X-Files Music: Composer Mark Snow
The Ambience Is Out There
Randall D. Larson
For the last eight years, The X-Files has been mesmerizing its television audiences with its mysterious entities, government conspiracies, alien abductions, malevolent mutants, and whimsical creatures, all wrapped up in a detective-show type format. Among the various elements that bred its dark, pensive ambience has been the musical contributions of Mark Snow, the only composer the series has utilized thus far. Snow’s ominous musical atmospheres have intensified the show’s sense of apprehension and otherworldliness, while also supporting its eclectic storylines and rampant creativity.
Although X-Files, has given Snow his greatest claim to fame, the composer actually has been scoring television since 1976. He studied oboe at New York’s Julliard Academy of Music, where he became friends with Michael Kamen, another music student who would end up working in film. The two of them formed a band they called The New York Rock and Roll Ensemble in the late 1960s. It was an encounter with “Planet Of The Apes”, including Jerry Goldsmith’s modernistic 12-tone music, that caught Snow’s attention and directed his path towards a career in movies.
Aided by his wife (sister of actors Tyne Daly and Tim Daly; daughter of James Daly), Snow gained introductions in Hollywood and started working as a composer for Aaron Spelling on the TV series, “The Rookies”. Other assignments followed, including “Starsky & Hutch”, and before long Snow found a comfortable niche scoring for television. He got involved with The X-Files at its inception, and his music has gone on to become another character in the series, as prevalent and as important as Skinner, the Cigarette-Smoking Man, or the Lone Gunmen.
Snow’s main theme is a rhythmic amalgamation of synclavier and an electronically reprocessed melody whistled by his wife, which was sampled and doubled with a music software program called Proteus2. That simple 5-note motif musically symbolizes all that the X-Files is about, with its furtive, spooky ambience and a rhythmic cadence of adventure and investigation.
During the show’s first season, Snow emphasized a brooding, ambient soundscape, but as the series progressed, he found more opportunities for musical development. “From day one, with the pilot, everyone involved from Chris Carter on down wanted a lot of music,” says Snow. “At first he was talking about ambient, atmospheric, basic synth-pad material, and that’s what I did at the beginning. It got boring and too ordinary, so I opened it up. Chris didn’t mind, and after the first year he just let me go off on my own. As the years went on, it became more musical and less sound design-oriented. Now it’s a pretty good mix of the two.”
Snow likes to maintain an open palette of sounds for his X-Files scores and relishes the freedom he’s given to compose a variety of musical styles while maintaining an overall atmosphere of ominous danger. “It seems that people respond to my suspenseful music as if it’s this really new approach, but it’s really just the style of music I’ve come to love over the years, since I was a student,” says Snow. “Music by Varese, John Cage, all the real atonal material that perhaps I like more than some other composers. I think some of those sounds and techniques work great in suspense. On The X-Files, I mix that with a more traditional scoring approach.”
“Musically, the show has evolved from being more ambient, sound-design kind of material into some melodic music, in a dark, Mahleresque style,” said Snow, who has received several Emmy nominations for his X-Files music. “What is great about it is that I can go back and forth. There’s always a combination of the two styles. I’ve done flashbacks and dream sequences that are all very aleatoric and tonal, avant-garde sound design, with wonderfully weird combinations of sound and music, and then it goes back into the style of Mahler or Bruckner or late Beethoven!”
The variety of the series, which contrasts the ongoing mythology stories with a number of stand-alone, monster-of-the-week episodes, gives Snow plenty of opportunities for musical diversity. “When we have these stand-alone-or what I call ’boutique’-episodes, some of which verge on black comedy, there’s a lot of cute things I can do,” says Snow. “The big mythological/conspiracy/cover-up shows are fairly drab, and there’s not much room for anything but the real dark approach.”
