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Q&A With <i>Breaking Bad</i>'s Composer Extraordinaire, Dave Porter

What a thrill to get to talk to one of my favorite composers on television today - Dave Porter from AMC's Emmy winning,, for which he has deservedly won an ASCAP Award.
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What a thrill to get to talk to one of my favorite composers on television today - Dave Porter from AMC's Emmy winning, Breaking Bad, for which he has deservedly won an ASCAP Award. The show's magnificent score is available on CD -- and any big fan of the show will be thankful they purchased a copy. The music stands on its own as a tapestry of suspenseful, often muted, soundscapes blending ancient instruments with electronics.

Series lead, Bryan Cranston comments on Dave's work --

With his music, Dave Porter has created another character for Breaking Bad. Evocative and meaningful, Dave's work is an essential part of the storytelling.

Breaking Bad Main Titles Theme:

How much creative freedom do you have in making the music for Breaking Bad? I imagine you like an alchemist in a laboratory as you put these compositions together.

Vince Gilligan, the show's creator, has fostered a wonderfully creative environment for all of us who work on Breaking Bad. In terms of the score, nothing has been out of bounds musically as long as the music is achieving its most important function, which is to support the narrative. There are times when I do feel like a scientist of sorts... particularly working with the non-traditional palette of sounds and instruments that I use on Breaking Bad, I'm always experimenting with making new sounds that evoke an emotional response. Certainly not all of my ideas are successful, but not being afraid to attempt them is the best way to learn what does work. Nearly sixty episodes in, we have a pretty clear picture of how the show sounds and the role that music plays. While the score continues to evolve along with the series, my hope is that when you hear the score it is immediately identifiable as the music from Breaking Bad.

Music by Dave Porter, MikeysTube Draws Breaking Bad's Walter White (Bryan Cranston):

What were some of the challenges/memorable moments in scoring the Train Heist scene?

One of the best things about working on Breaking Bad is that there are always new and unexpected challenges. Complicated action sequences probably aren't what first comes to mind, but our writers created a memorable one in the episode you are referring to, "Dead Freight." The entire final act of that episode is one continuous suspense-filled ride. While we are normally very judicious in our use of music on Breaking Bad, we decided that this was an opportunity to do the unexpected for us, which meant writing a single thirteen minute cue that scored the entire sequence. The challenge for me was twofold: how to create an interesting action piece that still fit within the parameters of the score we've come to associate with Breaking Bad, and then how to keep it fresh and interesting over its entire length.

Breaking Bad's "Train Heist" scene:

The Breaking Bad score CD is my favorite driving music -- even if you haven't seen the show, the music is completely fresh, hypnotic and exciting -- people get into my car when the CD is playing and say "this is amazing -- what are you listening to?" So what are you listening to these days?

I'm so happy to hear that -- thank you! This may surprise you, but when I'm in the middle of a project I don't listen to much music. My ears are happy for the silence once I leave the studio each evening... although having a toddler makes those moments rare. Thanks to constant bombardment I can recite the entire theme to Thomas the Train from memory.

Can you talk about composing the track, Crawl Space?

I remember being awe-struck when I first saw it, and there was one shot in particular that made me think "this is Breaking Bad's version of a psychological horror film." After Skylar has told Walt what's become of their money, she leans back from the overhead light and into the shadows, overcome by fear. Something about that particular moment really spoke to me. So the cue begins with a dramatic frenzied percussion ensemble as Walt rushes into the house and starts gathering the money, but flares out when Walt screams at Skylar. Then, as Skylar backs away, a dull monotonous thud appears. Other sounds slowly pile on, some of which I've fed into a delay with the feedback turned all the way up, so that each repeat grows louder and ultimately most distorted as the camera pulls up and away, leaving Walt in the crawlspace laughing maniacally. Ultimately the cue just completely takes over everything at the end of the episode, becoming a wall of noise.

First, here is Crawl Space from Breaking Bad without the scene visuals:

Next, here is Crawl Space as it aired on Breaking Bad:

Can you talk about composing the track, Jane's Demise?

