How Music Serves a Story: A Conversation with Composer Adam Dorn

The Robin Williams documentary composer reveals the ins and outs of composing for television and film in his past and upcoming projects

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When you think of your favorite film, or in some cases even your favorite television show, it’s hard to imagine it without music. The viewing experience simply wouldn’t be the same. But a truly successful production is one where the music acts as its own character, neither taking over nor going unnoticed. Music should help the story progress just as the protagonists do.

With music being so closely tied to the mood and tone of a film, the composer becomes a sort of “unsung” hero for the production. I sat down with composer Adam Dorn to tap into this important role he serves, as well as to discuss the function of music in different types of mediums. Dorn has composed for a variety of films, television series, and documentaries. He is also a jazz musician and producer, under the moniker Mocean Worker.

His most recent project is scoring the upcoming Showtime series Enemies: The President, Justice, and the FBI, a four-part political documentary series from Alex Gibney (Director of Academy Award winner Taxi to the Dark Side). The complex drama will center around our nation’s history of US presidents testing the rule of law, and the FBI whose job it is to enforce it. With a project that feels as (unfortunately) timely as this one, Dorn says the music accompanying the new docuseries will be appropriately dark and reflective of the story. The fourth installment, which he reveals will involve all of the events that happen when the T word fires James Comey — ending up as a short feature film of sorts at around 95 minutes.

Dorn explains that for a documentary of this nature, the music should still have a “cinematic sort of function” but it’s important to remember that you also have a lot of people speaking. You don’t want the music to be noticed too much, he says, but it should still effectively push the story along. “In [Enemies] there is wall to wall music” and Dorn explains that he created around 350 minutes of music for the almost 300 minutes worth of episodes.

You always create music that doesn’t even get used. It’s intense.

He goes on to say that this was not a subtle project at all, and that he feels that with a documentarian like Gibney, he is truly working with the best of the best. He was given a great deal of freedom as an artist, and was told by the director to really treat it like a film. “Alex is the Michael Jordan of documentary filmmaking. All aspects of the filmmaking experience are on the highest levels, cinematography editing — bring your A game. That’s super rewarding because you get the best of both worlds.”

Praising the series further, he says “Enemies is based on a book, an amazing book, and it also covers everything that’s lead up to how this presidency came about… It’s funny, the two administrations that never get touched on are Obama and Jimmy Carter’s… ”

With such a heightened drama-doc in the works, one would think Adam Dorn would seek much lighter fare in his spare time. That’s definitely not the case. Dorn is also scoring season 3 of the investigative journalism podcast Serial (winner of the 2015 Peabody Award), which centers on criminal justice reform in Cleveland, OH. “For fun, I do another insanely intense dramatic political story on the weekends,” he jokes, going on to say that this is a very personal podcast as well.

The city of Cleveland actually gave the show complete access to their criminal justice building for this season. It seeks to dig deeper into a year in the life of the criminal justice system in America, and how everything involved with this system and its processes impacts people’s lives. Dorn explains how he set out to honor the city as well as enhance the storyline. “My goal was to write music that not only bolstered the dramatic aspects of the story but also [acknowledged that] Cleveland has a rich history of music.”

He describes his score for Serial as “funky and a little jazzy” and able to stand on its own in an album while still serving the story in that context. It’s not all dark, and there are a wide range of emotions present; some uplifting, some funny and lighthearted. Fitting these kinds of differing moods meant more than ever that the music should not take over. “The music functions differently in a documentary than it does in an action film or a sitcom.”

I always feel like the music should be saying something the actors themselves can’t say. It’s filling in the gaps when it needs to.

Dorn says the difference between scoring for television and for a podcast like Serial is that he has nothing to look at for reference — every piece of music was written based on what was explained to him. He characterizes it, most memorably, as a “sonic sort of palette.”

Besides these artistic differences, working with a podcast in mind means that Dorn gets to experience the episodes with everyone else — unlike with a television show where he has already seen all of the key scenes beforehand. “It’s fun to be able to still be a fan, but to also have a real impact on the show.”

Going from his previous project, the hit documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, to something as “angst-ridden” as Enemies and as “intense” as Serial was a big difference for the composer tone-wise. Dorn “absolutely loved” both projects, and had previously worked with Come Inside My Mind director Marina Zenovich on another film about comedian Richard Pryor. He got to flex his jazz music roots in the latter doc, but Zenovich called for a much different atmosphere for the Williams doc. An avid stand-up comedy fan and longtime admirer of Williams, he felt a certain amount of pressure concerning this film in particular.

I loved Robin Williams, when I was a child I watched Happy Days on TV and [Williams] was like a force of nature; I had never laughed that hard. Then being handed the responsibility to help craft the story around him, that’s a really big responsibility — to tell someone’s life story and to frame it in such a way that’s respectful to the family.

Dorn goes on to say that his work with this film came from genuine love and respect for Williams and that the score is as a result very intimate. “It’s warm and inviting,” he says, which feels extremely fitting for the warm soul the documentary was about. Again, the score in Come Inside My Mind pushes the story along, as it should, but also keeps people happy throughout, though it is a bittersweet happiness for sure.

I asked Dorn, in regards to his double life as a jazz-dance music recording artist and producer, if he could expand on the differences in creating music for an album as opposed to a film or series. “An album is going to come from you as an artist — it’s going to come from you and your viewpoint [alone],” he says. When writing music for something like Enemies or for the past films he’s worked on like The Devil Wears Prada, however, he maintains that you are always there to work for the story. Your music is there to support the storyline above all else.

In a technical sense, Dorn describes both as being very similar, but in an intellectual and mental capacity entirely different. Albums are too “ornate and busy”, whereas in writing music for film and television everything has to fit in its right place.

I’m a musician in my albums and a composer in on my films.

Interestingly, it seems like one is serving a story, while the other is in effect your own story. Either way, Adam Dorn is moved as an artist to create for both. I asked what it is that drives him, what gets him out of bed in the morning as an artist and a composer. Besides his dog, he says it’s simply “that urge to create, for yourself or for a project. Just getting those ideas out. If you ever lose that, then why bother.”

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Kendall is a recent graduate and San Diego native who is passionate about the environment, writing, and above all else Keanu Reeves.