Jeremy Levy On The ‘Star Wars’ Inspiration Behind His Grammy Nomination And Orchestrating ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ (INTERVIEW)

Composer, orchestrator, and arranger Jeremy Levy will be waiting to hear whether a song from his latest album, The Planets: Reimagined, will win a Grammy Award for Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Capella at this year’s ceremony on March 14th. The song, “Uranus: The Magician” is part of a wider Jazz interpretation of Gustav Holst’s famous symphony, The Planets, and the album itself was one which was substantially funded by Levy’s first-ever Kickstarter campaign. For Levy, the idea behind the album, which blends many musical traditions into a Big Band approach, however, started with his love of Star Wars and an experience working on the Star Wars video games that prompted a renewed interest in The Planets. 

There are other reasons, though, that 2020 and 2021 have been a surprising period for Levy, as another one of his musical projects, The Queen’s Gambit, has set major viewing records on Netflix. Working as the orchestrator for the series alongside composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, Levy took on the challenges of working remotely during COVID with musicians a world away in Budapest, helping bring the series to life for fans. Jeremy Levy spoke with me about both endeavors and what the past year has been like for people working in the realm of film and TV music. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: I wanted to ask you, firstly, about the relationships between the three of the roles you often fill, that of composer, which you’ve done most recently on a number of major video games and on your prior album from 2012, that of orchestrator, for which you have many credits in film, tv, and video games, and lastly that of arranger, developing music for orchestras to perform. 

Jeremy Levy:So many of these terms can mean the same thing, depending on what angle you’re coming at things. The arrangement work is mostly for symphonies. I’ve done quite a bit of work with the National Symphony Orchestra in DC. I’ve done several shows where they have a Hip-Hop or an R&B artist, and we have to translate the material for the symphony orchestra for that setting. I’ve worked with the Metropole Orkest, over in The Netherlands for similar things. I’m doing a Soul band arrangement for them right now. I also worked with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, featuring the work of Nina Simone.

But on the video game side, I’ve been doing additional music on the Star Wars games for my friend Gordy Haab, who is the main composer. That’s kind of how I got into the whole idea of doing The Planets for Big Band. It was a very personal project and I’ve been very happy that people seem to have enjoyed it. A lot of people who have gotten into film music seem to appreciate it.

HMS: Actually, it makes a lot of sense in some ways, but several Rock and Pop musicians have told me that The Planets is something that they connect with, even if they may not usually Classical music fans. That seems to be a work that they can emotionally connect with. It seems inspired to choose The Planets. Did you realize that it could have such a broad reach?

JL: I had hoped so. I was initially working on the music for Star Wars: Battlefront, and the Star Wars music is very heavily influenced by The Planets. There’s a whole scene in the first Star Wars movie, when the Death Star blows up, that’s a note-by-note transcription of three seconds at the end of the first movement of The Planets. I studied orchestral music and I have a conservatory background, but for me, when I first connected Star Wars, which I loved as a kid, with Classical music, I realized, “This is where it’s all coming from.” 

It brought my love for all of that stuff together. It’s sent me down this path of wanting to work with film scores and orchestration. That’s why it’s important to me, but I think a lot of people probably had a similar epiphany with Star Wars, going down the rabbit hole of the Star Wars music and then discovering The Planets. It’s a really cool way that pop culture has brought back a piece of music from the early 20th century.

HMS: It doesn’t seem like you found the idea of adapting The Planets at all intimidating or daunting. Were you looking for a big personal project at this point in your life?

JL: It was slightly intimidating. It took me nine or ten months to complete the writing. Also, my daughter was born around that time. I had wanted to do something with Jazz music, but I hadn’t found anything I wanted to do. It’s an expensive process and I was looking for something that really needed a reason to exist. Then The Planets idea came to me and I started rehearsing it as I was writing, and realized it was going well. It was working. There were definitely some starts and stops trying to figure the whole thing out. I had my orchestration work with films in between. 

HMS: Looking at your work output over recent years, it’s clear that you’ve been very busy. Did you end up using crowdfunding for the album? 

JL: This was my first time doing crowdsourcing for the funding for an album. It raised enough money for almost half of the entire project, which was a huge boon for me. The hard thing for me was making sure not to offer up rewards that would be hugely difficult or time-consuming for me, so it was definitely about structuring the entire Kickstarter campaign to make it clear what the project was, what the money was going toward, and having clear deliverables. That was the trickiest part, figuring all that out. 

I contacted another composer who is on Kickstarter a lot, and also does a lot of video games, Austin Wintory, who has clearly figured out how to do it. He’s a friend of mine, so I chatted with him about how to structure the fundraising. I included things like inviting people in Los Angeles to come out and listen to the band rehearse, so I tried to include things that fans could easily access. That was the trick of making it all work. 

HMS: I know that you finished recording the album in 2019, which must be a relief now that you avoided 2020, but I’ve also seen a video for “Mercury: The Winged Messenger” where you were conducting by Zoom. I thought that was so cool, but that must be very strange for the conductor where people are not, geographically, where you’d expect them to be.

JL: Of course. Well, there’s a bit of smoke and mirrors there, because I had people record their video, and then send it to me. Then I conducted, basically, using a click track. It was a project where there’s not really the technology to record everyone over Zoom at once, so it’s more of a music video. 

HMS: That explains how the sound is so good! 

JL: The audio is actually from the record. We reverse-assembled it, since we had just recorded that song professionally, so we had all the players get video for the project. Since it was during COVID, we wondered, “What can we do so we have some videos for this record?” So we had everyone play along, so that it synchs up. It was all lined up in video editing software.

