The Netflix series “Bridgerton” features incredible sets and costumes and outstanding performances but the glue that holds it all together is the music of Kris Bowers. Soundtracking a story that takes place centuries ago is challenging for any modern composer, but “Bridgerton” does an excellent job of reimagining what a period piece sounds like. Credit Bowers for incorporating traditional instruments that sound as if they’re from the time but with modern flourishes that fit the character of the women on screen. Without going to the extremes of something like Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 remake of “The Great Gatsby,” for which Jay-Z curated the music as an executive producer, Bowers faced the added hurdle of recording during COVID lockdown. But in doing so, he found those elusive five-note themes that unlock an entire orchestral score and interlock perfectly with string quartet interpretations of modern pop songs like Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” and Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next.”
Bowers, whose previous credits include the scores to “Green Book,” “When They See Us” and “Mrs. America,” talked to Variety about his latest musical chapter.
You’re no stranger to scoring remotely after working on “Mrs. America” during the pandemic. How was this different?
I started on this right after “Mrs. America.” We had figured out a great system of doing things remotely between all the machines and my mixing engineer, Steve Kay. He’s the superhero of it all since he was the one making sure that all the musicians were recording as properly as possible. On top of that, there was the piecing of it altogether. So we were really lucky to have had that figured out by the time this came around.
There have been so many English period drama scores. What conversations did you have about doing something different?
In the beginning, it was trial and error. I was really appreciative of the show’s creator, Chris Van Dusen, being open to that process because it can be scary when we have that hit-or-miss period. We talked about wanting to take a super-modern approach to the sound but using traditional instruments. I tried having all the orchestral elements sound like they had been sampled, and used them as if I were a hip-hop or pop producer. I tried that for a couple of the ball scenes, and pretty quickly realized it wasn’t working.
I went in the opposite direction — the traditional classical approach — which was more appropriate to the time, that felt a little too stuffy and old for Chris. What really helped was zeroing in on Simon and Daphne’s theme. We used a Ravel piano [piece] and that set off a light bulb in my head as far as having it be classical but with a slightly modern approach, and still romantic. That approach made sense to be because we are following the younger generation of this period — they are representative of the future, and everything else grew from there.
Having a string quartet perform songs by Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish was a brilliant touch. Whose idea was that?
That was music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas who did this incredible job of pulling those tracks early in the editing process. There were just a couple of the ball moments where Chris wanted to have something feel modern. The Vitamin String Quartet is one of the go-to groups for that stuff. They’re from Los Angeles and are known for their tributes.
Every now and then there were cues where we wanted to recreate that vibe, but not necessarily that piece of music, so I would do something close to that. In episode five, we did a cover of this piece by an artist named Celeste, and that was “inspired by the string quartet.” For that, we used a high school cellist named Hillary Smith, and we recorded “Strange.”
The Daphne and Simon theme serves a range of emotions amazingly well…
In the beginning, it has this mysterious, somewhat longing feeling to it. It’s very dramatic, romantic and a bit darker. By the middle of the season, it starts to feel ambivalent when she discovers the truth behind what the Duke has told her. It feels ambiguous or unsettled. Towards the end, it’s triumphant, warm and much more optimistic, especially in the very last scene. That last scene mirrors one of the only times where we heard it optimistic when they make that pact. It’s the only time we hear the theme bright and happy, aside from episode one.
How long did it take to record the score during the pandemic and sending files back and forth?
It was tough. The very first mixtape was done in May or June. But I started writing it the year before. It was a long process. I had started Daphne’s and Simon’s themes and started the experimentation. We really got into it at the beginning of 2020. Every episode had a month turnaround from the time we spotted to the time we needed to record, and by the end, that turnaround was two weeks, so it got really tight by the end.
What was the theme idea for Lady Whistledown who is voiced by Julie Andrews?
That was the harder one to crack. Every time I tried to write something, it didn’t feel right. It felt too proper and didn’t have the bite and sass and edge. The version that exists now is the sixth or seventh Lady Whistledown version that we tried. There’s another cue that I loved called, “What Women do Best.” During the temp, there was something from Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” but it was really hard to beat that temp and Chris was so in love with it, but we obviously couldn’t use it. That was another one that we kept recording until the last minute. It was a “Hail Mary” attempt.
Listen to music from “Bridgerton” below: