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Making Unique Music for Superheroes: Talking with Composer Stephanie Economou about ‘Jupiter’s Legacy’ (2021)

Just recently I had the opportunity to speak with composer Stephanie Economou about her work on the upcoming Netflix series Jupiter’s Legacy. Stephanie is the composer of the upcoming Netflix TV series Jupiter’s Legacy, based on the comic series by Mark Millar. She has written the music for the Lionsgate/Starz series Step Up: High Water, as well as the second season of Manhunt: Deadly Games. Stephanie also scored two episodes of the Disney+ documentary series Marvels 616, directed by Gillian Jacobs and Alison Brie. Most recently, she has completed the score for the Assassin’s Creed DLC “Siege of Paris.”

Originally from Long Island, New York, Stephanie received her Bachelor’s degree in Composition from the New England Conservatory of Music and Master’s in Composition for Visual Media from University of California Los Angeles.

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Jupiter’s Legacy, which premieres on Netflix on May 7, 2021.

How did you get started as a film and television composer? 

While I was studying composition at New England Conservatory, I ended up scoring a couple of short films directed by some friends I had from high school. After writing mostly concert music up until that point, it felt refreshing to be part of a creative collaboration that challenged me to explore different artistic avenues. I moved to Los Angeles after graduating and pursued my Master’s degree in Composition for Visual Media at UCLA. It was during my time as a student there that I met Harry Gregson-Williams, who subsequently hired me as his assistant. I spent six years working with Harry, composing additional music for films like “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” “The Martian,” “The Meg,” and “Mulan,” to name a few. I like to say that I “grew up” at Harry’s. I was so green when he hired me and he took me under his wing, quite immediately filling that role of the trusted mentor. I learned so many of the skills and tools I possess today from my time with him. He ignited my drive and pushed me beyond the mental boundaries I had set for myself. I think it’s so essential for anyone working in an artistic field to have that kind of guided mentorship.

How did you get involved with the Netflix adaptation of Jupiters Legacy?

I was called in for a meeting by one of the executive producers on the show, Hameed Shaukat. He had heard my music and thought my musical sensibilities might be a good fit for the narrative. They sent over a couple of scripts and a rough cut of the first episode, and after our meeting, I went home and wrote a demo suite inspired by some of the ideas we had discussed. As these things so often go, I was in that “sit and wait” period for a few months while they wrapped up filming, but I was thrilled to have gotten the call that they were ready for music and they wanted to work with me!

Were you familiar at all with the Jupiters Legacy and Jupiters Circle comics before working on this series? If not, did you check them out before working on the score?

I actually wasn’t familiar with the comics prior to starting and I didn’t check them out until the tail end of scoring the season. There was a rather big musical moment in episode seven, where I chose to compose a chorale using the main theme of the show. In an effort to make the moment feel purposeful, I dove into Mark Millar’s original comic series. After locating the scenes in the comics that matched up to the on-screen moment, I took his text as source material, translated it into Latin, and those words became the choir lyrics. It felt like a special way to have the show adaptation and the original comic series come full circle for an impactful musical moment.

How much collaboration was there with the showrunners/directors/producers of Jupiters Legacy when it came to putting the score together?

A ton! I had a somewhat rare experience on this show because by the time they brought me on board, they had really solid cuts of all eight episodes, so we were able to sit down and spot all of them before I even wrote a note of music. This ended up being a critical part of the process because it was important to our showrunner, Sang Kyu Kim, that the whole season feel less episodic and more like a long, feature film. Knowing the pace of the story and understanding the character arcs for the whole season really informed the trajectory and shape of the score. I was able to plan conceptually for certain musical moments later in the season and plant seeds along the way to prepare for those moments. For example, the idea for the choir piece in episode seven was something I had decided on creatively during the spotting session and the producers were really excited by it. Because I knew that’s where I was headed musically, I made vocals part of the tapestry of the score by recording fragments of experimental vocals with the very talented singer, Ari Mason. The vocals range stylistically from Latin chanting, to throat singing, to microtonal patterns, to interlocking rhythmic grunts. They appear rather subtly at first as we watch Sheldon (played by Josh Duhamel) experience increasingly bizarre visions and they grow more prevalent as the season unfolds. I felt by teasing these vocal fragments, it prepared the audience (however subliminally) for the moment we hear the chorale in episode seven. All along the way, the producers (Hameed Shaukat and James Middleton) and showrunner (Sang Kyu Kim) were really involved in the evolution score. They had a lot of trust in my vision for the season and even challenged me to explore the strange and unexpected. It’s incredibly rewarding to have collaborators who instill a sense of confidence in your ideas and respect your creative contribution. I feel incredibly lucky to have had that experience on this show.

