Crafting a “creepy, otherworldly and alien” sound for the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, composer Adam Taylor’s biggest challenge since then has been watching the story evolve, and finding ways in which his score can evolve with it.
One of the most well regarded dramas on television today, Bruce Miller’s dystopian Hulu series centers on Offred (Elisabeth Moss)—a woman once known as June—who is forced to bear children for the elite of a new regime, when a fundamentalist theocratic dictatorship sweeps over America, and the Land of Liberty she had always known appears gone for good.
For Taylor—a first-time Emmy nominee, recognized for his work on Season 2—The Handmaid’s Tale is a journey from fear toward hope, an arc which he naturally reflected in the series’ score as well. Starting out on the series as a conjurer of dread-inducing, nightmarish sounds, Taylor has delighted in the opportunity to inch toward melody in Seasons 2 and 3. “The foundations [of Gilead] are cracking,” the composer explains, while “revolution is on the way.”
Speaking with Deadline hours after the announcement that The Handmaid’s Tale had been picked up for a fourth season, Taylor expands on the ways he’s brought humanity into the drama’s score, and the way in which he’s approached its musical arc.
When you signed on to The Handmaid’s Tale, how did you develop a sound that felt right for the series?
A lot of it was phone calls with Reed [Morano, director] when they were still putting things together, maybe just before they started shooting the pilot and while they were shooting, just going back and forth and sending her sketches based on our conversations. Before then, we had worked together on a few things, so we already had an understanding and a really great shared vocabulary, [so] we could get to places quickly with one another.
I think the first thing I landed on was the very creepy, drone-y synth sound that’s at the very beginning of the pilot, when they’re getting chased. The vision behind that was in thinking about the Bible, [in which] there was the cloud of God that would precede the Israelites when they would travel. I thought about making this atonal cloud of synths and crazy sounds, almost like it was the anti-God cloud, preceding these guardians that are coming to take away June’s kid, and do all these horrible things.
I just knew I needed it to sound really big and unusual, and have a lot of blending of the notes, and not have very obvious scales that have a lot of glissando, which is where you slide between notes. So, even with the synths and the approach on that, rather than performing a note change, I ran it through an old tape echo, this analog piece of equipment—and with one hand playing the synth, the other hand would affect the time, and slow down or speed up the tape to create these not quite perfect musical intervals. That ended up becoming a really great sound, and it’s very eerie because it’s kind of musical, and it kind of isn’t. So, it really worked well to freak us out.
Then, there’s that siren noise that comes in and out. Anytime you hear a siren, you perk up; you’re in your car or wherever. So, I was trying to duplicate that sense with a synth as well. I’ve touched on it here and there in Season 2—less in Season 3, because music is always trying to narrate Lizzie [Moss]’s character, wherever she’s at. From Season 1 [to] Season 3, we’ve got even less of that sound, less of the synth, and more orchestration and beauty, and more uplifting themes and whatnot to harmonize with her mind, and how her mind is slowly becoming free from Gilead.
With orchestration, we landed on knowing we wanted smaller groups, muted to feel like a bad xerox copy of what life used to be. So, we would mute the strings; we would even post-process, mixing them with Scott [Michael Smith], the mix engineer, for all the orchestra, [and] dampen it even more. Even the piano, we added felt to mute that, just to give everything a very heavy, muted tone. Then, as the seasons progressed, we’ve been slowly removing that, going from an upright to a grand piano, no mutes, bigger orchestrations, incorporating woodwind and more percussive things, and overall brighter sounds.
So, the sonic arc to the series has been a gradual progression from darkness to light, from palpable dread to joy?
Absolutely. I don’t think I would’ve been able to get away with using flutes or some of the themes in Season 3 in Season 1. It would have been very out of place. I think Season 2 actually got a little darker for a period of time, because it’s a really hard place in the story for June, and even in the first nine episodes of Season 3, she really starts to lose a little bit of herself, which is understandable in that sort of world. You’re going to lose pieces of who you were, and I think that’s a great theme that they touch on too with Emily, being so hesitant [in] reuniting with her wife, because you won’t be the same person, and what does that look like? What does that sound like with the score? So, it definitely was darker and less orchestral, just slowly peeling away the dread and adding more and more hope as the seasons moved.
