Setting the Tone : Jonathan Wolff has been creating music for TV since 1982. His biggest, latest hit is the theme for ‘Seinfeld.’
A few years ago, composer Jonathan Wolff received a phone call from Jerry Seinfeld, who had been referred to him by a mutual friend, comedian George Wallace. Seinfeld needed a theme song for his new television series, then called “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” Other composers’ efforts had not met his criteria: something catchy that would underscore but not interfere with the stand-up routines he planned to do at the beginning of each episode, and that also could be used between scenes during the show.
Wolff thought, “Where others have tried and failed, how can I avoid the land mines?” He watched videotapes of Seinfeld doing stand-up--and thus was born the series of finger snaps, lip pops and tongue clucks that make up the quirky theme song heard each Thursday night on the NBC series “Seinfeld.”
“Watching the tapes, I diagnosed (creating a theme) as a sound-design problem, not a soundtrack problem,” Wolff, 36, recalls, sitting in the lounge area of his Burbank Boulevard office/studio, Music Consultants Group Inc. “The melody is Jerry’s voice. So instead of using drums or other instruments, I used sounds that could go with his human voice and used the pacing of his words to go with his tempo. I did use a bass, which has a frequency range that does not interfere with the voice.
“Jerry seems to talk at a pace of 110 beats a minute,” he adds. “I think of that like a brisk walk--a ‘gotta get to the curb, gotta catch my cab’ kind of energy. I wanted it to be kind of New York-sounding.”
Capturing the tone of a show--usually as envisioned by its producer--and setting up the viewer for what is to come is precisely what a theme song is supposed to do, Wolff says. “When you go to an opera, there is an overture, and the curtain rises. It’s part of the experience, the feeling of being entertained. There’s a heightening--you rise to it.
“Sometimes a theme song takes you to the place,” he adds. “With the moose in ‘Northern Exposure,’ by the time it’s at the end, you’re there, ready to watch the show.”
Wolff may not have written that series’ theme song, but he is one of television’s most prolific composers. He had been scoring episodes of such TV series as “Who’s the Boss?” since composing for “Square Pegs” in 1982; his first theme--or main title, in industry jargon--was for “The Charmings” in 1987, with subsequent credits including Shelley Long’s sitcom “Good Advice,” “Saved by the Bell--The College Years” and “The Good Life.”
But it was the success of “Seinfeld” that really put him on the TV music map. He now scores CBS’ “Dave’s World"--for which he chose and arranged the Billy Joel song used as the main title--and Fox’s “Married . . . With Children,” and created the theme and does the weekly music for “The Boys are Back.”
His midseason shows include a CBS comedy about New York bicycle messengers, “Double Rush,” from “Murphy Brown” creator Diane English; “A Whole New Ballgame,” starring Corbin Bernsen on ABC, and “Unhappily Ever After,” a syndicated sitcom about a dysfunctional divorce. He was also recruited to revamp the venerable “Mickey Mouse Club” song for The Disney Channel’s current crop of Mouseketeers, which begins airing early next year.
That sort of output would be virtually impossible without Wolff’s state-of-the-art computerized electronic equipment, an array of recording devices, sequencers, consoles and speakers housed in the Burbank building he bought in 1986. The high-tech machinery allows him, for instance, to receive a “Seinfeld” episode videotape on a Wednesday evening and have it scored by Thursday morning.
“The equipment enables me to manipulate things so much easier,” he says. “It’s like a word processor--when I do on-screen editing, I can grab and move things in seconds. It gives me artistic flexibility too. I can try hundreds of variations of an edit.”
He also can incorporate those distinctly non-musical sounds he pioneered on “Seinfeld.” For the theme for the upcoming “Double Rush,” Wolff, who bicycles to work from his Burbank home, used the sound of his bike’s grinding gears and his own breathing. He then added fast-moving street noises such as horns honking and people shouting.
For the theme of CBS’ multigenerational sitcom “The Boys Are Back,” though, Wolff used a traditional acoustic guitar after creator-executive producer Matthew Carlson mentioned that he liked the instrument; the only other input the composer had was Carlson’s stipulation that the music must appeal to all ages.
Says Carlson: “He took it from there. I didn’t know what I had in mind until Jonathan showed it to me. This theme is bright and engaging--when it’s right, the theme is a perfect blend of music and the show. Jonathan also does segues throughout the show, musically wry comments about the action that are always appropriate and exciting.”
The television audience probably does not notice all of his composition subtleties, Wolff knows. “They don’t always get that a costume is handmade or a desk is real oak, either,” he says. “But these details make for a richer, more inviting experience.”