In the old days of cinematic space travel, the scores that lifted off to the stars were assured of being symphonically muscular and most of all manly – with just a bit of air given to emotional reflection that told us The Mission always came first. Things have certainly evolved in that storytelling and musical voyage with scores like Justin Hurwitz’s “First Man” and Harry Gregson-Williams’ “The Martian,” which took tonally alternative and deeply introspective routes to the moon and mars to portray astronauts and all of their earth-longing foibles. Now with Netflix series “Away,” composer Will Bates takes a decidedly low-key and offbeat musical route between our planet and the big red one, jetting back to each throughout the ten-episode series in a way that connects the multi-global voyagers with their loved ones back home, conveying both a sense of wonder and personal anguish to powerful effect.
Hailing from England, Bates’ career launched in the post punk-alternative world with the bands The Rinse and The Evil Cowards as he collaborated with such artists as Lulu, Mike Rutherford and Skye Edwards. It was by transforming himself into the YouTube savvy nom de plume of Fall on Your Sword that Bates’ innovative, intimate sound made him a go-to composer for such indie films as “Lola Versus,” “28 Hotel Rooms” and “Nobody Walks.” Bates’ spectral approach made a big alt. genre splash with 2011’s “Another Earth,” in which his surreal electronic work twisted the cosmos itself. With approaches that ranged from the strikingly discombobulated “Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief” to embodying the techno vanguard “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” Bates’ locked onto the increasingly offbeat nature of television scoring, leading to prolific work on such series as “Pure Genius,” “The Path,” “The Looming Tower” and “Unbelievable.”
Now with “Away,” Bates once again hauntingly takes the musical road less travelled for a mission to mars, led by American commander Emma Green (Hilary Swank) who keeps inspiration going amid an international crew, one that grows to show their true emotional colors with the perilous challenges thrown their way. But Emma’s most pressing task is dealing with the strain of being cut off from her fellow astronaut husband Matt (Josh Charles), who’s crippled by a stroke. No less affected is her daughter Alexis (Talitha Eliana Bateman), who’s taking risks with her own life as a way of coping. As much a family drama for all of the astronauts as it is a space exploration one, Bates’ music unifies mars lander and home with his beautiful score. At once magical and poignant while still delivering the orchestral oomph needed to touch down, Bates mix of piano, string instruments and ethereal washes of keyboards fills the void with poignance, never attempting to outdo the episodes’ high drama. It’s a contrast that makes “Away” a musically distinctive and very human score that’s all about being inside of its characters as opposed to trying to musically blow away the great beyond – an unforced, meditative approach that touches down with a musical voice that never played the expected path to its destination
What did space exploration mean to you as a child, and did you ever have dreams of becoming an astronaut?
Well, I grew up with “Star Wars,” “The Black Hole” and “Battle Beyond the Stars.” I was always interested in space, but it started with the movies, followed by frequent visits to The London Planetarium. At the age of 8 or 9, I remember my dad attempting to ween me off of “Star Wars” by forcing me to watch “2001” and “Alien.” “2001” utterly confused me and with “Alien” I spent most of the time hiding behind the sofa. My grandfather gave me a telescope when I was really little. I loved it. Whenever the low clouds of West London would allow, I’d be looking up at the stars.
What put you on the path to becoming a composer? And how do you think your work with alternative bands contributed to your sound?
Like so many of my generation, I put it all down to John Williams. I was very young the day I realized all the music that I loved from my favorite movies was written by one person. And that’s when I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. I veered off course a few times. I started playing the saxophone at the age of 11 and by the age of 14, I was playing in cafes, bars, and clubs in London. I was seriously into jazz until around my late teens when I discovered electronic music and released some records, then I moved to New York and started a band as the lead singer. But all the while, the only way I knew how to support myself was producing and composing music. The only other job I had was at a suit shop on The Strand but I was fired after they realized I didn’t know how to fold a suit. Making music for commercials, producing random artists and playing gigs. I realize now how lucky I was to have had those early opportunities and learn from them.
Tell us about your beginnings as Fall on Your Sword with such relationship indies as “28 Hotel Rooms” and “Lola Versus?”
Fall on Your Sword started out as a need to have an umbrella for all the different projects I was doing. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to have; a creative space that permits that kind of freedom. And in the early days, it made sense to score movies under that name. A lot of the movies I was scoring at that time came from the Sundance indie scene.
Some of your most striking work has been for the alternate faiths of “Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief” and “The Path.” What was it like getting into those headspaces?
Of course, there was something other-worldly and out-there about those faiths that’s really fun to express with music. But also, an important emotional depth. There’s a strength in having an unshakeable faith in something, which is often at odds with logic. For that reason, I found myself being able to go really bold with those two projects. There’s a confidence in all that craziness.
How do you think you found a niche in documentaries? And what particular insight do you think your music gave to people like Steve Jobs and Hilary Clinton?