HMS: That’s fairly technically difficult, too, though, with the videos! It came out really well, and we get to see the musicians at work and meet them, which is fun. Were you at all surprised by which song was chosen off of the album for the Grammy nomination?

JL: The way that it works, I had to choose which song of the album to submit for Best Arrangement. I went back and forth for two weeks about which one to submit. In the nomination list, I put it up for Best Arrangement, which it eventually got nominated for, but I had also put it up for Best Large Jazz Ensemble, which is the Big Band Jazz category. I had really hoped it would get that nomination, and I wasn’t anticipating that it would come in for Best Arrangement. 

When I was watching the announcements of the awards on the TV with my daughter, casting it from my phone, and when they didn’t announce it for Best Large Jazz Ensemble, I let out a little groan. Then, I wasn’t really paying attention when they announced Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella, but I heard it announced in the background and let out a little yell. I wasn’t anticipating that category because it’s unique. If you look at this year’s nominations, there are three people from the Jazz category, doing things similar to what I did, but then there’s an a cappella arrangement, which is awesome, and then there’s a film score, from The Joker. I have no idea how it’s going to go!

HMS: That must be rewarding, artistically, to see it placed alongside so many other types of music, suggesting it’s being singled out for its originality.

JL: Yes. 

HMS: I read your blog post about working on The Queen’s Gambit, which is a great summary of some of the things that were interesting about the project, but I was really surprised to learn what people had to go through to make that series, and how much of it was affected by COVID. When I saw the series a few weeks ago on Netflix, I had assumed that it had been completed entirely pre-COVID because of how detailed it is. 

JL: A lot of it was done pre-COVID. When COVID hit, as far as I know, it was already in post-production, which is where the music comes into it. All the music was done during COVID, as I talk about on my blog. There was a lot of trying to figure out where we could record the music. There was a moment there where it looked like it might not happen, and that we’d have to use a synthesized orchestra rather than a real one. That was a possibility, but thankfully the stars aligned and we were able to record in Budapest.

HMS: Were you already comfortable and used to that level of digital interaction for recording, having to work with people remotely?

JL: Yes and no. A fair amount of that is already often done, especially with orchestras in Eastern Europe, like in Budapest and Prague. It still works best if you can go into an actual studio, like in Los Angeles, and they have better software and you can get better sound quality. That’s how it’s usually done. But the software has improved, thankfully, even from the beginning of COVID to now. It’s interesting to see that development. But there is communication a couple of different ways, sometimes through Zoom, sometimes through audio software. There is occasionally delay in the communication of the conductor, who is essentially controlling the orchestra, but everyone is getting better at that. There was time over the summer where restrictions were looser in LA, where we recorded some things in person, also.

HMS: In a normal year, when you took on a project like The Queen’s Gambit, would you have travelled?

JL: Sometimes if it’s in London, we travel a little bit. I haven’t travelled to Budapest, though I’d love to. Everyone tells me it’s a beautiful city and everyone over there is pretty professional. For the most part, we don’t get to go, due to budget. If you can do it from your computer at home, there’s little reason to go.

HMS: In that way, music was ahead of the curve on making sure people could work remotely.

JL: It’s true, though many session musicians in LA have lost work, who would have recorded in person and now the work has gone remotely to London or Budapest. There’s been a lot of lost work. It’s been a really tough year for a lot of people.

HMS: We’ve heard a lot about how loss of touring has been impacting the music industry, but we don’t hear much about how restrictions have impacted session musicians, so thank you for sharing that. I’ve heard that you had worked with this composer on The Queen’s Gambit, Carlos Rafael Rivera, before. Did you all intentionally look for projects to work together again?

JL: The last project I worked with him on was Godless, also on Netflix, and that was with the same director as The Queen’s Gambit. He has a really good relationship with that director, Scott Frank. I assisted on a previous project with them, then I was asked to work on Godless, and when this came along, they asked me. Carlos is actually a very good friend of mine and I’ve spent time with him and his family. That’s generally how things go. Once you find a good relationship with a composer or a director, it tends to stay that way.

HMS: Could you comment on the unique aspects of working on this particular show? The story is interesting for many reasons, but it’s very internal, with so much going on inside Beth’s world. It’s a very different series than Godless! Did it pose challenges for you?

JL: That’s so much the job of Carlos, the composer. My role in this is to make sure that I realize his vision. If Carlos gets it right, then I make sure that I get everything right, as far as instrumentation and scoring. There are times when he’ll ask me to fill things out and beef things up, for instance, as the emotional builds. He sent me a scene that is the first time that Beth plays Benny, and that music was a little thinned out, so he asked me to fill that out. Then it was my job to match the emotion to the scene, along with the pacing so the scene builds in the proper way. 

I had those opportunities to make sure that the music matches the emotion of the scene properly, but it’s not really my role to get inside their heads as much as it’s Carlos’ role to do that. He did a beautiful job speaking to everything that Beth is going through and threading themes for her emotions. He took an interesting approach to the score where he didn’t really write character themes, but he tried to write themes for what Beth was going through. So whatever her internal monolog was, there were musical themes to go along with that that would come back again and again. Beth has multiple themes based on what’s happening for her.

HMS: It occurred to me that because there are so many scenes of people sitting at tables and reacting facial, it must be difficult to make that interesting for film and TV, so music probably played an even more pronounced role in this series than people were even noticing. 

JL: Yes, there was a lot of music! I think we recorded about 100 minutes, and that’s just underscore. There’s a lot of other period-era pop songs that were used, as well.

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