You may have noticed that The 100 season 3 had a major sound upgrade, with composer Tree Adams creating a beautiful and action-packed soundtrack. We spoke to Tree about his process of scoring the show, his favorite tracks, and more.
The 100 season 3 features the musical talents of composer Tree Adams, whose previous TV soundtrack work includes Californication and Legends.
Adams’ season 3 soundtrack was released on Friday, and you can buy it on iTunes now. It’s a treat from start to finish — from the epic and haunting “Clexa” and “Bellarke” themes to heart-pounding tracks like “Satellite Migration Complete” and the “Skaikru Heroic Theme.”
And, of course, the iconic Grounder Anthem, “Take a Life With Me”:
Read on if you want to know more about how Tree Adams found the sounds for the individual character themes in The 100 season 3, which pieces are his personal favorites, and how season 3 worked to incorporate the music itself into the narrative.
Hypable: I know you joined The 100 this season as part of an effort to make the show more cinematic in scope. Could you tell us a bit about how you’ve worked to achieve that, and the process of working with Jason Rothenberg and his team to find the right ‘sound’ of the show?
Tree Adams: My goal when I came on board was to try and figure out how best to support the storytelling with music and to do my best to add another layer there for people to immerse themselves in. I had been a fan of the show and when I first got asked to come in and meet with Jason, I asked him how he wanted the underscore to function in the experience of the show. We discussed the idea together of having it play a more active role thematically in supporting different characters, realms, story arcs and what have you. I guess you could call this a more of a cinematic or thematic approach.
We would meet and watch each episode together to discuss the specific moments we wanted to hit and then we began to develop a dialog about these different themes or melodic motifs that we would reprise to create connections as the season went on. Sometimes, they might evolve with a relationship between two characters or the rise of a villain or an entire clan.
Sonically, the traditional orchestral approach has been useful for much of the drama and the emotional component to things. In addition, with the post apocalyptic component here, certain contemporary synth and gritty soundscape elements seem to work well. In exploring the sound that Jason was looking for, we determined he was looking for an exotic feel, as if from ‘distant lands’. So, we employ a pretty deep palette of ethnic instrumentation. I play some Middle Eastern instruments on the score like the Oud, Daf and Duduk. We often feature a female vocalist (Lisbeth Scott, primarily) wailing on top of things. It seems to suit this world pretty well and we do have a lot of strong female characters on the show.
I know some characters have specific themes that you weave into the score. Which are your favorite characters to compose for?
Well, there are a lot to choose from. Clarke is an obvious choice. There are actually themes for some of her relationships with different characters like Lexa and Bellamy. These are some of the most emotional and majestic in the season. Then, she also has the “Wanheda” theme, which is this solo cello motif that we go to from time to time when she gets heroic or treacherous.
I also really love writing music for bad guys. Ontari has a fun little ominous theme. We’ve got a sort of a Persian string theme with a bit of a slinky portamento feel and some dark bowed cymbals. It’s evil and sexy… a classic combo.
I’ve noticed you bring in all kinds of interesting sounds to shake up scenes, like the chimes in Ontari’s bath scene. What are some of the most ‘unconventional’ sounds/instruments you’ve used for the show?
I love using some of these more dissonant tonal elements in conjunction with our traditional ensemble like the aforementioned “chimes” (these were actually Tibetan bowls) that go underneath the Ontari bath scene. We use wine bottles and an arrowhead water jug A LOT! I’ve got an old chromaharp that’s way out of tune and that’s just the way I like it. Often, I’ll play it as a percussion instrument with brushes or blastix. I think the trick is to be highly aware of how these odd elements are living with any traditional ones you may be using. Your kick drum may have a pitch that’s really clashing (not in a good way) with the mallet pattern you just played on your spaghetti pot.
Tell me how you approach scoring music for the different factions of people in The 100, specifically how you created the Grounder Anthem (and Grounder themes in general)! Do you use any iconic instruments/sounds to capture the feel of the culture, and the different variants of clans within?
It has been a fun task to try and help delineate between the different factions a bit here. For the Ice Nation, we feature a Yall Tambur, big battle drums, pots and pans and a lot of exotic ethnic percussion as well as some crystalline synth elements in the upper register that feel kind of “ice-y”. Farm Nation gets an almost military feel with timpani, rolling snares and a specific lo pitch bending Virus synth.
For the Grounder Anthem, “Take A Life With Me,” Jason wanted a haunting melody. I wrote this over the summer in a little bungalow in Porquerolles, France just as the show was gearing up. He had the idea of a woman belting this out pretty much as a solo throughout this funeral in episode 3. Lauren Muir (a writer on the show) wrote the lyrics and they were to be sung in the Grounder language/dialect, Trigedasleng. I think the song’s lyrics really underscore the Grounder credo — ‘Blood Must Have Blood’. I sang the first sketch of it (initially a few steps lower) and then we went looking for a female vocalist.
We eventually found Julia Dominczak, who is actually singing it both on the recording and on camera in the show. She did such a fantastic job with the song. We transposed it up for her and added a bit of instrumentation to help it build as we cut back and forth to the team sneaking around underground.
