The Netflix series Bridgerton, released over Christmas, has hooked audiences with its bodice-ripping sex scenes, its colorblind approach to casting a period drama, and its soundtrack’s recreations of modern bangers from pop stars like Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish, arranged in the style of a classical string quartet.
Alongside these classical-pop mashups, Bridgerton serves up classical warhorses like Mozart and Shostakovich, not to mention its own original, ravishing score by When They See Us and Mrs. America composer, Kris Bowers. By bringing modern melodies into the proper world of Regency England, Bridgerton reminds us that classical music wasn’t always so stuffy and solemn. In its time, it trafficked in the same scandal as modern pop. Just with powdered wigs.
In this week’s episode of Switched on Pop, co-host Nate Sloan sits down with Bowers to discuss the unique challenges of finding a sound midway between classical and pop, and recording instrumentalists during a global pandemic. Listen here, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify, and read an excerpt from the conversation below.
Nate: How did the creators of the show describe the series to you?
Kris: Something like, “It’s not your mother’s Regency television show.” They wanted to find a way to nod to that era or make something that felt somewhat appropriate to it. But it had a bit more of an edge, a bit more modernity to it.
Nate: When you started composing for the show, were these classical Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish covers already part of the conversation?
Kris: It wasn’t until we got to the first spotting session [when the director and composer watch the film together] that I heard one of those — the Ariana Grande cover. It was really a big shift for me as far as the way I thought about approaching the score. I’d written a few sketches early on and I had to write Daphne and Simon’s theme for her to play piano too, as a pre-record.
And so I’d started to get a little bit into the sound and had a few of the themes and things were starting to click. But once I heard that approach to these modern pop songs, I was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” That’s a really interesting thing to think more about: rhythms and feels, melodies as more modern elements, and then orchestrated in the more traditional way.
Nate: Many young women of the English aristocracy would play piano, but of course, Daphne’s not just playing some classical piece. She’s also not playing something that the actor [Phoebe Dynover] is improvising; she’s playing something you wrote. How did you think about creating a melody that’s going to be played by a character in the actual scene?
Kris: With that one, it was trying to think of something that could feel complex enough that it would feel nice, musically. Because some of the references that Chris [Van Deusen, Bridgerton creator] had were these [Maurice] Ravel piano pieces and they are deceptively difficult, where you hear it sound really soft and beautiful, and then you look at it and the left hand is doing this crazy arpeggio the entire time. Keeping that really soft and beautiful is incredibly difficult. I did something similar here, but wanted the melody to be really simple and clear and have something that she might be able to play.
Nate: That’s a lot to think about for that brief. You have to connect a lot of dots. I’m thinking of Ravel, a piece like Tombeau de Couperin, which sounds like this shimmering, lovely texture. But when you look at it, you’re like, Oh, this is really hard to play.
Nate: How do you think about transforming a theme like that over the course of a season of television?
Kris: I think it’s a real joy to be able to do that, especially so overtly. I feel like there are a lot of modern shows that don’t really want [a] score — that [believe] a theme is saying too much, especially a melodic theme that’s really, really stating itself. [They don’t want to] be able to have something that’s just a really strict melody, so that then that melody can be reharmonized in whatever way.
For me, especially with my jazz background, that’s something that we used to do all the time for fun. It’s like re-harmonizing some sort of standard melody and finding the most interesting way. My favorite teacher has always talked about how important the melody was because the melody is tied to a lyric. So it’s not like you can just change the melody. However, you want to fit a cool chord. It’s making sure that the chords you’re playing are serving the melody as best as possible. I always had fun trying to find different ways to color a song based on the reharmonization. It’s kind of the same thing with [Bridgerton].
I’m thinking of the sequence where Daphne and Simon are not speaking for a while, and she’s finally realized the truth of what he’s doing. Their theme happens, but it’s much more unsure and trepidatious; it’s not really sad or happy, but it’s definitely a bit bittersweet. Trying to find ways to do that with harmony while keeping the melody really clear is a lot of fun for me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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