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We were given an incredible amount of freedom, say ‘Dickinson’ composers Ian and Sofia Hultquist

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson and Wiz Khalifa as Death in ‘Dickinson’ Season 1, Episode 1 ‘Because I Could Not Stop’

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson and Wiz Khalifa as Death in ‘Dickinson’ Season 1, Episode 1 ‘Because I Could Not Stop’   | Photo Credit: Apple Inc.


The composer couple recalls working with the Apple TV+ show creator Alena Smith, and how Sofia’s vocals elevate the score

Last November, when Ian and Sofia Hultquist returned home after taking their dogs out for a walk, Ian was told by his agent that Apple wanted them to compose music for an upcoming original show. That show is one of Apple TV+’s debut shows, Dickinson, starring Hailee Steinfeld as poet Emily Dickison and, much to the world’s collective delight, rapper Wiz Khalifa as Death. The show is a fantastical hyperbole without laying the quirkiness on too thick, ultimately winning the hearts of many viewers.

In a Skype interview with MetroPlus, the musical couple shares the story behind the much-talked-about score.

Sofia, known for her band Drum & Lace, says, “A lot of it is also that given Ian and I are younger composers and we do things that are electronically-inclined. The world gets even smaller when you’re specifically looking for someone who can do a score which also sounds like songs, and also someone who understands where the story is coming from. Just the fact that somebody recommended us kind of shows it might be meant to be.”

Dickinson is the brainchild of Alena Smith, who’s also written Showtime drama series The Affair. Brainstorming the score was interesting, recalls Ian. Figuring out the sound of the show took a month. “Going in, we all knew that there would be a lot of contemporary pop music. We ultimately figured out a blend of that and the music coming from that world; that’s when it clicked. We actually worked through all of the holiday break, so when the series team came back from hiatus, we had quite a bit ready to show them.”

Ian and Sofia Hultquist at the premiere of ‘Dickinson’

Ian and Sofia Hultquist at the premiere of ‘Dickinson’   | Photo Credit: Ian Hultquist Instagram

Infusions of vocals

One of the score’s otherworldly USPs is the infusions of Sofia’s ethereal vocals, unlocking a lot of creative doors for them. Ian explains Sofia’s vocals came in the strongest when building music around Emily’s romantic relationship with Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt). “Sofia’s heavy ooh’s and aah’s would be heavily processed into tremulos. That became the foundation of Sue and Emily’s themes.”

But this light-bulb moment with vocals did not happen right away. “It took everyone a little bit of time to get into the series. The first few episodes are an introduction and I feel everyone worked their way through the sound and the edits,” adds Sofia, “by episode five, everything takes off.” She tacks on that they were given an incredible amount of freedom. “I don’t think anything we ever did was criticised for being too weird. If anything, I wish we’d gone even weirder, in retrospect… just because we could have gotten away with it! With the main titles, what you hear is the V1 with some tweaks as per what you see with the text coming up. With the Death theme, we wrote and thought ‘they’re never going to like this, they’re so strange and different,’ but they were actually very open to us doing our thing! Having scored things before, we know it has to be coherent and consistent. So we did the best we could while still creating an impact with this new sound.”

Ian, whom many may know for being a founding member of band Passion Pit, felt the time to pump the brakes was when not to use music which was crucial in the first few episodes. “The beginning of the season starts off as a standard comedy but mid-season is when it transcends into what it really is. So deciding at certain points not to use music to let the comedy shine through was a conscious choice.” In typical Emily manner, she often delivers her sassy one-liners to deadpan silence effectively too.

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson in ‘Dickinson’

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson in ‘Dickinson’   | Photo Credit: Apple Inc.

What was it like to create music for a fictional show about Emily Dickinson, though? The real-life icon continues to have influence on many creatives to this day, after all. “One of the big things Alena wanted to do was get away from the preconceived notions that everyone has about Emily Dickinson. People thought she was this reclusive person who never married and was never published, but Alena showed there was a time in her teenage years and early 20s when she was a social and still-strange person. When we read through her poetry which is weaved into the episodes, we were wary to not do any extra research in order to align with Alena’s vision.” Ian adds that given Dickinson offered a whole new playing field, they tried to stick with what was in front of them. Ian and Sofia also pay respect to the show’s music supervisor Devoe Yates for the overall work he’s done alongside Alena with the layering of the music.

Future freedoms

The show does not just focus on Emily, but also on the diversely quirky people around her. “In the first season, Emily is at the centre so most of what we wrote is derived from her. We’re working on season two now which is more of an ensemble. We are already figuring out how to open up the score to give everyone their own moment,” says Ian. Sofia explains season two has a wider gamut to work with to fulfil her aforementioned ‘get weirder’ ambitions. For certain character-driven themes, Sofia laughingly recalls a few cues from Alena stating, ‘Hailee [Steinfeld], who’s also an executive producer, suggests this… .’ “Those were like those Hollywood moments and I was like ‘Okay!”

Season 1 of ‘Dickinson’ is available to stream on Apple TV +

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 8:34:34 PM |

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