in ,

Composer Dr. Marcus Norris Talks Epic Score of Lady in the Lake

Dr. Marcus Norris conducting
Photo Credit - Matthew Parham

It’s nearly impossible to contain Dr. Marcus Norris’ music into a single genre. His work has spanned from rap beats to opera to Beyoncé’s 2023 surprise live performance in Dubai to themed anime concerts to film scores. Now, Norris is teaming up with visionary director Alma Har’el for her upcoming Apple TV+ series, Lady in the Lake. The show centers on the collision course of two women: Maddie Schwartz (Natalie Portman) and Cleo Johnson (Moses Ingram). Maddie is looking to reinvent herself and begin a career as an investigative journalist, while Cleo is a mother trying to navigate the political world of 1960s Baltimore. The two women are brought together by the disappearance of a young girl on Thanksgiving 1966.

Norris sat down with TV Obsessive writer Tina Kakadelis to chat about his epic, fantastical score for the upcoming Apple TV+ series, Lady in the Lake. The transcript has been edited for clarity and space.

Dr. Marcus Norris standing and smiling
(C_Stay Gold Photos)

Tina Kakadelis: I want to start off basic and go back to the beginning of your music journey. I read that you MacGyvered a computer with some bootleg software to start making rap beats. Then, what led you down the path to composing?

Dr. Marcus Norris: I was 13 years old. Which, it’s crazy to think that was 20 years ago this year. Oh my God, where does the time go? (laughs) We didn’t have much money growing up and I kind of had to piece together a computer. At that time, computers were made out of large pieces. If I was coming up now, I just would’ve been out of luck. But at that time, all the computer parts were large and I could piece them together. It was Windows 98 at the time, which is doesn’t exist anymore for good reason. That was that was my start into music. From the beginning, I was just obsessed with music and I was going to do whatever it took to to make it. I think about it now and it sounds like humble beginnings. Now I think about it, like man, how lucky I was. If I was born five years earlier, you had to make beats on physical hardware. If I was born five or ten years later, the computer parts were so small and I wouldn’t have been able to afford a new computer to make that music. While it was humble beginnings, I like to think that I was lucky in that way.

Yeah, I can’t imagine. It sounds like I’m a couple of years younger than you, but I vividly remember the big hardware boards that you could get and it made sense. But now, if I tried to MacGyver a computer, it’s the same thing as going to the Moon. It feels impossible.

It’s like if you look at an iPhone or something. How would you put that together? You can’t.

Did you also love film and TV? It seems like anime is a huge love of yours as well. How did you marry your love of film/TV/anime and composing?

I just I loved it all and there was no separation from me. Looking back, one of my favorite films was The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is I now recognize as a musical. I didn’t think about it like that at the time. And another was Alice in Wonderland, the Disney version from the ’60s or whatever. If you watch that, that movie has more musical numbers than any Disney film. There’s just wall to wall music. I was just obsessed with tons and tons of movies like that, but I would just watch them over and over and over again. I didn’t early on set out to do film music because where I came from,  it wasn’t like a realistic possibility. I didn’t even think about music in that way. But in hindsight, it makes tons of sense that this is where I ended up.

I want to touch a little bit on the South Side Symphony work that you do which is awesome. I was a band kid all growing up and we would go to the Maryland Symphony Orchestra. I remember wanting to take a nap through it, but I don’t think it’s possible to take a nap through the South Side Symphony shows that you do. Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve reinvented what an orchestra looks and sounds like?

With South Side Symphony, I kind of reimagined it from the beginning. I approached it like, what if the orchestra didn’t exist and it was invented today by a young black man? What would that look like? What would they play? Where would they play? Would they be playing music by old, dead white guys? Probably not. That gives me the freedom to just reimagine the whole concert experience from the ground up. We are not playing music at you. You thought you came here to hear us. We came here to hear you as well. I give people that permission early on in the concert. It’s kind of like modeled after black gospel traditions in that way. I often think about us or talk about us in the lens of the lineage of Duke Ellington playing in the clubs or Cab Calloway. Who, for my money, is the best performer all the time. and. It was really important to me that South Side Symphony recorded the score for Lady in the Lake as well. I’m like, if you like Marcus Norris music enough to want to hire me for this job, you really like the South Side Symphony. You can’t separate the music from the people and that’s really important to me.

Natalie Portman with creator, showrunner, executive producer, writer and director Alma Har’el
Courtesy of Apple TV+

What drew you to working on Lady in the Lake?

I love how specific it is. The show takes place in late ’60s Black Baltimore. There’s this juxtaposition between White/Jewish America with Natalie Portman’s character Maddie and the soul music and jazz of Black Baltimore at that time. I like the puzzle nature of these things. The director, Alma Har’el, knew early on that she didn’t want this score to sound like anyone else’s score. She wanted the score to have its own specific sound and be unable to work for any other show. She really gave me permission to take some really big swings with this.

