Mark Snow: The Return of THE X-FILES
Composer Mark Snow Talks About Scoring the New Miniseries
Interview by Randall D. Larson
Jan 23, 2016
With the premiere of the 6-episode X-FILES miniseries debuting on Fox tonight, Chris Carter’s iconic clandestine sci-fi drama is Out There once again. With a short series arc that reawakens the dormant show’s vast mythology of alien visitation, covert corporate conspiracies, extra-terrestrial super soldiers, and a vast assortment of close encounters with the paranormal investigated by the special FBI unit, the original X-FILES series ran for nine seasons on Fox, from 1993 to 2002, and included two feature films (1998, 2008) before the series resolved its multi-faceted story arc and gave a poignant denouement to the enduring relationship its lead characters, Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.
But like the menacing wisps of cigarette smoke, hybrid alien visitations, and dripping cascades of viral Black Oil, the heart of THE X-FILES continues to persevere, and the team that created and maintained the series through its original run is back to restore everything we loved about that show while restoring its engaging, character-driven science fiction detective premise for a new generation of potential fans.
One of the elements that gave THE X-FILES much of its assertive and sinister character was the music of composer Mark Snow [right]. The musical design of THE X-FILES was potent and fascinating; both inventive and consistent in its multifaceted ambiance. For the show’s entire existence – for every one of its 202 TV episodes and both of its feature films – its only musical accompaniment has been the music Mark Snow has composed and created for it – often enough aided by the work of music editor and percussionist Jeff Charbonneau. Few long-running series have captured such a marriage of music from a single composer, whose work from the series iconic main title theme to its array of creepy, propulsive, and serenely poignant aural atmospheres has defined the show’s musical design since episode one – and each episode and film score has been an original composition without necessitating the re-use of material from previous episodes, which is often the case in television music. The respect with which Mark Snow’s music for THE X-FILES has received over the years for its intrinsic effectiveness remains noteworthy; his music for the show has generated two 4-CD box sets (so far…) of episode music from La-La Land Records, and it continues to have an influence upon other composers and their musical design in both films and television.
So it went without saying that THE X-FILES wouldn’t be THE X-FILES without Mark Snow, and when the new miniseries debuts it will do so with Snow’s familiar and beloved theme and his brand new episodic scoring that so perfectly captures everything that THE X-FILES is. I interviewed Mark the day before the show premiered – while some insights about the new show couldn’t yet be discussed, we chatted about the show’s musical design and his experiences refreshing the world of Mulder, Scully, Skinner… and the Smoking Man.
Q: What’s it like returning to the X-FILES now after so many years?
Mark Snow: Getting back to THE X-FILES for this limited episode series was really thrilling for me because I was able to bring back some of the textures, sounds, harmonies, and things that hopefully THE X-FILES fans really love and I think are looking forward to hear – plus some new sounds and perhaps a new kind of minimalism that I don’t think was particularly present in the episodes or the movies. It’s the same composer, so it’s not going to sound like someone else, and while there are probably 500 composers who could do a great job with THE X-FILES, I just seem to come up with the right musical sound of the show, and it’s still extremely familiar even though it’s been a long time since the episodes and the movies. It was a great joy to come back to that world, especially when Chris Carter said “Here are the shows, do what you want!” That doesn’t happen too often, if ever!
As I worked on the scores, he had some notes, minimal, totally understandable, and correct. In fact, an incredibly thrilling moment happened when I heard the first episode and found that the music was presented lower than it should have been in the sound mix. I called up Jeff [Charbonneau], the music editor, and said “hey, man, this music is a little low here!” He called up Chris and Fox, and we were actually able to get back on the mixing stage and remix the first episode, raising the music level, which was fantastic – that doesn’t happen too often either.
Q: Being such a beloved series, fans are going to expect a certain thing from the show, its characters, and its sound. Since THE X-FILES ended, you’ve certainly been doing other things and developing as a creative artist – were there new musical things that you may have wanted to try but felt constricted to a certain sound palette in scoring the new series?
Mark Snow: No, I didn’t feel constricted whatsoever. There’s a lot of music in these shows and I’m very familiar with the kind of harmonic things I used to do. There are some new musical elements I’ve brought in for certain moments in the episodes. It’s difficult to describe what is so completely different about them, except that there are some different sounds, different pulsing percussion elements, and different ambient designs, but the basic harmonic structure from the past is fairly intact. That’s true especially for the first episode and the sixth episode, which bookend the new series and have to do with the mythology that runs throughout the show. They revisit the saga of the whole show for people who have never seen it before and then also reacquaint the fans with the conspiracy theories and Smoking Man and all that bit. So I think it was particularly important in those episodes to bring back some of that traditional mythology sound while the other four episodes are amazing standalones, wonderfully imaginative, and just like the standalone episodes of the original series, that was a chance to spread out the music a little more.
Q: Are you using the same kind of equipment in your studio to generate these new scores?
Mark Snow: It’s the same main instrument but a whole bunch of different libraries. So it’s the same architecture, the same house that holds all the sounds, but there’s a lot of other really interesting sounds that are combining with what I had available in the past. In a simple way, it’s the best of both sonic worlds.
Q: How have you treated the show’s main theme?
Mark Snow: I treated it so similarly that it’s exactly the same thing! We didn’t even rerecord it! I did attempt to rerecord it a few times, but I couldn’t come close. The music has such an individual sound to it, any attempt to re-do it inevitably lost what was unique about it. The only thing I could get completely similar was the whistling sound; the other stuff, with different EQ and the reverb on that delayed piano accompaniment, that was just impossible to get just right. I tried to copy it, but we all agreed: there’s no way! We’ve got to just go back and use the original recording.
Click HERE to open a new page and listen to Mark Snow’s X-FILES theme, arranged and produced by John Beal, from THE X-FILES 20th Anniversary Celebration, BSX Records 2013.
Q: Did you encounter any particular challenges in scoring the new series?
Mark Snow: Just the challenge that these shows are about 43-44 minutes long and they have about 40 minutes of music! That’s the challenge right there – how do I keep those 40 minutes vaguely interesting, without sounding like air conditioning or something?!
Q: What areas of the episodes inspire you when you’re writing? How do you imagine the kind of feeling/texture you want?
Mark Snow: A long time ago one of the producers told me that my scores on the really great shows were like an 11, and on the not-so-great shows they were a 10. Well, I wasn’t aware of there being any not-so-great shows! But there are things that are really inspiring because they’re so brand new, they haven’t been done before and they won’t be done again. That’s why the mythology shows are a little more traditional and have a similar musical flavor to the past.
Q: What can you say about the more unique needs of the standalone episodes, such as the “were-monster” that’s featured in Episode 3?
Mark Snow: That one was more of a comic episode. It’s real send up, and it’s brilliant; Darin Morgan as his phenomenal best. And his brother Glen did one of the other shows (“Home Again”) that was really terrific. Chris wrote one that was so remarkably detailed and so remarkably fleshed out, and yet so all over the place. I can’t tell you much about it yet, obviously!
Q: Understood! Well, I’m really looking forward to getting back into that familiar place and revisiting what we all loved about the characters, the writing, and the sound of THE X-FILES.
Mark Snow: So am I! Scoring the miniseries was like falling back and fitting into a real comfortable suit that I used to take ownership for!