I have quite a broad skill set as a result of being involved in so many different styles and genres. And I’m fast. I think that’s from my early days of scoring commercials. I’m not scared of a fast turnaround, in fact I kind of love it that way. Scoring docs often requires a lot more music than a narrative project and I’m okay with that. I was very fortunate in that my first handful of documentaries was with one of the true masters of the genre, Alex Gibney, and he has a very cinematic style with his use of music. The use of evolving themes, leitmotif, altered harmonic contexts. Those were always part of the tool kit when portraying characters like Steve Jobs, L Ron Hubbard and Julian Assange. I brought that same skill set to Hillary when working with Nanette Burnstein.
You’ve done equally impressive work in the alt. sci-fi genre with scores like “Another Earth” and “I Origins.” What kind of opportunities do you think you get from movies like this that take a cerebral approach to big, cosmos-bending ideas?
I think that one of the reasons sci-fi is so appealing to many composers is that it can be something of a blank canvas sonically. It can go in so many directions. And as a film-maker, Mike Cahill tends to be drawn to these big ideas but observed through the lens of human intimacy. And that’s such a perfect setting for my style of composing. Big sounds that are paired with something more fragile and organic. And I love melody, stumbling on that perfect collection of notes that will connect an audience to a character.
Before “Away,” you took a far more nightmarish space trip with “Nightflyers.” Could you talk about your eerie work for the show?
That was also a Mike Cahill project (he directed the pilot). We talked a lot about finding a sound that could express fear but also give a sense of movement, rotation and a feeling of distance. I met a guy in Michigan who builds these extraordinarily complex hurdy gurdys, and he built me one which ended up being very prominently featured in that show that was manipulated beyond recognition! But it has that haunting feeling of oscillation we were looking for. That score was really interesting for me. It has this sci-fi horror element of course but also this feeling of loss and tragedy. That’s something I learned from working with horror maestro Larry Fessenden on “Depraved”; horror as tragedy .It was also my first time in space! A couple of those ideas of oscillation and rotation made their way into the “Away” score. Just without some of the terror.
As a composer with a mainly unconventional sound, what do you think attracted “Away” to your particular style as opposed to a more conventionally forceful emotional approach?
That was something that was always important to the showrunners. To steer us away from the conventional blockbuster space movie sound. If there were strings, they should be small and intimate. When there is action and conflict it should feel more internal. I love to experiment with sound, and often my melodies are born from those early choices. I think they were looking for something a little different and it suited my approach.
Who was you point person in the mission control of “Away,” and how did that collaboration go?
Jessica Goldberg is the showrunner for “Away.” We had worked together previously on Hulu’s “The Path.” She’s fantastic and gave me a lot of freedom to try things. Because of our work on “The Path,” there was a lot of mutual trust there. The more projects I do, the more I’ve found that is such an essential part of the process. As a composer, if you’re worried about somehow “getting it wrong.” it utterly stifles the creative process. She and the producers were always so supportive and constructive with their notes. Jason Katims and Andrew Hinderaker would also weigh in. Ultimately, everyone had a clear vision for the show which was so helpful in creating the score.
Could you tell us about your instrumental ensemble in “Away?”
The first task I had on “Away” was to write the piece of music that Matt plays in the first episode. And then teach it to him. Actually, they ended up hiring a teacher because I play the piano in a weird self-taught way that I guess doesn’t translate well through an iPhone camera! But writing something so early in the process, while they were still shooting was really helpful for me. And that melody was useful to have for the score. I hint at it from time to time. There’s an organic intimacy to this score that’s contrasted with some of the larger electronic sounds. I started by recording layers of prepared pianos in loops. Cycling passages with odd timings, layering up 20-30 pianos picked with my fingers. These helped give that feeling of rotation, mirroring the movement of the ship. I often work with a fantastic viola/violinist called Lev Zhurbin. He lives in New York (I’m now in LA) so over the years we’ve developed a hyper-efficient working relationship where I’ll send him a rough mix and a PDF of what I want him to play and he’ll send me back his recordings. And as half of this score was completed during the Covid era, this process was helpful!
With the show cutting between earth and space, how did you want the music to unify the settings, yet also differentiate them?
The showrunners and I talked a lot about distance and giving that feeling of the vastness of space. I have an unhealthy obsession with analogue reverbs. Over the years I’ve collected all sorts of Spring Reverbs, Plate Reverbs, esoteric Tape Delays etc. Sometimes playing the simplest most minimal thing through a bunch of that gear can be the most effective way of portraying that distance, and served as a natural contrast to the two settings.
Was there ever the directive to not make the score sound to “sci-fi” ish, or did that ever come up?
