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Music maestro John Van Tongeren is responsible
THERE ARE VERY FEW THINGS in this world that can elicit as many varied emotions from human beings as music can. This is especially true in the film and television industry where a strategically placed melody is often used to lure audiences deeper into the world of make-believe. Composer John Van Tongeren is the creative force behind the tunes that get viewers' adrenalin going when they are watching the hit Showtime cable/syndicated television programmes The Outer Limits and Poltergeist: The Legacy. Van Tongeren became involved in working on both of these series thanks to his good friend and fellow composer Mark Mancina.
"The company that produces Outer Limits and Poltergeist, Trilogy Entertainment, has a longstanding professional relationship with MGM," he explains. "Richard Lewis from Trilogy had hired Mark Mancina in 1993 to work on an ABC television series called Space Rangers. It was basically a variation on the 'cowboys in Space' theme which didn't last long but had high production values. I ended up helping Mark out on the programme by working under the table, so to speak.
"When it came time for Trilogy to start production on Outer Limits they wanted Mark to do it. At the time, however, he was too busy because his film career was really starting to blossom, so he suggested to them that I do it. It was nice of him to point them in my direction. Subsequently, they found out I had actually done a lot of work for them on Space Rangers and we had a big laugh about that," chuckles Van Tongeren. "Mark and I wrote the theme to Outer Limits together but from then on it's been me working on the show."
The first season of The Outer Limits was a success for Showtime and Trilogy as well as Van Tongeren, who was nominated for a Cable ACE Award for his work on the show's two-hour pilot episode The Sandkings. Showtime and Trilogy were so impressed with the response to The Outer Limits that they decided to create another series, Poltergeist: The Legacy, which had its basis in the supernatural. Van Tongeren was asked to use his talents to help spearhead the launch of this new show.
"According to them, they wanted to be sure that the show was going to be good from a music point of view, which was a nice compliment," he says. "It did, however, pull me off Outer Limits for a while, but I still did six or seven shows that season. Fortunately, they've found some good people such as Joel Goldsmith and Randy Miller to work on the series whenever I can't. Both shows are really great to do, however, and the best thing about my job is that it allows me to write different kinds of music instead of the recycled stuff you hear on some television shows and even a lot of today's movies. So it's turned into a great musical forum for me. Of course, they have their guidelines as to what kinds of approaches they are looking for in certain situations, but it still leaves me all sorts of room to be creative."
The Food of Love
Van Tongeren's work begins when he receives edited tapes of episodes from Canada where both programmes are filmed. Because the series are sometimes shot simultaneously this means the composer can end up having to work on multiple shows in any given week. "That's when I have colleagues come in and do some of the work for me," says the composer. "I'm not physically able to do every episode of either Outer Limits or Poltergeist even if I want to simply because of the filming schedules."
Once he receives the tape he reviews it with either the Trilogy executives based in Los Angeles or the producers of the series in Canada. Together they make the decisions as to where the music will be and Van Tongeren takes it from there. "Normally, in a 44 minute episode there will be anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes of music," he explains. "There's a 10- to 12-day turnaround with each of these episodes including a day for me to get the tape and a day to a day-and-a-half for me to get it back to Canada, so that leaves seven to nine days to write the music. If you do the math that's four to six minutes a day and if you ask anybody they'll tell you that's a pretty scary amount of music to write every day.
"Also, because I'm not using a real orchestra, all of the music has to be what I call realized electronically with my roomful of gear that simulates the orchestra. I like to make each piece of music sound as real as possible and, consequently, it takes me a little longer to get it all to come out the way I want it to. It's a massive task, if I may say so myself," he chuckles.
"I recently talked to Mark Snow [the composer for The X-Files and Millenniuim]. We share the same talent agency and they thought that since both of us are Science Fiction people we should talk. The first thing he said to me was, 'John, I watched an episode of Poltergeist; I thought I had a lot to do, but my job is a cakewalk compared to yours.' His kinds of scores are not as orchestral, at least in the earlier episodes. So what he meant was that it's not quite as time-consuming for him to get his material to sound the way he wants it to and he is very appreciative of that fact.
"So I work however many days are needed to finish an episode," he continues. "Hopefully, the producers can come by at some point to listen to it a couple of days before I send it to Canada. When and if they do, either they'll give me their blessing or tell me, 'You know, this isn't quite right.' If you think about it, it's a big leap of faith for them to walk in that late into the game, but there's really no option. I'll make any changes they want and get it to the guys in Canada. Usually, I'll hear back from them within three days. If I did OK then there won't be any notes; if I did bad then they'll have a lot of notes," he laughs. "Everyone will then scurry to make the changes and we'll send them back up. They trust my instincts most of the time and I'll argue my position a lot and sometimes I'll win those arguments. At the end of the day it's quite a task, but I'm proud of what we do and they really love it."