I grew up right outside of Baltimore and the the history of the city is very interesting to me. I think Lady in the Lake is a very important story that relates to the Baltimore of today. Did you do any research about what music was happening in Baltimore then?

I leaned into what the show leaned into with soul music from that time. And I grew up in Jackson, Michigan. The closest city people know would be Detroit and so, these Motown artists are our gods. We worship at the altar of Motown, you know what I mean? There’s Nina Simone references in this show. One thing that helped me a lot with this score was that I had the benefit of coming onto this project late. So much of the world had already been built out, including needle drops, and I got to be informed by this world that Alma was already crafting.

I read that you set up a portable studio in the editing suite. How did that come about? And then going forward, is that something that is appealing to you?

It was so cool, so interesting. Normally, you would score something at home. Composing can be so lonely. It’s just you in this dark room by yourself. Very, very depressing. (laughs) So this was cool. Alma had a couch behind me in my little portable studio and she would be on her laptops, sending emails, be this important business person that she is just completely laid out back there. Then, I’d be working and get to a point and I’m like, hey, can I show you something? I could get her immediate reactions. I would totally do it again if that’s what the the director wanted or was best for them. As a composer in film and TV, I have to work for the director or showrunner. I have to help bring their vision to life and match with their process. This is the process that Alma and I came up on because she has to kind of feel it out. She’s not somebody that you can just kind of give a piece of music to. Alma needs to go on that journey with you and in a beautiful way. I have fond memories of that with her.

Moses Ingram in a window display while Natalie Portman looks on
Courtesy of Apple TV+

I haven’t gotten to see the show yet, but I listened to your score and then I watched the teaser. Lady in the Lake looks like a very fascinating blend of realism and then fantastical elements with maybe dance numbers. You also used underwater trumpets and all these other unconventional sounds in your score. How did you follow the balance of the show? What was the strangest source of inspiration that you found to put into the score?

The show has so many different tones and I think that works well for me as an artist. I write from such an introspective, internal place. I just try to be in the moment. I work in a lot of different mediums and I think that helped me as well because I just have a large vocabulary to pull from. We did a lot of fun, weird sounds. We went to Motherland Music in Inglewood. It’s an African music shop. We recorded djembe, udus, jars, kora, mbira, broken mbira where the keys are broken. I recorded playground sounds at Ladera Park where there’s these instruments built into the playground. I recorded sticks breaking. I got coins in the jars and that ties in with the hustle and the money part of the show. The guiding thing through this process was that all of these weird and interesting techniques tied into the story directly. I think that’s how I found that balance. There’s no weird sounds just for the sake of making weird sounds or like an a novelty or gimmicky kind of way. All of it ties into the story in a direct way that you can follow.

Moses Ingram in Lady in the Lake
Courtesy of Apple TV+

I texted my sister immediately after listening because we were both band kids growing up. She is the one that stuck with it. I did not, but I could hear all that. She plays percussion and she plays djembe. She loves any sort of drum, so I told her she needs to listen once it’s streaming. As an ex-tuba player, I have to ask about the beautiful brassy sounds that you had in here. You couple those instrument with delicate whistling. It’s that balance again that I’m curious about.

Well, first off, thank you. The fact that you would recommend it is the biggest compliment I think someone can give, you know what I mean? You can’t buy that. The fact that you would recommend it to someone means a lot to me. Okay, but how did I find that balance? I wish I could give you a scientific answer. I did all the schooling and people think like, oh, he has a PhD, his answer is going to be so theoretical. My answer, does it feel good? I think to Alma’s credit, you have to be able to follow the curiosity. I’m like, I wonder what it would sound like if I did x, y, or z. The whistle was just an idea I had. I like Westerns and at the beginning, I gave her eight main theme ideas for the show. Like, what is going to be the sonic core of the show? The whistle version was the last one. I almost didn’t send it because I thought there was no way she’s going to like this. It’s so weird and western and epic. There’s also the anime style of it, you know what I mean? Where it’s just this emotional swing. I’m like, there’s no way, but  let me just throw it in. Sometimes I’ll throw in an extra option that there’s no way they’re going to pick this to give the illusion of more choice. And Alma picked it. In hindsight, it had to be this. I wish I could give a really scientific, smart answer, but I just thought it would be cool and weird and it ended up being cool and weird.

I was going to say, it is so cool and so weird. I had a blast listening to it. I can’t wait to see the show and how it all melds together in the show. Thank you so much for your time!

Thank you. I’m excited about it as well. I think it’s going to be a fun ride. This was a great conversation. You be well.

The first two episodes of Lady in the Lake will premiere on July 19, 2024 on Apple TV+. Episodes will be released weekly.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Amy Adams her Oscar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *