American Horror Story theme composer César Dávila-Irizarry: ‘My biggest challenge is making happy music’

By Bandook - January 25, 2018

Abhipray Agrawal

American Horror Story. It’s a show anyone with access to DTH (direct-to-home), cable television, or quite simply, the internet, has heard of or binge-watched at some point. And that theme song that’s likely to give you nightmares (mission accomplished, right?) with your eyes open? You have César Dávila-Irizarry to thank for that. He created and composed most of the elements in 1998, while attending the University of Puerto Rico. What you hear on the show as the theme is a more polished version, courtesy Charlie Clouser – Music.

We featured César on our ‘TV’s Trendiest Theme Songs’ feature a few weeks ago, and reached out to him for an email interview.

Excerpts from that interview:

Your first project. Tell us about it.
I was about 14, when I started a garage-band with friends. We were horrible. Then again, no accomplishments have ever been done without failing time and time again.

How do you translate the essence of the subject (films, etc) into your music?
Directors usually give notes about what they want. Usually, when they come to me, what they want is something that has some similarity to my style. I chain my reaction to the film and my thought process to their notes and I drag those notes anywhere I want to go with my music. When I deliver the goods, I usually give them something similar to what they wanted but enhanced by my own take on what their film is.

What has been your most challenging project?
My biggest challenge is making happy music. I know the type of harmonies I should use, but I’m not accustomed to making music like that. The closest I’ve gotten to that is making music for these video love letters my friends from the Puerto Rican diaspora in L.A. have been producing for the last couple of weeks. It’s a fun project, but I sometimes worry a bit because I don’t want to disappoint. Happy, engaging, and sincere can be very tough.

Given how popular theme songs are among fans, why isn’t more being done to promote those scoring those themes?
Theme song composers might not be promoted as much as some would like because filmmakers have been trained to pay attention to visuals instead of music and sound design. What I find most interesting is that a movie can have low budget visuals but good budget audio and the audience will be able to watch the entire thing if there’s interest in the subject. But produce the opposite, high budget visuals and low budget audio, and people will stop “watching” as soon as possible. Audio is more important and more expressive than video.

You have made this theme with basic software. Has technological growth helped music or harmed it?
I composed and created most of the song’s elements in 1998 but it was tweaked and a couple of the musical elements were recreated by Charlie Clouser on newer software. But to answer your question, I think technology growth has sped up the creative process. I think at its core, what has harmed music is income inequality.

Are there plans for further versions of the theme?
I imagine there will be a new remix for every new season but I have no say on that.

Do you have a side-project you are working on?
I have many projects at the moment. I just finished composing and doing sound design for Chicago-based award-winning animation artist Joel Benjamin – animation. I’m working on a project with the amazing New York-based Butoh artist Yokko. There’s also a collaboration with blackgrass band Elouise Music. Another one with guitarist/composer Waldemar Reyes. And there are more projects in the oven. The first half of 2018 will see one of many new releases.

RAPIDFIRE
Fear to you, means…
Dying without love in my life.

Your favorite American Horror Story season is…?
Asylum.

Your favorite AHS episode?
Asylum’s #Halloween episode.

Favorite character from any AHS season?
Maybe, Sister Jude Martin (played by Jessica Lange in AHS: Asylum). I’d have to watch it again.

Your favorite shows on TV?
Stranger Things, The Good Place, and Finding Your Roots.

The one horror you face…
Taking a break from work and finding out what new terror Trump has vomited into our world.

What kind of music do you find relaxing?
Slowdive(band), OVAL (Official), Ryuichi Sakamoto 坂本龍一, Art Of Noise: Ambient Collection, and some John Coltrane.

What other horror music projects do you like the most?
Not horror, but since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the original Planet of the Apes.(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_Y3euhd1hY )

Favorite shock rock band
A: Does Skinny Puppy count as shock rock? I’m gonna pretend it does.

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