Greg Edmonson: For the Love of Firefly

A conversation with Greg Edmonson by Helen San
Originally published @ Tracksounds: The Film Music Experience
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor Christopher Coleman

Greg Edmonson is most recently known for his sensational work on the 2002 FOX television hit, Firefly. Often called a “sci-fi Western,” Firefly tells of a rag-tag crew of nine aboard a spaceship, who are trying to survive a futuristic, totalitarian government on one hand and a lawless, savage frontier on the other. Created by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Titan A.E., Toy Story), the show delivered Whedonesque humor and cleverness at its best. Although the series was cancelled after only 11 episodes, Firefly quickly drew a huge and devoted fanbase still going strong one year after cancellation. The complete season of Firefly was released on DVD in December 2003, largely because of fan demands. For the first 2 months of its DVD release, it was consistently ranked amongst the top 25 best sellers on and averaged five stars amongst Amazon’s 500 reviewers. Firefly is currently in negotiations to be made into a feature film. Groundwork has also been started for a soundtrack release of Edmonson’s score.*

Joss Whedon created a very unorthodox, multicultural future where civilization had a strong Chinese / Eastern influence, while the wild unconquered frontier was heavily Western, in the traditional guns and horses sense of the word. Edmonson delivered a brilliant marriage of this Eastern and Western, and everything in between. There is a lot bluegrass fiddle and country guitar, some traditional melting piano and violin, some synthesized percussions, a smattering of other world music, and exotic (often Chinese or mideastern) winds and strings. This was the unique sound of Firefly, where Mid-eastern dance turns around to meet Southern blues, which in turn flows naturally into Celtic with Chinese instrumentation, for example. The bold blending of musical cultures (and instruments) has never been accomplished so ambitiously and successfully to date, and evinces the facility Edmonson must have with the gamut of musical styles. Even though it is nothing like anyone has ever heard before and could have easily sounded contrived, the music feels natural and effortless. The ease of the diverse musical backdrop is in large part why the audience was able to instantly understand and transport into this extraordinary new world.

Firefly was a labor of love for Edmonson, and you can hear it. You can hear the fun he’s having in the Western guitar twangs and the celebratory dances. You can hear tenderness in his presentation of a favorite character. All Edmonson’s cues have a bold spark that comes from passionate enthusiasm. The theme of the score is emotional rather than conventionally melodic. The result is an intimate connection, which like the show itself, stands out, grabs your heart, and doesn’t let go. He gives us heartbreak, whether in piano or violin, that is uncommonly executed. When you hear the opening scene in “Out of Gas,” you think Murder in the First by Christopher Young–only less developed because of time constraints of the small screen.

The proposed soundtrack for Firefly is still in development, and is likely to change before it is finished. As it stands, it is 54 minutes long, with 22 tracks ranging from 2 to 3.5 minutes each. Each track is a suite comprised of two or three cues strung together from two or three different episodes. As such, the cues themselves are quite short and sometimes abrupt. More importantly, they leave the listener wanting for more just as they got started. Though the brevity of these cues is not the fault of the composer, it is my main complaint for the soundtrack. The music is too mesmerizing to leave us hanging with 30 second cues. We can only hope that Edmonson will soon get an opportunity to develop these themes in a feature film, preferably one named Firefly.

How did you get started on Firefly?
It was a gig in town that everyone wanted to do, because everyone wanted to work with Joss. He is a highly respected guy. So basically everyone tossed their CD at him, and for whatever reason, he picked mine. He called me and we took a meeting, and that’s how it happened. It almost never happens that way. It’s an anomaly. Normally there are political factors in play that overwhelm the actual music involved. In this case, it did not. And all the credit goes to Joss Whedon.

That speaks to your talent as well. You were singled out amongst all the applicants.
That’s true. On the other hand, I work in a town full of incredibly talented people. And I know how television works. Finding a television producer, who is number one, going to trust his instinct, and number two, not just going to do the same thing that everyone else does, almost never happens. But Joss is an unusual guy. He’s a guy who has his own unique vision and is willing to follow it. And when he said I don’t want to do the same thing everyone else does, he meant it. He stood by it. So it was really an honor and a great joy to be involved with that show. So that’s how it got started. I miss that show still. Of all the shows that I’ve worked on, this show was a huge joy for me. I just can’t even tell you what a joy it was.

