To the generation of today, composer Kurt Farquhar is a man of drama; his work for The CW on shows like Black Lightning, Bounce’s Saints & Sinners, and BET’s Being Mary Jane is all very serious, thrilling stuff. However, to those from the generation before, the composer’s resume reads like a who’s who of classic sitcoms: Moesha, Sister, Sister, The King of Queens, and The Parkers are but a few of the shows Farquhar has worked on. So it was a joy to speak with the composer about how he made that switch, how he made his bones in sitcoms, and how that iconic Moesha theme song came to be.
STARBURST: Early in your career you did so many sitcoms, but now you’re moving into drama. What's it been like, making that transition?
Kurt Farquhar: I’ll tell you two things. At one point in my career, I thought that it would never happen - that I wasn’t going to get to do dramas and I thought, “Oh, maybe I'll just retire from this, and call it a day.” I just made a concerted effort to try to make that shift, because I thought it was a shame, since that’s the one thing that I was trained for. I wrote my first symphony when I was 12 years old, so the one thing that I actually knew how to do, was more orchestral and symphonic works and to have had a television career, and not be doing very much of that, just seemed to be a shame to me. That and some other factors that made me really get aggressive about making that shift, and it added up to me getting where I am now.
It’s really kind of funny: although like, 90% of my initial career was all network sitcoms, I remember being recently in with the directors of one of my dramas and they said, “Well, you did the shift in there, and it seemed it got kind of light - almost comical. This is really good. I don't know whether we should go there, but this is really good. I didn't know that you had a comedy strength.” I said, “Oh yeah, hate to tell you, but most of it has been.” [laughs] There's a group of folks that now come up thinking that all I do is dramas, like Being Mary Jane and Black Lightning and so many others, so it's interesting.
Given that you worked on Moesha and Sister, Sister - these beloved shows of an entire generation - and also because that's where you got your start, do you have some fond memories of those shows?
Oh, I do. I remember doing Moesha, and The Parkers, and Sister, Sister like it was yesterday. So many of these shows, like you say, are now kind of iconic shows a lot of people came up with, but I was just a young guy hoping to do television, and I was just excited to be there. So many of these producers remain friends of mine and we all had such a good time doing the music. I remember that it was something magical that was happening - something in the air, you might say. I remember, with the theme song to Moesha, the producers were talking to me about the theme song, so I had already started thinking about some portion of it. I was doing the music and then, I thought I'd get to the lyrics at some point, but I'd already completely done what the music was gonna be - the instrumental part - and then they came to me and say, “Look, Brandy wants to be involved with the theme song, and she has an idea for it, okay?” So, we got together. She came over to my place, she sang to me her idea, and I said, “Oh, my goodness, you are never gonna believe this!” and I just turned around and turned on the tape. I said, “Count down four bars and start singing,” and she did, and she got the thing. Everything that she had written, exactly how she had written it, was in the exact same key, and it all worked - and even ended at the exact time! You say ‘something in the air’, and that's one of the classic things, and it literally came together like that. We never changed another thing. She went into the studio and recorded it.
Yes. Amazing, but true. It was one of those things that was just meant to be. Of course, she was such an amazing voice to work with and also, just a lot of fun, just a lovely person to work with. Brandy’s just amazingly talented. Way back then, she was actually still a teenager when she was doing that show, so she was like the voice of young black teendom when she when she still was a young black teen.
What we find really fascinating about your career is that, as you've moved into drama, it's also been side by side with doing documentaries. You're the first composer I've ever talked to who has worked on a reality show. I'm curious: being as how you've done drama and you've also done documentaries, it seems that a reality show is like halfway in between those two things. Is that kind of the case?
Yeah, you know, people kind of poo-pooed the whole reality sort of thing, and I thought - much like hip hop - it was not going to go away. I remember, in the early days of hip-hop, you wonder if a guy doing poetry to beat is gonna last? Well, it's something that's happening culturally that people would be doing anyway, when it bubbles up from the streets like that. It's likely the same thing with reality. I just think that it's something of interest to people. All I could think of is, “I want to be a part of that, too.” I love the craft of doing music to pictures, and telling stories. However those stories are told? That's not what I'm trying to do. I mean, that's above my pay grade. My thing is, “How do I add musically to the whole concept of storytelling with pictures?”
Black Lightning is your high-profile thing, right now. Is this your first action score?
Well, my first superhero thing. The closest thing I did to something like this was a show called Stitchers on freeform few years back. That was about the government program hacking into the minds of the recently dead, and so you could imagine you got to do some pretty crazy music with that. I think that, because I did that, people could actually imagine me doing something like Black Lightning. I don't think that there's a stretch to say that if I had not done that, that I would not have been on the short list to do to do Black Lightning.
The interesting thing about Black Lightning is because it is one part of a larger sort of TV and cinematic world. Are those concerns that you have to think of, when you're scoring the show, being as how it connects to so many other things?
Well, in the initial season, the marching orders were that it should be a standalone, and that we should take Black Lightning for itself, in its own world. Initially, they were thinking they weren't going to crossover and yet, here we are in Season Three, and I don't think I'm breaking any news to say that Black Lightning will be going into the air over something when they do this big crossover this year.
The producers told me they wanted it to feel authentic to these characters, and something to feel new and fresh - but at the same time, the reality of it is, you can't throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are certain things that are just a staple of the whole superhero genre. I mean, yes, you still hear the soaring French horns and so on, but there's certain sorts of things that set it apart. I mean, it is a primarily African-American cast and a primarily African-American portion of a city. I'm trying to make you feel that, and hear that, and understand that point of view - while at the same time, not closing on a hip-hop beat every time. If I had to toss on a hip-hop beat every time you saw a black face on that show, we might as well just have a Drake album play. We do it in a little bit more complicated ways. An example that I had in a previous season: basically what I did, is I took a part of a hip-hop beat and transposed it throughout the string section. The basses were kick drums and the violins were the fast high hats and so on. You still had the melodic content of traditional orchestral with the rhythmic propulsion of hip-hop, within the traditional instrumentations. So, you had those who are looking for that an urbanism feel something that was natural to them about this, but at the same time, it still sounds kind of classical in nature.
We keep trying to do more interesting ways of approaching the music. Another thing that I did, was I basically took the essence of a Miles Davis solo and put it throughout the violins and it's like the violin sounded like Miles Davis within it. When I bring it up to people, and tell them where it was, it’s like, “Oh, my god, you're right.” These are the other ways of making it feel a little different. Plus, there's an enormous amount of songs that the wonderful music supervisor provides and the editors and showrunners provide within the body of the show. I've always been very big about how I don't want it to be like, “Here's a song,” then, “Here's the score,” and “Here's the phone,” and “Here's the score.” I wanted it to feel like an organic outgrowth of things, so sometimes you don't know where the song ended and the score began and vice versa, and it just kind of bubbles up out of things.
Sometimes, I'm just bubbling up out of the sound effects and making it a natural organic moment, so it’s seamless in a way. We're using all of these different variations to create a particular world, and this season, we have a great deal of change.
Black Lightning Season 3 is currently screening on The CW in the US.