BOB GARFIELD: As we've heard, reality TV shows dominate the medium, and while the writers have it easy, the composers are madly scrambling. The reason? Reality shows demand quicker turnaround than other TV fare -- the time between shooting and airing can be as brief as a week, allowing almost no time for post production. Claes Andreasson, freelance reporter for Swedish National Public Radio, met with television composer David Vanacore who sometimes has but a couple of days to write the score for a one hour show. [CLIP OF SCORE PLAYS]
CLAES ANDREASSON: David Vanacore is the award-winning composer for shows like Survivor, For Love or Money, and The Restaurant. But in his studio, housed in a single family home a few miles north of Los Angeles, he works alone. And dwarfed by the banks of synthesizers, samplers and computer hardware is his sole musical instrument -- an electronic piano keyboard.
DAVID VANACORE: Yes. With the, you know, the new technology, I only need one keyboard. Everything else is synthesized, sampled, programmed in a sense where, you know, I am playing everything from the timpani to the flute to the oboe to the clarinet. You know, you name it -- there's a sample for it. [CLIP FROM SCORE PLAYS - MIXED CHORUS] I'll have a, a solo cello-- [CELLO PLAYS] ready to go -- and this cello happens to have a lot of different things. It's called key-switching. [CELLO WITH VIBRATO] So that's a cello with vibrato-- [CELLO PLAYS AGAIN] This is a short-- [CELLO] Here we have-- [CELLO] this is the same instrument, without changing it I'm key-switching. [CELLO] Pizzicato--
CLAES ANDREASSON: With the birth of motion picture came the solo pianist in the orchestra pit enhancing the silver screen action. With modern television series, the image of a musical lone wolf has come full circle -- the musician taken on the role as composer, orchestrator and sound engineer as well. But it didn't always used to be that way. Jon Burlingame teaches the history of film music at the University of Southern California, and he's also author of TV's Biggest Hits.
JON BURLINGAME: In the heyday of television scoring, which would be the '60s, the '70s and, and the early '80s, in fact it was commonplace for a full orchestra to be playing every week behind most one hour shows. When I say full orchestra, I'm talking about at least 25 musicians; possibly as many as 50 or 60, depending on the project. Two things happened. One was called Miami Vice in the mid-1980s. Because Miami Vice was the first hit show to have an all-electronic score. That was a hit. That told producers immediately that you could create these scores on a weekly basis on a much smaller budget. I think the second thing is the explosion of cable in this country in the 1990s, whereby there were so many shows, so many options, so many places to find your entertainment really led-- cut the budgets really down to nothing.
CLAES ANDREASSON: But there are actually still a handful of shows that use a live, full orchestra.
JOHN BURLINGAME: Yeah. The Star Trek shows actually have an orchestra of 35 to 40 players a week. The Simpsons uses an orchestra of 30 players a week. And the military drama show JAG.
CLAES ANDREASSON: What about the composing? Is the music on, on today's television shows as good as it was 10, 20, 30 years ago? [MONTAGE OF STRIKING TV SHOW THEMES PLAYS]
JOHN BURLINGAME: In my opinion -- no. Not quite. Because in that era, you had amazing people making music for television. Practically every important composer in '60s television has gone on to a stellar career in feature films -- John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Lalo Schiffren --in most cases today the time frame within which a composer has to fashion a score has really shrunk. There's so little time, and so little money to execute an important facet of the television-viewing experience. My hat is off to composers working under these conditions today.
CLAES ANDREASSON: Which brings us back to David Vanacore.
DAVID VANACORE: We get our assignment. We have about 4 days to actually compose new music for the show.
CLAES ANDREASSON: Wait a minute -- you have 3 or 4 days to compose how many minutes of music?
DAVID VANACORE: Usually with Survivor it, it could be as much as, as 15 -- and it varies from week to week. You know, I've, I've had as much as probably 15 and as, as little as 3. [SURVIVOR MUSIC UP & UNDER]
CLAES ANDREASSON: David, when I arrived this morning, you were working on something. Tell me what was it?
DAVID VANACORE: It's a very sort of dramatic orchestral cue that is going to be scored behind a plane sequence where there's beautiful scenery and flying through mountains, and so essentially it's the anticipation of the takeoff, into the takeoff-- [PHONE RINGING] into the telephone-- hopefully it's not them waiting for the piece of music, which essentially happens quite regularly. [SOUND OF PLANE BANKING]
CLAES ANDREASSON: Despite the wide array of musical options in a synthesizer for a divertimento composer like David Vanacore, the ringing telephone is probably the most motivating instrument in the room. For On the Media, I'm Claes Andreasson. [TV "SNOW" - TV SET SWITCHES OFF]
ANNOUNCER: And happy days are here again! [SONG HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this year's shows. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Katya Rogers, Megan Ryan and Tony Field, engineered by Dylan Keefe, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Sharon Ball and Dave Goldberg. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
ANNOUNCER: Is everyone out there singing? If you are, then it's sure that happy days are here again!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts and MP3 downloads at onthemedia.org, and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE &
BOB GARFIELD: Happy New Year!
CHORUS: HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN, THE SKIES ABOVE ARE CLEAR AGAIN, LET US SING THE SONG OF CHEER AGAIN, HAPPY DAYS - ARE - HERE - A - GAIN--!