Give us an example of something you miss.
The post-production schedule did not leave enough time to do the music. The post-production team patterned its schedule after Buffy and Angel, which were shows they had experience doing. Firefly required the recording of a number of live instruments in addition to the synth tracks. So there wasn’t enough time in the schedule to allow for the recording process, which was usually 2 days an episode. Consequently, I was working 16 hours a day, every single day, 7 days a week. There were weeks where I had other commitments as well, because I also work on a show called King of the Hill – it went up from there, 20 hours a day sometimes. And never once when I got up at two in the morning, even though I was exhausted, never once did I feel anything but grateful that I was working on Firefly. Never once was it, “Oh man, I ‘m so tired I just want to get this done. I wish this was over.” It was like working on a feature film every week, which just doesn’t happen in television.It wasn’t just the cast, or the writing, acting or directing. It was not any one element. It was all the elements together. It was such clever show about deep, interesting things. In my opinion, it was too good for television.

It sounds like you’re in love with the show too, just like the rest of us.
Oh, you have no idea! You have no idea. I absolutely love this show. Everything lined up. A lot of times, it takes a while, sometimes as much as a year, for the writers and producers to find what works really well and what works less well. In Firefly, the actors just knew who they were supposed to be right from the pilot (credit Joss with that one). The fact that the two hour pilot did not air first, allowing the audience to be introduced to the nine main characters in the way that Joss intended is still deeply troubling to me.
If I understand correctly from Joss, FOX has been helpful, even though they buried the show. They just didn’t have the vision to see it. Either that or they looked at their audience and said, “This is not our audience. We don’t have an audience that is interested in adult issues. What we’re after is people who are 17 or 18 and we just need to give them a comic book kind of thing and move on.” And this show was not like that. These were adult issues that Joss was dealing with. Issues of morality, different ways of looking at morality. Somehow it was all tied together in an entertaining show. When it was over, it left me really depressed for this reason. In television, it will never get any better.

They’re talking about a movie.
They are.

Will you be writing the music for it?
Listen, I would love to be invited to that party. That is a complete unknown at this point.

I know Joss Whedon wrote the theme song. Did you orchestrate that?
I did the arrangement for it. I produced the recording for it. There were some great guys on that session. Joss’ original vision was of a single guy just sitting on the front porch just playing guitar and singing the song. But FOX always thought of this as a more straight ahead action show. And so they thought of some sort of a da-da-da-dum pumping title, more like a TV main title for an action show. To reach a compromise, we tried to find instrumentation and elements of rhythm that we could use to stay consistent with Joss’ vision and still make it sound like what is commonly conceived of as a main title. I think we did a pretty good job. We had a fiddle, two guitars, bass, and a guy playing percussion. But what he was playing were pieces of metal, wood boxes, and ethnic instruments, all played with brushes and sticks. So it still is something that could have happened sitting on the front porch, just a few more instruments rather than a single guy. I have no idea where Joss found Sonny Rhodes, the fantastic blues singer who sang it. He was a unique find, and there is nobody like him. Plus he was a wonderful guy.

That was a difficult melody to carry off.
It’s a tricky one. He did great. And I think Joss was happy with the way it turned out.

Did you write the “Hero of Canton” song?
One of the producers, Ben Edlund, on the show wrote it. We did the arrangement, which was pretty much guitar and lots of vocals.

What kind of creative direction did Joss give for the music of Firefly?
Well Joss knew exactly what he envisioned for the show, but he was open to listen to anything that you might do, so finding what worked for everyone was a process. The process was refined by the feedback that the network gave Joss, in terms of they thought was working and what was not working. As you would turn in music, Joss would say, “No, I am thinking a little bit more of this or here’s the part of the show that we really want to play up.” Joss and Tim Minear both had a very clear vision of what the music should contribute to the show. They had lived with this show for a very long time. Since they’d already shot the two hour pilot, and then spent a long time temping it with music that they felt made the show work, it gives you a little bit of a roadmap as to the direction that they were heading. And you would take that roadmap and write. They would respond to it, and then you would address whatever changes they needed. Once we got going on episode one, and figured out what was working, you could kind of look back and say, “Well, this seems to be the direction that the show is going,” and just extrapolate from that to the episode at hand.