When it comes to composing a piece of music for each show Van Tongeren will work from a script, if he receives one in advance, or a tape of the actual episode prior to its being edited. In either case, he tries to gain a global perspective of the story and develop an overall musical theme for it as opposed to sitting down and immediately writing music for each scene. "If it's a philosophical episode or a very preachy one where they're trying to send a message, which a lot of the Outer Limits ones tend to be, I try to get inside that and at least have that be a part of where my music is coming from as well. Other times the episodes are very visceral where a bunch of people are freaking out because they're being hassled by aliens. With a story like this it is what it is and so I just give them that kind of music.
"So a lot of time I do write away from the actual scene-to-scene picture and that's really how I've always done it," explains Van Tongeren. "Some people don't but a lot of composers like to do this because it means you're not confined to, 'Oh, I've got to hit this certain cue in two seconds.' It's almost like you're writing a song to these stories. Sometimes I'll write a piece of music that I can actually drop into the show and it works for like a minute or a minute-and-a-half. Other times you really have to hit the action that's happening on the screen and you can't use verbatim what it is you've written, but perhaps you can use the basic theme from it," he notes.
One of the composer's favourite Outer Limits episodes on which he worked is the first-season story The Message in which Marlee Matlin plays a young deaf woman who hears a message from Space after a failed operation to restore her hearing. "It didn't have a lot of special effects so it was a very personal kind of drama. In that light it was very atypical to the series and I wrote what I call 'nice' music as opposed to 'Outer Limits music.' The harmonies had a somewhat classical feeling to them and although the music was synthesized I thought it came out sounding quite organic.
"The pilot, The Sandkings, had some good stuff in it, too, and that story has turned out to be the musical bible for the series. That's the score they'll play for any new composer who's coming aboard to do an episode. They'll tell them, 'This is the benchmark for how we want the score to sound,' and that makes me feel really good.
"As for Poltergeist, I really like The Inheritance which is the ghost story set in the South. I got to write some fairly atonal music for that one in a romantic sort of way, if that's possible," jokes the composer. "It's funny, the signature for my music on Poltergeist is the twisted romantic. We get very gothic when we can but not every show is written in that style so the thread that kind of pulls that into the other stories would be a somewhat romantic approach to the music. You listen to it and think, 'This is nice. It's sounds romantic, but, wait a minute, what's happening here?' The melodies are a little out there and go places where you don't really expect romantic music to go, but the general feeling remains. So that's my conceptual approach to this series."
Bump in the Night
Although both The Outer Limits and Poltergeist: The Legacy deal with the unknown and things that go bump in the night, they contain their own unique elements. Van Tongeren constantly keeps this in mind and has tried to develop a distinctive musical style for each series. He established early on that the music for The Outer Limits would be made up of orchestral scores complemented by the use of synthesizers. When he began working on Poltergeist: The Legacy he wrote the whole score for the pilot in a gothic/romantic style that seemed to fit the supernatural theme of the series, or so he thought. Unfortunately for Van Tongeren, the show's producers decided to make some changes at the eleventh hour.
"They said, 'You know what? In the scenes where they're being attacked or there's all this supernatural stuff going on we need music that is more modern and really over-the-top and in your face.' I said to myself, 'OK, but we don't have time to do that,' but I had to go back and rewrite the music for 10 of the scenes. I think we worked on the pilot episode right up until the day before it was shown on Showtime; that's how down-to-the-wire we were on that one.
"We established a sound that is a hybrid of the romantic stuff that I had originally written and everyone loved it. Then an episode came along called The Substitute, which is another of my favourites, that I didn't think needed a lot of this new brash music we had come up with. So I had a chat with them and said, 'I'd like to try something different,' and they said, 'Well, OK.' I did the score to that and it came out much more moody and subtle and really fit the story perfectly. They loved it and said, 'That's it! That's the sound we want!'. Of course, whenever we get a story with lots of action we can't use this music," laughs Van Tongeren. "So the musical concept for Poltergeist changes depending on the episode and that's OK because it keeps things interesting. It also means that we're not locked into doing the same thing over and over again.
"So, yes, I try to maintain a separate style with both shows. It can sometimes be a challenge, however, as there are similarities with Outer Limits and Poltergeist in terms of their genre. Both shows are somewhat dark and strange things are going to happen whether they're of a ghostly or an alien origin. One just has more of a high-tech Science Fiction spin to it while the other is more gothic in flavour."
Lost in Music
Van Tongeren's journey to being a composer was a winding one, going via medical studies and rock bands. His first major film assignment was playing keyboards on the score to Days of Thunder for composer Hans Zimmer. He has since collaborated with Zimmer and written selected cues for the motion pictures The Power of One, Thelma and Louise, True Romance, Renaissance Man and Drop Zone. He has also developed another successful and rewarding professional relationship with composer Mark Mancina. Van Tongeren has written music for several of Mancina's films including Speed, Twister, Man of the House, Money Train and Moll Flanders. Along with CDs of his music from The Outer Limits and Poltergeist: The Legacy he recently contributed three orchestral interludes to Wilderness, an album by Miles Davis' drummer, the late Tony Williams.
With two hit television series under his belt and his own state-of-the-art studio. The Blue Room, Van Tongeren is well on his way to establishing a prosperous career. "I'm doing something that I've wanted to do since I was a kid and I'm making a living at it and feeding my family. God, how lucky can you be?" he enthuses.
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