By Stuart Barr
NBC’s Hannibal is far from a conventional piece of US network television, based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris – previously filmed as Manhunter (1986) and less memorable under the novel’s title in 2002 – the series is in fact a prequel to the book, presenting the story of the relationship between a troubled FBI profiler and a psychiatrist colleague who is in fact a serial killer. The killer is the character Hannibal Lecter, preciously portrayed on film by Brian Cox, Antony Hopkins (who won an Oscar for his version of the character in The Silence of The Lambs), and Gaspar Ulliel. In the TV version, the character is played by Mads Mikkelsen with profiler Will Graham’s boots filled by Hugh Dancy, and they may actually be the definitive version of the pair.
Shepherded to the screen by show-runner Bryan Fuller with significant input from British director David Slade, Hannibal has pushed the envelope of what is possible in network programming. This is most obvious in the levels of gruesome gore and violence on display (although nudity and swearing is still verboten), but more significantly in the shows striking production and visual style. Where most television drama is adheres strictly to a simple style of visual storytelling (master shot, mid-shot, close-up, rinse and repeat), Hannibal is far more ambitious giving an astonishing roster of directors space to explore mood and tone without the need to ram home a story point in every shot.
The show has been equally adventurous in its music and sound design. Just as the increase in visual definition offered by home AV technology has opened up television to the more adventurous mise-en-scene of series like True Detective and Game of Thrones, so it allows for greater subtlety musically. To cut through the poor clarity of a CRT set’s tinny speakers, television once adopted a pot lid and wooden spoon approach to scoring. This can now be replaced by more modulated tones and atmospheres if the creative and networks are willing to make the effort.
Brian Reitzell’s music for Hannibal is in many ways an aural manifestation of the title character. It is refined, classically inflected (while open to the avant-garde), suffused with menace, and capable of sudden jarring tonal shifts from calm to violence. The later artfully employed and never overused, this is not a typical horror film score and avoids the sudden foghorn-in-the-ear approach of so much genre film/TV music.
Presented in two volumes covering season 1 (a further two are planned for the second season) a track for each of the 13 episodes of the season – all named after a refined culinary speciality. This is not a release that packages its contents in a manner particularly friendly to daytime airplay on Classic FM, the tracks run from 5.51 at the shortest (vol 2’s ‘Fromage’) to 18.15 at the longest (‘Relevés’, also on the second volume) and are edited mini-suites presenting that episode’s music. This while occasional tantalising melodies (often on piano) hang whisp-like in the air for moments, they are quickly subsumed into an ever-flowing river of mood. The waters often appear calm, but they run deep and hide gliding monsters.
The prevailing instruments that can be discerned are piano, harpsichord, and strings, but Reitzell has a background as a recording and touring musician with bands such as Red Kross and Air, and has worked with My Bloody Valentine supremo Kevin Shields and Aphex Twin, so he is open to using technology alongside traditional (and less traditional, the press notes refer to his use of an aboriginal Bullroarer) instrumentation. This results in a score that is as much sound design as music, often deeply unsettling in an understated way.
This is not a release for those who seek hummable themes and whistleable melodies in their soundtracks; it is closer to the quieter examples of the Zimmer/Mansell/Reznor school of film/TV music. But for fans of the show, and fans of adventurous scoring in general, this is an excellent release.
Hannibal – Season 1: Volumes 1 and 2 are out now on digital from Lakeshore Records. A CD release is set for September 30.