One of my favorite scenes of season 3 so far was also in episode 3, when Lexa bowed to Clarke. And that was also because of the music, which made such a thrilling shift from tense to romantic, and again to epic. It’s also one of the few genuinely hopeful, uplifting moments we’ve had in season 3. Can you explain how you used the music to explore the subtleties of that relationship?
Well yes, a lot happens in this scene. The cue begins with Clarke and Lexa kinda squaring off against each other. They tiptoe around each other in a way. There are trust issues there and the music reflects this careful minuet of sorts (although it’s in 4/4 time). Clarke threatens Lexa for a moment there “If you betray me again…” and we turn dark for a moment. Then, Lexa bows before Clarke and the strings begin a chord progression from part of their theme. As Lexa vows to support Clarke’s people, things build because we don’t know how Clarke will respond.
When Clarke reaches out and takes Lexa’s hand, she rises and things turn Epic and Triumphant. This is the rise of the Clexa alliance, if you will, and then things darken as we go across the cut to the realm of the Ice Queen. Many layers come quickly here. It was a fun one.
Another favorite scene of mine was the melee showdown between Lexa and Roan, which ended with Lexa killing the Ice Queen. In terms of music, one interesting aspect was obviously that some of it was diegetic, with the Grounders drumming and blowing their horns along to the score. What was the process of working on that scene?
Throughout the season, we hear big drums and horns used as part of different ceremonies. We provide these elements separately so that they can be mixed in as though we are seeing/hearing them in the scene, but we build them in as part of the score so that our tempos and keys match. The Lexa/Roan fight was relatively straightforward in that the ceremony starts with these horns and drums and then once we get into the fight it becomes an action cue.
There are scenes in another episode with vocal chants where we had to record these and integrate them into the score. There’s a scene — in episode 2, I believe — where Bellamy is marching undercover with the Ice Nation and we hear the battle drums as if we are there out in the field with them. Again, these are built into the tempo and key of the cue. This was actually recorded in 12 takes of six drummers hitting water jugs, toms and trashcans.
Related to that, the music this season has almost been a character in itself. The Grounders sing and play drums on screen, and there have obviously been some really iconic musical moments (like Shawn Mendes performing and the “Add It Up” singalong). What kinds of conversations have you had about making the music more ‘visual’ in the narrative?
Well, I’ve always held that the music should be a faithful companion to the story. I think we’ve been fairly present in this regard. But, I don’t think there was a conscious choice on Jason’s part to feature more music visually. The Shawn Mendes song was just a fun idea that Jason had. I think for the beginning of season 3, he really wanted to start with something uplifting and hopeful — not the usual mode. Perhaps because it sets up the darkness better? Writer’s room question!
Anyhow, by using the Violent Femmes tune “Add It Up” in that kind of sing-along that we’ve seen before in Almost Famous etc., it sort of tricks us into thinking everything’s going to be alright. We of course soon learn that this is not the case with the dark dirge we hear at the end of the episode. I actually produced and arranged this Shawn Mendes version. He did a great job with the vocal I thought. It’s a real departure from the original and not at all in the pop vein that he is known for.
This season more than any other has been extremely fast-paced and tense, which obviously also means a tense, fast-paced soundtrack. But knowing a bit if your past work, I know you also do amazing epic, deeply emotional pieces. Do you look forward to the chances you get to score slower, happy/sad scenes – or dare I say even funny moments – on The 100? Or do you prefer the relentless surge of action and intense emotion the season has mainly brought us so far?
Well, there aren’t many funny moments on The 100, at least none that we score musically. I do love the emotional and majestic stuff and we get quite a lot of that fare on the series. The stakes are always so high on this show, it can be a challenge to keep building. I constantly need to find new ways to match the intensity of what’s there without becoming wallpaper and losing our audience’s ear. That said, I love the challenge and I think I’ve got a pretty good grip on how to do it at this point.
The producer who oversees the mix, Tim Scanlan, along with the mixers at the dub stage, Rick Norman and Ryan Davis, do a great job of bobbing and weaving the music with the artful sound effects that Charlie Crutcher and his team provide. There’s a lot of well thought out material sharing the space there. Our music editor Carli Barber has done a fantastic job of keeping the integrity of the music while servicing the adjustments that inevitably come with the mix. It really does take a well-orchestrated team effort for any of our work to translate in this kind of relentless dynamic.
Which track(s) on the soundtrack are you particularly looking forward to the fans hearing?
The “Clexa theme” is kind of the big seven-minute requiem here. It was a very controversial thing that we killed off this character, and this relationship between her and Clarke meant a lot to so many people. I think knowing this made the task of capturing the emotion very difficult, and in the end I hope we rose to the challenge. As a composer, your job is to feel this stuff and then manifest it. There is a lot of weight on this one and I so wanted to deliver something commensurate with what was happening in the scenes and how I knew people would respond to the show and the tragedy.
“Polis” was another fun cue. I tried to create a feeling of wonder in an almost renaissance-sounding waltz. We’ve got some of those chime-y tonal elements in there to give it a bit of mystery. It’s a nice contrast to our dark and tragic side. This cue underscores the relationship between Kane and Abby a bit too, as this is the moment where she turns to him and says “You are suited for this.” It’s a special moment in their relationship.