You know, I don’t think it ever came up. But I will say that I was very conscious of that myself. I confess that I may have had to reign it in a few times! I own a beautiful old CS80 synth (which over the years I’ve poured a small fortune into maintaining) and it just seemed so perfect to finally let that thing really sing. But sometimes I’d listen back and realize it had gone perhaps a little too ‘otherworldly.’ Sometimes that stuff is as simple as clamping down the filters a little to bring it back down to earth.
How would you describe the astronauts’ characters, and the way in which the music suits them?
One of the really fun aspects of the show is how each episode focuses on a different member of the crew. So I was able to give a little nod to each of their cultural identities. As with the sci-fi sound, a little goes a long way and I found it could be just something very subtle that would get us there. Ram’s episode uses a dulcimer that I’ve had for years, nice to finally use that thing! And Wu’s episode (which may be one of my favorites?) uses a Chinese modal scale and what maybe sounds like a flute, but is actually an Ondes Martenot. They’re all such great characters, and I love how you get to know each of them so intimately.
Religious belief drives the botanist Kwesi. How do you think the music speaks for his spirituality, and belief in miracles, as well as sacrifice for a higher purpose?
I used harmony that was more classic for Kwesi. And a music box for the sequence between him as a boy, and his father. There’s a lightness to it, particularly towards the end of the episode. I wanted to create something elegiac for him there, but also hopeful.
The show is structured so that in each episode there’s a life and mission-threatening problem that has to be overcome, and an attendant emotional message learned. How did you want to music to drive the episodes in that respect?
There’s a propulsive tension to some of those sequences earlier in the episodes. But I wanted tension to feel muted and a little claustrophobic. To emphasize that they’re really just stuck in this tin can trying to figure out how to keep going. So the tempos are high, but the percussion is dampened, cycling loops are filtered and made to feel lonely with reverb.
One of the most beautiful moments on the show is when Emma and Ram have to vent ice outside of their craft. Could you talk about that sequence, and overall how it reflects capturing the magic of space, and the sense of wonder it brings out in the characters?
There’s a rising building tension that is then let go into this feeling of wonder and awe as the ice is released. But I wanted there to also be this residual feeling of danger as well. So I play through these chords that never quite resolve. Finally letting my CS80 and my Juno sing a little! And the strings (played by Lev Zhurbin) provide this dissonance that is un-nerving but also beautiful. I once scored a sequence in a movie called “Mission Blue,” where the protagonist (Dr. Sylvia Earle) is diving underwater swimming with sharks. I thought about that scene when I was doing this one. Taking a glimpse at this other world that is terrifyingly beautiful, and humbling.
“Away” leads up to its Mars landing. What was your approach to finally touching down on the red planet like?
I wanted there to be something of a thematic bookend there. The cue is based on the very first cue of the series as Emma is on the moon looking back at earth. So we get this fuller, more emotional and melodic version of it as they set foot on mars.
As “Away” was partially scored during the pandemic, what challenges did the situation present to you? And given what’s happened, what kind of extra dimension do you think the show carries know with its theme of people coping with isolation and separation?
We were fortunate during post that the challenges only presented themselves around halfway through the process. I think I was scoring episode 4 when it became clear that we weren’t going to be mixing in person for the rest of the season. Netflix was great, and we slowly came up with a way of working that was safe for everyone, but were still able to get the job done to an incredibly high standard. The mixes were done on the stage by the team at King Sound. Only one person working at a time! And then approvals and notes were all done remotely. In the end, it was a great process and I have to wonder if this will change future post-pandemic work flows. As far as scoring, it actually didn’t change my process a huge amount. I was still able to go to Fall on Your Sword (albeit without anyone else there) and work on the score. I think because of my time in New York a lot of the musicians I like to work with are there. So recording any players remotely is already part of my process. And yes, it does seem to be a very contemporary tale all of a sudden. Not only the feeling of isolation and separation, but also what can be achieved if everyone comes together.
What projects do you have coming up?
I just finished a movie called “Rajah” set in 19th century Borneo. My first period film which was really fun. And I’m finishing up Mike Cahill’s next feature “Bliss” for Amazon Studios. Starring Owen Wilson and Salma Hayak, that one will be released early next year.
Futuristic, unconventional music really seems to be having its day on television with scores like “Watchmen” and “Raised by Wolves.” What do you think your scoring adds to this alternative exploration into new musical sounds, especially with “Away?”
I think we’re all searching for that new sound. Stumbling on something new and unique for any given project has always been an important aspect of my process. For me, it’s always the weird noises that give birth to the melodies.
With “Away” being a hit on Netflix, what kind of hope do you think the show and its music gives to viewers now – let alone the idea of reaching the stars when we’re consumed by earthbound problems?
If we all come together for a single purpose, what we can achieve is limitless.
Watch “Away” on Netflix HERE
Buy Will Bates’ score for “Away” on Black Lot Music HERE
Buy Will Bates soundtracks HERE
Visit Will Bates’ and Fall on Your Sword’s website HERE