Even if one might not be able to comprehend the seemingly fantastical equations of Albert Einstein, music remains the great communicator in touching the senses, and imagination. Such is the wonder of Lorne Balfe’s score to “Genius,” National Geographic’s ambitious foray from the often-staid world of straight documentaries into fictionalized reality. With Balfe’s sweeping orchestra and sci-fi-like sampling opening up Albert Einstein’s revolutionary theorems about the nature of time and space, “Genius” conveys the magic of a mind realizing the secrets of creation.
Yet this Ron Howard-produced series is far from the iconic scientist chalking up a classroom board. Instead, “Genius” is far more concerned with showing how a man who could be so brilliant with math can be so grievously flawed in his personal life. As portrayed young and old by Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Flynn through nine episodes, “Genius” reveals the violin player as a budding world-changer as capable of passion as he is indifference, leaving wreckage from the lives of his first, equally intelligent wife and their sons, while carrying on affairs in front of his beyond understanding second wife. For a vainglorious, yet somehow sympathetic “character,” Balfe draws on powerful, lush emotion that also captivatingly plays the greater canvas of Eastern European history through two world wars.
It’s a haunting, evocative and strongly orchestral sound whose spirit can be heard more intimately in “Churchill.” Dealing with another formidable true personage that held the weight of the free world on his stout shoulders, Balfe’s music here is more intimate and spiritually minded for a leader grasping with doubt about the invasion that he knows will cost thousands upon thousands of lives. It’s an epic intimacy that shows the versatility of this Scottish-born composer. Having risen up the ranks of Hans Zimmer’s musical brain trust on such scores as “Rango,” “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” to show his own stylish voice with “Beyond: Two Souls,” “Ironclad,” “The Story of God with Morgan Freeman,” the Emmy-nominated “Restless” and this year’s smash “The LEGO Batman Movie” among numerous works, Balfe’s “Genius” and “Churchill” hear the human heart of history with captivating lyricism. It’s music that makes the math, and history books open to their icons with immediately understandable, captivating melody that’s true inspiration.
How were you approached to score the music to Genius, and did The National Geographic Channel have an approach in mind for the show?
Ron Howard approached me, because I had worked with him and Hans. Ron knew that I had a background in television, and the “Genius” pilot was his debut as a director for television.
Did you do your own research into Einstein?
I wouldn’t say “research,” as I did know about the basic life of Einstein. Yet as “Genius” shows, there was far more about his life that people didn’t know about. The music was really about looking at where his story was going. The only research I did for the show was when it came to Einstein’s love of the violin. I don’t know how good he was at playing it, but if I had to make a guess, I’d think that maybe he was good at it. Some people say the same thing about most musicians being good at math, though that’s certainly not true when it comes to me!
Did it weigh on you that Alan Silvestri won an Emmy for his work on “Cosmos,” which is another show about the exploration about science, though one far broader in its scope than “Genius?”
“Cosmos” was an amazing soundtrack. But thinking like that won’t get you out of bed in the morning! The one thing I did learn from all of this is that you have to distance yourself from whatever you do, not to get too attached for too long or you will feel that pressure to outdo yourself every time. “Genius” was such a complicated work in its own way that to make all the themes for the theories to work together was something else. Television is far more complicated than film; with film, where you have an hour and a half to tell a story. With television, you’re musically telling a story for ten hours where you’re on this journey with the audience. It’s far more intense than your usual film. And viewers don’t watch television the way they used to. They sit down and watch five episodes in one go. So you have to monitor your use of themes, particularly nowadays.
Can you personally relate to Albert Einstein?
I I don’t think anybody really can. If they think so, then they’re very egotistical! Einstein was a complicated person and Ron wanted to make the score for him more of a classical storytelling experience as opposed to making it feel like a period piece. So it took me a while to figure out what the colors were to his story. .
“Genius” is far more about Einstein as a human being as opposed to being a “science show” as such, and in the process offers a lot of revelations about his personal life. Did any of them surprise you?
The most shocking thing to me about Einstein was his womanizing. I wasn’t aware of how much of a lothario he was! I didn’t know where he had the time to do all those great mathematical findings while chasing these women.
For all of crappy stuff that Einstein did to the women he was involved with, how do you want the music to maintain sympathy for him?
Einstein’s passion and his love didn’t make him a bad person. There was nothing malicious about him. He was a man that couldn’t help himself – a true eccentric. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for him and the people that he hurt. Musically, I didn’t want to make Einstein pitiful, but to hear him realistically so that it wouldn’t sideline the importance of what he’s contributing to science.
How difficult was it to musically convey the idea of scientific discovery, which make for some of “Genius’” most visually stunning sequences?