Were you inspired by any other superhero film scores (DC or Marvel) when putting the music for Jupiter’s Legacy together?

Admittedly, I kind of wrote the music for “Jupiter’s Legacy” in a vacuum. I intentionally didn’t watch any superhero films/shows or listen to any superhero scores while working on this season. I solely wanted to be inspired by “Jupiter’s Legacy” and the stories its characters were telling. I strongly feel that this show puts a unique spin on the superhero narrative. At its core, it’s a family drama which explores the complexities of our relationships with our parents, children, siblings, and those closest to us. They just happen to also have superpowers! 

While I didn’t attempt to get into a “superhero” mindset per se, I did intentionally lean into the “superhero film music” trope when I sat down to write a theme for Sheldon/The Utopian (which also became the overarching show theme). I wanted his theme to be rather wide in scope, so you’ll often hear The Utopian’s theme on a solo french horn or a big brass section or a full symphonic orchestra. I deliberately crafted his theme this way because I feel that is what we typically associate with the characteristic “superhero sound.” I thought if I painted The Utopian in this stereotypical, mythic superhero light, it would help subvert expectations. While he obstinately tries to uphold the morals of the Union’s Code and maintain a commanding heroic facade, in reality, we most often see The Utopian as a broken down, shell of his former self. He struggles to keep healthy relationships with his children, his wife, his brother, and is rapidly falling out of favor with the public, whom he has fought to protect for nearly 100 years. By leaning into what the audience perceives as a cliched “superhero theme” for his heroic moments, I was able to destabilize that image in his more intimate, fragile moments by exploring that theme on synths, vocals, acoustic guitar, and piano. Being able to write a theme that could expand and contract with his story arc felt like a really important way to shape his character.

Did you create specific themes for each of the heroes?

There are so many compelling characters in this series, so it was essential for me to try and develop themes for many of them. I previously discussed Sheldon/The Utopian’s theme but many others also have musical signatures: for example, Walter has a cello theme, Fitz a clarinet theme, George a plucked dulcimer theme, and Hutch a distorted bass growl sting. Two of my very favorite characters in the series are Chloe and Raikou. They’re both outliers and rebels and I felt their themes demanded a different musical profile. Chloe has an awesome action sequence in episode three and I was really inspired by the sheer magnitude of her powers and Elena Kampouris’ portrayal of her character. I didn’t have a specific idea for what her sound world would be, but when I sat down to write the cue, this industrial rock piece came out, with blaring guitars, synthesizers, and heavy distorted percussion. It just felt like it fit her sensibilities as a rugged, and somewhat lawless character. Chloe, much like her father Sheldon, also has many moments of solitude and darkness, so that same theme heard on guitars and synths is re-interpreted on electric keys and bass to reflect the intimacy of her personal struggles. For Raikou, I was struck with a similar feeling of wanting her sound to stand apart. I called up a trumpet-player friend of mine, Jake Baldwin, and asked “Could you take the mouthpiece off of your trumpet and record some stuttered, bendy motifs?” He met that request with a resounding, “Hell yes!” and came up with some really unique signatures. I took those, heavily effected them, and that’s what became part of Raikou’s sound. 

Additionally, I wanted to compose a leitmotif that could be used cyclically as a thematic microcosm (which I dubbed “the quest germ”), to excite the audience as the pace of our adventure picked up. This motivic cell, often appearing in a five or four-note repeating sequence, becomes a ubiquitous musical signature throughout the score. While we witness firsthand the unfolding of our characters’ epic voyage in the 1930s, their journey continues to evolve in the present day, and thus our “quest germ” becomes an essential part of the DNA of the story.

One of the most unusual motifs that I wrote for the series was the sound for “The Island,” which our characters discover and explore in episodes six and seven. I wanted to give a musical profile to the Island itself to highlight its strange and otherworldly nature. The eerie, bendy signature was created using a shepherd’s horn, rather bizarre vocals (or what I like to call “mouth sounds”), and a trumpet with several of the slides removed (again, Jake Baldwin at his best)! This was often accompanied by high, fast, tapping percussion which was meant to exemplify the supernatural force of the Island mentally invading our characters and pitting them against one another.

What were your instruments of choice when scoring Jupiter’s Legacy? I read that you used a number of regional instruments? Could you tell me more about that?

Yes, there were some really fun sound worlds I was able to explore. In episode six, our characters travel to Morocco, so I utilized some regional instruments like oud, bendir, darbuka, hand cymbals, ney, zurna, fipple flute, saz, and duduk (though that’s actually Turkish/Armenian)! Even though we’re in this new physical space, our main theme is still heard on these lead instruments, so there is a sense of musical cohesion. Apart from the Moroccan instruments, the overall score is a hybrid balance of orchestral instruments and synths. There were some incredible soloists who are featured throughout the score: Ari Mason (vocals), Jon Monroe (guitar), Jake Baldwin (trumpet and brass), Ro Rowan (cello), Bryan Winslow (varied plucked instruments). There’s also some violin and viola which I recorded and of course the fantastic vocalists who made up the choir. I think the score lives in an in-between space where the electronic and acoustic elements coexist rather seamlessly, or at least that’s always the hope! 

How much time did you have to score the series? Did the pandemic affect this at all?

I had about seven months to score the whole season, which is certainly a lot more time than most composers get for a season of TV! I think having those few months to focus on thematic development and hone in on a sound palette was really critical for me. Because of the pandemic, scoring sessions were rather touch-and-go for a while, so I ended up being able to work with all of the soloists through remote recording. Some of them were here in LA and others, like the trumpet player Jake Baldwin, were in Minneapolis, so it was really wonderful to have this roster of artists who were so eager to jump in and breathe life into the music from their home studios. 

The biggest challenge that I faced was when it came time to record the choir. As you can imagine, it was quite stressful realizing I had sold the producers on the idea of the chorale way back in the spotting session (before I had started writing), and then come August/September of 2020, there were no choirs being recorded in person because it was far too risky. In a bit of a panicked stupor, I reached out to choir contractor Jasper Randall, who assured me he would secure nine vocalists each with excellent recording skills. All of the singers multi-tracked their individual parts six times, with a slightly different interpretation and timbre for each take, all from their separate home recording spaces. Once I got their materials back, I shot them over to my mixer, Scott Smith, and a half hour later, he sent me back the most lush, majestic, powerful sounding choir track. I was completely floored by what these brilliant singers were able to accomplish in remote recording sessions. As with any ensemble, being in the same space as your fellow performers is so critical for matching phrasing, dynamics, and just overall emotional interpretation. And these singers were also faced with the challenge of singing in Latin! I was totally blown away by their musicality and the focused effort that they put into this performance. If anything positive came out of last year’s quarantine, it was realizing that, however isolated we came to feel in our separate physical spaces, we were still able to make music and create something special while being apart.

Without spoiling anything (if possible), do you have a favorite musical moment in this series?

Apart from the chorale piece in the final scene of episode seven, I was faced with a really unique creative challenge earlier in that episode. Most of episode seven focuses on the origin story of our original six characters, as we follow them at the peak of their journey in the 1930s to a remote island off the coast of Morocco. It becomes abundantly clear as they traverse through many obstacles on the Island that they are intentionally being challenged and pitted against one another. There’s a strange force that is preventing them from following the clues and getting to the crux of what this Island represents. 

Along the way, they find themselves suddenly trapped in a rock wall formation and it seems as though there’s no escape. As each of the characters place their hands on the wall, a colored light travels up the rock formation and they realize they must all get their lights to turn on in order to break out. The producers wanted there to be a distinctive sound associated with each character’s light and they wanted it to be a musical tone, not something left to sound design. By this point in the season, almost all of our characters had themes I was establishing, so I had the idea to use a small, fragmented motif of each of their individual themes to create their unique wall tone. For example, when Sheldon touches the wall, the first two notes of his theme on french horn are heard, and then a bell-like, synthetic tone evolves out of that motif. When Grace touches the wall, we hear her violin harmonic motif, and her unique tone comes out of that. For George, we hear his plucked dulcimer sound and his tone emerges out of that. The pitch of each tone was carefully chosen so that none of them quite work together harmoniously until the final light from Walter goes on and it completes the harmony to form a fully voiced major chord. Once all of the lights go on, the wall finally opens and they’re able to pass through. I should also mention that, while there were these tonal elements happening diegetically, there was also underscore happening concurrently, so I had to ensure that all of these sonic puzzle pieces were fitting together and creating a convincing landscape for the scene to exist within. Once the walls open up, I didn’t just want these tones to fall by the wayside and disappear, so I took each individual bell-tone and created a randomized arpeggiated sequence that grows as part of the score cue. It was a really fun challenge to design the on-screen sounds and then have it cross the boundary and become part of the fabric of the score, blurring the lines of what we perceive to be sound and music.

