Mark Snow is responsible for scoring a handful of cult TV series where story, characters, and an unresolved mystique collectively engaged viewers over months (and sometimes years), and kept them wondering what truth lay behind the dark curtain in the corner.
Besides Laurence Herzog’s Nowhere Man (1995), Snow scored all of Chris Carter’s mysterious, conspiracy-laden shows for the Fox network.
After The X Files (1993) became a rock-solid hit, Carter created the dour serial killer detective series Millenium (1996), Harsh Realm (1999), and The Lone Gunman (2001) before the series that started Carter's creative wave – X Files – folded in 2002.
Feature film versions of X Files excepted, Snow wrote an astonishing body of work that has never been (properly) released on CD. There were concept X Files albums littered with dialogue and sound effects, but Fox either didn’t care about releasing original score materials for fans, or Snow was just too busy to sit down and figure how to winnow down the music library into a 78 min. CD.
Perhaps that’s why La-La Land Records and Snow focused on Gunman and Harsh: both shows were cancelled after their first seasons, and it’s a good test to see whether fans are still interested in Snow’s music.
Gunman was a tongue-in-cheek spinoff that featured the three conspiracy eccentrics that agents Mulder and Scully consulted when things got really convoluted, or needed third-party optics. The show’s tone was lighter and goofier, and for Snow, it provided a needed escape from the death, mayhem, psychological trauma, and misery of X Files, and particularly Millenium.
The show’s main theme is an amusing super-sleuth riff with low electric guitar, thumping percussion, and a sly quotation of the U.S. national anthem on electric guitar. Most of the cues vary in lengthy, but the selections provide a strong glimpse of the show’s oddball characters (nerds supeme) skulking around and snapping up secret factoids.
Snow reworks his theme in the sinister “Just What We Needed,” and it’s a cue that demonstrates his mastery of electronic instruments (namely the Synclavier): emulating orchestra instruments, sharp percussion textures, and pliable tones that discretely alter a cue’s mood while the rest of the instruments maintain their tongue-in-cheek tone. “Lost Causes” brings back the national anthem, and the brief cue illustrates the more familiar woodwind and brass emulations typical of late nineties gear. The difference between Snow’s scores and more generic TV efforts of the period is that he knew how to create concise cues that reflected the nuances of characters, and didn’t overuse the same sounds over and over again.
An electric guitar adds a menacing ambiance to “G.I. Jimmy,” and Snow builds tension with industrial grinding sounds, processed echoes seemingly emanating from a dank metal shaft, and a funky keyboard riff. “Elmer’s” is another memorable theme variation, with Snow maintaining a punchy stalking rhythm, playing the series theme with woodwind and string emulations, and alternating between direct quotation and bass line notes.
“Tailing” offers up a classical variation of the theme on chiming keyboards, while soft percussion maintains the cue’s steady tempo. Snow periodically switches to clarinet and oboe emulations, adding a soft vocal bit, and he keeps the cue light and breezy by sticking to pleasant harmonics. The Gunman suite closes with an alternate theme version with a more broadly comedic and jazzy flavour, capping the series suite’s 38 mins. length.
Harsh Realm was received with mixed reaction from Carter fans and TV critics, and as was typical of Fox’ behaviour during the nineties, if a series didn’t get great ratings and feel like a potential hit, it was killed fast. After 3 episodes were aired, the show was cancelled, and the remaining 6 episodes later appeared on the FX Network, blowing out the last episodic remnants.
Shows about characters working their way through virtual reality/dreamy worlds were never really in vogue (at least in the eyes of networks), which is why the trite VR.5 (1995) and dream-reliant Sleepwalkers (1997) were also allowed to die.
Harsh was darker, more violent, and Snow’s music was written with edgier, industrial sound designs, even though many of the represented cues have an ethereal quality. “Jump Back” has a long midsection where tones undulate, and solo keyboard plays a quasi-Asian, semi-tragic step melody.
The show’s theme isn’t grounded in a firm melody, though; it's just a series of ascending two-note motifs that lack any resolution, and allow Snow to easily drift into drones, textures, and abstract instrument emulations using the Synclavier. Most of the cues that comprise the Harsh suite are fairly long, and their sometimes amorphous quality hides any seams between tracks. It’s the most satisfying suite on the CD, and whets the appetite for more of Snow’s music.
La-La Land’s CD includes a lengthy booklet featuring affectionate liner notes by Julie Kirgo, covering Snow’s career from music student to working film music pro, and the album’s contrasting suites illustrate why Snow was vital to Carter’s series: the composer was superbly adept at at mood, and atmospheric music was central to the success of Carter's 4 series.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan