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'Shōgun' Composers Leopold Ross and Nick Chuba on Crafting the Soundtrack to the Best TV Show of the Year

'The goal was never to make traditional period Japanese music. The goal was to try and make something that was singular to the world.'

Source: Disney+ UK

The stunning historical epic, which began airing in February, officially ends today.

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Shōgun, the FX miniseries, is a lavish new reimagining of James Clavell's best-selling 1975 novel based on the real-life rise of the Tokugawa shogunate in the early 17th century, which had previously been adapted into a successful 1980 miniseries. The show’s gripping story and sumptuous visuals are matched with a musical score written by Oscar-winning composer and Nine Inch Nails member Atticus Ross, his brother Leopold Ross, and their frequent collaborator Nick Chuba.

The trio enlisted Japanese arranger Taro Ishida to travel across Japan recording performances of gagaku, traditional Japanese imperial court music, played on authentic instruments true to the period. They manipulated and sampled these recordings to create their own idiosyncratic musical language, a blend of traditional Japanese music and electronic soundscapes, equal parts tender beauty and oppressive dread. "The goal was to create music that cannot be identified as ancient or modern, nor specifically Eastern or Western," as Atticus Ross explained in a press release. "We wanted it to exist between the lines, playing primarily to the psychology of character and story."

The stunning historical epic, which began airing in February, officially ends today. Ahead of the finale, Q caught up with Leopold Ross and Nick Chuba over Zoom to discuss the three-man brain trust’s unique approach to crafting the soundtrack to the best TV show of the year so far.

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leopold ross atticus ross nick chuba
Source: MEGA

Leopold Ross, Atticus Ross and Nick Chuba composed the score for 'Shōgun.'

I'm a big fan of the show, and obviously your work is a big part of it. Can I ask how early you came on board the project?

Leo: We first got an email from the producer in ... I want to say it was the beginning of 2021. So it was a long time ago. And when we got that email, and even the subsequent first conversation we had with Justin Marks, the showrunner, and Jonathan van Tulleken, who was the director of episodes one and two, we got a sense of their level of attention to detail, but we had no idea the scale of the show. It wasn't like they were pitching us, "This is going to be the greatest show ever!" [Laughs] They definitely underplayed it. So it was amazing when we saw the visuals, which was probably a year later, it was definitely a "wow" moment of like, "Oh my god, this looks incredible."

Nick: Yeah, I think we did a lot of writing early on based on just the scripts they sent us, before they sent us any visuals. And then seeing the visuals made us think a little differently about how we were going to score it.

How closely did you work with Justin and the directors and [co-creator] Rachel Kondo when you were working on the score?

Leo: They shot for 10 months or something and we used that period as a sort of experimentation time. We had some conceptual ideas about the way that we wanted to use traditional Japanese instruments but also blend them into a more contemporary aesthetic. So we would throw things back and forth to Justin and get feedback, although obviously they were shooting so it wasn't like we were having detailed conversations. But once we got into the post-production sessions, it was a very collaborative relationship. Not in the sense of what instruments we used, but in the sense of where we put music and where we didn't put music and why it was important to have music in some sections and also not to in others.

Had you already seen the original miniseries or read the book, or was it all new to you when you signed on?

Nick: I read the book. I've never seen the miniseries. I think we were trying to avoid putting ourselves in a creative box early on. But I found the book to be pretty inspiring. I don't think you watched it, did you Leo?

Leo: No, I didn't watch it, for the same reason that you say. I didn't want to be influenced one way or the other, you know what I mean? So I felt like it would be best to just go in with a clean slate.

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I know you drew a lot on gagaku, traditional Japanese imperial court music. What drew you to that as a musical language to use for the score?

Nick: Once we started to see the footage come in and the level of detail and authenticity they were bringing for every department's angle, I think it inspired us to do our own deep dive into the music of the period and the stuff that led up to that period. Through a lot of research we came across a guy named Taro Ishida, who is a gagaku composer but also manages gagaku players, and it led us down this rabbit hole. We got in contact with him and he introduced us to all these different recording and composing techniques.

Leo: Once we got a sense of the textures that gagaku offered, it was inspiring to us. But I think the goal was never to make traditional period Japanese music. The goal was to try and make something that was singular to the world that Justin and Rachel had created.

I don't know if you were familiar with gagaku at all before you started doing research or if it was something you came across, but it's inspired a lot of very prominent Western experimental composers. La Monte Young has talked about being influenced by the use of sustained tones, and a few years ago Tim Hecker released an album with a gagaku ensemble.

