The very best composers tend to fade into the background, invisibly adding layer upon layer to the atmosphere of your favorite movies and TV shows. However, celebrated composer Mac Quayle is the rare exception to this rule. Sure, Quayle is also adept at building entire worlds through his music, but in this golden age of TV, it's become almost impossible to avoid hearing Quayle's powerful compositions in one of the many shows that he works on.
Following his work on popular movie soundtracks such as Drive and Spring Breakers, Mac Quayle began to forge his signature style on the score for Mr. Robot, winning an Emmy for a uniquely paranoid score that pulsed along with the anxious machinations of Elliot Alderson's mind. Before that though, Quayle had already veered into the darker edges of television scoring with his work on American Horror Story: Freak Show, marking the beginning of a prolific relationship with show runner Ryan Murphy that continues to this day.
From Scream Queens and American Crime Story to Feud and American Horror Story, Quayle has composed the soundtracks to basically all of your favorite shows from the past couple of years. Join us as we talk to Quayle and discover the secrets behind these scores, including some hair-raising tidbits about American Horror Story: Cult and how music has helped shape Season 7.
Musical Horror Story
One of the ways in which American Horror Story set itself apart from other shows early on was through its artistic opening sequences. Combining unnerving symbolism with an eerie score, these opening credits became a hallmark for the show, one that was revamped once Quayle took over scoring duties.
In the first three seasons of American Horror Story, the theme basically remained the same, but Freak Show marked a new beginning that drew more inspiration from the style of individual story lines:
"In Season 4, one of the original composers of the theme did a refresh, updating it to reflect the storyline for 'Freak Show.' That turned out really great, so [the show runners] thought that they should start doing this each year. For the next season, 'Hotel,' they asked me to do that. I did a refresh for 'Hotel' and then another one for 'Roanoke' and now for 'Cult' too."
Quayle experimented with a number of instruments and musical styles in order to reflect the current theme of each season, delving into different genres each time:
"Starting with 'Freak Show,' there was twisted circus music; a twelve tone, 20th century, avant garde classical music and some kind of classic horror. Then, going into 'Hotel,' it became this very dark and electronic kind of '80s and '90s electro horror music. I was also pretty fond of the main theme for 'Hotel,' which was this very creepy, melody played on an instrument that was electronic, but sounded like a violin played off a dusty old record...With 'Roanoke,' I explored more classic horror with piano based themes and what not. It's really great to go into all these different kinds of music in one show."
The trick here was to develop each season's score in a unique and concise way without losing the essence of the show's identity. Quayle described to us how consistent threads run throughout the soundtrack each year, even as it evolves to reflect the show's ever-changing direction:
"Each season sounds a little different, sometimes very different, but there's a thread that runs through each season; there's moments where we want to scare the audience and where we use both conventional and non conventional horror language to do that."
Quayle Reveals How He Approached Composing The Score Of American Horror Story: Cult
While Season 7 of American Horror Story hasn't been enshrouded in as much secrecy as Roanoke, there's still a sense that evil clowns wait in the wings to pounce on anyone who reveals too much about the show's upcoming Cult themed storyline. With that in mind, Mac Quayle was fortunately still able to describe how he approached composing the score for American Horror Story's next installment and how politics helped to shape this:
"What I've experienced now for four seasons of 'American Horror Story' is this challenging process at the beginning of the season where we are first creating the sound. Each one is different and so that initial process, its quite intense. There's a period of a month or two where there's a lot of music being written, a lot of things being experimented with, until we come up with the sounds that are going to be the blueprint for the rest of the season."
Quayle described how the challenge persists, even after working on American Horror Story for the last four years in a row:
"Starting that process can be quite daunting; there's a blank page in front of me and I'm like, 'How am I going to get to the other side with the sound for the season?' Fortunately, this is the fourth time now that I've made it to the other side and there's a sound for the season that we're happy with. It's a pretty intense month or two though, defining what I sometimes call the musical universe for the season."
Season 7 threw up its own unique challenges with its highly publicized election theme this year. For the new opening credits, Quayle managed to incorporate political themes through his choice of instruments while keeping the theme instantly recognizable to fans of the show:
"So we thought we needed something vaguely militaristic, somewhat like a marching band with twisted patriotic elements. For that, I used a brass plated trumpet, and then french horns to create these sort of creepy elements that bend and have a lot of reverb on them. This is actually a little signature that we use in the show itself. There's also military snare drum, some tubas, things like that which give the theme a kind of creepy marching band vibe."
