Writing the ‘Big Theme’: An Interview With Award-Winning Composer Jared DePasquale

The score is tracking with the story as if it’s another character… I really love that most of the audio dramas I do require me to write the “big theme”.

Jared DePasquale, on audio drama

One of the fascinating genres that has exploded in recent years is the ‘audio drama’. More than an audio book, these full-cast productions involve cinematic sound effects and a full score. It’s precursor was the radio-drama, and classics like Dragnet, The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, and others were hugely popular before television dominated the scene. (Bonus nugget, some *cough* Dragnet *cough* keep in the original commercial breaks, and we hear advertisements like “Real cereal shot from guns!”)

I discovered audio drams during COVID, and quickly fell in love. With no visuals, every sound mattered. The music became even MORE important than in film.

I recently caught up with award-winning composer Jared DePasquale, who has scored three of my favorite all-time audio dramas (At The Back Of The North Wind, The Trials of St. Patrick, and The Victory of Joan of Ark). But that’s just the tip of the iceberg– I also discovered we’re both guitarists, share a ton of musical loves, and (even more importantly) are both Yankees fans!

Check out the interview below as Jared talks about audio dramas, influences, new projects, the process of scoring, and working with some of the greatest actors on the planet! You can find more of his work at www.jareddepasquale.com.

First of all, I’ve really enjoyed your work! Can you talk a bit about how you got into music?

In 1977, my parents took me to see the original Star Wars film in the movie theaters. Like so many kids of that generation I was absolutely mesmerized by what I was seeing and hearing.  I fell in love with that movie, and especially what I called, “The Sound”.  That sound was John Williams, of course.  That Christmas, my parents bought me a two record set called, “The Story of Star Wars”.  It contained the actor’s voices, the FX, and the music.  I listened to those records thousands of times.  I really think that point in my life became one of the most significant ways that my musical ear was being formed, and I wasn’t even playing music yet!  When I was a freshman in High School, I stopped playing baseball.  I don’t exactly know why I stopped, but my mother was slightly concerned about a 14 year old boy with nothing to do.  She asked if I was interested in taking guitar lessons.  She offered to pay for the first month of lessons, and once I started them, I was hooked.

Who are your biggest influences?

That’s a really difficult question, because my influences are so broad.  I have what I would call, “early influences”…bands that really shaped my early musical life [like] Rush, Genesis (the Gabriel years), Yes (the Trevor Rabin years), and Led Zeppelin.  I was a Prog-Rock kid through and through.  I just loved their epic tracks that took up an entire side of a record.  It was cinematic, and I really responded to that. 

As I began to compose more in college, I began to develop a love of both film composers and what we might call, “Classical Composers”.  Besides John Williams, I was a huge fan of Michael Kamen in the 90’s.  I also went through a massive James Horner phase in the 90’s when it seemed like he was scoring every movie out there.  I love Howard Shore’s work (I was listening to him when he was doing horror films) as well as James Newton Howard’s work.  I also went through a big Jerry Goldsmith phase as he’s one of the most important composers in the world of film music. 

On the classical side of things, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” remains one of the most important pieces of music ever written (in terms of my musical growth).  I always say, “there was music before The Rite, and there was music after The Rite.”  I love Ravel, Vaughn Williams, Holst, Copland, and Shostakovich, but I also really appreciate the work of Penderecki Gorecki, and Ligeti.  As you can see, the list is pretty diverse and extensive, and that’s only scratching the surface!

You mentioned that, like me, you started as a guitarist; what made you focus on composition?

You know, from the moment I picked up the guitar, I began to write music.  I was interested in learning all the riffs of the day, but I really looked at the guitar as a tool to express myself.  So I started writing music immediately.  Yes, I was emulating my heroes, but that’s a very natural first step when one begins to compose music.  As I began to have more influences, and more diverse musical influences, I began to develop a sound that was somewhat of my own, but the process of finding your own creative voice is really a lifetime’s journey.

I first heard your work in At The Back of the North Wind, a wonderful audio drama by Focus on the Family. You’ve done a lot of work in that genre (The Trials of Saint Patrick, The Victory of Joan of Arc, The Hiding Place). Is writing for an audio drama different than writing for a film? How so?

