Your Honor follows a judge (Bryan Cranston) who has to re-evaluate his moral compass after his son is responsible for a hideous incident.
Despite Your Honor only premiering near the end of last year, it has already found a strong following, mainly thanks to everyone’s favourite TV actor, Bryan Cranston, being in the lead of another drama series. People are swooned to it, they can’t get enough of its intensity and enthralling story. Whilst a big deal of this is thanks to the writing, directing and acting, let’s not forget the amazing music, composed by Volker Bertelmann.
Prior to working on this project, Bertelmann was responsible for the music we hear in Ammonite, The Old Guard and Lion, which garnered him and Dustin O’Halloran an Oscar nomination. Your Honor had its own difficulties for Bertlemann. Not only did he not have the support of his often co-composer, but he had to find a way to build tension in this increasingly intense series. Masterfully, Bertelmann adds to the stories intensity and then some, making an immersive atmosphere with the music being a character of its own.
Benji Bury had a sit down with Bertelmann to discover more about the process of getting involved with Your Honor and the process of designing the score and how it relates to his previous work.
Benji Bury: Thank you for speaking on behalf of AwardsWatch. I just want to say now I watched Your Honor and I loved it. Let me tell you something, I thought the music was fantastic. It really added to a level of intensity to the series.
Volker Bertelmann: Oh, thank you.
BB: I was curious to ask, how did you end up getting involved with composing Your Honor?
VB: The director of the first three episodes, his name is Edward Baga. Edward and me, we worked already on Patrick Melrose together on that series. And that was the first time we worked together. And we really got along with each other and sometimes it’s not always the case, but sometimes the directors come back to you and they ask you again, would you be interested in doing the next thing? So, it was mainly him who was asking me. Of course, it’s a different thing because when you do 10 episodes, you have to deal not only with one director, you have to deal with three and that makes it sometimes a little bit difficult in the communication. You need to talk to many people. Then the team changes, then you have to talk to a new group of people. And it’s not always so easy to work on a long series like that, but I wanted to experience that and I’m very glad I did.
BB: Do you take comfort in working with a director that you’ve worked with before? Because even if they’re a difficult director, you at least know where you stand with them.
VB: Yeah. I would say mostly you work with directors you get along with. If I’m a complicated composer, maybe people are, you really need to find the right match for yourself. But besides that, what is very nice is once you know each other, the processes are much faster. You trust each other, you get more trust from the composer in what you deliver. So, they let you do a little bit more. And a lot of times people that are controlling are sometimes a little bit difficult for the process.
BB: Was there any particular challenges with composing the score for Your Honor?
VB: Well, I mean the series is an interesting series because it starts right away in the first episode with a very traumatic start. And then from there onwards, it’s slowly winding into this more and more complex case of people who are connected with each other who have relationships with each other. There’s always after each episode, you think, oh, in the next episode, there will be an explosion of things happening. What is very nice is that there is a pace to the whole process, but at the same time, it’s not fast. You need to find a way of getting tension involved and finding a way of not doing the tension like musically with pace. I had to find a way of, of course there are a few pace pool cues, but mostly it’s more about finding textures and sounds and working with pitch. For example, I work a lot with glissando so that notes are starting to shift in pitch. And I think that created quite some tension in the score. So that was one of the biggest challenges.
BB: Did you appreciate being able to compose each and every episode, without somebody… drifting from your style I guess is the best way to word it.
VB: It depends a little bit first of all, I would always try to do a whole series by myself. I mean, at least one season, because the problem is you end up losing a lot of time in communicating what you like. I think I rather would love to share the bill with someone right from the beginning. — And as you maybe know, I’m doing a couple of films and I would say the most successful films of mine are with my co-composer Dustin Halloran, a very good friend of mine. And we are doing a lot of things together. And once we work together, there’s no jealousy and no problems with each other. But if you’ve worked with new guys or new composers, I think it’s always a process. And as you know, series I have a very fast pace in delivering music. You have to be an oiled machine just to make it easy and simple, you know? So I would say I’d rather not to have somebody in the middle taking over my job.
BB: Like you just said, I suppose a question I could add to the one I just asked, you for some of your work have a co-composer. So I was curious, obviously your co-composer, you get on very well, you’re friends and complement each other very well. But at the same time, do you like being able to do it solo every once in a while?
