Alumnus David Schwartz: Composing for Arrested Development

Composer David Schwartz ’78 discusses writing the music for Arrested Development and how Berklee helped prepare him for TV and film scoring.

June 21, 2013

The cultural phenomenon of Arrested Development—a quick-witted comedy TV series that grew in popularity after its initial run on Fox—is back, seven years later, with a new season that launched to much fanfare on Netflix. Unlike many TV sitcoms, Arrested Development has no laugh track and leans heavily on its music cues to underscore or embellish its subtle punch lines. The man behind that music is composer and 1978 Berklee alumnus David Schwartz, who is also well known for his work on previous TV shows such as Northern Exposure and Deadwood. I spoke to Schwartz about his work on the much buzzed-about series and his time at Berklee. The following is an edited and abridged version of our conversation.


Can you walk us through the process of scoring an episode of Arrested Development?

We’ll all get together and we’ll watch an episode and just talk about where it needs music, and in Arrested, that’s almost everywhere. Often, I’ll write as much music as there is time on the show and sometimes more…If I can, I like to work from the very beginning to the very end. It gives me an idea of the structure and allows me to develop themes…With most network television shows or movies, you make a very rough sketch and you send it in and then people react and they either like it or you rewrite. With Arrested, that doesn’t happen. I finish the music, I put all the players on it, and it’s not heard until we’re on the final dub stage in Hollywood. There’s no chance to rewrite it, so it has to be good.

What’s the story behind the opening theme?

I wanted the theme to have both modern and classic elements. My plan was always to subtract some things to come up with a sparser version. But the more I added, the more [Arrested Development creator] Mitch Hurwitz wanted, which is very much the way the show is. In most shows, you wouldn’t have as many layers. In that way, Mitch's musical taste matches his taste in the show, and it worked out well.

And you worked with a Berklee graduate on Arrested Development?

Yeah, Jason Tregoe Newman. He’s just become a phenomenon. He does as much music editing in television as anyone and he’s so good. He’s such a big part of the Arrested team and I can’t rave about him enough. I hire a lot of my people and a great majority of them have been Berklee grads. Erica Weiss ‘00 is another fantastically successful music editor who went to Berklee…It’s a way more varied, advanced college that they come out of than I did. When I was there, it was more of a jazz school. But now, it’s great because they have all these talents: they can music edit and they can run a variety of different computer programs.

What advice would you give to a Berklee student interested in scoring?

I would just say to take any opportunity that you can. If your friends are making movies, try to be the composer for that. Listen to everything and, as early as you can, try to start writing to film. It’s one thing to be a great composer and it’s another thing to write to picture, and you’re in service to whatever that video is and the people who created it. In that way, it’s kind of like being a session musician. It’s what you want to play, but it’s also how you’re going to make the person who created it happy.

Was there a student film project that you got started on?

In a way, yes. A friend of mine, D.J. Webster, who had directed the first Aimee Mann ('80) video, decided to make his own movie. I didn’t know I wanted to be a composer at that point, and he asked if I knew of anyone who would want to score his movie. I wasn’t quick enough to realize that that should be me. Later on, my wife told me, “You should do that.” So I went back to him a week later and said I wanted to do it. At that point, he had people with pretty big track records and names, so he told me, “You write something and if I like yours I’ll come back to you,” and he did. So that was my first thing…One of the people who saw his movie, almost two years later, called me and said, “I’m doing this show and we’ve tried everything but we’re still looking for music. Would you be interested in trying it?” So I wrote the theme for the show that became Northern Exposure. That was the path for me.

You received a Grammy nomination for your work on that Northern Exposure theme, which includes some steel drums—not something one would necessarily think of for a TV show about a town in Alaska but, in my humble opinion, it really seems to work. So I wonder if you could talk about how you go about the work of deciding on instrumentation.

Josh Brand—another musical and extremely talented guy, who created Northern Exposure—and I had researched Alaskan music and we didn’t find a lot that seemed right for the show even though that’s where it takes place. So we said, what if we go in the opposite direction with New Orleans, Latin, and tropical themes? It got down to me and a David Byrne song and somehow they ended up with me. I was very surprised to hear that. Then they hired Morty the Moose and that was it…There is a similarity, I think, between Northern Exposure and Arrested Development in that we just really felt we could use any kind of music in the world.

Do you view your music as standing on its own or, if I listen to your score without experiencing the visual that it was written for, am I short-changing your work?

The important thing is to make the picture work. I think it’s kind of a bonus if you have a piece that stands well on its own. But I think maybe a lot of my music does stand on its own because someone wanted it to sound sort of like a record.

Of your work so far, what are you most proud of?

I think it’s mostly what we’ve spoken about: Arrested, Northern, and also Deadwood and the Gonzo documentary.

For the Deadwood theme, it really strikes me that you incorporated some Eastern music influences, which might seem counterintuitive for a show that’s a western. When you make an unconventional choice like that, have you run into resistance or have you been lucky enough to work with people who have understood your vision?

Both. With the Deadwood theme, they just loved it but the director, Davis Guggenheim, said he wished that there was something really different in the middle section, and that just kind of rang true to me immediately. So I went back to that middle section, which is played by duduk and we also have an Indian harmonium in there. There was something about that that just seemed to fit the frontier spirit and the visual that was going on. Very often, I have to write a theme before the visual, but in this case, I had the visual, so that was a nice inspiration.

What sticks out for you when you think about your time at Berklee?

A couple things. I had some really great teachers. Bill Curtis was my bass teacher. I recently spoke with him, which was really great because I don’t think I knew enough to be as appreciative as I should have been when I was younger—not that I was unappreciative, but as I got older, I realized what a great foundation he gave me as a bassist…And I think about being around all the other musicians there that were great players. That made you realize how hard you had to work because there were these people that were inspiring you all the time…I run into Berklee people all the time out here in California and so many of them have been successful in very different parts of the business. I’m really proud that a lot of the people I’ve worked with are from Berklee and that we have great relationships and still get to work together in a lot of different ways.

How has Berklee influenced your career?

I think learning to adapt to a lot of different musical situations is the big one. Whereas before I played with my friends in young bands, at Berklee, every day you had to adjust the way you saw music and the way you fit into an ensemble. I discovered a lot of different kinds of music, not only from my classes, but also from other students there and picking up what they were into…Bill Curtis got me to play in the Boston Civic Symphony. He said, “Well, you compose, so you should play in an orchestra, too.” I don’t think I would be able to write orchestral music if I hadn’t played in an orchestra. I played in swing bands and rock bands at Berklee and I think all of that helped so that, when I moved to L.A., I had experience with a lot of different styles. That was a great advantage when I became a composer. The ability to adapt is a really great thing.