‘Tales From the Loop’: How Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan Composed an Other-Worldly Score

For Philip Glass' first TV gig, he musically ventured inside the loop with fellow Errol Morris composer Paul Leonard-Morgan to make a uniquely humanistic connection.
“Tales from the Loop” S1_Ep106 D02 Photo: Jan Thijs 2019
Ato Essandoh in "Tales From the Loop"
Jan Thijs / Amazon Prime
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When composer Philip Glass was first approached by executive producer Mark Romanek to score “Tales From the Loop,” he was immediately drawn to the striking paintings of Simon Stålenhag that served as the basis for the existential sci-fi drama from Amazon Prime Video. Given his own spirituality, it was the perfect fit for Glass’ TV debut. Only he was too busy with other projects, so he suggested finding a collaborator — and that’s when Paul Leonard-Morgan joined the team.

It was no coincidence. Both had worked with documentary director Errol Morris, and Leonard-Morgan’s mesmerizing score for “Wormwood” was the clincher.

“The show is a unique narrative on humanity, so we didn’t want the score to feel like classic Hollywood, but more organic — like the music is just there in the loop, an integral part of the story,” Glass said.

“I figured if we could both work with Errol, we could probably work well together. So Paul and I sent ideas back and forth, and developed this organic workflow that continued throughout the project. The score developed and changed over time. Mark was helpful throughout the process and gave us great feedback to help enrich the score.”

Rebecca Ferguson in "Tales From the Loop"
Rebecca Ferguson in “Tales From the Loop”Jan Thijs / Amazon Prime

“Tales From the Loop” was actually the brainchild of showrunner Nathaniel Halpern (“Legion”). It captures the odd future/retro mixture of the ordinary and extraordinary in Stålenhag’s work, which is dominated by barren landscapes and lonely robots. It’s about the inhabitants of a mundane-looking town with its own alternate timeline, thanks to an underground floating sphere, known as “The Eclipse,” which serves as the mysterious source of the loop.

“The art gave us a jumping-off point,” Glass continued, “and after a few discussions with Mark about the subject matter, we experimented with unusual instruments and themes. We started with this big orchestral score, and then realized that many moments required reduced instrumentation, like solo cello, or a trio. We identified many of the themes to start, and then expanded on those.”

Neither composer had worked with a collaborator before, but, after initial jitters, Leonard-Morgan was completely at ease working with the legendary Glass. “I think within 10 minutes he had just completely put me at ease,” he said. “Philip’s wonderful mind sees things with amazing clarity. He’d come up with these wonderful chord sequences, and then I’d put the melodies on top. And then he’d come back to me about putting one of those melodies on a different instrument, and how he’d changed some of the chords underneath my melody. And it became this really organic back and forth between us. so any nervousness that I might’ve had at the start, he was very quick to assuage it. And, by end, people can’t make out if that’s Philip or me. And that’s the idea.”

Tales From the Loop Amazon Prime Jon Kortajarena and Ato Essandoh
Jon Kortajarena and Ato Essandoh in “Tales From the Loop”Jan Thijs / Amazon Prime

First came the haunting main theme, “Walk to School”. It’s very much like a journey with the piano going off in two directions, supported by the cello. This is in keeping with the situation in Episode 1 (“The Loop”), in which a young girl (Abby Ryder Fortson) finds herself in a parallel future after being abandoned by her mother.

Glass came up with the haunting piano opening, and Leonard-Morgan offered the cello because of its warmth and simplicity. That sparked another idea from Glass and it evolved from there. “We wanted an identifiable and timeless opening theme to set the tone for the series,” Glass said. “Mark sent us this folk song early on in the writing process, and the spirit of the song stuck with us throughout the score.”

They used theme as a moral compass for the pilot and subsequent episodes. “Even after the orchestral moments you can hear moments tying back to this central theme,” added Glass. “Paul and I thought it was important to circle back to this theme that was so connected to humanity and the central premises of the series.”

Tales From the Loop Jonathan Pryce Duncan Joiner
Jonathan Pryce and Duncan Joiner in “Tales From the Loop”Amazon Studios, Prime Video

For the crucial sound of the Loop, the composers both knew they needed a weird sound. They decided on the recorder, a flute with a whistle mouthpiece that originated in the 16th century. “The recorder is something many children learn to play in school,” Glass said. “It has this familiar sound, yet when combined with the larger score, somehow it sounded other-worldly. We sought to portray the child’s innocent perspective on the world, and the recorder seemed like the natural choice of instrumentation.”

Glass was particularly impressed with Leonard-Morgan’s idea to use a lithophone, a xylophone made of stones, “which worked surprisingly well in the score and adds to the other-worldly feel we were trying to achieve,” Glass said. Leonard-Morgan even built the instrument himself. “It was the most fundamental thing, like a caveman hitting things,” he said.

Glass found his collaboration with Leonard-Morgan “completely unique and pleasurable.” Indeed, it was a welcome departure. “Right before ‘Tales from the Loop,’ I was writing a piano sonata for a good friend of mine, Maki Namekawa,” added Glass. “It was a big piece, and a pleasure to write, especially for a pianist so talented. After finishing this work, I was craving something completely different to write and out of the box… and that’s what I needed at the time.”

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