By Lolis Eric Elie
When David Simon and Eric Overmyer first started talking about a series about New Orleans, they wanted it to revolve around the city's rhythm and blues tradition. Both of them are fans of the music and they dreamed of creating a show that would feature it. Years later, as 'Treme' started to take shape, the failure of the federal levees offered up several story lines that helped add a bit more heft to their original idea. But, as David sometimes says, if you're fast forwarding through the music performances on 'Treme' to get to the plot, you're missing the plot.
The final determination of which songs will be chosen for each episode is a job shared by the executive producers and the writers of the respective episodes. But much of the credit for the quality of the live performances and the selection of the music included in the show goes to Blake Leyh, our music supervisor. He's worked with David and Blown Deadline Productions for years so he understands the producers' musical sensibilities and high standards for authenticity in sound design.
Like so many titles in television, it's hard for outsiders to know what in the world a "music supervisor" does. I put that and other questions to Blake recently.
What does a music supervisor do?
Blake Leyh: Most basically, a music supervisor chooses the music for a film or TV show, and oversees both the creative and legal process for getting the music into the project. The job ideally requires an extensive knowledge of many kinds of music, and also an understanding of music rights and copyright law.
The work varies tremendously from project to project in terms of complexity and responsibility. At one end of the spectrum, I once worked as the composer on a movie where the credited music supervisor was merely the producer's boyfriend who said "Miles Davis would be cool in the party scene!" At the other end, you have a project like 'Treme.'
On 'Treme' I actually do a bunch of other music-related jobs as well: music mixer, music editor, producer, sometimes arranger. I often get involved with casting the musicians, recommending locations, choosing music props -- I generally oversee every aspect of the music on the show from soup to nuts.
How is music selected for 'Treme'?
Blake Leyh: Everything starts with the writers. A majority of the music is written in to the first draft of the script. But there are also ongoing conversations between the writers, producers, myself, the directors, the editors...Really, everyone involved in the show has an opinion, and we take all that into account. It's a big collaboration. The musicians themselves often choose what specific song they want to play. If we've got John Boutté singing in a particular scene, we'll often just ask him in advance to suggest something.
As a music supervisor, how is 'Treme' different from 'The Wire'?
Blake Leyh: There was no live music on 'The Wire,' so it was a more traditional music supervising gig. But I also wore several hats on that show. I was the music editor and occasional composer -- I wrote the theme music that plays over the end credits, as well as occasional incidental stuff. And I produced the soundtrack CD.
On 'The Wire' I got schooled in the David Simon ethos of musical authenticity and verisimilitude. We also first developed the idea of using our music budget in a win-win fashion to support a music community, working with local hip-hop artists in Baltimore. That concept really came to fruition on 'Treme.' Working at a very grass-roots level, we have been able to simultaneously tell musical stories very authentically and support the recovery of New Orleans musicians in the wake of the federal flood.
What's up with future soundtrack releases?
Blake Leyh: We don't have an official plan yet beyond the two we have already released. Personally, I'd like to get as much of the music as possible released on CD. There's just so much great stuff! In addition to any individual season releases, I'd really love to put out a gigantic box set of everything -- all four seasons, with tons of extras. I can dream, can't I?