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Finding The Heart In Comedy: “Son Of Zorn” Composer Leo Birenberg

By: Marjorie Galas

“Son of Zorn” is quickly rounding the corner, approaching its first season finale on February 19th.  For composer Leo Birenberg, the opportunity to create the score for each episode has been a perfect fit.  When he gets a call about a project, he’s much more focused on what the content is about than the style of music they are requesting.  He figures, if he has the opportunity to work with something truly inspiring and original, his personal satisfaction will come from testing his creative boundaries.  When Eric Appel, an EP and director on the show, reached out to him about working on a pilot for a half hour family comedy with an animated main character, he was hooked.

“They liked the approach I had taken on ‘Big Time in Hollywood, FL’, an action/comedy series I scored for Comedy Central, and asked me to take a look at the pilot,” said Birenberg. “It clicked with me, it just felt right.”

Taking on the job introduced Birenberg to the world of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, the creative minds behind “The Lego Movie” and “Last Man on Earth” who were serving as Zorn’s producers.   Once the series was picked up, he was exposed not only to their “hilarious, creative and brilliant” nature, but Birenberg also witnessed how much care and attention they put into each episode.  They approved every department head and worked side-by-side with the crew to find the best solutions to serve the content.

The original pilot Birenberg received had an up-tempo temp track. While he quickly settled on synthesizers and barbarian drum rhythms to play on Zorn’s 80s style animated physique and penchant for adventure, he also wanted to closely observe Zorn’s family that was firmly rooted in reality.

“The show doesn’t work unless you humanize the animated character,” said Birenberg. “You have to feel for the family members. A key theme is what it is like to have a son and father that are so different from each other.”

To find the balance between heightening the fun and adventure and grounding the viewer in the reality of tense family dynamics, Birenberg focused first establishing a theme for Zorn he could build off of and around. He created the “Zephyrian Romp” (Zorn is from the fictional South Pacific island of Zephyria) – rhythmic waltz using drums, piano and guitar.   He then enhanced the melody with an electric sitar and modified the piano notes to add an exotic flair.

Each episode revolves around a different adventure and lesson, allowing Birenberg to experiment with many different instruments and styles. For a Christmas episode, in which Zorn tries to introduce the family to his native celebration, Birenberg wanted to highlight the “over the top and ridiculous” challenges that arise. He came up with the idea to craft choral music for the entire episode.

“I wrote carols and choral music and hired a choir for the recording,” said Birenberg. “I love writing for a choir.”

Due to the nature of the animation work, Birenberg has some additional time to exercise ideas for each episode’s score. He receives concepts with stick figures and works with the story arch.  The final score is refined four months later, when the animation is completed.  While he does hire outside musicians from time to time, such as the choir for the Christmas episode, he performs most of the instrumentation himself, aided greatly by manipulations he’s able to do on the computer.

Noting the scheduling for “Son of Zorn” was quite unusual, due to scheduling disruptions of the show by the World Series, the election coverage and the start of football season. Throughout the course of the many breaks, he always focused on providing the best quality score he could for each episode. He’s particularly enthusiastic to have music from his  “Son of Zorn” score available on iTunes.  Sample some of the songs by clicking here.