Leo: We had done, strangely, some sort of Japanese-adjacent projects. We did a movie called The Earthquake Bird probably about five years ago that was set in Japan. So I think that was probably the first... it wasn't a period piece, but we were exposed to some of the instruments and textures at that point, and we had always kind of had it in the back of our mind that these instruments have a unique texture and they would lend themselves to what we do. Some of the kind of processing that we do. We felt like there was a happy marriage between their sounds.

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You talked about working with Taro Ishida, who did the arranging. What was that like?

Leo: It was mostly on Zoom. The pandemic was still ongoing. But I think the first sessions were just to see what they did from a traditional perspective and to get a sense of the traditional phrases that would be used.

Nick: Yeah. I think our original idea was that we weren't just going to write, "Here's a piano melody I just wrote a couple of days ago, can you just play it exactly like I wrote it?" And more to get at the core of their style of playing, get that captured, and then take those pieces and use them as the building blocks for our own compositions. So we would, through Taro, learn about these phrases that they use, and we would record those and put them in a computer and various effects, pieces of hardware, and turn that into a sort of sonic bed to compose on top of. And then maybe we would take that and throw it back to them and have them improvise on top of this. So it'd go back and forth. But definitely trying to get their musical identity wrapped up in the sonic blender that we were putting them through.

I read in another interview that when you were Zooming with Taro, his mom was there to translate. Which I thought was funny, just because the language barrier and translation is such a huge part of the show.

Nick: We were doing a lot of stuff where it's like, they're improvising on top of drone beds that we had put together. And our directions would be sort of esoteric phrases that didn't always translate super well, but his mom eventually came on and helped us out.

Right. Probably not what they teach you when you're first learning English.

Leo: We couldn't have executed what we wanted to execute without Taro. He was integral to the way it came out.

Taro and a lot of other Japanese musicians worked on the score. Have you heard or seen anything about how it's been received over there?

Leo: Well, Taro told us it has been very well received! [laughs]

Nick: That's what he said, yeah. But he would say that. [laughs]

Leo: We'll go with that.

I believe him!

Leo: He was very complimentary to us in the sense that he felt that we respected what traditional Japanese music is while also opening up his mind to what it could be. Which I was really happy to hear him say. So that was nice.

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All of the characters pretty much have their own musical themes that you wrote. Could you talk about how those developed and shifted over the course of working on the season?

Leo: We were experimenting with melodies and concepts for characters based on the scripts. But then, of course, once we saw the visuals, things changed, and what we thought would be right for one person wasn't right but it was right for someone else. So there was certainly a period of putting up stuff to picture and seeing what worked. But the main title theme was something that Justin latched onto very early. That was a piece that we had sent to him while they were shooting and he was like, "That's the main title theme!" So we had that as a jumping off point, and that fed into Blackthorne. Blackthorne's theme is essentially an iteration of the main title.

But yeah, it was a lot about working to picture. And I think that because there was such a long post-production process, because there were so many visual effects, that allowed us the time to really take in the whole 10-episode arc and construct the themes based on that arc. Sometimes when you work on shows with much tighter deadlines, you're not able to have that macro view, because things are moving so fast that you're sort of stuck in the right now of, "Oh, we need to do this scene," without figuring out how that relates to a scene in five episodes' time. I think Mariko's theme is a good example of one which evolves and enriches over the 10 episodes. What do you think, Nick?

Nick: Yeah, I agree. I've been rewatching it, and last [week]’s episode is a good example of the Mariko theme ... I don't want to do a spoiler, but, you know, there's the big scene in the castle where she's... you know... going. [Laughs] And I think her theme is definitely transformed in a way that incorporates a lot of the gagaku stuff that we recorded. And originally, when you first hear her theme, it's just played on one flute. Then in this iteration, the whole ensemble's playing it. So like Leo said, you don't often get the opportunity to really explore the musical material in such a deep way, which was really fun.

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So you have been rewatching it as it's been airing?

Nick: Yeah, I have. I don't know if Leo has.

Leo: Um, I'm not caught up, so Nick just spoiled it for me. [Laughs] No, obviously I knew what happened. I have been watching it but I haven't been watching it weekly. It's definitely rare in the sense that... I don't normally rewatch stuff. But I think in the case of this show, it's been nice in that it's had a lot of great feedback, and I've had friends of mine who want to come over and watch it, you know? It's sort of Game of Thrones-esque. I don't if you're a Game of Thrones fan, but for me, that was the last show where people would have get-togethers based around the show. And everyone would go to someone's house on Sunday night and we would watch Game of Thrones. It's been a little bit of a similar thing with Shōgun, which has been really nice for me to see, because I was involved in it.

