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MIGHTY CONCERTED: The Music of Young Justice

by John Takis

Finding your place in the universe isn't easy – especially when you've grown up in the shadow of the Justice League! Yet that's what Aqualad (Khary Payton), Robin (Jesse McCartney), Kid Flash (Jason Spisak), Superboy (Nolan North), Miss Martian (Danica McKellar), Artemis (Stephanie Lemelin) and their friends face at the outset of Young Justice. From the halls of Mount Justice, they must prove their mettle by undertaking covert missions on behalf of the League. They must become true heroes, able to lead those who come after – Bumblebee (Masasa Moyo), Blue Beetle (Eric Lopez), Lagoon Boy (Yuri Lowenthal), Beast Boy (Logan Grove) and many more. But even with plenty of super-backup, life is fraught with peril. A mysterious alliance of villains, The Light, has launched a sinister plot to ensnare Earth. Deadly forces reach out from the galaxy's dark heart. Many of the young heroes harbor dangerous secrets. And before their trial is over, at least one of them will make the ultimate sacrifice...

Like its cast, Young Justice (dubbed Young Justice: Invasion for the second season) inherited a formidable legacy when it debuted on Cartoon Network in 2010. "We faced a difficult question when we began development," says producer Brandon Vietti. "How can we make our show stand out from all the other great superhero shows that came before us? We decided to focus on the realities of teenagers coming of age in the shadow of legendary adult mentors. That our teenagers happened to be covert operatives on dangerous missions was a secondary element. That they also happened to be superheroes was tertiary." And while the series embraced familiar characters, the showrunners were determined to broaden their horizons. "We wanted to do a superhero show that covered the breadth and depth of the entire DC Universe," says producer Greg Weisman, "using all sorts of characters, ranging from fan favorites to completely obscure."

Part of keeping the show distinctive was creating a fresh musical sound. "I wanted a score that was less about big music from traditional instruments, and more about electronic sound effects creating atmosphere and mood," says Vietti. Adds Weisman, "This was going to play edgier – more like a spy thriller. Brandon found a few examples of the kind of thing he was talking about, and I was immediately on board. Then, of course, Dynamic Music Partners joined the party, immediately capturing the kind of sound we were looking for." Composers Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion and Lolita Ritmanis were no strangers to the genre, or to the concept of reinvention. After working under their mentor Shirley Walker on the animated Batman and Superman series of the 1990s, their partnership continued on shows like Justice League, Teen Titans and Legion of Superheroes, crafting unique sound worlds for each show's dramatic needs.

"We realized that a great way to talk about music for Young Justice would be to talk about levels of energy," says McCuistion. "Unlike other series we had scored in the past, there was often an underlying pulse of energy threading scenes together, even if there were stretches of dialogue or drama. The operative word for our first couple of episodes was 'covert,' and we regularly incorporated the sonic equivalent of a ticking clock." Mood, atmosphere and tone were the watchwords, according to Ritmanis. "Leaving room for breath, for the imagination. Evoking a feeling through the score that has an emotional effect, but does not read as traditional music per se. These concepts were at the forefront of our thought processes. While we did not entirely abandon the use of the orchestra, we were extremely mindful of using only traditional instruments, harmonies and sounds when we were in the Justice League realm, or in specific instances where the storyline called for a traditional theme or gesture."

Having hit upon an approach, the next step was implementing it. Countless hours were spent creating, combining and manipulating sounds – electronic, vocal, and orchestral – with special emphasis given to percussion. "We were challenged to find ways to break down the barriers between sound and music to create texture and mood," says McCuistion. "We did not collaborate directly with the sound design team," says Carter, "but as the series progressed we familiarized ourselves with the 'sound world' they created." Vietti and Weisman nurtured this sense of synergy. "They would take their time with the dubbing mixer, weaving the effects and score around each other for the greatest dramatic effect," Carter continues. "Sometimes, sound effects and music fight each other because their sonic qualities are so different, but having a largely textural score allowed the two elements to shift between each other in a much more seamless fashion."

One early challenge was designing the main title. "It was introducing a show with a very different musical approach," says McCuistion. "We basically had twenty seconds to lead the viewers into this futuristic and darkly mysterious world. We decided to try a hybrid approach of using a strong melody surrounded by a textural sound to bridge the gap between the standalone theme and the underscore to follow. The three of us all brought in ideas (as we often do when co-writing) and we presented them and chose the best material, building the theme in such a way that it's hardly distinguishable what material belongs to whom."

Ritmanis observes that the majority of perceptible themes in Young Justice are more about sonic impact than melody. "When I created the theme for The Light, the primary sound I used had a crackly quality, intentionally unnerving and unbalanced. In essence, the dialogue was the 'melody' in those scenes. By contrast, when composing the M'gann/Superboy love theme, I chose to create a mood that was warm and fuzzy and very naive sounding. With each theme that I created, be it a mysterious hypnotic motif for Starro, a King Kong-like percussive feel with a bombastic melody in the bass for Golem, or a magical-mischievous melody for Zatanna, the goal was to envelope the character in an additional layer of musical sound with the hope of enhancing the character design and voice acting."

One of McCuistion's favorite characters was the shades-of-gray assassin Cheshire. "Her character was so complex, and that kind of ambiguity is really inspiring for me as a film composer. I created a mysterious bell-like theme along with a ticking percussion groove that seemed to be always 'there' when she was around. I enjoyed finding different ways to incorporate the theme; sometimes the groove was very slow and broken, and I orchestrated her bell tones and harmonized them with gentle strings when her baby was revealed. I also chose an unconventional sound for the Competitor/Partner: a combination of a fast-fluttering texture (like a hummingbird's wings) and deep chime with a Doppler effect applied. The intention was that it would not immediately be recognized as a 'theme,' but would seem more and more familiar as the arc unfolded."

"Sometimes the characters' musical identities were represented by a texture or a brief gesture that could be deconstructed and transformed as needed," Carter explains. "In the case of Lobo, his one appearance in the series was accompanied by a complete instrumental song, weaving together avant-garde textures with elements of electronic dance music. When the League arrives at the end of the two-hour pilot, I created a traditional, grand orchestral theme for their arrival. I also composed the motif for the 'missing sixteen hours,' a plot point introduced near the end of the first season. Embracing the idea of unique textures, I combined a classical harp, a digitally processed Eastern European zither, and a purely synthesized sound to create a never-heard-before combination."

"I loved how we could throw any curveball at Lolita, Kristopher and Michael and still know we'd get something brilliant," reflects Weisman. "We'd say, Hey, we need dance music for a Halloween party.' Or, 'Hey, we need a theme song for a bad 1970s sitcom.' Or, 'Hey, we need a commercial jingle for an alien soda.' Or, more seriously, 'Hey, when this evil robot dies, you really need to break our hearts.' If we asked for scary, they gave us scary. If we needed tense, boy did they ever give us tense. Action, romance, comedy, you name it. They gave it to us. Our demands were endless, but there was never any fear we wouldn't get something better than what we had imagined. So often, the partners would completely surprise us with something that was just ... right. We might have a note or two, but these guys really made life easy on us. Frankly, sometimes they were flat out saving our behinds!" Vietti sums up the experience with one word: "Exciting! It was just amazing to watch Kristopher, Michael and Lolita dive into each episode and fearlessly work outside their comfort zones to discover or create new sounds. And they did this while maintaining a great sensitivity to the story. Their ability to enhance the story and visuals without overpowering them proved again and again that they are gifted storytellers."

John Takis is a freelance writer and longtime film music enthusiast.  His previous projects for La-La Land Records include the liner notes to Batman Returns and Batman: The Animated Series, Vol. 2

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