Musician has big dreams for small screen

Special to The Times

A plane has crashed on a mysterious island in the South Pacific. The ominous pluck of a low harp captures the sense of doom as survivors inspect the fuselage, searching for a radio. Violins tremble. Suddenly, alarm. Syncopated beats erupt like the plane’s walls struck by a frantic timpanist. A monster is hunting the castaways, and it won’t take no for an answer.

Such is life on the ABC series “Lost,” the brainchild of J.J. Abrams (“Alias,” “Felicity”), reviving the redemptive virtues of well-crafted fictional television. While the serial drama has drawn acclaim for its spellbinding narrative, it is also among a handful of shows resurrecting the use of original scores and live orchestras, under the hand of composer Michael Giacchino.

For film and television music aficionados, Giacchino, 37, a boyish young man with a friendly demeanor, may well be the next John Williams, the dean of Hollywood composers responsible for iconic scores to “Jaws,” “Star Wars” and “Superman.” Except, in addition to scoring blockbuster films like “The Incredibles,” Giacchino brings his music into living rooms on the small screen -- each week.


“We’re making a movie every few days, and that’s exercise,” he said at a recent “Lost” recording session in the Capitol Records building.

Dressed casually in a long-sleeve T-shirt, baggy jeans and sneakers, Giacchino was touring a group of UCLA film-music students around Studio A, where Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and the Beach Boys recorded their hits, explaining acoustical issues and displaying unusual percussion instruments.

“You work your muscles, and it forces you to think quick, trust your instincts, and go for the heart of each scene,” Giacchino continued. “Where is the emotion, the subtext, the back story?”

“Lost” and “Alias” are two of only about seven or eight major television shows -- including “JAG,” “The Simpsons” and the current incarnation of “Star Trek” -- that honor the old Hollywood art of using large orchestras of live musicians to record original scores.

Giacchino has set out to reverse the trend.

“Every show in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, used big groups to record live, thematic music on a weekly basis,” he said. “They didn’t have a choice without all of our technology, of course. But the truth is that until music is performed it’s dead, and when I hear musicians play a score, I feel like Dr. Frankenstein. I want to scream, ‘It’s alive!’ ”

Infusing life into time-tested forms -- from spy shows to castaway narratives -- seems to be Abrams’ specialty. So when Giacchino shared his ideas, Abrams, who was of the same mind, persuaded Touchstone Television to make room in its budget for a live orchestra of roughly 35 to 40 musicians.


“The orchestra grounds the viewers’ belief system, allowing them to look beyond the fantastical -- that characters are jumping off buildings and beating up 18 guys at once,” Giacchino said. “I’m not against synthesized sounds to accomplish certain goals -- I write electronic music for spy-tech moments on ‘Alias.’ But I am against the use of synthesized orchestra sounds. If you want the sound of an orchestra, get an orchestra.”

And the “talent,” as they say in Hollywood, aren’t the only ones who agree. Cheryl Foliart, head of television music for Touchstone, said Giacchino’s music had helped make both “Alias” and “Lost” big successes and persuaded her studio, which also produces “Desperate Housewives,” a show that uses live musicians, to invest more in live, original music.

“TV is trending back in that direction, and it’s not really that inflated a cost to add live orchestra music,” she said. “Not since the musicians union has come up with a first-season discount for new hourlong dramas.”

Bryan Burke, a film-score enthusiast and “Lost” executive producer who brought back to Giacchino pieces of the airplane that the staff crashed to use as a prop in Hawaii, didn’t have to be convinced. Especially after the show orchestra’s percussionist beat on pieces of the propeller when characters inspected the plane in the pilot.

“There’s nothing like the warmth of a live orchestra -- the perfections and imperfections you don’t get from the electronic medium,” he said.

Abrams, who has become famous for his suspenseful narrative twists, noted that while a composer who writes well for live orchestras is a boon, finding Giacchino was like finding a “brother” or “soul mate.”

“He sees story and character the way I see it -- where music should go and how it should be used. Except he has the impossible genius to actually realize it,” Abrams said. “I can know where music should go but Michael knows that and then writes it in unexpected places, in unexpected ways.”

Giacchino’s challenge in creating a distinct musical tone for “Lost” was to avoid jungle and action-film cliches.

“Lost’s” musical palette -- made of four-note gestures with as much heart-tugging honesty as Bach chorales and tinny, insect-like string sounds known as “ponticello” effects that make your skin crawl -- is as introspectively thoughtful as it is emotionally demonstrative. Even music critics, who rarely tackle the land of television tunes, have taken note.

“Giacchino summons up an atmosphere of severe dread with very cultivated, complex, exotic sounds, not with the usual horror-movie cliches,” said Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker magazine. “It’s surgical -- after a spell of silence, or some rustling, throbbing effects, you get this one very simple but unsettling figure or chord.”

Giacchino’s personal back story opens in New Jersey, where he grew up acting in school plays, watching TV and films obsessively, and taking piano lessons.

“When I was 7, I loved John Phillips Sousa, Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera scores, and when ‘Star Wars’ came out, that was it for me,” he said. “My dad bought me the two-record set, and it had these amazingly informative liner notes that not only talked about the movie but the instrumentation -- the themes, how the French horns play Luke Skywalker’s theme here, how Princess Leah’s theme comes in later with the flutes and the woodwinds.

“It was like getting a first look under the hood of a really fast car. I thought I had the key to the universe.”

Giacchino majored in film at New York’s School of Visual Arts, later studying composition at Juilliard and UCLA while working full-time in film publicity and eventually video game production in the late 1990s as games became more cinematic.

After writing music for Disney, he sent a letter to Jeffrey Katzenberg as he was launching DreamWorks. Giacchino soon got hired and wrote promotional music that impressed Steven Spielberg, winning him the chance to orchestrate and record a score with live musicians. Next came the TV movie “Semper Fi,” Spielberg’s “The Lost World” game, the popular “Medal of Honor” game series -- then, his collaboration with Abrams, who had heard Giacchino’s game music and contacted him by e-mail.

“We all work together, but we’re all friends too,” he said of his work with the musicians for “Lost” and “Alias.” “It’s like when I was 10 years old, making movies with my group of geeky friends in my hometown.”

In Giacchino’s view, it’s time for a television -- and even a film-music -- renaissance, if only for the sake of the younger generation.

“If my kids or viewers are going to take something in, I want it to be something good all around,” he said. “Our bar should be damn near impossible to jump over. Don’t we owe that to people who spend at least an hour of their lives every week just watching our work?”