The Curse has one of the most unique scores ever produced on television. It’s incredibly hard to describe the ethereal, almost transcendental feeling one has in listening to the music, especially in relation to its sharp images on screen, but it’s particularly impressive to see composer John Medeski come up with never-before-heard sounds for the screen on the synthesizer.

As mentioned above, describing it in words is very difficult. Thankfully, a fantastic video of Medeski at work on the soundtrack of the series can be found below, where it’s much easier to aurally describe the journey one will have in listening to the music (plus, you can even see the composer himself performing it):

Of course, I wanted to unpack the process of delving into composing the music for such an ambitious show, not only with its main approach but in working with people like Nathan Fielder, Benny Safdie, and Daniel Lopatin (also known as Oneothrix Point Never), whose approach to music is unlike anything the world of film has heard through Good Time and Uncut Gems. As someone relatively unfamiliar with how the synthesizer works in creating these warped, distorted sounds, I also wanted to find out the process of coming up with distinct sonic effects that give the score its unique, memorable atmosphere, which we did end up discussing.

Check out the full interview below:

How would you describe the approach you took in composing The Curse

Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie approached me with composing the music with some concepts. They played me one thing, which was the Alice Coltrane track that’s in the soundtrack. They ended up getting the licensing for it. What was most interesting to me was the role they wanted the music to take. I’m not your cookie-cutter film score guy [laughs]. They didn’t want the music to be programmatic with the action in the film. The music is supposed to take you to another place to reveal something new you didn’t know was there. That was the approach in which the music operates separately from the dialogues or the cinematography, where it’s its own circle and shapes something else in your mind that music can only shape. 

The track they played me had a mystical quality, and it felt like it was in another part of the atmosphere. It’s an observer that gives you a different take on what’s going on than what a normal film score might do, which is to be part of the journey or accompany the action. It’s this other element that I thought was interesting to me. We recorded a day before they started shooting based on what they had played for me. I gave them a whole day’s worth of material they took with them when they started shooting. They then started sending me the dailies. I don’t think we used anything from that first session because it developed as it went along. The music became part of that process I’d watch the dailies, send more stuff, and they would work with it because the music was more of a pairing and not an exact parallel to the action. They could use stuff and say, “Hey, this is working, that’s not.” we slowly evolved it like that. The music was very much part of the fabric of the creation of the whole thing. 

I’m assuming it required a lot of experimentation on your part to figure out what worked and what didn’t?

Not really, but the experiment portion was probably more in the listening. The real experimentation came with taking the music, seeing how it does to the scene, trying a few different options, and seeing what best served that moment in the show because the music itself was an alternative observer. That was the experimentation, more than the actual music itself, because there were a lot of options. That was a part of the process: having options to try things out. If it’s not working, we try something else. At a certain point, pretty much everything I had given them was a little dark. We started working with optimistic music because that was part of it. Sometimes, the scene is funny, but the music is scary. Sometimes, the music is light, but the scene is heavy. That was the whole idea: a pairing that would create another dimension and a different foundation for your mind than what you see and hear.

I wasn’t too familiar with the work of Nathan Fielder before watching this series, but I was familiar with a lot of what Benny did in the past, particularly with Good Time and Uncut Gems. Music is super important to those movies, and I’m wondering how collaborative the process with them is for the score. 

With Benny, just seeing his films was one of the reasons why I was psyched to do the project. It’s important for me that the director’s relationship with music is real. Benny is a total music-head. I was familiar with Nathan. I had seen Nathan for You, The Rehearsal, and loved them. They were both very involved in the music process, and that was great because they wanted every element to be so important, and that’s what makes the show what it is. There was no compromise on their end in any way in the story or anything. This was completely their vision. I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s so great. It was great working with them. They came into the studio a couple of times, I would go in, record stuff, and show it to them. Some composers don’t allow that, but I love it. For me, when you create a piece of music, you can’t force people to interpret it a certain way. It’s for everyone to have their own relationship with the music because I may think it does something to the scene, but they may feel something else. We would talk about that a lot. They had their ways, and I had to learn their describing language because they weren’t saying, “Hey, can you play this in B-flat?” They weren’t versed in how to describe music. We had to develop our communication language, and I had to reinterpret it in the music, which I loved doing. I have so much respect for them. Collaborating and giving them license to do something I wouldn’t have considered was easy.

I adore Daniel Lopatin’s score for Good Time and Uncut Gems, so it’s also great to see the show following that pattern. 

Well, Daniel is the one who got me. Benny consulted Daniel and asked him, “Hey, who should we get to do this?” Daniel’s the one who recommended me. They were familiar with my stuff and thought it would be great. And Daniel is the executive music producer. He was there in the first session and connected me to join the show, which was great. And Daniel’s amazing. 

