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How “The Knick” Became The Most Hypnotic Show On Television

Cliff Martinez, the composer responsible for the sound of Drive, Spring Breakers, and now The Knick, spoke to BuzzFeed about how he created the series’ surprising sound.

Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

One of the things that makes The Knick feel so alive — and remarkably different from previous period pieces — is its very modern score. (You can get a sense of it in the first few minutes of the first episode, which is free to stream here).

Cliff Martinez has worked with The Knick’s showrunner, Steven Soderbergh, on eight films, including sex, lies, videotape and Contagion. He was also a drummer for The Red Hot Chili Peppers, created the distinctive score for Drive, and collaborated with Skrillex for the indelible sound of Spring Breakers. He is, in short, incredibly talented — which is why I was so excited to talk with him about his work on The Knick, and the creation of a soundtrack to which I can’t stop listening. That’s what I mean when I say it’s “hypnotic”: There’s a pulse to this music that I can’t wrest myself away from. It has that effect on its own — perhaps more so — but it also has the effect on the show itself: It inscribes its rhythms on the narrative, to the point that I can’t think of the plot without also thinking of the way that the score shapes it.

Listen here; you’ll begin to understand:

According to Martinez, he received the packet of all 10 scripts — the equivalent of a 10-hour movie — shortly after Soderbergh received the greenlight from Cinemax to film The Knick. “It was like ‘here’s the Rocky Mountains, kid,’” said Martinez, “‘whattya think?’” Martinez read through a few of the scripts, and Soderbergh began to send him rough cuts for the first few episodes — each of them scored with swatches of Martinez’s own (very modern) scores for Only God Forgives, Spring Breakers, Drive, and Contagion.

Cinemax

Cinemax

Cinemax

 

Soderbergh and Martinez have always worked with what Martinez calls “the one thing approach.” As he explained, “For Kafka [Soderbergh’s second film], Steven said ‘I want the score to be dominated by one instrument,’ and he referred me to [Carol Reed’s] The Third Man, which was solo zither the whole way through. So that came up a number of times — for The Limey, for example, he just wanted solo piano. So he’s always pushed this idea of ‘let’s do the whole film with one instrument,’ even though some of the times it’s more of a paring down to one or two instruments.”

For The Knick, Martinez took that same approach, only with a single synthesizer patch, a single sound, and one idea: “For a number of the pieces, I took a synthesizer and a motif, and I put it down an octave, and put it down in a lower register, and slowed it down by half, and then I put one on top that was sped up twice as fast, and twice as high in pitch — so there’s a lot of tricks like that.”

Martinez admits “I’m not a virtuoso on any instrument” — which is precisely what you need to be in order to do something like the zither track to The Third Man. Thus, his reliance on the synthesizer: “There’s a lot of knob-twisting you can do to give expression and movement and a sense of evolution to even the simplest motifs.” But, as Martinez admitted, “I cheated. You hit a wall. I had to put a bass in here; I needed a bass. And we decided to call bass ‘neutral,’ meaning bass doesn’t count as a second thing; it’s part of the first thing. And then I would rationalize, ‘Well, it needs electric guitar,’ OK, so we’ll call it TWO things. Even with that cheat, though, you end up getting a pretty spare and simple, expressive sound.”

Mary Cybulski / Cinemax

Ricardo DeAratanha Los Angeles Times Contour by Getty Images

 

Showrunner Steven Soderbergh on the set of The Knick; composer Cliff Martinez

Soderbergh’s goal was an incredibly contemporary score — something that flew in the face of the precision of the period detail the rest of the crew was laboring to create in their meticulous reconstructions of Manhattan turn-of-the-century streets, fashion, transportation, and lighting. “The mix of electronic score with the period drama really like a high-risk concept,” Martinez said. “Everything else in the show is trying to put the viewer in 1900 in New York, and the music was really fighting to take you out of that period.”

In the cold open to Episode 1, for example, the viewer watches Thackeray make his way from an Opium Den to The Knickerbocker Hospital in a horse-drawn carriage, resplendent in the period dress (albeit injecting himself in the toe) with what appears to be a fully realized 1900s Manhattan out the carriage window — all with the pulsing, futuristic sound of Martinez’s score in the background.

After scoring three episodes with the help of his longtime collaborator, Gregory Tripi, this mode seemed to work — or at least, according to Martinez, to normalize. “I thought, ‘OK, then, that’s the sound of the show, there’s the style,’” he said. “If anything, it just proves that there’s one hundred ways to skin a cat, and there’s a lot of ways to go with music as dramatic underscore. As long as it fulfills the dramatic needs of the story, then you’re good. And I think Steven enjoys throwing the audience a curve ball — particularly when it comes to music — so I think it was an interesting, colorful, and attention-grabbing device as well.”

Cinemax

Cinemax

 

When Martinez first began to work on the score, he set out to write themes for various characters and situations — “There’s the love theme, there’s a surgery theme, and a drug theme,” he said, “but they’re not all that precise and exact.” Plus, the themes themselves sometimes “end up getting slathered in, in places where I wouldn’t have expected — Steven did a lot of cutting and pasting, and when he’d send the edits back, I’d go, ‘Gosh, there’s the love theme while you’re pulling out somebody’s teeth!”

Ultimately, Martinez feels that the anachronistic score actually somehow fits: “I read something on RogerEbert.com that was really articulate — it said that one of the themes [of The Knick] is futurism, like modernity and the Industrial Revolution. It’s just not our future. But there was this great hope of science and technology in the air. And in that way, I was trying to do what sounded like primitive, early electronic music; I was trying to channel Kraftwork and early synthesizer artists.”

The surgery scenes on The Knick are incredibly thrilling, but as the series progresses, the narrative also amps up to several high-tension scenes that might even be called “action.” But Soderbergh has a “strong aversion to action music, or any music that really tries to pump you up” — as did Martinez. He had a couple of intense pieces of music, but for the “action” scenes, he wanted something that was “exciting by the virtue of the pace, rather than the scale of it.” The result feels so vital, like a throb running through the spine of the show. It’s exquisite.

An earlier version of this piece misidentified the director of The Third Man as Orson Welles. The director is Carol Reed.

The Knick airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on Cinemax. You can buy the score here; a double-vinyl edition will be released in September.

correction

An earlier version of this piece misidentified the director of The Third Man as Orson Welles. The director is Carol Reed.

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