I would say that writing for most audio dramas is more like scoring a film in the classic sense of the word.  The scores are vivid and quite detailed.  They’re hitting everything.  They’re reacting to nearly all the actor’s lines. The score is tracking with the story as if it’s another character.  Many of the films and shows being produced today have scores that are more “emotionally supportive”. They’re full of interesting textures, and many times void of actual melodies.  I really like these scores, but sometimes they can feel a bit interchangeable and lacking musical elements that make them stand out in a unique sort of way.  I really love that most of the audio dramas I do require me to write the “big theme”.  I never tire of trying to write the next melody and then figuring out how that theme will play over the course of an entire program.

You mentioned Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings score may be your favorite music ever. Wow! Unpack that for me.

The music Howard Shore composed for The Lord of The Rings really has it all, and that’s probably why I love it so much.  It’s intimate.  It’s simple.  It’s grand, majestic, ethereal, mysterious, horrifying, and violent.

And it’s all so uniquely him and it’s forever the sound of those films.  It’s my desert island music.  If I had to pick one record to listen to for the rest of my life, it would probably be his score to The Fellowship of the Ring. I showed the first film to my ten year old son not too long ago, and I was still swept away by his score.  I also love how he handles the drama and battles within the score.  It’s not the blistering fast action cues that some composers might have written.  While the war drums might be pounding away, the music takes its time and sort of soars above the war.  He’s been so influential for me; not just in the music he writes but how he approaches a scene.

In The Trials of Saint Patrick, you got to work with John Rhys-Davis (from LOTR)…what was that like? 

The funniest thing about that project was that no one tells me who the actors are before I write.  Most of the shows I do have incredible actors in them.  They’re from Game of Thrones, Gladiator, The King’s Speech, and films like that, so I’m just kind of spoiled in that way.  But a few scenes into Patrick I kept thinking I had heard this voice before.  His voice was helping me elevate what I was writing so much, and after about the fifth cue, I asked the producer who was voicing Saint Patrick.  When they said, John Rhys Davies, I about fell over.

How does an actor’s approach to a character influence your choice of music? Of instrumentation?

When it comes to audio drama, the actor makes or breaks not just the show, but the score I write.  I have an inside joke with my wife and some of the directors I work with that many times it feels like the actor  writes their theme, and I just figure out what they’re telling me.  I know that sounds kind of strange, but I really lock into the tone they’re giving, their tempo, and all their little idiosyncrasies.  Through that intense time of listening, it seems like themes just appear out of thin air.  It’s always a special time for me, because it’s that mysterious side of music that keeps me coming back over and over again.

Certainly an actor can influence instrumentation.  My most recent score to Joan of Arc is a great example of that.  Once I heard Heather’s voice for Joan, I was immediately drawn to the flute. The theme

I wrote for her had a pretty large range and there were only a few instruments that could play the theme with absolute ease.  The flute felt feminine and light to me.  I liked having that juxtaposition of the flute versus the very male dominated world of war and politics she was going to enter into.  It’s like she was out of place from the very beginning, and the flute seemed out of place in the context of a very violent musical backdrop.

I’ve noticed you’ve done a lot of work with Focus on the Family and the Augustine Institute— both faith-based organizations, as well as several other Christian projects. Does faith influence your work?

That’s a really interesting question.  I guess I would have to say that my faith influences everything for me, and not just my music.  It informs who I am, how I treat people, and the words that come out of my mouth.  All that to say, I don’t just choose to work on faith based projects.  The truth is, there are a lot of faith based media releases that I find simplistic, or heavy handed, or not terribly artistic.  I turn down work–or don’t pursue work that would fall into these “faith based” genres because the projects don’t resonate with me.  

What instrument(s) do you have a special soft spot for composing for?

Well, my wife is a professional oboe player, so it’s not a big surprise that I write a lot for the oboe! She makes all the melodies I write sound so good.  But I wouldn’t say I have a soft spot for a particular instrument, though.  I have a soft spot for great musicians, and when I have a chance to write for them, I throw myself into figuring out how to make them sound amazing.  I play off their strengths and showcase those abilities.  The Trials of Saint Patrick features vocalist Sarah Van der Ploeg and Celtic woodwind player Jessica Baran Surel.  They inspired me every step of the way in that score.  I’ve worked with Kim Fleuchaus on so many scores now.  She played a traditional C flute for The Victory of Joan of Arc, but has played her Egyptian Ney flute on Jonathan Park scores as well as Adventures in Odyssey.  Whenever I hear a great player, I start to think about a score they could play on.

Do you write music for the concert hall?