There was a lot of guitar and bluegrass in Firefly. Could you tell us more about that?
I played some of the stuff. For the most part the guitar was played by a wonderful studio player named Craig Stull. The fiddle was played by a studio genius named Charlie Bischarat. Some of it was western themes, some of it was real modern. Charlie could switch from fiddle to beautiful violin and heart wrenching solos in the blink of an eye. One of the wonderful things about this show was that it gave you all sorts of opportunities. It wasn’t just the same thing over and over again. So we just had the most wonderful time, even with the pressure we were under. All the guys would come over and as we were recording the parts, we would watch the picture and they would add something wonderful that I might never have thought of. It was always an inspiration and we always had a good time. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Since the studio struggled with the western aspect of the show, those guitar elements got a little bit shorter as the show went on. We would use guitar more like a signature rather than in long extended pieces. For example, when we had a release of the tension, when somehow everything was ok at the end of the show, the guitar kind of occupied that place. It became a signature for the crew and the fact that somehow they had survived another day. Sometimes the guitar outlined a point of humor. The fiddle was the same thing. We would use the fiddle for those things.

I noticed that you would use different instruments for signatures for different characters. For example, I hear the horn every time the Alliance comes on screen.
Yeah, that’s true. Horn was a very difficult instrument on this show. Joss apparently loved and respected Star Trek, but didn’t want to revisit what they had already done. On every other outer space show, the horn is a big deal. That is why, if you’ll notice, anytime we had a shot of the Serenity in space, it is always guitar and/or fiddle, never horn. This was the antithesis of Star Trek. Does the horn work? Absolutely. But Joss wasn’t remaking Star Trek.
The Alliance was different. The horn would speak to the powers that be: big, powerful and dwarfing our rag-tag crew in comparison. So we would use the horn for the Alliance.

I also wanted to ask you about the Reavers’ theme. The rhythmic clanging with no melody.
It was just meant to be disturbing. I thought it was. I thought the Reavers were disturbing. I thought Joss did such a good job. I remember in the pilot, Simon was asking Zoe about the Reavers, and she said, “First they’ll rape us to death, then they’ll eat our flesh and then sew our skins into their clothing. And if we’re very very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.” Is that more frightening than anything else you could see? Let your imagination go to work. One of Joss’ great geniuses is he knows how to use people’s imaginations. It is something far more scary, to me at least, than anything a special effects guy could create and I like special effects.

I noticed there is some similarity between the Alliance signature and the Reavers’ theme, with the rhythmic clanging. Was that intended?
No, I think I am probably just a big fan of rhythmic clanging. (laughs).

I noticed the clanging happens a lot when they are in dangerous situations, and of course they are in danger whenever the Alliance is around, as well as Reavers.
Part of it is that we used such unusual instruments on the show. We used didgeridoo, we used pipa [Chinese string instrument]. We even had artists who made instruments that never existed before. Then they would come over and play these instruments–it was just really weird and fun. At some point you begin to find a sound goes with the Firefly universe. And even though you can extrapolate and experiment with that sound, it was also fun to just keep it consistent on some level so that it sounded like the show. We never went to a place where you’re started hearing techno dance music, because it just wasn’t that world. Also, there was a more organic sound to this show, just from the fact that you have live instruments being played.

Was the clanging live as well?
Some of it was. There is always live stuff mixed in with it.

Oh really? I thought it was synthesized for sure.
We always had live percussion on every episode, because it gave humanity to the whole thing.

A lot of shows have these leitmotifs with the same musical phrase playing over and over again. I don’t hear that in Firefly.
Didn’t do it. Didn’t need it. There were no thematic devices that were used consistently for characters, although there was instrumentation. For instance River, who was a brilliant character, could have gone in so many directions. She, a lot of times, got played with an ethereal sound, but it was never a specific theme. We just got to readdress it every time and said, “Well you know this is her sound and let’s go with that.”

