Composer Mac Quayle on Building Ryan Murphy’s Scores

Whether it’s “Ratched” “Pose” or “The Politician,” Ryan Murphy’s visual canvas is bold and vibrant and often filled with glitz and glamour. You could say the same of the music of Murphy’s world.

Mac Quayle first linked with Murphy in 2014’s “The Normal Heart,” on which he worked as an assistant composer. Then when producers on “American Horror Story” wanted to go in a different musical direction for the show’s fourth season, they called on Quayle, and he was hired.

Murphy sought a sound that was “1950s sci-fi strings,” so Quayle created a “string sound that had a retro feel, mixed in with a Theremin.” As Quayle explains: “That instrument was first used in ’50s sci-fi movies, and I mixed it to create the piece, and they loved it.”

That sound would turn into the main theme for “American Horror Story: Freak Show” and Quayle became Murphy’s go-to composer, working together on various projects to develop different scores. After seven years, Quayle describes their relationship as a “collaborative one” with Murphy often providing big picture ideas and presenting his vision. “It’s up to me to create something that is hopefully interpreting his big picture,” Quayle says.

“With ‘Pose,’ the big picture vision was that the story started in 1987. He said, ‘We want a retro synth score that is going to sound like something was done in 1987.’ It’s my job to fill in all the details.”

As the show travels through years, the score stayed rooted in that sound, but the series’ source music traveled with the decades. “I updated a few sounds to make it sound a little ’90s, but I pretty much stay rooted in the ’80s.”

With “Ratched,” Murphy wanted a retro orchestral score that would feel period-appropriate since the series is set in the late 1940s. But unlike the Golden Age of Hollywood inspired retro score of “Feud: Bette and Joan,” starring Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis, “Ratched’s” vision was a darker take with elements of horror. Says Quayle: “It was whimsical, weird and chilling.”

Quayle aims to fit his scores alongside that signature bold and vibrant style that is Murphy’s calling card. “There are moments where the music is a character in the show and it’s making a statement,” he says.

But there are exceptions to that. “‘The People v. O.J Simpson: American Crime Story’ was much more understated,” says Quayle.

Similarly, “9-1-1” airs on Fox, on a mainstream network. “It is a different world to everything else. There’s a lot of action and a lot of pulling at the heartstrings in the storyline,” he notes. With that, the approach to music is to push the story along.

When “9-1-1 Lonestar” was added into the mix, Murphy and the team stuck with their big picture approach, telling Quayle they were happy with the existing “9-1-1” sound, they wanted a “version of it, but with a little bit of Texas twang, but not too much.” Adds Quayle: “We gave it a couple of slide guitars and a couple of twangy bits and the sound for that show was born.”

Quayle notes how, over the years, a two-way system of trust has developed between the team. “He is a great storyteller,” says Quayle. “We have that relationship where there is mutual trust and understanding between us. They know I will do my best to give it to them.”

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