In Season 4’s tongue-in-cheek episode “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space,'” Snow arranged a cheesy muzak-version of the show’s main theme, which plays during the alien autopsy sequence-the only time he’s used the show’s title theme in the body of an episode score. His music for “The Post-Modern Prometheus” in Season 5 paid homage to John Morris’s score for “The Elephant Man”, a film whose storyline and visual style shared a lot with this episode. The 6th Season episode, “Triangle,” gave Snow the opportunity to compose Swing music for sequences occurring on a 1940s cruise ship. More recently, in Season 8’s “Via Negativa,” Snow crafted a powerful and frightening amalgamation of electronic and acoustic patterns and sounds that leant a potent, nightmarish mood of apprehension in the dream sequences. In an earlier 8th season episode, “Invocation,” Snow adapted the children’s folk song, “All the Little Horses,” into a variety of arrangements for piccolos and voices that become a haunting musical description of the kidnapped boy whose sudden reappearance, 10-years later, opens up a ghostly tale that could have come out of “The Others”.
Snow has anywhere from three to five days to write up to half an hour of music for each weekly episode. “The hardest part is the beginning,” he says. “Figuring out the palette of sounds and instruments, and doing that first cue. After that’s done, it starts falling into place.”
When X-Files creator Chris Carter created Millennium, about a former FBI agent with a psychic affinity for profiling the murderously depraved, Mark Snow came along to supply the music. While both shows dwell on dark subjects, Snow provided a somewhat lighter tone by contrasting the darker music with an element of quasi-Celtic folk material. “When they first came to me, they said they wanted the music to depict good and bad, heaven and hell, hope and horror,” says Snow. “I asked them, ‘Which is it more? Is it more dark or more light? Is it more horror than hope, or what?’ And they said ‘Yeah.’ So I came up with this single voice, which turned out to be a solo violin, with this dark percussion accompaniment. I had these folky, Celtic violin solos with the sleek, dark synthesizer rumbling. I’d gotten into more specific dark music with this Celtic contrast, whether it’s solo violin or solo harp or solo woodwind. That seems to have worked well.” The expressive violin tends to speak for the heart of Frank Blake, the show’s reluctant hero, while the synthesizer patterns represent the darker world in which he works, confronting the various faces of evil.
Snow got his biggest feature assignment to date from The X-Files movie in 1998. With the canvas of a widescreen theatrical feature, Snow had the opportunity to expand the scope of his television music and orchestrate it much more broadly. Most pleasing was the chance to redevelop themes, motifs, and stylisms he’d composed for the show’s 30-odd musicians into a full orchestra of 85 players. “Ninety percent of the score is big orchestra combined with electronics,” Snow said at the time of the film’s release. “I think the best thing, thematically, that’s come out of the feature is the X-Files Theme itself, which was harmonized and orchestrated in different settings that have never appeared on the TV show. The TV version is sort of a one-note pad with simple accompaniment. With the feature, I’ve put different kinds of harmonization to it. It doesn’t happen every place, but it happens enough that anyone who knows the theme would recognize it.” The orchestration was fairly standard but the inclusion of extra basses and five percussionists gave the music a deep dynamic and a wider scope.
Snow created a few new themes for the movie. “There is a veiled theme for the Cigarette-Smoking Man,” said Snow. “It’s not as much melodic as it is harmonic. It’s a bunch of minor chords going from one to another. There’s a theme for the Elders, the Well-Manicured Man, and the older conspiracy figures.” Some of these themes were carried into the 1998 TV season finale, which acted as a sort of prelude to the movie, which was released later that summer.
Far from the TV series’ five days, Snow had a lavish five months to compose 75 minutes of music for the X-Files feature. Snow said that a major concern on the feature was to carry through the honesty of the music from the series into the size and scope of widescreen cinema. “My biggest challenge was in understanding how to make that jump without it seeming like a score by Jerry Goldsmith or James Horner or another big name movie composer.”
Snow went from the X-Files feature into another feature film thriller called “Disturbing Behavior” before returning to Ten Thirteen productions for the new season of The X-Files. Snow still finds time to score about five or six feature or TV films a year, including such TV thrillers as Dean Koontz’s “Sole Survivor,” “Stranger In My House”, and Dean Koontz’s “Mr. Murder”. Quite unlike his X-Files music, his scores for made-for-TV movies-dramas, murder mysteries, Westerns-have been quite romantic and melodic. He provided a lavish and harmonious score for ABC’s Jules Verne fantasy, “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”. He also composed the theme for the TV incarnation of “Le Femme Nikita”, and provided music for some manic episodes of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse”. In 2000, he wrote a score for an action video game called “Giants”.