Dedicated fans may have heard a slight deviation from the usual theme this year that holds significant political relevance:
"There's this little bridge that happens about two thirds in; there's a creepy glockenspiel rendition of 'The Star Spangled Banner' that just comes in for a phrase or two before it comes back to the theme again. It was challenging but also pretty enjoyable to work on that this season."
Quayle explained to us how the election theme of this season resonated with him on a personal level, enabling him to reach catharsis through his work on the score. While he reiterated to us what the likes of Murphy have already stated — that Season 7 will surprise fans who think they know what the story will entail — Quayle did hint that the title Cult works on more levels than we may expect:
"There is this political theme for the season and I think it's going to be, it's not going to be what people could imagine it is as far as where the story goes... 'Cult' is a very clever title and I think it really does sum up [Season 7]. You'll only be able to understand once you've seen it."
Clearly then, American Horror Story: Cult won't adhere as closely to real-life events as the other main show that Quayle's worked on this year.
Feud: Bette & Joan May Score Quayle Another Emmy Win
Nominated for an astounding 18 Emmy Awards this year, Season 1 of Ryan Murphy's Feud will compete in a number of top categories while potentially earning Quayle another Emmy trophy or two along the way.
Recognized in the categories for Outstanding Main Title Theme Music and Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie, or Special, Quayle's work on Feud is indicative of his talent, veering away from the darkness of Mr. Robot and American Horror Story toward something more outside of his usual wheelhouse.
Anyone who's seen Season 1 of Feud knows how pivotal the music is in bringing us back to that classic Hollywood era, particularly in the show's groundbreaking opening credits sequence. Quayle told us how movie scores from the '60s onward influenced his approach here, explaining:
"Right at the very beginning of the project, there were conversations with Ryan and his team about the sounds that they were looking for on the show. They very much wanted it to be an old '60s Hollywood sound. I listened to a lot of scores from that era. I watched the film that is the central part of the show's story — Whatever Happened To Baby Jane — and sort of absorbed all of that before I started writing."
Interestingly, Quayle was given a lot of freedom to put his own spin on the compositions for Feud, despite working closely with show runner Ryan Murphy once again:
"Ryan is very much a big picture thinker when it comes to music. He lays down the parameters of what he's looking for, and once that is set, I start writing music. He then has pretty simple notes for me in terms of what he wants to be changed. For 'Feud,' a big theme for him was that it's a sad story about these two women and that was the most common note I'd get about the music. 'I like this, but I think it needs to be more sad or end on a very sad note.' [Murphy] really is looking at the big picture and gives me simple notes to try and achieve what he's looking for."
Given that the pair have worked together on a number of hit shows now, it makes sense that Quayle and Murphy would share a strong working relationship built on trust — and that's exactly why it looks like this partnership will continue to flourish in future projects together.
While little is known about Season 2 of Feud as of yet, Quayle assures us that the focus will engage viewers just as much as the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the first season:
"I just know it's about Charles and Diana, which I think is a pretty brilliant choice. What part of the story Ryan is going to focus on, I don't know, but for me, I think this is one of his great talents, that he finds these relevant and engaging parts of the story to be at the forefront. With 'Feud: Bette and Joan,' he really hit this thing about the sad lives of these two women and how they were treated by Hollywood. It wasn't so much about them feuding on the set of this movie... there was a lot more to it... One of his great talents is to start with something that seems quite obvious on the surface, but then just brings out something else which is much more interesting and relevant."
At the time of writing, Quayle explained to us that he's currently composing scores for the rest of American Horror Story: Cult and the first few episodes of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, all before returning to Mr. Robot for Season 3. This ongoing collaboration with Mr Robot creator Sam Esmail will undoubtedly bring the pair further success, but that doesn't mean Quayle and Murphy will part ways anytime soon.
While nothing has been set in stone at such an early stage, Quayle is clearly the forerunner to compose future seasons of Feud, American Horror Story, and #AmericanCrimeStory too, keeping both himself and Murphy busy for the foreseeable future.
When asked to describe what he does, Mac Quayle told us that his job is to ultimately "help a storyteller tell their story with music." At the end of the day though, Quayle's compositions are far more integral to the likes of #Feud and #AmericanHorrorStory than this would suggest. Longtime collaborators such as Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange may be the face of #RyanMurphy's most popular shows, but the scores that Quayle writes to accompany these performances are what truly lie at the heart of these stories.
What's your favorite score composed by Mac Quayle? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!