I don’t.  I would love to turn some of my scores into suites and have them performed, but I’ve just never been able to get a foot in that door.  The world of concert music is a totally different world and my interests have always been to write music for a story.  If anything, I would want to write a ballet score, because the ballet is sort of the original film score.

Ballet as the original film score: can you expand on that a bit? I probably would have said it was opera, or perhaps incidental music like in Peer Gynt.

I’m certainly no music historian, so I can only speak to how the music from ballets have affected me personally.  There was a point in my thirties where I realized that so many of my favorite orchestral works were originally ballets.  Stravinsky’s The Rite, The Firebird, Petrouchka.  Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe.  Copland’s Appalachian Spring or Billy the Kid.  Most of Prokofiev’s famous music.  When I listened to those pieces I could see the story in my mind.  When I finally saw those ballets live I certainly began to understand the composer’s musical choices – because he’s telling a story alongside the dancers, but I could go  home, re-listen to those works, and know exactly where I am in the story.  To me, that’s the role of film music.

Can you give some examples of current-day composers you listen to for inspiration?

I’ve really become a huge fan of Ludwig Göransson.  He’s an artist in the truest sense of the word.  He has his own way of looking at a story and finding a very unique musical voice to tell the story.  The final scene in the second season of The Mandolorian (where Luke comes to rescue everyone on that Star Destroyer) brought me to tears.  His score hit all the right moments, and the way he blended the orchestra with so many synthetic sounds were just incredible.  Then of course there’s his work on The Black Panther and other films.  He’s just fantastic.

Do you have a “lesser known” composer you think the world needs to know more about?

For so many years M. Night and James Newton Howard collaborated on so many important scores (Signs, Unbreakable, The Village).  I’m a huge fan of that body of work, but years ago the two parted ways.  M Night recently had Herdis Stefansdottir compose the score for Knock at the Cabin and I thought she did a tremendous job.  It was very different from JNH, but so evocative.  I even voted for it to be nominated in the Grammy awards, but alas it wasn’t. 

What do you listen to on a daily basis?

I listen to what my kids listen to, and thankfully they have really good tastes in music!  My son, who is almost 11, loves really heavy old school music.  He’s a massive Metallica fan (Master of Puppets) as well as early Black Sabbath, Ozzy with Randy Rhodes, AC/DC, and music like that.  I’m really good friends with Kip Winger (of the band Winger), and Kip so generously got my family tickets to see KISS a month or so ago as they wound up their final tour.  It was draw droppingly cool.  I had never seen them before, and we all were blown away.  Recently I’ve gone back to listen to the early Genesis records and I can hear them with new ears.  I can hear how complex and rich the harmony was in that particular band, and I’m sure that had to do with Tony Banks more than anyone else.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’ve just started Season 10 of the Brinkman Adventures and recently completed a 3 part Adventures in Odyssey show about a month ago.  I also just completed a pilot for a new audio drama that the director is hoping gets turned into a series.  In March I’ll start the next Jake Muller Adventures, which I am so excited about.  I wrote the first score back in 2018, and it’s by far the most harmonically complex music I’ve personally ever written. The stories allow me to take musical risks that aren’t available in most of my other work.

If funding wasn’t an issue, what’s one dream project you’ve yet to realize?

I would love, love, love to record the soundtrack release of The Victory of Joan of Arc with a live orchestra and choir.  We initially were considering fundraising for the score in an effort to record it live, but once I began writing the score I realized it was impossible.  Not only does it feature an enormous orchestra, there’s a full choir, a women’s choir, and a boy’s choir.  The price tag on that would be quite substantial.  

And now for fun…who’s the greatest Yankee of all time?

That’s a tough one.  I grew up watching the Reggie Jackson Yankees in the 70’s.  I loved Don Mattingly in the Yankees of the 80’s, but it was the Derek Jeter years that I remember the most vividly.  Many of those memories involve me crying tears of joy as the type of baseball Derek Jeter played from 1996-2001 (in particular) was just amazing.  I know some modern baseball fans think that he statistically doesn’t measure up to his legacy, but if I had to pick one person to build a team around in terms of not just ability, but grit, and the ability to be a great teammate, it’s Derek Jeter every time.

Thanks for your time!

Jared’s scores are available for listening and purchase wherever you stream music. Be sure to give them a listen!

Up next for Grace Notes Blog: we’ll interview more fantastic composers! Check back regularly and join our email list by sending me a note at pj@pjrasmussen.com.

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