One of the greatest aspects of Breaking Bad is that everyone has a different tipping point for where Walt has forever passed the point of no return. For many, myself included, it was allowing Jane to die. Bryan Cranston is phenomenal is that sequence, and crafting a piece of music to compliment all of the subtle shifts of thought and emotion that are evident on his face has been one of my most rewarding creative moments. Looking back on that scene from season two, what I learned writing that cue blazed the trail for a lot of my score in later episodes.

First, here is Jane's Demise from Breaking Bad without the scene visuals:

Next, here is Jane's Demise as it aired on Breaking Bad:

Are you L.A. based?

Yes, I was raised on the east coast and began my career there, but I relocated to Los Angeles more than ten years ago in pursuit of more dramatic projects.

Do you have any interaction/input from the Breaking Bad cast regarding the score?

The worst part about being a composer is that we are hidden away in our studios and don't get to interact much with the cast or crew. I did take a few trips to Albuquerque to visit the set, though. And one of the great things about being on a project that has lasted six years is that even though I don't get to see them very often, there has been enough time to eventually get to know everyone. Breaking Bad has been like a second family to me. We've shared a very unique experience, and I'm so grateful to have been a part of it.

I read that you like to begin composing a piece with a metronome, and then your style from there involves much improvisation with ethnic and vintage instruments -- can you walk us through how certain instruments in your studio speak to you -- and to the tone of a piece.

I am inspired by the visuals -- both the performances on screen and pacing and choices made by the picture editor. By starting with a simple metronomic click, I try to find the tempo(s) that match that pacing. Once that "click" is established, I watch the scene repeatedly and improvise melodies or rhythms on different instruments while I watch. Once I latch on to something that seems like an interesting starting point, I record it and start building up from there. Getting the tone of a piece of score just right is the most difficult aspect of writing music for film and tv, and particularly difficult on a show like Breaking Bad, where the character's have many different layers.

Dave Porter's The Cousins from Breaking Bad:

Next, here is The Cousins as it aired on Breaking Bad:

I hear elements of Philip Glass and Brian Eno in your work -- can you talk about how these composers have helped shape your sound.

I have listened to a lot of Glass and Eno, as well as Steve Reich, John Adams and others that fairly or unfairly get lumped together as "minimalist." I actually started my career as an assistant in Philip Glass' studio in NYC. What I admire so much about them is of course how they can say a tremendous amount with very little. What I find most intriguing about that, though, is how that approach allows plenty of space for the audience to apply their own emotions and interpretations. In my opinion, that is why their music often works so well in accompaniment to film, modern dance, or other creative expression. Hopefully some of those traits have rubbed off on me and get applied in my own way to my scores.

What new things in scoring season five did you try that you hadn't explored in previous seasons?

Knowing that I'm working on the final season has offered me a chance to take many of my creative ideas to their logical conclusion, and push the boundaries on my production techniques as far as I can. With only a few episodes left, there is no reason to hold anything in reserve. I've also had a chance to call back to some musical motifs first expressed in previous episodes... something I haven't done too much of previously. And as always, I've incorporated some instruments that I've never used before.

Dave Porter's Matches In The Pool from Breaking Bad:

I read you started your musical training at five years old. Are you from a musical/artistic family? What advice do you have for parents of young children as far as music training goes?

The joke in my family is that my father started piano lessons at age six, but he was forever trying to catch up to his friend who started at age five...which is why my sister and I started promptly at five! Although I'm the only one foolish enough to pursue it professionally, everyone in my family is musical. My father loves classical music and exposed me to it from a very young age and my parents met in their college choir. I think the best way to get young children interested in music is to expose them to it. My two-year-old son takes a class where he gets to hear and try different instruments, he has his own collection of CDs, and he loves to tinker around on the keyboards in my studio. It also seems likely that he'll start piano at age five!

When you're not scoring/composing, what does Dave Porter like to do?

My wife, Jeanine, works long hours like me. I'm grateful when we have time to spend together with our son. I like to cook for them, catch up on lost sleep, tinker with my 1988 Porsche, and go hiking around L.A.

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