VB: Absolutely. I mean, I think you only can work together when you have solo work as well. I think if you are relying on the co-composing film music, then you’d never feel how it is when you are responsible by yourself. And I think it’s very important that you know that you can lift the weight yourself and that you can actually carry the responsibility for a certain style. And then you know what it is that you like. Of course, you also recognize what it is when you have somebody with you that maybe the style gets wider and broader, and that’s a big advantage. But at the same time, there’s also not always the time that both of us can work together. I’d rather say yes to something that I find interesting and I work on it rather than saying no because the other, like Dustin for example, can’t work at that time.
BB: Would you rather do projects with Dustin or was it kind of more, you’d rather do it with him but if you have the opportunity to work on something you’re interested in, would you still take it?
VB: I think it depends mostly on the request. A lot of times we get requested for the two of us and I get a lot of requests for myself. I think it’s maybe the more I’m working by myself, I think my direction is maybe shifting a little bit more to the darker and more tension and more raw and electronic. And there’s a little bit of a different world that I love to work in. I’m a big thriller fan and a big psychological thriller as well. And action is a thing that I really love. So, Dustin and me we did recently The Old Guard, for example, together, which was quite a full on action film. But that’s like a seldomly. A lot of times we were asked more for the more piano based romantic kind of scores or more drama scores, but that can change. And we are getting interested in a lot of things and I’m mostly saying yes to things because I’m curious if I can do them.
BB: Your Honor starts off with this horrific incident at the beginning. And as it builds and builds, it gets more and more tense until we get to the finale. How did you use music in order to really kind of build that tension?
VB: Well, I’m using quite some themes that in a way create, of course there are dark and thriller-esque cues, but at the same time I have themes that are a lot of times following the inner feeling of the person. So, my focus was a little bit to put a contra, like a counterpoint against what the story is telling. So if you feel it, the tension of this series is already so big without music that you feel like you have to get into the emotional state of mind of the protagonist and give them a little bit of the feeling with the music that they are still struggling be a better person. But in a way, all the people are in a way, they get worse and worse and worse. — I would say the only guy that is really trying the hardest is maybe Adam, the son of Michael. He’s really trying not to be on the bad side, but all the others are shifting. So what I tried is I tried actually to get the tension more, to create maybe even the religious or a kind of a feel that there is something where people try to fight their kind of fate in a way. And I think that’s what I tried trying to do a lot of times.
BB: Not just on this series, but any sort of projects you work on, are you the type of composer who likes to kind of start early and try things out and see if it works within the show, or do you like to get the footage and then work with it from there?
VB: Well, it’s a little bit depends on the person you work with. There are films where you find out when you get too early involved, everything starts to get very like crampy in a way, because you’re offered already too many ideas, but nobody really used them. And that makes it, for example, to work as a composer very difficult to get back to the state of zero, where you just start from scratch. So you have to be careful with the moment where you just start to work. And sometimes it’s, let’s say, for example, the film Lion I worked on with Dustin, we had six weeks time and we had the film just finished. So there was not much of time, but that was very helpful because everybody is very focused on the music in those six weeks. — But for example, the film Stowaway I did the music for, I had nearly half a year of finding sounds and developing things and look into new instruments and finding a way of playing them. Maybe, a lot of times I want to try these instruments out. But that needs time. So in the case of Stowaway, I had a lot of trust that the director who’s also a musician had already the ability of thinking abstract in terms of, yeah this is not finished but I like the mood or something like that, you know? So it depends really on the person and of course, on the project when it comes to you.
BB: This will be my last question for you sir. What was the best thing about working on Your Honor?
VB: The best thing was actually that the team in itself was really giving me the piece of developing the music and up to the producers, to the network, they really gave me a lot of freedom. And I think that is the most you can get. Because in a way, what we hear in Your Honor is actually the music that I would give to the film without a lot of, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. It’s just what I would love to do to a series like that. So in a way you get quite some purity of my compositional work.
BB: Thank you very much sir. I really appreciate your time and we much appreciate you coming on.
Your Honor is currently available to stream on Showtime. Volker Bertelmann is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Music Composition For A Series (Original Dramatic Score).
Photo: IMDb; Skip Bolen/SHOWTIME