Creating TV's scariest soundtrack - Hannibal

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Over two seasons, Hannibal has presented some of television's most beautifully disturbing imagery.

A totem pole made of corpses. A field of corpses harvested to grow mushrooms. A corpse sewn inside a horse. You get the idea.

But the music may be this NBC drama's most frightening component.

Based on Thomas Harris' novels, which have already been made into five feature films - including the Oscar- winning The Silence Of The Lambs - Hannibal tells the story of the cannibal psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and his friend-nemesis, the FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy).

In Season 3, which began on June 4, Graham is on the trail of Lecter, who has escaped to Europe.

Hannibal eschews the lazy "jump scare" violins that so many horror movies and TV shows employ as a matter of course. Instead, composer Brian Reitzell mirrors the waking nightmare imagery of Bryan Fuller, the show's creator, with ambient sound and almost non-stop music - turbulent drums on top of wood blocks on top of clanging cymbals. And he is always looking for something new with which to produce unsettling noises.

During a recent recording session at his studio in California, Reitzell, 49, was holding a Newton's cradle, the desk toy with the suspended clicking balls, just one of the dozens of objects turned music makers that he trotted out over the course of two hours.

"This was my daughter's, but I broke it in the process," said Reitzell, a former drummer for the punk band Redd Kross. "I used it in Season 3. It made really interesting rhythms. It was like instant Aphex Twin."

The studio's three rooms were filled to the brim with conventional instruments, too. (There were both a mallet drawer and a mallet bucket.) Between deliveries of even more instruments and gadgets, Reitzell walked a reporter through three steps for making TV's most unsettling soundtrack.

The new season opens with a stylised sequence in which Hannibal rides a motorcycle through the streets of Paris at night. The scene is an example of the way Reitzell mixes instrumentation with manipulated and exaggerated sounds.

As the motorcycle starts up, the soundtrack narrows in on the click of the key in the ignition, the roar of the engine's fire, the hiss of exhaust. Underneath it all is a turbulent percussive score.

In his studio, Reitzell played a snippet of music for a scene he was composing.

On-screen, a character was being tattooed. Reitzell used an arpeggiator to isolate the tone made by the tattoo gun, which he would then layer with other sounds as part of the moment's overall design.

In this scene alone, he used more than 50 percussive elements, many of which have nothing to do with drums or any other classical instrument, to create an abrasive, insinuating sound.

"If I put the sound of the ocean on, that's going to do something to you," he said. "And I know what that is, because it does it to me, too."

He said he follows the tenets of musique concrete, a genre whose practitioners use both natural sounds and distorted recordings to create musical compositions. "The older I get, the more I think birds are the best musicians on the planet."

He has served as music supervisor on all but one of Sofia Coppola's movies. But those were full of pop artists - New Order and Gang Of Four in Marie Antoinette, Kanye West and Frank Ocean in The Bling Ring.

His work on Hannibal, which shares the screen with the occasional classical piece, is something else entirely. The compositions are so discordant that even listening to them on their own, away from the context of the show, is disturbing.

The roots of his musical philosophy reach back to his childhood.

"When my parents got divorced, I wanted to spend my time laying in the garage listening to the washer and dryer," he said of his five-year-old self. "Loud, immersive, changing. It was music to me.

"All of these sounds," he said, referring to the ocean, birds, the drone of insects, the rattle of the dryer, "they're psychological - I just try to key into them".

"With every episode, I have to do something different," he said. "I started in Season 1 using found sounds and now I've been getting a lot of mileage out of inexpensive things."

To make his point, he demonstrated the surprising musicality of ping-pong balls in a bowl. As they skitter over the surface of the bowl, the balls create a kinetic, reedy sound, not unlike a crank winding up. Though the balls are used throughout Season 3, his penchant for distortion renders them near unrecognisable with each iteration.

There is something unnerving about his ability to take household items and manipulate their sounds into something frightening.

Unlike for his movie work, he does not read the Hannibal scripts ahead of time.

"With horror, it's a different process," he said. "I need to be with the audience and not overthink it."

He prefers to watch the episode in full in his studio, taking notes, as it were, on an eight-voice analog synthesiser; its atonal drone underlies much of each episode.

"What they're giving me with this show," he said of the corpses, the cannibalism and the unrelenting darkness, messes "with me - I take this stuff home".

 
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