Behind The Score: Hannibal

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Brian Reitzell’s score to the TV series Hannibal, seasons 1-3, is as much a feature of the critically acclaimed series as Mads Mikkelsen’s disquieting performance as Hannibal Lecter and Bryan Fuller’s vividly disturbing visual narrative. He successfully ditched the horror score cliche of jump-scare string sections and worked to invent an all-encompassing cross of neo-classical compositions, ASMR sounds and utterly unnerving drones and freeform rhythmic compositions. The score is relentless — unforgiving, bleak, jarring and then in certain scenes, astonishingly beautiful. It’s a massive body of work too, over 25-hours in the first 2 seasons alone, and there are episodes that feature a full 43 minutes of Reitzell’s original work.

Reitzell started out as a drummer, spending time writing music with Los Angeles band Red Kross and later joining French band Air before moving into more film work. Perhaps most notably, Reitzell worked alongside My Bloody Valentine frontman Kevin Shields for the Lost In Translation score in 2003. But it’s safe to say, Hannibal provided Reitzell the opportunity to really experiment with dissonance and sound design he’d been craving.

While a drummer, Reitzell became enamoured with cymbals and their sonic character. His infatuation with the traditional Gamelan music of Indonesia and avant garde Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, led him to Bali and Kyoto in search of traditional instruments and inspiration. In fact, season 1 of Hannibal heavily features a 30-pound bronze split drum he had made specifically after seeing something similar in a Takemitsu documentary.

That drum, I use for Hannibal. Especially for the Hannibal character, when he’s onscreen. It sounds like nothing else. It’s just such an interesting, rich tone colour. And I speed it up. I slow it down. I do all kinds of things to it. But we mostly play it. It doesn’t work so well for me on a timpani. I prefer playing it on top of a 40-inch Leedy bass drum. That’s like my resonator. So I set it on top of the drum, and away we go.” (via Red Bull Music Academy in 2014 here)  

Reitzell in his studio

Reitzell in his studio

The vast majority of the Hannibal scores are played rather than programmed, recorded in his Los Angeles scoring studio, alongside his engineer Michael Perfitt. The pair work 14-hour days, six days a week while the season is in production, Perfitt setting up and tearing down mics while Reitzell feverishly searches for the correct sound for that particular moment in the narrative.

“Everything is played live. I don’t use any outside sample libraries except for the occasional wind instrument or something basic like that. I do use quite a bit of Mellotron, and I do sample myself and make my own libraries. There have been very little samples or MIDI on this show. In fact, I don’t think there has been any. I believe the best stuff is hand made and recorded by an experienced recording engineer in an acoustically sound studio. I love to hear real depth and detail in the instruments and I like to hear very dynamic sounds. I have a full time engineer and a rather large collection of instruments. My studio was built in the ‘70s back when they really knew how to build studios so we do it pretty old school, except for Pro Tools for editing and such. I don’t use many plugins either. I prefer hardware. I use my laptop for sending emails not for making music.” (via Film Music Mag 2013)

Reitzell opted not to read the script ahead of production, preferring to ride the same emotional rollercoaster as the audience when he’s given a draft cut — taking it upon himself to dial the dread factor up to 1000. That’s not to say there is no method to the continuity of the Hannibal scores. As it became clear that a narrative was forming around main character Will Graham’s failing mental stability, Reitzell progressively used more percussive, unhinged noises in his scenes. They also changed the way in which they recorded, using surround sound miking techniques for more erratic movements around the soundstage. The instruments themselves became less conventional and more found sound based – utilizing household items and anything he could get his hands on, like a ping pong ball in a bucket, his daughters (now broken) Newton’s cradle or smashing Sake bottles together.

Reitzell believes that conventional instruments and sounds tend to have emotional baggage, a familiarity that’s comforting and/or relates to a preconception. For Hannibal, they wanted to explore the high-art side of horror, so often tended to disguise instruments by using them in an unconventional way, to create an entirely new sonic experience.

“I view Will and Hannibal and all these characters like their dialogue is music. I tend to colour that, and I find it to be really helpful.” (via Red Bull Music Academy in 2014 here)    

The Hannibal Soundtracks are available to purchase in 6 volumes on CD, vinyl or digital download via Lakeshore Records’ Bandcamp. 

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