From the beginning, Ron always talked about that “sound” where, and when you have that “unique moment?” What is that piece of music when ‘all of a sudden” happens? Where you figured out that equation, or the conclusion to that theory? We’ve portrayed that with film music as a burst of energy. But on this television show it was important not overwhelm the viewer. The music has to sit back when Einstein’s demonstrating his theories, because had we been too intrusive it would’ve detracted from the information given. What he’s saying is so complicated and that I didn’t want to overwhelm the situation.
Did you combing “old school” orchestrations with more futuristic samples to show how Einstein was ahead of his time?
When we started the process, Ron would always unintentionally experiment with the two, but it wasn’t planned out to make “Genius” into a hybrid score. It just happened. The electronic elements provided us a way to look inside what was going on in Einstein’s head, the inside looking out if you would. I didn’t want to make a conventional score. I wanted to make one that, like him, was always evolving. The colors of the score had to match that evolution.
Was it important for the music to hold onto the audience that tuned in expecting Geoffrey Rush through the whole series, where in fact he essentially shows up at the very beginning and then the final few episodes?
I was more invested in the younger Albert Einstein, as that’s the person I never knew about. I actually yearned for even more with his earlier self. But you couldn’t have two different musical approaches for their ages. The music had to a whole, because it’s the same journey, a constant yearning by Einstein for passion and love.
How did you want to convey the scope of history that goes through two world wars?
It was an underbelly to the music that made for a sense of dread and brooding power that’s trying to overtake the viewer. It’s always a difficult thing to score when dealing with those dark themes. For example, when I was writing on “The Bible A.D.,” I had a theme for the devil, whose dark music could mean different things to many people. Sometimes that approach can end up being parody if you don’t watch it.
How did Hans Zimmer’s main theme inspire your own approach, or were you working on the score at the same time?
Han’s main theme was a difficult one, because it really isn’t about Albert Einstein. It’s about the concept of genius, as the series won’t be about Einstein next year. It’s about what the thought process is when you have that moment on inspiration – whether it’s writing the plotline for a great plotline for a piece of literature, composing a piece of music, or doing a painting, all of which will become iconic. My score is specifically about Albert Einstein.
How do you think “Genius” represents the move by channels like National Geographic from straight documentaries to essentially fictionalized shows like “Vikings?”
Viewers have a yearning and an appetite for knowledge, they want more content and this is an amazing dramatization that works as well as a feature film. That’s possible for shows, but very difficult to achieve. The process is even more difficult, because with a film, you have a certain amount of time to tell the story – whereas with television, you have more time spread out to tell the story, and to be more consistent in almost every aspect. People today tend to talk more about television more than they do about films.
Having now scored “Churchill” after Einstein, do you see anything in common with these two iconic figures?
This movie was also about discovering a side of a person you’ve never seen before. “Churchill” is about the end of his political career, when he was losing control. And it’s sad to see that happen. Like any character, that makes them relatable to viewers when they can relate their own emotions to them. While you can’t really relate to someone had the kind of lives that Einstein and Churchill did, you can relate to common emotions of vulnerability and loss. Both films are interesting to see because they also deal with the characters’ relationships with their spouses. “Churchill” and “Genius” are about men, not myths.
How did you want the specter of the D-Day invasion to be part of “Churchill’s” score?
“Churchill” isn’t about war, but the pride of the nation. He’s dealing with his emotional wounds, and trying to find a way back for a second chance. So to me, I never looked at it as a war film, but more as a drama. The director Jonathan Teplitzky (“The Railway Man”) was always keen on the authenticity of it, not wanting to make it epic. This was the story of a man who needed to make wrongs right.
You use voices in a particularly haunting, and hymnal way in “Churchill.”
British chorale music is the most beautiful pure music I remembered as a child. I think Churchill became the man he did because of his upbringing. He was brought up by his grandparents, and was alone for most of his youth. He wrote great poetry when he was young, so there’s a purity when you hear the voices in the score, as they for a man who sounded simplistic, but spoke from the heart.
Do you think that scoring these films about legendary figures from the past will advance your own career?
I don’t care. I think that the most important thing I did was a documentary called “Salinger,” based upon the life of the reclusive author who wrote “Catcher in the Rye.” I loved every single moment on that project. The reviews were not good. Time Magazine called it the worst film of the year. I mean, Adam Sandler beat us! But that didn’t really matter, because there was a bigger message to be told. I think that if you’re lucky in life, you’ll get to work in different genres, it’s an amazing opportunity than just writing for horror films every single day, which can become monotonous, I think that in writing a score for Churchill and Einstein, you really want to learn about these men. It’s rare to be able to work on gems like “Genius” and “Churchill.” Albert Einstein was a rock star of his time. To be able to portray these characters so that people won’t think of them as stuffy and old is important to me, because we need those kinds of people again in our lives, and the future.
Watch “Genius” HERE. “Churchill” is now in theaters.
Visit Lorne Balfe’s website HERE
Special thanks to Alexander Portillo for transcribing this interview