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‘Lovecraft Country’: Inside the Operatic ‘Catch the Fire’ Poem in the Explosive Tulsa Race Massacre Episode

Emmy-nominated composers Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq break down the "Gothic R&B" vibe that culminated with the powerful orchestral requiem.

Lovecraft Country

Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett in “Lovecraft Country”

Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

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When it came to scoring the explosive montage surrounding the 1921 Tulsa race massacre in HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” composer Laura Karpman came up with the inspired idea to adapt Sonia Sanchez’s powerful “Catch the Fire” poem as an orchestral requiem, which was central to her Emmy-nominated score with Grammy-winning composer and record producer Raphael Saadiq. This searing, operatic piece (sung by Chicago opera soprano, Janai Brugger) underscored the hate-filled violence, fiery destruction, and magical strength to fight back and provide a hopeful future of Black empowerment.

“[Showrunner] Misha Green licensed the Sonia Sanchez poem [to be used earlier in the episode], and it’s this beautiful, almost calm rendering, and then ours takes that and explodes it,” said Karpman (“What…If?”). “So we adapted the poem, cut it down, and synthesized the message, which is a call to action, a protest, rage.”

The music (featuring a “Unison Orchestra” of nearly 30 players, who recorded the score individually and online during the pandemic) accompanies the juxtaposition of two sequences: Leti (Jurnee Smollett) imperviously walking through the burning of Tulsa with the magical Book of Names to secure the family legacy, and the perilous struggle to keep the time portal open for safe passage back home to 1955.

Lovecraft Country

“Lovecraft Country”

HBO/Eli Joshua Ade

“What makes the scene work so well, I think, is that the music is aggressive but gentle,” Karpman said. “It’s a mass for the dead, and that’s what a requiem is: beautiful, sad, and purposeful.”

Karpman was inspired after watching Brugger perform a famous scene from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the New York Metropolitan Opera, in which Pamina walks through fire as one of her many trials. “I showed a video of Janai’s performance to Misha and she liked it.” Karpman said. “So we made this thing, and it was one of those moments where it was accepted without notes, without revisions. Misha said, ‘Good job, good cue.’ And it was scored in June when everything was really afire after the murder of George Floyd. And it was deep and surreal. And there was a lot of isolation for everybody and it was really hard.”

It was also the culmination of a score that Green termed “Gothic R&B,” a hybrid of different styles, in keeping with each of the 10 episodes embracing a different genre. The composers veered from sci-fi to action-adventure to war, but with a cultural twist.

“Misha conceived the music as a mash-up,” Karpman said. “She said, ‘I want to put my people in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ so give me that. Do opera, do military music for war movies.’ So we were breaking out of silos and it was an experience that Raphael and I really appreciated […] taking all of these genres and claiming them for under-represented people.”

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Erica Tazel and Jonathan Majors in “Lovecraft Country”

Eli Joshua Ade / HBO

The foundation for the musical approach could be heard in “Ardham,” an early theme concerning the dark family legacy surrounding the occult. Karpman was influenced by Saadiq’s song, “Sinners Prayer,” which she helped with when they were on tour together. “To me, that defined R&B Gothic and was one of the major themes of ‘Lovecraft’ with the two worlds [of past and present] meeting each other,” she said.

For Saadiq, whose use of guitars and other instruments melded well with Karman’s orchestral vibe (recalling Jerry Goldsmith’s modernistic scores of the ’60s), it was the perfect collision of the past and present.

“It was very spiritual, hymn-like, orchestral, and Gothic got us both excited,” he said. “Laura was in string heaven. I like many genres and to go where people think you can’t go. When you have respect for the past, you tend to lend your spirit back to the past by trying to move forward. That’s what we tried to do with ‘Lovecraft.'”

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