Soundtrack: <I>Away</I> composer Will Bates
Issue: September/October 2020

Soundtrack: Away composer Will Bates

Netflix’s Away is an emotional drama centered on American astronaut Emma Green (Hilary Swank), who prepares to lead an international crew on the first mission to Mars. She must reconcile her decision to leave behind her husband (Josh Charles) and teenage daughter (Talitha Bateman) when they need her the most. As the crew's journey into space intensifies, their personal dynamics and the effects of being away from their loved ones back on Earth become increasingly complex. 

Created by Andrew Hinderaker, the series is executive produced by showrunner Jessica Goldberg, Jason Katims, Matt Reeves, Andrew Hinderaker, Edward Zwick, Hilary Swank, Adam Kassan and Jeni Mulein.

Will Bates (pictured) composed original music for the 10-episode series, which premiered in September. Here, he talks exclusively with Post about his work on Away and its soundtrack needs.

How did you get involved in this project?

“I met Jessica Goldberg and Jason Katims on Hulu’s The Path. We worked together for three seasons of that show, and really got to know each other’s work. Then I worked on two more of Jason’s shows — Pure Genius and Rise. So, when Away was gearing up, they sent me the scripts and we started discussing the score.”

What were the soundtrack needs for the series?

“The story balances the astronauts’ journey as much as those left behind on Earth, so it was important for the score to reflect that. We wanted to find a pallet that could bridge both worlds and not fall into the usual sci-fi tropes. One of the main characters is a pianist. And in the show he plays several of his own compositions. So one of the first things I had to write were the pieces he would play on-set. As the story progresses, Matt has a stroke and can only play with his left hand. So I had to write these quite complex left hand pieces for the actor, Josh Charles, to learn and play. I filmed my hands so he could learn how to do it. But I guess I play in a weird self-taught way and they ended up hiring a piano teacher to help him learn the pieces. Josh did a great job. [It] was so fun for me to see the end result of that process.”

How many cues did you create and can you talk about musical themes? 

“I think, on average, there were about 20 to 30 cues per episode. Themes that were developed and interwoven between the Earth-bound characters and the astronauts. The space cues could sometimes be fairly long, as those scenes tend to be mostly score driven with less dialogue. I think on average it was about 20 to 30 minutes of score per episode.”

Tell us about your studio set up?

“My studio setup tends to change from week to week. I am fortunate to have two studios. My main one being at Fall On Your Sword in North Hollywood, as well as a home studio. I tend to keep each one populated with different gear that’s constantly evolving. I have more space to record acoustic instruments in the larger FOYS studio — a couple of live rooms that connect to my main control room. There’s always a piano mic’d up there, along with all sorts of percussion (timpani, drum kit, vibes, etc.), mellotron, organs and synths. I like running stuff through amps so I have a little collection to add various different colors. 

“I began life as a sax player, so there are lots of reed instruments and some brass lying around. I like to have everything available to pickup, play and record at a moment’s notice. Nothing ‘s worse than having to down tools and search for an XLR to 1/4-inch when you’re trying to get an idea down, especially on a TV deadline. But generally getting outside of the box is important to me. Even if I stumble on a computer-generated sound, it tends to end up going through some kind of hardware on its journey.”

How does the music play with the picture?

“We talked a lot about distance and trying generate that feeling of the vastness of space. I found that using very minimal instrumentation through very specific reverbs would often get us there. I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with old hardware reverbs. The producers would often encourage me to score the space sequences in a less conventional way. 

“One of my favorite sequences to score was at the end of Episode 9, when Emma and Ram are outside the ship collecting ice. Rather than focus on the obvious tension, the score has a sense of wonder and awe. It reminded me of a sequence from a documentary I scored a few years ago called Mission Blue, where the protagonist, Sylvia Earle, is swimming with sharks. There’s this elegance and beauty that could turn to something terrifying at any moment — being a visitor and taking a glimpse at an unfamiliar world. I thought about that sequence when I was scoring that scene in Away.”