How we made the music for McMafia

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When Tom Hodge and Franz Kirmann sat down to write the music for gripping BBC One thriller McMafia, the one overriding emotion they wanted to convey was "tragedy".

Those who have already seen the globe-trotting, morally murky crime drama - which is about to start its US run next week - will know that they succeeded. And made the score rather tense and innovative, into the bargain.

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"This was about how we could reinvent the danger, intrigue and ominousness [of a Hollywood thriller] with our own language," says Hodge, "and not resort to classic tropes."

The 'tragically beautiful' title theme

London banker Alex Godman's fall from grace all starts with the opening title sequence - and its distinctly hummable theme.

That initial music sets the tone for the entire saga. It's ominous, but also has a sense of sorrow running through it.

"It’s a simple eight note theme with a repeating phrase within it," explains Hodge. "I tried to find something robust enough both melodically and harmonically that we could carry, and the tragedy within it, through to wherever it was required."

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"It had to encapsulate the spirit of the show, but also had to be catchy enough and support repetition," adds Kirmann.

The composition that made it to the title sequence was actually demo number eight.

"We'd tried many routes and styles and nothing had landed," says Hodge.

"I chatted to [director] James Watkins on the phone about Mahler and something with real classical weight, and then sat down and tried to write something simple, something tragically beautiful and with real portent."

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Pushing the sonic boundaries

From the very get-go, the composers wanted to create a distinctive and original thriller score.

Producer Paul Ritchie was a fan of Hodge and Kirmann's music, and thought they could bring something "fresh" to the project.

The pair worked with musicians including the London Contemporary Orchestra, "trying to push the boundaries of how to use orchestral strings in a TV context".

Kirmann believes that the sheer volume of music needed for McMafia's eight episodes helped them in that bid for innovation.

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"You just have to keep coming up with fresh ideas, interesting ways to deal with a scene," he notes. "I found it immensely rewarding to be able to really push the sonic boundaries."

Hodge's string writing for the London Contemporary Orchestra played an important early part in the process.

An ideas session with the ensemble gave the composers "a good thematic start". Then it was a matter of developing the themes, and "a multi-layered sound to reflect the multi-layered drama".

Kirmann describe's the pair's writing process as a "dialogue".

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"Tom will improvise on the piano or write a string part, and then I will respond to that and process parts, add arrangements and send back to him. Or I will have a very electronic arrangement, and that would serve as a basis for Tom to write something - or even imagine something to push it further."

A global sound for a global series

Initial conversations between the composers after they had read the script, but not seen any footage or images, were "crucial", says Hodge.

"We were able to sit back a bit and digest the feeling of the series... and we came up with a few ideas then that actually made their way into the score."

"In early stages we talked about how to unify the global scale of the series, and how to link all these different locations around the world," says Kirmann.

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McMafia takes in many glamorous places among the grittier elements (Photo: BBC)

"We came up with the idea of using ethnic instruments mixed with classical ones as well as concrete, industrial sounds and voices to create something that is hard to localise, so to speak.

"Another early conversation was the tragic element and the idea of fate, of the past haunting you, which we tried to convey with the music and the production as well, with the use of reverb and other tricks."

Eureka moments

Hodge describes the use of vocals in sections of the score, recorded with opera singer Kim Sheehan, as "a bit of a Eureka moment".

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"It somehow simultaneously worked on multiple levels - an ominous ‘awaken the monster’ vibe, a melancholy for the old (Russian) times, and of course a deep pervading sense of tragedy that only a live vocal can bring."

"Another 'Eureka' moment was a particularly brutal piece of music I started to work on for a similarly brutal scene in episode one," muses Kirmann.

"We were just amazed that they sticked with it, and that I think opened the gate early on for us in term of how daring we could be sonically."

Alex Godman's journey is a tragic and gripping one (Photo: BBC)

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The pair enjoyed different aspects of the scoring process. Hodge wryly notes that despite being "musically selfish", he was excited for every long, dialogue-free sequence in a glamorous location: "and Alex Godman really has a good few of these journeys, so we were pretty lucky there."

Kirmann, meanwhile, "really enjoyed working on intimate scenes and moments between characters - where you have to leave space and convey the fragility of the characters".

"Everything is very underplayed in McMafia," he adds, "so the music has space to fill in the blanks. Which is wonderful."

Set up for season 2?

When it comes to the pair's favourite musical compositions overall, they point to a piece on the soundtrack called 'Don’t Forget My Love', which unifies three scenes together.

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"It has that intimacy... but also the grand scale of the McMafia tragedy," says Kirmann. "I’m very proud of it."

"That one was very much on my shortlist too," notes Hodge. "Making its way through multiple themes with some beautiful sul pont strings, combined with Franz’ pretty esoteric sound processing, harmonic bridging in the piano and eventually finding its way back to a really poignant version of the main theme in D minor.

"It feels inspired by the Fauré Requiem in hindsight. We reprised this material for the very final scene of the series too."

Could Alex return for a second season? (Photo: BBC)

Having had chance to soak up the entire McMafia series and their contributions to it, the composers feel proud to have been involved.

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"I think it’s a great show, complex and gripping," says Kirmann. "There are so many subtleties in it that you could watch it over and over and still find out more about the story."

"It’s a great show with real depth," adds Hodge. "It certainly couldn’t capture the zeitgeist any better. And I really hope the score adds to people’s viewing experience.

"Let’s hope whoever makes those decisions thinks it’s well set up for season 2…"

You can listen to the full McMafia soundtrack on Spotify, and it is available to buy from Friday March 2.

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McMafia is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now. The show makes its US debut on the AMC Network on Monday (26 Feb).

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