have to look at the line again. It’s in that scene, and I think on the spotting notes, when we spotted it, it said ‘you’re real.’ It’s possible that either the dialogue got changed after the fact or that we truncated it. But that’s definitely the scene that it’s from. It’s funny that people noticed that! I’m gonna put a couple little things [on SoundCloud] for people who are tuned into this substratum of the show, this sort of music layer, so they can be listening for some of the themes and aware of them. I’ll just put a little bit. I don’t want to tease out too much, but just a little bit, so it’s clear what the map looks like.

You’re Real is so different from the other songs tied to Bellamy and Clarke— it’s brighter, and when it picks up in tempo about ⅔ of the way through, it’s almost whimsical. How have the intervening years changed Clarke and Bellamy and their relationship, and how did you translate that musically?

Well, remember, Clarke was calling on that walkie-talkie every day for all those years, and I mean, she’s calling Bellamy. She’s calling all of them, but that’s, I think, who she’s talking to. And there she is in this dark moment, captive, with the shock collar on, and she’s in this horrible situation. And there, like a dream, out of the forest, comes Bellamy. So my feeling is, her heart races with hope and joy — it’s probably as happy as you can get otherwise. I think also there was a pretty happy moment as they got pulled out of the bunker with the crane, that was sort of hopeful and uplifting, and a magical moment — it was fun to score that. Yeah, we don’t get that many super happy, magical moments!

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@Mikapple32 on Twitter asked, “What's the most interesting blend of instruments you've used? We know there are generally traditional classical instruments such as cello, violin, piano, etc. and then foreign instruments for the music of the grounders. Have there been any notable instances of these two groups combining?”

Well, yeah, I mean, we combine orchestral stuff with all these exotic things all the time, like, do you remember when King Roan battled Lexa in the arena? There we’ve got all kinds of percussive Middle-Eastern instruments going on, big orchestral stuff, we had different themes for different people bobbing and weaving with each other in an orchestral way — this kind of thing happens quite often. I remember Ilian had this kind of big evil orchestral thing [Ilian the Destroyer], but we’d also throw in some exotic winds, and things like that, some duduk. It happens quite often. Part of the thing with this show is there are so many themes flying around, for different characters and relationships and worlds, that in any given scene, they could all be clashing with one another. And you have to serve the picture, and drive it, in terms of motion and emotion, so the palate gets — all the colors are running around.

We tend to hear a lot of classical instruments for Skaikru, such as the violin, cello, and piano, and more “foreign-sounding” instruments for the grounders, such as the psaltery, duduk, and daf— what was it like composing for Eligius, a group that is so far outside anything we’ve seen in this show before, both as being highly technically advanced as well as being from closer to the present?

I think the thing with Eligius that was so much fun, is like, you’ve got these cryopods, and it’s dark, and you’re creeping around on this empty ship, like you’re in a ghost ship in space — it’s just the creepiest, weirdest, mysterious vibe. So, if my main goal is to create something mysterious, I’m looking for new ways to do that — I used some woodwinds, which I never do, really, and it felt like a cool traditional sci-fi thing to have some flutes and oboe, and things up there. That was kind of new and fun. I definitely played with some different synth patches that I don’t usually use, to give us a bit of coldness and darkness. That was kind of the main thing in there. And there’s that guy, Kodiak, who woke up in there, and obviously that fight they had with him was super fun — that was just big action, percussive layers… So yeah, Eligius IV is really more about darkness and mystery; that’s how I saw it: a ghost ship floating through space.

How did you come up with the idea to use the guitar in the bunker? Will we be hearing more of “Flamenco Apocalyptico” in conjunction with the bunkerkru, or was that more a one-time thing?

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[laughs] That was an idea Jason had, and he had it before they shot the whole season. And he was like, ‘Hey, I have this idea, where there’s a guy playing a guitar, and that’s gonna score a whole bunch of this sequence.’ And he sent me a script, and I was like, ‘Are you sure you can have just one flamenco guitar for the whole thing?’ and he was like, ‘yeah, man, it’s gonna be great! You’ll build it and make it all happen within the one guitar part,’ and I’m like ‘yeah, right.’ So we went back and forth on that a few times. And then in the end, we used a version where the guitar does it for a while, and it builds, and builds, and builds, and then the score joins it, which was pretty cool. And I’m playing [the music], but the director of the episode, PJ Pesce, he’s the one you see playing it. And he’s a great guitar player, and I think he was able to play a lot of the piece— he was able to play along. But they ended up using what I had played for it. But he’s apparently a really good guitar player!