How exactly have you been able to conjure an emerging sense of hope, in your score for Seasons 2 and 3? How have you arced out the way in which the sound evolves?
Season 1 was more about tonality and setting atmospheres; Season 2 was atmospheric with some melody, [and] a couple of main themes interspersed throughout, and then in Season 3, it’s far more melodic. Another device that I wasn’t using up until maybe Season 3 was repetition of themes, to start to create a continuity for characters, and even for moments when power shifts from Gilead to the Marthas, or to the handmaids, or even to the refugees that are in Canada, doing what they can to fight Gilead and get things moving.
I once thought the use of repetition maybe was something I was against. I wanted new ideas as much as possible, unless the higher-ups really wanted [recurring themes]—“Oh, we love the June theme. We want more.” Then, of course, you do what you need to do. But in this season, there was more repetition to drive the fact that the foundations are cracking. Revolution is on the way.
Something we definitely used a lot more of [in Season 3] is voice, whether it was myself or really great sample libraries, because the human voice is so expressive. It can be so beautiful in the right context, and it can also add that humanity that we’re talking about, that we want to feel more in Season 3, as we see the chains starting to fall off of our heroines.
I was really proud of that, and there were a couple of themes where my upbringing in my late teens, early 20s [was an influence]. A lot of the music I learned was in the context of going to Pentecostal churches and playing off-the-cuff music. You just jam in the moment; there’s not a lot of charts. So, I kind of got back into those roots with some of the sounds.
There’s this great scene in the early parts of Season 3 [that’s] probably one of the first and more pure kind of spiritual moments to have happened in three years now. There’s no one around; Aunt Lydia isn’t watching to make sure [June]’s saying her prayers. She just has this beautiful, pure moment of prayer. I remember doing the score, and it’s this piano and these drones and stuff, and I was like, “All right, we’re back at church.” [laughs] That more spiritual and organic sound.
Then, another thing that was huge with score was just way more notes per bar. There were a lot of very long, droning notes in Season 1, a little bit less in Season 2—and in Season 3, wherever it was appropriate, there’s a lot of faster, quicker notes and tempos to give it more forward momentum. That was a huge shift this season, as well, so much so that at the beginning, I pushed too hard and had to dial it back a little, because it was almost a little too much.
But every once in a while, there is something that’s a little out of the box, and it ends up landing, like the very opening of Season 3. I had this piece written; it was kind of upbeat. June’s chasing after Lawrence’s car, there’s a great voiceover that’s catapulting us into Season 3, and there was this very quick, grand orchestral piece, and it’s everything that you would want to hear. But then as a random alt version, they had…I don’t remember the song, but it was just very different. So I was like, “Okay, what if we were to input this song into the machine that makes the Handmaid’s score? What would come out?” and that ended up being what landed as the opener. It’s tis dark synth, kind of ‘80s drum beat, and this baritone guitar—which was also very unusual, to have just an electric guitar in the score. And I didn’t even realize it made it to the final [cut] until something, I think on Twitter, was like, “Love this. Is this a band?” I turned on Hulu and listened, and I was like, “Oh, that’s great. They picked the dark horse for the opener. That’s cool.” [laughs]
An interesting and unusual facet of your work on Handmaid’s is that you collaborate closely with the series’ lead actress and EP, Elisabeth Moss. Do you recall any of the notes she gave you or conversations you had, with regard to the Season 2 score?
We had a lot more collaboration this year, just because of the way the calendar worked out, and she’s more and more involved as a producer. But I know we worked a lot on the last two cues in “The Word,” which is the one that we submitted [for Emmy consideration]. It was about finding that space where she’s staying behind, and it’s this grand orchestral thing, and then it switches to: She’s got her boots on, she’s going to kick some ass. I remember there was a lot of back and forth with that.
The last three Emmys-eligible episodes of Season 2 featured a lot of standout moments. What was your approach to the sequence in Episode 11 where June gives birth alone in an empty house, recalling simultaneously the birth of her first child?
That ended up being one of those cues that just comes out of nowhere. It’s kind of like that first-run magic, where you’re working on an episode, and sometimes there’s a round two or round three of you writing and putting a layout, and the expression just kind of flows from your pen. I was a little nervous about it because [the cue featured] me singing and I wanted to replace it. [But] it ended up being that my nonprofessional voice kind of worked better, because it was as frail and weak as she was at the time.
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