Interview: Emile Mosseri on Homecoming's New Synth-Laden Score

Photo of Mosseri courtesy of / Monáe via Amazon Studios.

At 34 years old, Emile Mosseri is a man whose name you may have not heard, but whose work you've more than likely felt.

In 2019, Mosseri was the sole composer of the critical darling The Last Black Man in San Francisco, imbuing the film with an operatic decadence that is as identifiable as any of the acting.

Last week, the world heard his latest composition in the score for the second season of Amazon's Homecoming thriller, starring Janelle Monáe. And before that, he was part of a team tasked with composing the music for HBO's Random Acts of Flyness (RAOF), all while using an impressive collection of instruments.

"I work in Logic. I use a lot of samples from Spitfire, a company that makes high-quality orchestral sound libraries. I have a Prophet-6 keyboard, an old Korg Mono/Poly, and a Roland Juno-6. I also have an [Teenage Engineering] OP-1 keyboard. I have a Fender bass [guitar] from the 1970s. I have an old Gibson L-2 guitar from 1943. It's my favorite guitar."

Mosseri spoke with Reverb about the musical journey he's taken, the equipment he used making his scores, and how each piece of music he's composed helped lead to the next.

The Score for Homecoming

For the first season of Homecoming, the score reflected the mood of the mystery drama. The piecemeal unveiling of a conspiracy weighed on every scene until the sound of a pelican is enough to change the entire trajectory of the season. To match, the score's piano keys would ominously creep behind swirling strings and with a brooding rumble that would intensify as tension in the scene rose. The music was effective, but not born from a singular musical DNA.

"They didn't have a composer. They used old classic film noir scores from Bernard Herrmann and Michael Small, all these giant film composers from the '60s and '70s. I had to find out how to do my version of that for season two," Mosseri said.

He began working on the score for Homecoming in late September/early October, before he saw a single scene of the new season. Using early-'80s synthesizers such as the Korg Mono/Poly and Roland Juno, along with his Prophet-6, the composer made templates based on the music of the first season before adapting them to the new season as he received episodes. Amazon's big budget allowed for him to record an orchestra at EastWest Studios in LA, and the results showed in less than a few minutes into the new season.

The music is guiding. Monáe, the star of the new season, wordlessly moves through dark woodlands with only Mosseri's score moving the tension and story along.

"Middle Of The Lake"

"She's electric, and there are a lot of exterior scenes with her without dialogue, so it was fun to get into the weeds with her performance and let the music accompany what she was doing," Mosseri says. "When accompanying any great performance, it's an exciting challenge to have the music rise to her level of intensity and nuance."

The final mix on the final episode was completed on February 12, a month before Los Angeles would shut down to stop the spread of COVID-19, and six months after Homecoming director Kyle Patrick Alvarez requested Mosseri's talents for the score, after being impressed by his most popular piece of work to date: The score for the 2019 film The Last Black Man In San Francisco.

The Last Black Man In San Francisco

The aural feats Mosseri achieved with the lush sounds of The Last Black Man In San Francisco may have impressed Alvarez further if he knew how Mosseri made it.

Yes, Mosseri spent his formative years studying composition at one of the world's most prestigious music schools in Berklee College of Music. But, that didn't prepare him for the task of scoring an entire film.

"I was the only composer. We recorded a real orchestra and I was out of my element. We recorded the orchestra in Budapest; 25 strings in three hours. Then, we had five brass players in LA and I recorded a lot of oboes and English horn from this amazing player Theodosia Roussos."

"King Jimmie"

He would compose the score on his Novation MIDI controller and use orchestral samples from Spitfire Audio to arrange the pieces of music in Logic. Once his digital creations were to his liking, he'd get help to bring it to life. "From there, we revise and keep working on it to get it approved by the director, Joe Talbot. Once it's approved, my friend Catherine Joy, who is an orchestrator, would turn my Logic sessions into sheet music."

Mosseri's digital compositions were replaced by live instrumentation for most of the film's score, but still found a home of their own. For the film's soundtrack, the demo version of the song "You're Not Better Than Us" was included and was mostly made from Spitfire samples. It was working on this score that taught Mosseri a valuable lesson he'd carry on into his future works.

"You're Not Better Than Us (Demo)"

"I learned sometimes the real orchestra doesn't always beat out the Spitfire samples. What ended up in Last Black Man In San Francisco is about 75% real live orchestra and 25% samples," Mosseri said. "I first thought it's always better if it's real. But, the sound quality is really high and they're real stings that were pre-recorded, and I'm just triggering them from my MIDI keyboard. They're not completely synthetic."

But how'd Mosseri land that gig to begin with? Talbot chose Mosseri to be the sole anchor of his film's musical identity after hearing the abstract work he did on HBO's Random Acts of Flyness.

Random Acts of Flyness

You don't describe Terence Nance's RAOF, you just experience it. Any five-minute span of Nance's fever dream of a show could have a vintage game show about death, police brutality set to Christmas music, and Jon Hamm shooting an infomercial about the threats of the thoughts of white people. No one man can score a show like Nance's absurdist HBO sketch comedy, so the filmmaker hired Mosseri to join his team of musicians composing the warped soundscape for the show.

Mosseri joined Nelson Mandela Nance, Nick Hakim, and Jon Bap to provide different sounds for the show. One of those beats he sent to Terrance was the track "Blossom" used in a scene called "Good Demon."

"I recorded my piano, pitched it down an octave, and then used a harp. I used a drum sample from [Native Instruments] Battery. I flew to New York City to record alto sax player Luke Penella and vocalist Camila Gibson. The animal sounds are just me screaming into the mic."

Elsewhere in the season, Mosseri was tasked with turning feelings into music on the song "Demon of Jealousy." In the scene, Terrance's character in the show has a girlfriend who is at home dealing with a killer lurking in the shadows that's really her own jealousy. The lengths Mosseri went to score that one scene was a sign he was ready to score an entire TV show/film.

"I'm scoring it like a horror film but the villain is jealousy. Jon De Lucia would play the clarinet and get these sort of overtones and primal sounds out of his instrument that was unsettling and veered towards the feeling of jealousy. I used an AKG 414 to record Jon in Luke Penella's flute repair shop on 23rd Street in New York City."

In two short years, Mosseri went from never having a single piece of music on a major TV show or film to being the musical soul of three of the most critically acclaimed projects over that span of time. Homecoming's new season has started to gain award chatter and Mosseri says he has two other projects he's worked on. It may not be long before we're not just calling him "Emile Mosseri, the next great composer" but "Emile Mosseri, the award-winning next great composer."

But his own self-image is one of deference. "What I'm doing is serving the director's vision while, at the same time, making sure it stands alone as a piece of music you can enjoy outside of the context of the film."

About the author: Keith Nelson Jr is a seasoned music journalist who followed his innate passion for knowledge to interview some of the most influential figures in the music industry. He's a journalist who connects the dot to see the bigger picture.

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