I noticed that you used those instrumentation signatures rather than melody.
It just seemed more appropriate.

Violin for Inara.
We did use violin a lot for her. God, I’m going to get sad all over again. The very last piece of music I wrote for this show was when Inara tells Mal she’s leaving in the Heart of Gold. And that scene was heart wrenching to me, knowing that there would not be another.

I wanted to ask you about the Eastern music. Even though the show described primarily a Chinese influence, you have a lot of other types of music including Middle Eastern. How did you choose what kind of influence to portray?
People categorized this as a western, and that is a drastic oversimplification to me. It wasn’t just bar room brawls and Ms. Kitty. It wasn’t Gunsmoke in space. Although that is a fun description, and there is a little tiny thread of truth to that. But only the tiniest thread. I saw Firefly as a band of disparate characters, thrown together by circumstance, trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. In this world, “high tech” existed for those that could afford it. Everyone else did the best that they could with whatever tools they could come by. To me, at least, it is in this way similar to a western–and in fact a page right out of our own history.Since it was post apocalyptic, all the cultures were thrown together. I never saw it specifically as a Chinese influence, although of course they spoke Chinese, which was clever. I saw it as all these cultures tossed into a giant melting pot, and stirred around. You can come out with anything. There was never a conscious decision to do anything other than that, but look at how many wonderful directions that can take you. This was a show that could and should have run for years and it could have done so without repeating itself!

What kind of cultures did you choose to represent?
Anything that came to mind. There was mid-eastern stuff, eastern rhythms and elements. We used Chinese instruments on every single score. There’s a wonderful store in San Francisco called “Lark of the Morning.” They sell every conceivable instrument that exists on the planet. Before we started the show, we just ordered thousands of dollars worth of those instruments. We got them all down here. We would look at an instrument and say, “Can we use this on this cue?” We would use these instruments in this fun way to add all these influences to the score. I did learn one thing about ethnic instruments. It’s that the visualization of someone playing the instrument helps to sell it. An instrument with strings on it, whether it’s from Africa or the East or the West, when you hear it, it just sounds like a string vibrating. When you see it, you get the added exotic appeal of a bizarre instrument. So it didn’t always work as we intended. But the instrumentation was always there. The full score was kind of a mixture of interesting ethnic ideas.

Did you use any source music? On Persephone in the pilot Serenity, I heard this Chinese music that sounded so authentic I thought, “They must have taken that from a CD somewhere.” Or was that an original composition?
I wrote it.

Oh my goodness. What about the classical piece at the party in Shindig.
No, that was actually classical music. Those were the pieces they shot to. This episode was shot even before I came onboard the show. I took the melody lines, and we recorded oriental flutes playing the melody line, and then mixed that in. So that it wasn’t a straight classical piece. It still had oriental influences, if you’re talking about the ballroom dance.

What about the Irish music that River was dancing to when she got kidnapped? Was that original?
You know what? I believe that was a piece they had the rights to. We recorded it. Same thing, we added oriental elements and other stuff. Joss never wanted anything to be just the way you would normally have heard it. He wanted us to have elements that said, “This was our multicultural mix.”

What about the bluegrass at the dance in Our Mrs. Reynolds, where Saffron gives Mal the wreath?
Definitely wrote that.

The music sounds so authentic it is hard to know which is source music and which is original.
I think those were the only source pieces, but you’d have to ask me piece by piece.

Is there a CD in the works for a Firefly score album?
I believe that is up to FOX. They have expressed some interest. I put something together for them. I sent it to them. They sent contracts over, and I signed them. I hope that that happens. It looks pretty good.

Will there be any source music on the CD?
Probably not. I may be wrong about that, but that seems less likely.

Does the theme song have an extended version?
Not at this point. One of the things that was mentioned in the preliminary discussions is that maybe there could be an extended version of the theme song. Number one, I don’t know how Joss would feel about that. Number two, I don’t know if they pursued that idea. If such a thing were to be done, it would be done by a remix guy, but it would require Joss’ blessing and be under his guidance. So that’s an unknown to me. I haven’t heard anything about it to know one way or the other.