It definitely seemed to me like Pesce had some proficiency on the guitar — it was a cool Easter egg!

He’s a great player, it’s legit. I just don’t know how it happened, since I’m not there on set. Sometimes with these live things, they’ll record it, but maybe they don’t get it clean, cause there’s people or cameramen moving around or talking, so they gotta fix it later, you know, cause they’re moving around, they’re panning cameras. They’ve got a lot of continuity to keep in mind. But yeah, that was a fun little sequence, and I thought it worked— I didn’t think it was gonna work, to be honest, when Jason told me about it initially, I was like, ‘dude, this is gonna be a disaster,’ [laughs] but, you know, that’s why he’s the show creator. And will it be back? I can’t say. Time will tell.

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Can you give us a teaser about your favorite piece you composed this season? Maybe who it’s for, or what episode we’ll hear it in?

Hmm. I think the final few minutes of the whole season are probably my favorite, but I can’t obviously say anything about that! I do think the whole Blodreina theme and evolution is something I’m really proud of — she is just awesome this season. All the characters are great, and there’s a lot of really good stuff for everybody. But I had a lot of fun with her in particular.

The last few minutes of the Season 4 finale, with the piece I See You, was one of my favorite moments of the whole show — Clarke happy and clean and alive, hopeful to see her friends again soon, and the music makes me tear up every time I hear it, so I definitely can’t wait to hear what you did for the end of this season!

Speaking of tear-jerkers, can you tell us about composing for Jaha’s death scene?

Phew. I mean, it’s tough, you know? When I saw that, I hadn’t read the script, I don’t think, and I remember it kinda came out of nowhere — I was like ‘wait, we’re killing Jaha?!’ We had to dig deep and find something profound and emotional. And I thought he was great in that scene. And so I almost didn’t want to — sometimes if somebody’s performance is so moving, I feel— you just gotta be really careful, touching it… I watched the scene again and again with no music, and when it works, I’m just like, ‘oh man, I can only mess this up.’ So I had to be gentle, and use things that were gonna feel subtle — hopefully I did it justice.

I definitely think you achieved your goal — the music blends so seamlessly with the scene and lets the focus be on Isaiah Washington’s stellar last performance of Jaha, while dialing up the heartbreak with aching strings and beautiful piano that gives a sense of peace in the tragedy. (For our readers, I highly recommend watching the scene again and focusing on the music.)

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There are a lot of instruments used on this show, from the commonplace to the unfamiliar. Is there an instrument you really want to use but haven’t found the right fit for yet?

We use so many friggin’ instruments on this show. [laughs] I don’t know, I’ve been able to find a way to use almost everything in here. Just as an example, I’m a guitar player, and I play a lot of slide guitar. I’ve done many shows where that was kinda like, ‘the sound,’ it was the thing that got me hired. And I haven’t used a slide guitar in this show. But it doesn’t seem like it’ll have a place here. One thing that’s interesting is that for Shaw, he’s from Detroit, and they’re from our time. So when he recounts some of his past to Clarke, in the Shallow Valley, he’s talking about his motorcycle, and I was just like, ‘you know what, this guy gets a guitar. I’m gonna give this guy a little Americana guitar kinda thing. That’s a very unusual sound for The 100. And that’s part of his thing; that’ll come back.

Can you tell us anything about next week’s episode, “Shifting Sands”?

[laughs] I can’t do that! Let’s see, is there something music-specific?

They show a scene where this guy has something moving inside of his stomach, Alien-style. Is there going to be anything interesting with the music with that?

Yes, there will be. [laughs]

You can’t blame me for trying! Lastly, will the Season 5 soundtrack be released like seasons 3 and 4 were?

I hope so! I think it’s a great thing that we know we’re coming back for another season, so that bodes well for Warner Bros wanting to continue promoting the show, on a business level. And the great thing is that the fans of the show have been so engaged and so supportive of everything we’re doing behind-the-scenes, including the music, and I think that it really shows. Because we have such awesome fans, it’s a possibility. I’m gonna try and get a definitive word on it — hopefully we’ll have some good news on that soon!

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Tree! The soundtracks for seasons 3 and 4 of The 100 can be found on Spotify and Soundcloud. Stay tuned for more exclusive features from Truth Bee Told!

The 100 airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on The CW.

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