Christopher Tyng’s 31st Century Beat

The future of music is Futurama's composer
by Marshal M. Rosenthal

Good news, everyone who likes Futurama — Season 7 on Blu-ray includes a special remix of the show’s theme performed by its composer Christopher Tyng. He’s scored the music for the show from day one (circa 3000), and what he knows about the music from Futurama, we don’t. So we got Hypno Toad to make him tell.

Man Cave Daily
So how did you get involved in the music for the show?

Christopher Tyng
Right from the start, Matt [Groening] had a very clear idea of the vibe he was going for with Futurama–the visual aesthetic of the show was going to be a take on the 1950’s and 1960’s sensibility of what the future was supposed to be like. Matt and I felt that the music should have similar roots, and so we wanted to pay a nod to the “space-age bachelor pad” era–artists like Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Jean-Jaques Perry, Yma Sumac–and all of the sorts of “futuristic” stuff they were doing with orchestras and popular music back then. Synthesizers had just come into vogue around then too–so we knew we’d definitely have theremins, Mellotrons and other vintage funky keyboards galore.

Fry plays the holophonor, an instrument that won't exist until 2720.

Fry plays the holophonor, an instrument that won’t be invented until 2720.

There were also clearly going to be musical nods to the sounds of classic sci-fi and space adventure films and their scores. The other thing that was apparent from the beginning [and has been true ever since] was that the narrative premise of the show allowed for an almost endless diversity in story lines, which in turn has required an incredible diversity of musical styles and scores to support them. And then there’s the whole a-thousand-years-in-the-future component; we’ve had to in some cases invent the sounds of instruments depicted in the show that don’t actually exist!

Each episode can often be completely different musically–from the most intimate, to the most wacky, to the most epic space battle themes–that’s something that has kept this show really fun to do as a composer.

Christopher Tyng in his studio.

Christopher Tyng in his studio. (courtesy of ChristopherTyng)

Man Cave Daily
How do you “score” an episode?

Christopher Tyng
We’ve scored the show a variety of ways throughout the years–we’ve used a full orchestra, which we record at the various movie studios’ scoring stages; and other times it’s just all me in my studio–writing, performing and recording everything. In both cases it starts with me sitting down with Matt and co-creator David Cohen to watch the show “dry”–without any music–and working out where the show needs themes and musical moments to support the action and the story.

Then I head back to my studio where all of the technology functions like a giant “player piano”–I can write and perform thematic ideas in sync with the picture, and the studio records it all–layer after layer. In the end, either what I produce there goes into the show directly, or is handed off to my orchestrator and copyists to prepare the music to be recorded with the orchestra or other additional musicians.

It really comes down to the musical needs of each episode [well, and sometimes the budget that FOX will give us!]  Live orchestras are very expensive, and so are a pretty rare opportunity–especially on a TV show. What’s been really incredible about having a full orchestra on Futurama for so many of the episodes was the ability to really refine and evolve the score week after week, month after month; that length of time working and growing the sound of the show with the same players–that’s something even feature films don’t often have.

Man Cave Daily
You did the whole theme yourself, right?

Christopher Tyng
The theme was really just all me in my studio. I performed everything–drums, synths, keyboards; I got a hold of a set of orchestral tubular bells and played them live for the main melody.

Whenever I create a finished track in that way, it usually happens pretty fast; I’ll get into this sort of whirlwind flurry of inspiration where I’m just layering in ideas as they come to me, grabbing different instruments, recording, producing and mixing as I go. I’ll listen back to something I did that way a few days later and will sometimes be surprised–how did I get THAT sound?? …I think the entire theme was recorded, produced and mixed in about half a day.

A quick injection of 30th Century fun.

A quick injection of 30th Century fun. (Fox)

Man Cave Daily
And the remix?

Christopher Tyng
A lot of the remix actually came about back when we had the original premiere event for the show. We had only finished the first episode at that point, and I wanted to bring something for the DJ at the premiere to be able to spin during the party that would reinforce for the audience the musical identity that we had created for the show.

The actual TV version of the theme is pretty short–about 30 seconds–and so I wanted to have something a lot longer–and I thought there was a lot in the theme that could be developed and extended in interesting musical directions.

Matt is a big fan of remix artists in general, and was keen on having remixes of the theme as well. So I sampled a bunch of great cast lines from the show to drop in as vocal samples, recorded additional music material based around the theme, and then put my remixing hat on and went to work. That was all then recently reworked a bit and remastered. Matt and I have actually been trying to get FOX to release the remix for a long time, so it could be available to Futurama fans–and finally they agreed!

The Grow Music Project that Tyng is a part of supports new artists by helping them get the attention they deserve by producing and recording their most promising song entirely for free and with no strings attached. It’s a way to “pay it forward,” he says.

Mark Setrakian in exo-suit with training robot used in the time challenge featured in the premiere episode.

It’s boomtime.


Don’t let an hour-long swim interfere with your Spanish lesson tapes!

Marshal Rosenthal is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer specializing in technology, consumer electronics and pop culture. Visit his website.

Marshal interviewed Robot Combat League‘s Mark Setrakian in Slaughterbots: Roll Out! and rounded up  The Coolest Stuff from the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show.

More from Marshal Rosenthal

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