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The Music of "Modern Family": An Interview With Gabriel Mann

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Returning with a new episode next week after its mid season hiatus, ABC's Emmy award-winning comedy Modern Family is arguably one of the most popular shows on television. Well into the show's fourth season, audiences have grown accustomed to the antics of the Dunphys, the Pritchetts, Mitchell and Cameron.

While the scripts and cast provide fundamental ingredients that make up a hit television series, it is the opening theme song that really tells you everything you need to know about a show. It is a composer's mission to write an unforgettable melody that becomes ingrained in the minds of viewers during a series' run and years after it goes off air.

Giving credit to his family for getting him started in music, Modern Family composer Gabriel Mann is a distinguished songwriter, singer and member of LA-based alternative rock band, The Rescues. He tackled several jobs in the music industry including a recording engineer and producer before landing a job as a composer's assistant which introduced him to the television music world.

I met Mann last year at The Hotel Cafe, an intimate concert venue that is notorious for showcasing some of the biggest singers and songwriters in Hollywood, and recently interviewed him via email about his experience writing and composing music for acclaimed television shows, artists and feature films.

Who provided you with the opportunity to work on Modern Family?

I worked on a show called Carpoolers several years ago and hit it off with one of the directors, Jason Winer. We stayed in touch over the years and at some point he invited me to the set of the Modern Family pilot where I met show creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd. They collectively tasked me to write a theme for the show though it was unclear how much other music would be necessary.

What was your inspiration for the Modern Family theme song?

Jason (Winer) wanted the show to open with a big bang right after the opening joke (the teaser) and he thought that it should be a big band kind of thing so that was where we started. I did write a number of things in a totally different direction before we settled pretty close to where we started. In fact I was writing new themes after five or six episodes had already aired.

Does your creative process differ for each series?

Modern Family has a nice little tune at the end of most episodes that wraps things up in a bow but I also cover a lot of the source music in that show which can be anything from '80s songs to elevator music to death metal.

Ringer was a very modern, mostly synthetic sounding dramatic score and Rectify has a very organic, introspective, moody sound. In terms of the process, I was, to a large extent, left to my own devices on Ringer. For Rectify I worked very closely with Ray McKinnon, the creator, to get to just the emotion he was looking for and usually this would involve doing a pass of the whole score, then Ray would come in with editor Henk Van Eeghen and the three of us would tinker with the score until it felt like what they had in their heads.

On Arrested Development, composer, David Schwartz and I get creator Mitchell Hurwitz on speakerphone and let him riff until he comes up with a genius concept that we turn into a song.

Where do you see the balance between art as a creative pursuit versus work and business?

The thing that I love most about writing music for a living is the variety. I love to write dramatic scores, pop songs, bluegrass and everything in between. I love the challenge of making something sound exactly the way people expect and also the challenge of making something brand new that no one has ever heard. It is definitely a business, a job that has a deadline for which you get paid, but it is also an art form and a craft that requires talent and training. Many people have one or the other of these aspects handled but I believe you really need both to make it work.

Many scenes use similar musical arrangements for a certain effect. Is that something that can change with time or are certain techniques too established and accepted as the standard? Can specific sounds, which are associated with certain things in our culture, eventually change to mean something else?

There are definitely trends in film music as there are in pop music or any other kind. At some point over the last 10 years or so natural sounding strings made resurgence in dramatic score in general; for a long while you only heard synthetic pads and things as a replacement for that sort of sound. The trend now is more of a combination of traditional elements (orchestra, guitars) with synthetic material for kind of a mix of everything. The synth sounds change over time, certain ones becoming dated for a while and then coming back 20 years later. The same thing happens in pop songs. I think there will always be something spooky about a little girl's voice singing up high over some "out" chords, and a big French horn line can always sound triumphant. Clichés will always be clichés. There are ways to use both of those things in an a typical situation and ways to accomplish the same thing with different instrumentation.

What is your favourite television theme song and who is your favourite composer?

I love the Mad Men theme and I'm a big fan of the series' composer, David Carbonara. In terms of film music, I'm inspired by some demented combination of Thomas Newman, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

The Rescues are performing live in Los Angeles at The Hotel Cafe on April 5 and 6, 2013. Visit www.gabrielmann.com for more info.

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