But The X-Files remains inescapable for the composer, whose career continues to be defined, if not restricted by, his musical efforts for Mulder and Scully and company. “If there’s any sense of style that I have now, it was really The X-Files that put me over the hump and got me up into another level,” Snow said. “It made me experiment with a lot of different approaches, and it made me comfortable with that.” In fact, with the 2001 debut of a spin-off series, “The Lone Gunmen”, Snow will continue to lay down the fundamental ambient atmosphere that intensifies the X-Files world. The series, set to debut in March, should give Snow some new opportunities as he musically characterizes the personalities of the conspiracy-busting trio. “The main theme starts out with the Star Spangled Banner, ala Jimi Hendrix guitar solo,” said Snow. “Then it goes into a rhythm pattern, and then into the main tune from guitar. It sounds a little like a hipper version of “Mission: Impossible”. It has that spy vibe to it.”
Snow also scored Chris Carter’s short-lived 1999 series, Harsh Realm, laying down an X-Files-ian atmosphere but deriving his approach more from the duality of the series’ setting, half in the real world and half in the virtual reality of Harsh Realm. “In the most simplistic way, I’ve used conventional, traditional instruments like pianos and strings for the real world, and more of the sound design in the Harsh Realm world,” said Snow. There was a blurring of the edges on occasion; for example, when Snow needed to accentuate an emotional moment in the virtual world, he’d bring in the strings, creating an emotional crosslink with the real world that also enhanced the symbiotic relationship between the two as emphasized within the series.
With The X-Files entering its eighth season this year, Snow introduced a new tonality in the form of a lilting melody for solo female voice associated with Scully, which will be heard throughout the season. “Since this whole season is going to be so Scully-intensive, Chris Carter thought there should be a theme for her during the contemplative moments of the mythology episodes-something that spoke for her emotions.” The vocalist for the theme is Nicci Sill, who previously sang Snow’s theme for “Le Femme Nikita”. The vocal was initially intended to be wordless, but as she vocalized the part Sill began repeating in barely discernable voice the phrase “We are near,” which Snow felt was more than appropriate considering the fact that the aliens have kidnapped Mulder and are closer to the cast than ever before. “With the first episode of the season, the aliens have Mulder, and Scully is close but never quite there. But when she was singing it, it sounded like some ethnic incantation of some sort.”
The lack of a real soundtrack CD from The X-Files has been a source of frustration for many. A CD that came out in 1976, called “Music in the Key of X”, was nothing more than a collection of rock tunes inspired by the show, plus a version of Snow’s theme music. A very odd creation was also released that same year, “The Truth and the Light: Music of the X-Files”, merging seemingly random bits and pieces of music from the show with random bits of dialog and sound effects, creating a bizarre sound collage that pleased few people. “That mistake will never be made again!” grins Snow. “Somewhere, Chris Carter heard this voice-over thing and thought ‘That was great, we gotta do it!’ Actually, I thought it was pretty cool up to a point, but it got a little out of hand. And it was incredibly problematic-all the actors wanted a royalties, and so forth.”
To date the best representation of the show’s music appeared on a compilation CD entitled “The Snow Files”, released by Silva Screen in 1999. In addition to an impressive variety of excellent music for films and television, a very faithful arrangement of Snow’s X-Files music was performed by composer and synthesist John Beal, under Snow’s direction. (The actual music tracks were not available for licensing on the disc; but Beal’s arrangements are very fine and true.) Still, there is ongoing talk in the hallways of 20th Century Fox about the possibility of an actual soundtrack release, and hopefully one will be forthcoming in the future.
While more opportunities to score feature films would please Snow, he is finding plenty of satisfaction scoring quality television such as The X-Files. “I’ve been very lucky, because the quality of X-Files and Millennium is so good, in general, that it is like doing a mini-feature every week,” says Snow. “I’d like to graduate some day to where I’m not doing episodic TV, and I’m doing three, four, or five movies a year, where I really could expand my career from film to film. But the graph of my career is still amazing to me. I haven’t gotten into the negative yet. There’s so many guys who have come and gone, who have been so blisteringly hot and then fell off, so I really can’t complain when I look at it from the perspective of the business.”