In general, is there any musical detail you hope viewers notice when the show premieres next month?

See the previous question!

Thank you again to Stephanie Economou for taking the time to speak with me about her work on Jupiter’s Legacy!

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Soundtrack News: Music From Netflix Original Series ‘Jupiter’s Legacy’ Available 5/7

Milan Records announced today that the soundtrack album for the upcoming Netflix Original Series Jupiter’s Legacy will be released on May 7, 2021. The music for this series was composed by Stephanie Economou, who is a composer and violinist based in Los Angeles, CA. She has written the music for the Lionsgate/Starz series Step Up: High Water, as well as the second season of Manhunt: Deadly Games. Stephanie is a long-time collaborator of Golden Globe-nominated composer, Harry Gregson- Williams, composing additional music on scores such as Disney’s live-action re-make Mulan, directed by Niki Caro, Jon Turtletaub’s The Meg, Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer 2, Disneynature’s Penguins, and Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning film The Martian

After nearly a century of keeping mankind safe, the world’s first generation of superheroes must look to their children to continue the legacy. But tensions rise as the young superheroes, hungry to prove their worth, struggle to live up to their parents’ legendary public reputations— and exacting personal standards. Based on the graphic novels by Mark Millar and Frank Quitely, Jupiter’s Legacy is an epic superhero drama that spans decades and navigates the complex dynamics of family, power, and loyalty.

Of the soundtrack for Jupiter’s Legacy, composer Stephanie Economou had the following to say:

“This first season of Jupiter’s Legacy offers staggering diversity in style, scale, emotion and time period, so I set out to create a musical landscape through which the score could expand and contract; kind of like a kaleidoscope. This afforded me the opportunity to explore varied stylistic sound worlds, from hybrid orchestral to industrial rock to contemporary electronic. At a critical moment in the season, I composed a large-scale choral piece using two of the main musical themes: the heroic ‘Union’ theme and what I call the ‘quest germ,’ which is a cyclical sequence of notes that emerges as our adventure unfolds (Track 28: Jupiter’s Legacy). For the chorale, I decided to source the lyrics from the original comic series by Mark Millar and translated the text into Latin. In order to make this pinnacle moment feel purposeful and impactful, I chose to unwind the choral idea by recording small modules of detuned, experimental vocals with the masterfully innovative singer, Ari Mason. My objective was to have these fragmented vocal elements serve as a kind of musical breadcrumb trail, slowly and abstractly weaving itself into the fibers of the score, culminating in a grand declaration of our main Union theme with full choir at the climax.”

JUPITER’S LEGACY (MUSIC FROM THE NETFLIX ORIGINAL SERIES)
TRACKLISTING –

  1. Union of Justice
  2. The Utopian
  3. Chloe
  4. The Patterns
  5. Disembarking
  6. Traversing the Crevasse
  7. “Where to, Ulysses?”
  8. The Island
  9. Raikou
  10. The Overdose
  11. Grace Finds the Sketches
  12. Paragon and Iron Orchid
  13. Service, Compassion, Mercy
  14. Tree Symbols
  15. Through the Storm
  16. Morocco
  17. George’s Isolation
  18. The Hilltop Battle
  19. Everything Ends Up in a Box
  20. Miller’s Farm
  21. Crossing the Desert
  22. Being a Sampson
  23. Hutch
  24. Van Chase
  25. A New Leader
  26. Skyfox and Blackstar
  27. Illumination
  28. Jupiter’s Legacy

The album for Jupiter’s Legacy is available for preorder now, and will be available on May 7, 2021.

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