Was there a way that you wanted to approach an eerie atmosphere with the music as the show progressed? Because there’s a real sense of tension when you watch the show. It can get uncomfortable with the music playing in the background.

It’s hard for me to put it into words because I feel like that’s what the music does. The music reveals the part you can’t describe in words. For me, to try to describe that is difficult. As soon as I started seeing the dailies, I knew how great it was, and never saw anything like it.  It’s probably why I was a good fit for this: it was natural for me to find these tones. Sometimes, the music is ironic, and sometimes, it creates tension. I love the power of music in that sense, and having that in the show felt very natural. 

Were there any specific challenges that arose in composing the show’s score?

For me, the challenge was scheduling the time I had set aside, with the reality of when things got done because I generally have a rigorous touring schedule. I had a lot of stuff booked then and set aside to do some other work as well. Logistically, that was a challenge, but creatively and artistically, it was straightforward and harmonious. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, so I didn’t have to deal with certain aspects of it, like mixing, because I was composing the music, so it was smooth for me. 

Can you talk about your use of the synthesizer throughout the score of the show?

At first, I didn’t know exactly what I would call for. Throughout my career, I’ve been very comfortable with getting up on stage without a setlist or song and creating within the energy of wherever I am. My mission with music is to be in the moment. I like to operate and work that way. Originally, the first session we did, I had many different organs. Because they had sent me that Alice Coltrane track with an organ and spiritual chants, I was originally leaning toward some weird organ sounds, which transformed it. But after seeing what they were making while shooting, it quickly moved to the synth world. It was great because I love analog keyboards, and it was a natural progression for me to work with these sounds. You can tell from his other scores, but Benny has an affinity for some of that electronic synth music. It was very much a natural outcome of the whole process that it was the stuff that was working. I think you can tell that not many shows have themes that reoccur like that. The intention was to keep a certain feeling but to have the actual music evolve, change, and grow throughout the show as the narrative grows and changes, rather than returning to a motif or theme that takes you to a certain place. The idea is to follow this narrative as it expands, grows,  twists, and gets more uncomfortable. It warranted exploring other keyboards and introducing things as the show goes on.

How do you create these very distinct sounds through the synthesizer? I’ll admit to being a little unfamiliar with how it works, so I’m wondering if you can talk about the process.

For me, it’s back to basics. At the end of the day, it’s all about the sound. That’s how I create music according to the instrument that I’m using. When a sound inspires me, it inspires the music in a certain direction, depending on the nature of the sound. You don’t hear a lot of piano. In all honesty, there’s no piano because the sound of that instrument just automatically takes you to a certain place. A big part for me was to explore the sounds of what these keyboards can make, not to provide an anchor that takes you to a certain place. That was a big part of the process, trying not to do that and creating sounds you hadn’t heard before. You may have heard some of these sounds before, but not like this because these old synthesizers can create different sounds. With the digital stuff, you’ll get what you’ll get. But with the analog synthesizers, you’re dealing with waveforms, so there’s a lot of subtlety and many things you can do to create a new sound. A big part was creating new uses of sounds, putting them in places you’ve never heard before. 

That’s what struck me when I watched the show and listened to the music; I’d never heard any of these sounds before!

Well, thank you, and mission accomplished! For me, the level of discomfort that this show can produce, and the depth of it, was so interesting to explore in such detail over 10 episodes. You can explore that in a film, but that’s only for a few hours. For a show, it felt overwhelming to go into the depths of these feelings of discomfort, and I think it required a different approach to what sound and music can do in that setting. 

Is there something that you would say was the most rewarding aspect of working on a series like this?

Huh, good question. Honestly, getting to do it and being a part of a show that is great on every level was extremely rewarding. I think it’s a new classic. And to have been involved with it was fantastic. 

Awesome. Well, it was really great talking today, John, on the The Curse. Congratulations. For me, the show is up there with one of the greatest of all time, and the score is incredible. 

Thank you, and I agree. For me, it’s up there with Twin Peaks. There’s never been anything like it. I don’t know, it’s pretty great. 

When I started watching it, I didn’t know what to think because it was so unlike anything I’d ever seen, but when I got to the final episode, I was like, “Okay, no, this is it. This is one of the greatest television series ever made.”
Oh, and everybody is incredible in it. Emma Stone is incredible, and Benny is amazing. And just a little side note: as I was watching the dailies, I was sitting with them in the studio, and I didn’t realize that Dougie was actually Benny. I was like, “Who’s that actor?” And he was sitting right there next to me. I didn’t put it together because he was under some hair and makeup. But, of course, it all made sense! [laughs]

The Curse is now available to stream on Paramount+.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]

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