SFCM Breaks Down the Spooky Sounds Behind Netflix's 'Wednesday'
The show, partly helmed by Composer Danny Elfman's longtime collaborator Tim Burton, is Netflix's third-most watched English-language series and features a cello-playing titular character.
By Alex Heigl
Wednesday may be one of the more surprising Netflix hits in recent memory. After all, it's based on a series of New Yorker cartoons that are almost a century old, and the show's star, Jenna Ortega, wasn't even born for the first three Addams Family feature-film adaptations. But one thing the show had in its corner from the start was the combination of composer Danny Elfman and Tim Burton (who executive-produced the show and directed several episodes), resuming their decades-long creative partnership.
SFCM Technology and Applied Composition (TAC) faculty Costas Dafnis is a film composer himself—his scores grace the indie feature Overwhelm The Sky and Christopher Coppola’s VR short, Universe At Play—and is a longtime Elfman fan.
"Danny Elfman is a super-interesting composer," Dafnis said. "Each score is really different from one to the next. He's been doing music for so long that he's got all these different genres that somehow he manages to be really great in, whether it's the early Oingo Boingo stuff or film composing and orchestral scoring."
As far as what makes a "Danny Elfman score," Dafnis added, "it's basically the same thing that makes a Tim Burton movie," laughing. "They're pretty intertwined, their kind of aesthetics. The creepy parts are there and there's like that macabre element, but then you also have these kind of sweeter-sounding moments that just make everything creepier somehow. So it's like the clowns at the circus where they're supposed to be happy and fun, but also they're people's worst nightmare."
"His music is very heavily percussive," Dafnis continued. "I believe he records most of his own percussion and his rhythmic style sounds heavily influenced by that early-Eighties, late-Seventies period when he was first writing. There's this strong backbeat kind of pull." (Harmonically, "Elfman really loves those dark sounds, really Russian things that are reminiscent of Prokofiev or Shostakovich or even Stravinsky.")
The rhythmic quirk appears in the show's theme, Dafnis explained. "It has this moment where it's kind of metrically modulating. It's really playing with complex or simple meter, but it's really engaging and different. It opens with that harpsichord theme, and then there's this big moment where we suddenly kind of grind into this different part that feels slower before we return back to that original theme. And you realize that really, what he was doing there was taking those two ideas, those two rhythmic ideas—the opening one, and then that more triplet-heavy feel—and smashing them on top of each other and letting them kind of fight it out."
The show's choice to have Wednesday play a portion from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" may not have come down to Elfman—the show's music supervision was done by Jen Malone and Nicole Weisberg, who picked the Cramps' cover of "Goo Goo Muck" to soundtrack Wednesday's viral dance moment, but Dafnis said he still hears a rich musical tradition in Elfman's work.
Pointing to Elfman's work in a scene from this year's Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness—in which the characters use magic to bring sheet music notes to life as weapons—Dafnis said you can hear Elfman quoting famous pieces from the Western classical canon, saying, "I think he has a real genuine respect for that tradition, even though he didn't grow up in it in the traditional sense."
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