When Emile Mosseri stepped in as the composer of Homecoming, he had gigantic shoes to fill. The first season of the Amazon Prime series, based on the popular Gimlet podcast, was “scored” by the likes of Bernard Herrmann, David Shire, and Vangelis — a trio of Oscar-winning legends who, it should be noted, are either dead or retired. That’s because creator and showrunner Sam Esmail crafted such a loving valentine to the conspiracy-thriller genre that, when it came to music, he decided to drink straight from the tap.
Esmail eschewed an original score and instead, with the help of music supervisor Maggie Phillips, skimmed the cream off the top of retro noir, borrowing mystery and thriller scores mostly from the 1970s, resulting in an exquisite cocktail of deftly edited needle drops from Vertigo (Herrmann), The Conversation (Shire), Marathon Man (Michael Small), and a dozen other classic films — lending the show an authentically throwback sonic identity, the work of a “dream team” of historic Hollywood’s finest music makers.
Homecoming season two, which premiered last Friday, continues the mystery of the Geist Group and its questionable experimentation with a memory-erasing potion. The show retains some of the key cast from season one, like Hong Chau and Stephan James, but subs in Janelle Monáe as the new lead and surrounds her with heavy-hitters Chris Cooper and Joan Cusack. Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who directed all ten episodes, wanted the show’s look and sound to feel like a natural extension of the first season, but with a crucial change: He wanted an original score. Partly because he didn’t feel like attempting the same unprecedented licensing feat, but also because he wanted the control and customization that only comes with a commissioned composer.
Enter Mosseri, who trumpeted his arrival as an exciting new film composer with a gorgeous fairy-tale score for The Last Black Man in San Francisco. That score comfortably played with colors from the past — Michael Nyman–like minimalism, French New Wave lyricism, and elegant orchestration — but with the undeniable stamp of an artist who has something to say. It’s the perfect combination for a series with one foot in film-music history, and one in the streaming future.
“The tone of the show, and the vibe of the show, was established,” says Mosseri, a native New Yorker who studied film scoring at Berklee College of Music but spent much of the past decade with his band, the Dig. “But this was kind of a dream job for a composer, as far as second seasons go, because there was no composer on season one. I wasn’t stuck or married to anybody else’s themes or melodies or conceptual material. It was all just a feeling.”
Mosseri binged the first season before his interview for the job in August 2019, sipping all of the Herrmann and Small and Jerry Goldsmith vintage, then set about making his own unique brew. After reading the scripts for the first three episodes of season two, he wrote 20 to 25 sketches of theme ideas — mocked up using piano and sampled instruments — and sent the files to Alvarez while he was in the middle of filming.
“It’s just like tapping into a vibe, musically, and then living there,” says Mosseri, who didn’t consciously try to imitate his ancestors but simply took cues from their work, writing unsettling music full of tension and release that is still melodic and “hook-based, in a way that Herrmann’s scores were.”
Mosseri says the most “concrete” homage that he wrote was a simple, descending three-note motif — often growled on menacing French horns — which became the recurring main theme for the season. We first hear it on quivering woodwinds when Monáe’s character wakes up on a rowboat with no idea how she got there (or who she is), and it continues throughout the series as a symbol of the unknown menace she’s trying to uncover.
“That was very much influenced by those scores and Herrmann,” he explains, “having some sort of really, really simple, minimalist phrase that could be reimagined in all these different ways. It can be more romantic at times, it can be more unsettling at times, but it keeps popping up.”
Most of the other themes he wrote are cyclical chord patterns that hypnotically loop back on themselves, but swell in size and intensity along their repetitive grooves. They’re ominous but seductive, chromatic but beautiful — raising the hair on the back of your neck as you retrace the steps of Monáe’s amnesiac, but simultaneously luring you in like Sirens.
“It’s a romantic and seductive show,” says Mosseri, “and it’s also dark and thought-provoking. It’s also kind of self-aware, in a way, that is appealing to me. There’s depth to it, but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. It hits its own note.”
One particular theme — an endless, spiral staircase of chords — came to represent the idea of fate. We hear it, for instance, when Chau’s character takes over Bobby Cannavale’s corporate job at Geist, and later when Monáe goes searching for a main character from season one. “They’re all part of this bigger picture, and they have no control,” Mosseri says of the characters. “And they themselves feel like they’re in a movie, like they’re pawns in a game that’s bigger than them.” Like a great Hitchcock film or a conspiracy thriller, “the show unfolds in such a way that the audience knows what’s going to happen and the characters don’t, and there’s just this sort of impending doom that they’re marching towards.”
Alvarez played Mosseri’s early sketches on the set to inspire the cast and crew, and gave them to editors Matthew Ramsey and Nathan Gunn, who cut them into the picture. In that way, Mosseri’s original score played a similar role to the source music from season one — preceding and informing the edit, moving to its own rhythm.
“I think what works about needle drops so well,” he says, “is that the music wasn’t written for the scene, so there’s a little bit of chaos that you capture. With scoring, you want to preserve that chaos, and you don’t want it to be too on the nose either thematically or technically.”
The music was recorded at EastWest Studios in Los Angeles, where the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was made. Mosseri, who was used to remotely recording his film scores with cheaper orchestras in Eastern Europe, had a much larger music budget for this project and was able to hire a small ensemble of elite players. He recorded the 12-piece strings separately from the five woodwinds and six brass, and built the orchestra in layers.
That allowed each section to experiment with all kinds of fluttering, shivering, clacking effects that give the score so much of its unsteady texture. Woven into that tapestry are analog synths, and Mosseri played his own upright piano. He gave it a slightly wobbly, honky-tonk sound by recording with his iPhone and a high-fidelity microphone simultaneously, then combining the two different sources and sometimes digitally manipulating the pitch.
There’s a forest chase scene in the season’s penultimate episode, and the score there is emblematic of the whole project. Instead of the expected pounding percussion or heartbeat rhythm, there’s simply the lone voice of an English horn played by Theodosia Roussos, who lent The Last Black Man score much of its sonic signature. “She’s playing these overtones, and she’s pushing her instrument to this place where it feels like a human voice,” explains Mosseri, who added that what we’re hearing is that three-note motif, just without any harmonic support. “That was Kyle’s instinct, to not have something you would typically hear in a chase scene, especially in TV music. It was way more unsettling to have this singular, more human, primal thing happening.”
The first season of Homecoming may have distinguished itself with a nostalgic feast of classic-movie music, but the second season carried the torch with an original score that honors film history while also pushing it in a striking new direction.
“I think the dream job for any composer is to write music that’s big and romantic and sweeping and classic-feeling,” Mosseri says. “I’ve been lucky to work with filmmakers like Joe [Talbot] with Last Black Man, or with Kyle — directors that are making that bold choice. They made the choice in season one with this show to have big music, and to have it be cinematic, and to have it not feel like TV music. I’m just following their lead, and then bringing my sensibility and my thing to the table. Hopefully it all clicks.”