Interview with composer Robert Duncan, Emmy nominee for “The Whispers”

0 Submitted by on Wed, 14 September 2016, 23:30

by Sandra Kraisirideja

High-profile Emmy categories get a lot of ink but awards are are also given out for lesser-known categories, like music composition. In an email interview with, composer Robert Duncan, who is nominated for the main title music for “The Whispers,” shared his strategy for developing music for a show and his favorite guilty-pleasure songs. The 68th Emmy Awards will air Sept. 18 night on ABC.

Audiohollywood: The nomination for The Whispers main title theme music is your fourth so far. Do you have an Emmy tradition that you follow to prepare yourself for winning or losing?

Robert: Every year I know I’m nominated if the phone wakes me up. My agent is usually up before I am she follows the announcements as they come out.  If there are any traditions forming, it’s that I should sleep in on nomination morning as it’s a wonderful surprise to get the call, even when half-awake.

Audiohollywood: The music in The Whispers evokes childhood as well as an unsettling feeling that fits the concept for the show. What process do you use to develop ideas for your music? Designers use look books and concept boards. Is there something similar for composers?

Robert: I gather up all the clues that precede my brainstorming.  Descriptive words from the producers, I might write them on sheets of paper and hang them around my studio. If there are no visuals I might do a google image search for images that might inspire me.  In the case of the Whispers, I had sketches put into an animated story-board and the two target words of ‘innocence’ and ‘darkness.’  I knew I wanted something melodic and haunting, and show creator Soo Hugh suggested a music box as a great starting point.

Audiohollywood: When you are developing theme music for a show do you have several versions of the music that you share or do you start with one idea and then develop it further with the showrunner?

Robert: I always do multiple versions and the progress branches out version by version.  In the case of The Whispers, I had done a version 1 that I wasn’t completely happy with, thought the producers didn’t reject it, I knew I could hit a better bullseye and luckily that happened with version two.  After that it was just honing and polishing.

Audiohollywood: Are there genres that you particularly enjoy scoring? I noticed there are quite a few cop shows on your credits. Or is that just because those are the kinds of shows that are getting made?

Robert: I love the variety my job throws at me. My frequent collaborators are always moving across genres and I follow them. One director went from a dark and disturbing indie movie about a kidnapping straight into the most wonderfully upbeat and entertaining kids animated space adventure. Polar opposites!  I took it as quite a compliment that he trusted me to be able to span that gap stylistically!

Audiohollywood: How has the rise of quality scripted TV shows impacted your career? Do you find that there is an abundance of work being offered?

Robert: It’s wonderful that there are more projects out there, as competition is quite fierce in this industry, so I’m glad there are more jobs for us all.  We do tend to fall into grooves, for example I have done a lot of network television, but never yet worked for HBO or Showtime.  I did however, not so long ago score my first Amazon series called ‘Mad Dogs’ which was quite a creative trip! Half of the score was a subliminal tense ambience, and the rest was like nothing I’ve ever written in the past.

Audiohollywood: What do you find is the best remedy for overcoming a blockage in creativity? Do you ever finish a piece and come back to it later for a different perspective?

Robert: If I have had adequate sleep and food, I don’t usually have a creative block, but sometimes I am faster than other times.  I might delay printing a final version of a cue until the morning, when I have a chance to check it through with golden fresh ears.  Sometimes fifteen minutes gets me miles further than two hours at night when I’m over tired.  I see and make corrections that I was blind to the night before.  I do like to tweak and polish though, and sometimes that gets me in trouble with my schedule and I have to stop at some point and move forward.

Audiohollywood: What genre of music is your guilty pleasure?

Robert: I love well written pop songs. Though occasionally I get burned out on just listening to top 10 in the car with my kids, I have a real appreciation for someone that can write a well-crafted hook, or tasty ear candy.  ‘Dangerous Woman’ by Arianna Grande is an example of a tune that recently I thought was a perfectly written song.  I also like going back and discovering (or rediscovering) classic rock from the 1970’s.  There was something magical about music production in that time that I like to immerse myself in.  My favorite microphones to use in the studio are recreations of a microphone that was made in 1947, the Neumann U47. It blows my mind that something made more than half a century ago can beat out cutting edge products despite all the breakthroughs in technology.

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