If you are following the BBC’s current Sunday night nail-biter The Nest, listen carefully to the tense, atmospheric soundtrack that accompanies the story of a manipulative, wayward teenager acting as a distinctly unreliable surrogate for a wealthy Glasgow couple. You might not notice anything unusual, but the global Covid-19 pandemic conspired to add its very own cliffhanger to the score.

Paul Leonard-Morgan
© WildKat

The music is the work of British film and TV composer Paul Leonard-Morgan. He won a Bafta for his Pineapple soundtrack and a Bafta nomination for his score for the hit BBC secret service drama Spooks. He also won awards and acclaim for his music for Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper’s film Limitless and for Universal Studio’s all-time highest-grossing film Despicable Me 2. Add to that a list of video game soundtracks, the theme for the US Olympic team and a new series co-scored with America’s most venerable composer Philip Glass (more on that later), and you get the picture that this guy is used to working under pressure.

Nothing, however, prepared him for the challenge of recording his soundtrack for The Nest. Leonard-Morgan lives and works in Los Angeles. Over the phone from the heart of movieland he explained that the soundtrack is often the very last thing to be applied to a film or a television series, so it can be recorded quite late. He had studio time in LA for a string quartet to record his score for the first two episodes on the Friday before the first episode went out on the Sunday; a tight timeframe but an achievable one in this technological age – and LA is eight hours behind London. 

“Then on the Thursday night, California went into lockdown,” he said. “The pandemic restrictions meant that no musicians could record together. A nightmare, so I had to think quickly.”

He stayed up all night, appealing on Twitter for instrumentalists with good home recording facilities to get in touch. The response was “crazy”. He eventually settled on a violinist in Berlin, another in Glasgow, a viola player in London and a cellist in Los Angeles. He sent them their music and 12 hours later he had received their individual recording files, which he sent on to a professional mixer in LA before working on them himself throughout Friday night and then emailing the finished product on Saturday afternoon to an editor in a temporary lockdown dubbing suite, set up in a garden shed in Glasgow. The editor worked overnight to apply it to the first episode, ready to be broadcast the following evening.

Paul Leonard-Morgan
© Diana Feil

Any viewer would think that the quartet members were all playing in the same room, rather than scattered across the globe. “It wasn’t ideal; naturally, I miss the special quality of instrumentalists playing off each other, but it worked with some magic in the mix,” said Leonard-Morgan, “and it will be the way forward for production recording while this pandemic lasts.” Indeed, he feels that many classical instrumentalists will recognise that they should acquire technological skills similar to those already widely used in the pop world to make themselves more employable.

Leonard-Morgan himself is something of a master of technology, working with a bank of computer screens, mixing desks and no fewer than 23 synthesisers to create his scores before recording. He’s used to collaborating closely with producers and directors, deciding when a production needs music, and when it needs silence. “They talk of the ‘hit point’ – the climax of a piece of action that needs music accelerating towards it,” he said. “Big themes are so much easier than the tense, edgy stuff; that’s much harder to do. And tenderness is tricky – you don’t want to sound cheesy. And you might want to suggest a character is evil but at the same time you don’t want to give the game away. That’s tricky, too. You want the viewer to make up their own minds.”

Motifs are useful in soundtracks, and in The Nest, Leonard-Morgan has employed a haunting wordless vocal line (recorded before the lockdown) every time the three main characters appear together – Sophie Rundle and Martin Compston as the hopeful parents, Emily and Dan, and Mirren Mack as Kaya, the surrogate. “It’s a subliminal device; you probably aren’t even aware of it,” he said.

Leonard-Morgan is particularly excited about his collaboration with Philip Glass on the soundtrack to accompany Amazon Prime’s eight-part series Tales from the Loop, which began airing last week.

The show is based on an art book of the same name by Simon Stålenhag, which imagines an alternate version of our world. Stålenhag’s paintings are set in a universe where a massive particle accelerator built underground – “The Loop” – is built to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe, and which causes anomalies of all sorts to occur. It stars British actors Jonathan Pryce (Two Popes, Tomorrow Never Dies) and Rebecca Hall (Iron Man 3, Godzilla vs Kong). 

Leonard-Morgan says: “Collaborating with Philip Glass was an incredible experience. We discussed the creators’ vision for the show, which involved unusual instrumentation, and created a soundtrack  that we hope will also be beautiful to listen to outside the films.”

He and Glass worked in collaboration, discussing overarching themes, deciding the instruments that would carry the melodies, and ultimately both scoring initial ideas which they shared and then developed together. 

The 83-year-old Glass told Leonard Morgan that he “liked my melodies. But my harmony needed some work...”