“Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” These are the opening words of the hit Netflix drama Narcos, fading in as the camera parts the mists above Bogota. The year is 1989. The strains of something bowed and eerie, like the sound you get when a damp finger circles the rim of a wine glass, come into focus, and we meet our narrator, DEA Agent Steve Murphy, an American Sheriff of Nottingham to Pablo Escobar’s villainous Colombian Robin Hood. The shadow behind those strains is Pedro Bromfman, Narcos’ composer.
I spoke with Bromfman, a Brazilian graduate of the Berklee College of Music now firmly ensconced in Los Angeles, about the compositional process, changes to the motion picture industry and what it’s like to set the mood for Escobar, one of history’s most notorious and controversial criminals.
Interested in music from a young age, Bromfman didn’t find his niche until he began synthesizing his myriad musical experiences. “I was a session musician so I played jazz guitar and Brazilian nylon string guitar,” he told me of his time in Boston. “I was a performance and composition major, I didn’t study film scoring. I’ve always been passionate about films but didn’t think I could make a living as a film and TV composer.” After meeting his wife, then a UCLA film school student, Bromfman began composing for her and her classmates.
“One thing led to another and I found myself doing this, which I think I was, without knowing, getting ready all my life to do. I’ve played every style of music, studied classical music, jazz – I think it’s a good thing for film composer to be versatile.” A diverse sonic palette permeates the Narcos score, which Bromfman attributes to a willingness to experiment and squeeze music out of any instrument.
“I play 90% of what you hear,” he says. “I have great percussionists help me out, but Season 1, everything was recorded by myself.” The variation in timbre helps the score ―sinewy, ominous and melancholy― hit its emotive marks. “It’s entirely organic,” notes the composer. “Sometimes it doesn’t sound like it because I add a lot of effects, but the organic nature of every pad or instrument is not from a library you’ve heard before.” This embrace of solitary technology certifies Bromfman as a composer for the digital age. Although skilled enough to command a full soundstage, he affirms that his “main instrument is the computer and music software.”
Experimentation and openness lie at the very heart of Bromfman’s ethos and the music of Narcos, which is altogether brooding, sinister and lush, exuding a tangible fogginess like those mists above Bogota. “No Amnesty” prowls like Sigur Ros in the jungle, while “Easy Money” sounds like it’s been in the South American musical lexicon for generations. “Agent Murphy,” the foreigner’s theme, oozes hypnotic menace, while “Flying Drugs” wouldn’t be out of place as an On The Corner b-side. Escobar’s theme, introduced as the “Prologue,” was written on a charango, a small Andean lute, whose indigenous timbre is reintroduced throughout the score. (“Tuyo,” which plays over the opening credits, was written by singer/multi-instrumentalist Rodrigo Amarante.)
Bromfman, who scored producer Jose Padilha’s Elite Squad films (as well as his RoboCop remake), notes a differences in composing for film and television. “As a film composer sitting down with a whole two hour film in front of you, knowing you have to do seventy five minutes of music in six weeks – a lot of times we live through that alone. We have to be organized and able to deal with different egos. You’re the last one coming into a project, so you have to be able to say, ‘I got this. I’ll make your film better, not ruin it,’ even though inside maybe you have no idea where to start. You have to portray this air of calm.”
Television, especially the Netflix ten-episode format, offers a different set of challenges and outside opinions. “Once they have a rough cut, they’ll send to the producers and they’ll give feedback,” says Bromfman. “When the cut is almost there I’ll go in and meet with the producer, some execs and the editor and we’ll talk about what the music needs to be for every scene. Then I’ll take the episode with me, work on it for about six days, get some notes, then send it to the dub where they do the final mix and balance all of the elements present in the sound world of the show.” At this pace, quick decisions are paramount, which means, “Whatever is coming out needs to be recorded. We need to keep moving otherwise we don’t make the deadline.”
Such a grueling schedule leaves little time for personal music, though Bromfman is unfazed. “I have a hard time just writing music for music,” he says. “I think I need a framework of a scene or how many minutes we need or what type of music we need, then I’m more productive to sit down and write five minutes of music a day [rather than], ‘I want to write a symphony.’ I’m trying to discipline myself and get there, but having a scene or a tone or working with a director does make me more productive – it’s my way of showing my personality.”
Bromfman’s style is set to expand in Season 2, which he attributes to creative freedom. “The industry tends to not only pigeonhole you but limit where you go,” he says. “Sometimes you’re doing a film and trying to put some themes in, and they’re like, ‘No – modern film scoring. There’s no melodies, otherwise we’re dating it.’” Citing Ennio Morricone’s scores for Cinema Paradiso, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and The Mission as major influences, Bromfman’s melodic predilection isn’t muted with Narcos. “I started writing music before having scenes put together,” he says, “and I think it clicked from the beginning.”
The show, however, is past the beginning, and the producers have made it no secret that Escobar’s demise is imminent in Season 2. Played brilliantly by Wagner Moura, Bromfman calls the cocaine kingpin “so juicy, a dichotomy” that invites a wealth of sounds and textures. This season, says the composer, “we go even deeper into Pablo’s end and inside his head. It’s so many opportunities to musically explore that character. We’re certainly gonna miss him when he goes.”
Though the original plan for Narcos was to follow the drug trade around the world, Moura will leave big shoes (and snazzy sweatshirts) to fill. Whatever the show’s future, Bromfman has a few projects in development, and his discography illustrates a sound that meshes indigenous instrumentation, melody and electronic elements into a true sensibility.
All ten episodes of Narcos Season 2 hit Netflix on September 2. See the trailer below, and find more on Pedro Bromfman at pedrobromfman.com.