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'Binge-watching' viewership casts bigger spotlight on TV composers

By Sue Zeidler

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Composers for television shows don't usually get the same critical recognition as those composing soundtracks for films, but an increase in viewers "binge-watching" shows has led to a brighter spotlight on TV's musical backdrop.

Emmy-nominated Robert Duncan, who scored "The Last Resort," a TV show about a U.S. nuclear submarine crew, said that viewers who watch several episodes of a show in a row on platforms such as Netflix were changing the art form of television soundtracks.

"Times are changing," he said. "TV's becoming more cinematic and there's an expectation for the music to follow suit."

Canadian-born Duncan, whose career was jump-started by a prestigious Hollywood composing workshop in 2001, also worked a series composer for "Buffy The Vampire Slayer." Now he is represented by the same agency that works with top composers such as Oscar-winner John Williams, who scored "Star Wars."

For the musical overtones of "The Last Resort," Duncan climbed aboard a Cold War-era boat in San Diego and recorded sounds from the vessel to incorporate into the music.

The effort paid off for the 42-year-old composer, who has been known to tinker with old instruments and industrial salvage to find unique sonic qualities. His soundtrack for the "Captain" episode of the Walt Disney ABC series earned him his third Emmy nomination.

Duncan will vie against five other composers in the Best Dramatic Score category this Sunday at the Creative Arts Emmys, which are held a week before the Primetime Emmys and focus on behind-the-scenes crafts like music and make-up.

"Every TV show is different and part of my job is to assess whether the people I work for have any music allergies," said Duncan, who earned previous Emmy nominations for the series "Castle" and "Missing."

INDUSTRY INCUBATOR

Duncan is a product of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Film Scoring Workshop, an industry incubator of sorts that has helped launch the career of another Emmy nominee this year, fellow Canadian-born composer Trevor Morris, for his score on "The Prince" episode of the Showtime series "The Borgias."

"The workshop was my point of entry to Los Angeles, which can be a big, scary town," said Morris, 43, who participated in the workshop in 1999 and went on to win an Emmy in 2007 for best music composition for "The Tudors."

Each year, 12 aspiring composers from around the world and averaging in their mid-20s, are picked by ASCAP, an organization that distributes royalties, for a four-week program during which they compose an original score to a scene from a major film.

Since completing the workshop, both Morris and Duncan have been involved in the judging process. Morris said the program helped him get work with famous composers like Hans Zimmer. As part of Zimmer's team, Morris accumulated more than 25 major screen credits on some of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters.

Morris and Duncan stay in touch with each other and other program members. "A bunch of us were just at the Hollywood Bowl to hear John Williams, the original maestro of maestros," Morris said. "To hear him live in concert reminds you of why you get into this business in the first place."

The composers will face off in the best original dramatic score category on Sunday, which also includes nominees David Schwartz for Netflix series "Arrested Development," John Lunn for PBS series "Downton Abbey," Jeff Beal for Netflix's "House Of Cards" and Charlie Mole for PBS Masterpiece Theater's "Mr. Selfridge."

(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Bill Trott)

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