I totally agree. I mean, obviously the show is great on its own, but it's also fun to have that communal aspect where everyone is watching it at the same time and interested in talking about it. And that's a relatively rare thing in TV these days. I agree, Game of Thrones, or maybe Succession to a lesser extent, were sort of the last things that were really like that.

Leo: Yeah. I'm so glad that they released it weekly rather than just dumping all 10 episodes out at the same time. I think that with the amount of effort and production value that went into it, it deserves to be properly consumed.

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You talked about the main title, which I think is a very good aesthetic encapsulation of what you were doing with the score — the melding of traditional Japanese and contemporary Western music but kind of alien to both of those things. Do you have any other favorite pieces of music that you wrote?

Nick: Rewatching it, I actually really like the tea ceremony. I totally had forgotten about that one. I don't know if that's my favorite, but it's one that I now, having had some months in between, think, "Oh, this isn't so bad." [Laughs]

Leo: I think the tea ceremony is a good example of a scene that was quite challenging in terms of the narrative of the show, because you want to find some empathy for Buntaro, even though up to that point Buntaro has kind of been a complete a--hole. [laughs] At the same time, you do want to have some empathy for him, but you also want to show some of Mariko's growing strength, but it's not really a place for Mariko's theme to play because it's not necessarily about her overarching arc. So I remember it being something that we had a few stabs at. I'm glad that you were happy with how it ended up. I think that's a good example. I personally really like all of the Lady Ochiba stuff. I feel it was: a) really fun to do, and; b) really works with her presence. So I would say probably the ending of episode five and her moments in episode six are some of my favorites.

Nick: Yeah, that one's cool because there's a vocal that plays in the credits of episode two or wherever she first appears, I forget. But that is a poem that's recited in Edo-era Japanese that's sung by the vocalist. Which I think is the poem that's in the show — "flowers are only flowers because they fall," I think is what she's singing.

Leo: Yeah, it's definitely unique to have a lead vocal in a score cue. It's very rare.

A big theme of the show is what people say and don't say, the things that are not said, which I think definitely gives the score a lot of interesting heavy lifting to do and lets it influence the tenor and the texture of the scenes.

Leo: From the word go, harking back to that initial phone call that we had with Justin, before they'd shot the show, we had a long discussion about scoring the psychology of the scenes. Scoring what's going on in someone's head, rather than what's coming out of their mouth. Which was definitely an interesting approach. But we also took that one step further when we started to think about the psychology of the audience as well. Particularly in episodes one and two, we wanted to give the audience that same feeling of disorientation and unease that the crew of the Erasmus feels when they wash up on the shore of Japan, which essentially was the period equivalent of crash-landing on an alien planet. So we wanted to veer away from too much melody in those episodes and create tension there.

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I know this was very different than, as you've said, working on a TV show with a time crunch. But I know you have worked on TV and you've worked on film scores. Is there any difference in the way that you approach them?

Leo: I think our goal going in is to always just make something that is completely bespoke to that thing. Something that really, hopefully, becomes so much of the fabric of that thing that if you try to pull it and put it against a different thing it wouldn't work.

Nick: I think we've been lucky that we've worked with people that prioritize music in a way where they bring us on really early, sometimes before they've finished all their scripts, and we can start thinking about it and writing really early on and the music's a big part of their post-production process. They're editing with our music, they're thinking about it while they're shooting. So I think that's a huge help, for sure.

Is there anything else that you feel like you want to get out there that you want to say about the project?

Leo: I'm very happy that people are still watching on episode 10. [laughs]

Nick: Yeah, I'm just happy that people are into it. You just never know. I mean, we loved it and everyone who worked on it loved it and thought it was great, but it's awesome that people feel the same just watching it. So I think I'm just generally excited about how it's going.

Leo: I would say that I think the finale is a good example of how the musical language of the show evolved. It's a very good example of the aesthetic choices we made in terms of only using music in various specific areas to make a point. Which is cool.

Nick: The thing with TV shows too is that the first couple episodes, or the first maybe even half, sometimes, you spend a lot of time on those, trying to find a language. And then by the time you get to the end you've found it. Rewatching the later episodes, I just remember it being a much smoother process. Like, watching [episode] nine, I was like, "That was so easy, that was so easy." And then I thought, "Oh, but that's because we did all this work in the prior episodes." But yeah, I'm looking forward to rewatching it for sure!

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