Will they just make copies of the CD you sent them?
I have no idea. I sent them something, and I will do whatever they need to make it happen. But we’ll just have to see.

Is that music rearranged in suites, or is it the actual cues themselves?
There were some cues, but they were all put together so that everything would be a certain length. Originally they thought everything should be 2.5 to 3 minutes long. It didn’t work out on this show that way. So I would put pieces together to make two minutes, or make other cues less long. It’s a little bit tricky because you can’t combine too many pieces without shifting emotional moods. I sent them something with the idea that we could use it as a starting place for a discussion. We’ll just have to see what their response is.
I like to revisualize the scenes when I hear the music or visualize some part of the show I particularly like. So some cues just needed to be by themselves, so I left them that way. There was a long cue at the end of The Message. It was a very sad cue for me. It was the scene where Tracy dies, but I didn’t write that music for him. I wrote it for Firefly. I wrote it to say goodbye to Firefly.

It was powerful.
That was my emotional response to saying goodbye to all these wonderful characters I’d lived with. I felt like they were friends of mine. I did. I lived with these people for a long long time, as did the editors. You’re watching them how ever many hours a day you’re working, watching them over and over again as you work on the task at hand. I felt like they were my friends, and the loss was personal. Some of those cues, you just have to leave by themselves because to add a different emotional beat would disturb them. You don’t want to foul that up by tacking on a little guitar piece.
As the western element became less emphasized, those guitar pieces grew shorter. On the other hand, those were signature pieces of the show so you couldn’t ignore them. But they weren’t long enough in and of themselves to be statements, so you kind of have to do the best you can. I leave it to FOX, who knows better than I how to do these things, to let me know how to proceed. Those were at least my initial thoughts. Sometimes I would mix two maybe three pieces together. Some things could be suites. Like Inara’s room always had a certain sound, always an Asian influence or it always had a violin. It wasn’t played in a western style; it played in more of a classical way. That could be a suite, because there was a unifying theme running throughout. Other things you kind of mixed intentionally so there would be a shift from point A to point B. There were so many drama cues in this show because of the heavy dramatic action

Did you arrange these cues by episode?
I mixed and matched. I did it more from a musical perspective than episodic perspective. Sometimes I did. I think there was a Heart of Gold montage that I put together. I sent FOX more music than they could use, with the idea that they could pick and choose. You want cues to be interesting to listen to. I know that they would be interested in the fact that there is an interest out there.

I don’t know if you read fan sites at all, but people are making their own CDs. So there is a market for this. People are sitting by the DVD player finding 15 seconds here and 20 seconds there with no dialogue, and making their own CD.
That’s amazing to me. I got some wonderful letters after the DVDs came out, and I sent them over to FOX. The music department at FOX is the best in the business. Carol Farhat and Jacquie Perryman are wonderful and fighters for the show. When we recorded the main title, Carol was there all day long. She is very, very busy, and for her to spend all day there was a big deal.
You gotta give this to Joss and Tim. The post-production team on this show was the best I’d ever worked with. Lisa Lassek, Sonny Hodge and JP were the three editors, and they were all great. A lot of times for people in television a job is a job. Never was that the case on this show. All these people cared about this show. It was way more than just a job. They cared on a very deep level. When it was canceled, people were devastated. Not just because they lost the job. There was an emotional impact to it. People really cared. Kelly Wheeler who worked with Tim Minear told me that months afterwards, somebody from FOX came over and said, “You guys aren’t over this yet?” And they weren’t over it. I’m still not over it. The show had a lasting impact in a way that other shows don’t normally have. Other shows get canceled and you go, “Oh well, that was fun. I got paid. Thank you very much.” Not the case with this one.

You’ve done a wonderful job at describing this very unique world that Joss Whedon created. As far as I’m concerned you’re part of the set design team, creating this world that you not only see, but feel because of the music. So thank you very much.
Thank you for helping keep it all alive.

Author’s note: I would like to thank browncoats for their support and contributions to this interview.


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