Shredding Musical and Fantasy Templates for “The Wheel of Time”
Composer Lorne Balfe tells IndieWire how he created different parts of the score to honor the experience of reading Robert Jordan’s books and reflect the eclectic mix behind filming The Wheel.
Enough sprawling fantasy epics have been adapted for film and TV over the past 20 years that the genre has developed a set of conventional sights and sounds. The music, for example, has its own sense of sprawl, with expansive orchestral and choral arrangements whose influence dates back to Tolkien – or, in this case, Howard Shore’s Wagnerian opus for the films “The Lord Rings” by Peter Jackson. As Amazon Prime Video’s version of “The Wheel Of Time” approached, composer Lorne Balfe and showrunner Rafe Judkins were determined to go against convention. Balfe created distinctly different sounds that aren’t necessarily concerned with making the world introduced in Robert Jordan’s bestselling novels vast and lyrical. But he created a lot of them.
The first music album for the show was released ahead of its premiere, full of concept ideas for the series and almost as a gift and signal of faith to fans of the source material. “I wanted it so badly [that listeners] who knew books were able to listen to that as their own identity and feel connected to it,” Balfe told IndieWire.
“I would subtly join Facebook groups and follow the discussion on the shows. So I soaked it all up before writing a note,” Balfe said. “We know we could have made this soundtrack with an 80-piece orchestra, but that’s not really what the fans listened to.” The composer connected to the music which fans of Jordan’s work said evoked the setting, the world of The Wheel – mostly progressive and folk rock influences. He also discussed with Judkins the show’s approach of blending Western and Eastern cultural traditions and visual influences to create a sense of a diverse and nuanced world.
“We were talking about benchmarks and [Judkins] had referenced New Orleans music and Balinese music,” Balfe said. “And what [Judkins] was really trying to understand the fact that Southern music embraced many different cultures to create the real sound. How do we do it, if we embrace different things to make them our own? »
Jan Thijs / Amazon Prime Video
The way Balfe gave the show’s score its own ethos was through a hybrid of folk musical traditions and instrument choice. “You can have an Irish uilleann pipe, but why not also something totally different, like an Indian sitar and Balinese gamelans? Just create our own sound world. There aren’t really any rules with that,” Balfe said.
The world without rules created by Balfe is therefore no less full than that inhabited by an orchestra of 80 musicians, but it is much more haunting and atmospheric, underlining the strangeness of the world as the characters discover it. It’s one that’s not afraid of a loaded electric guitar sound, even as it embraces different percussive and melodic patterns that make The Wheel’s world more soulful or more dangerous and chaotic by (if you’ll excuse the game of words). “Why can’t a gospel choir be the sound of the heavens opening? There’s no reason not to. I think being able to experiment and the team wants you to experiment…it’s a great experience to be able to do that,” Balfe said.
With a world of influences as vast as that of this show, Balfe needed to bring the same intentionality to what instruments and musicians he worked with as the show with cast actors. Peter Cox of the band Due West and the Southern folk band Our Native Daughters both became points of reference for Judkins and Balfe and became the vocalists Balfe used to create songs in the various languages of the show business.
Jan Thijs / Amazon Prime Video
The ability to bring in musical collaborators and experiment gave the show’s musical imprint a satisfying reach. “We were recording in Bali and we were recording in Italy, Spain and Tennessee. We were able to kind of see it as a whole – what a global sound is – and embrace these musicians from all these different countries and involve them,” Balfe said.
The flexibility and diversity of Balfe’s sound, in some ways, came across as an unexpected benefit of producing the score more remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. “You can literally think bigger,” Balfe said of what videoconference recording brings to the table. “[I was doing research about a] Carnyx, which is this pre-Roman instrument, and it was like, ‘Oh, well, [the musician’s] in Italy. Great. Let’s save it.'”
The circumstances of the recording also helped accelerate Balfe in terms of his ability to try things out and quickly iterate on those experiences. “The fact that you’re sitting there and writing something and all of a sudden I can send it straight to Will Greig in Nashville, who’s going to start playing banjo on it, [that ability] has always been there. We just never looked at it that way,” Balfe said. “I think we’re going to be less nervous about that for season two because that’s what we know we can do.”