Isaac Asimov’s profoundly influential Foundation stories and novels chronicle humanity’s distant future, in which a mathematician named Hari Seldon develops psychohistory, a model that accurately predicts the behavior of large populations, and he uses it to foresee the downfall of the Galactica Empire. He and his band of exiled disciples strive to prepare humanity for the coming calamities and make possible the rebuilding of civilization. Many producers struggled to adapt the novels for the screen for decades. At last, David S. Goyer collaborated with Skydance Media to bring the saga to Apple TV+. I was thrilled to write the score for this massive outer space epic.
David S. Goyer and I have known each other for nearly a decade, having collaborated on such projects as Da Vinci’s Demons and Constantine. Years ago, he told me he was developing Asimov’s groundbreaking novels and my imagination exploded. I knew even then I wanted to write an epic hybrid score that blends a massive orchestra and choir with modern propulsive synths. I recalled from having read some of the novels in high school that the concept of mathematics featured prominently in the story. I realized that I would need to find a unique musical signature for math itself, if I were to really capture the spirit of Asimov’s Foundation in music. The ideas rolled around the back of my mind for a few years until at last, the series went into full production and I was brought on as composer.
THE MATHEMATICS OF MUSIC
The biggest challenge before me was figuring out how to represent Hari Seldon’s ‘psychohistory,’ the mathematics that allowed certain characters to foresee future events with near magical abilities, using his device the Prime Radiant. Normally, if I want to represent a narrative subject with music, I simply assign that subject a theme, melody, color, or other musical signifier. For Foundation, this approach felt too simplistic. I didn’t want to merely change an instrument, or notes, or rhythms – I wanted to change the way I write music.
In the show, Hari Seldon is able to use psychohistory to look at numbers and see a structure that the average person is unable to see. To represent this idea, I wanted to compose music using an algorithm to directly incorporate complex mathematics into the score. However, mathematical algorithms and computer programming are definitely where my expertise ends!
I called my dear friend Jonathan Snipes (a brilliant electronic musician, from the celebrated experimental hip hop group Clipping) and described my vision: a musical sandstorm of orchestral pitches, tiny notes flickering in and out of existence like quantum particles. These notes would sound like traditional orchestral instruments, but flicker fast enough that they become technically impossible for a live orchestra to play accurately.
Jonathan was excited by the idea. Of course, computerized musical arpeggiations aren’t anything new – electronic musicians have done this for decades. However, together Jonathan and I imagined a piece of software that would allow me to control these arpeggiations in customizable ways, inspired directly by the needs of Foundation. Jonathan went into his studio and a few days later came back with a working prototype of custom software called Seldon Black.
In essence, Seldon Black generates my desired sandstorm of musical particles, but provides touch surface controllers to change how they behave. I fell in love with the spontaneity of shaping this chaotic barrage of notes. I felt a rush moving faders and hearing the musical storm take shape, with dazzling colors sparkling in and out of existence in whatever way I wanted. A visual metaphor might be having gloves that allow you to shape a tornado, bend it, twist it, make it bigger or smaller, and change its color, all in real time.
Once the software was incorporated into my studio and assigned to a set of colors (imagine running it through sampled instruments of strings, or winds, or percussion, or pianos, and so on), I had simple touchscreen faders to change parameters on the fly. One fader would change the number of octaves a note could play in. Another would change what instrument each note would sound like. Others still would affect the probability that a note would exist at all, how loud it might be, how fast the notes occurred, and how long they lasted. I held a single chord on the keyboard and instantly called forth a dazzling array of harps and pianos that evoked Herrmann’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, a wall of blasting percussion like Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s Akira, or a lush bed of undulating strings like the works of Phillip Glass. My entire approach to writing music had changed in a matter of minutes.
Confident I had discovered what would become the musical soul of Foundation, I dove into scoring the series. I created a Seldon Black orchestra in my template, a complete duplicate of all my orchestral sounds, all of which were routed to the new custom software. This effectively doubled the size of my writing template, putting a massive strain on my already top-of-the-line computer. My tech team worked long hours after my system crashed over and over, until they eventually ironed out the processing requirements so I could write this score. My goal was to use orchestral sounds triggered by Seldon Black to represent psychohistory, mathematics, and the Prime Radiant, and to use a live orchestra to underscore the human characters and emotion.
I quickly discovered that trying to channel the Seldon Black orchestra into my writing was like unleashing a bull in a china shop. I had to find a way to meld the chaotic nature of Seldon Black with the specific needs of scoring picture. Patterns that dazzled me on their own crumbled when placed on a tempo map, as if a magic were lost.
I spent my first weeks writing Foundation trying to figure out a way to organically incorporate these incredible musical colors into my writing. I often found that I had to add live orchestral support to the Seldon Black patterns, adding subtle repeating notes that could imply a meter – the musical equivalent of guard rails to prevent a car from careening off a cliff.
Eventually I found a workflow that worked for me, and I could unleash my creativity using this inspiring new tool. Once I had algorithmically generated material I liked, I then wrote traditional orchestral music around it. I often transcribed pieces of the Seldon Black material for the live orchestra, asking the live players to recreate these difficult jagged phrases that emanated so effortlessly from the software. However, most of the time, I allowed Seldon Black to create these incredible textures while I relied on the live orchestra to bring warmth, humanity and melody to the score.
THE THEMES OF FOUNDATION
Seldon Black textures are epitomized most clearly in the Main Title. The track starts off with Seldon Black woodwinds, harp and piano textures. Then, orchestral celli introduce the Main Theme. At the midpoint, Seldon Black percussion bursts in, before soaring brass bring the melody back for the climax. For me, the beauty of this track lies in the combination of the inhuman precision in the background, and the luscious orchestration that could only be played by live players.
Outside of the Main Title, the sparkling colors of Seldon Black form the Prime Radiant Theme, generally featuring arpeggiated harps, pianos, woodwinds and bell textures to represent the Prime Radiant itself. These colors are featured most often during scenes where mathematics are the core story point. In line with the series’ narrative themes, however, the math is ever present in the music, frequently undulating just below the surface, often disguised as ambient orchestral layers.
The melody featured in the Main Title is best described as the Foundation Theme.
This theme has several functions in the score, supporting the concept of the Foundation itself, as well as representing several significant characters, including Hari Seldon and Salvor Hardin.
Another important melodic theme for the score is the Gaal Theme.
Gaal Dornick, Hari Seldon’s protégé, hails from Synnax, a conservative fundamentalist planet that has executed all their scientists and thinkers. She is the narrator for the series and point-of-view character for our introduction to this vast world. I wanted to write her a lyrical melody that could remind the audience of her desire to leave the confines of her restrictive society, but simultaneously remind us of her heartbreak at leaving her family behind.
I represented her origins on Synnax with a combination of non-orchestral instruments from various parts of our world, combining an Armenian duduk with a Chinese erhu (performed by Hong Wang, who has collaborated with me on several projects over the years), supported by hypnotic frame drums. These colors permeate the score in various scenes on set on or pertaining to Synnax.
The first leg of Gaal’s journey takes her to Trantor, the capitol of the sprawling Galactic Empire. I represented this world, and its three-tiered genetic dynasty of cloned emperors, with the Empire Theme.
The Empire Theme is built from stacked open fifths – simple, imposing and effective. When played with a huge brass ensemble, as in Gaal’s arrival on Trantor, the theme plays regal and patriotic. However, for the clones, I presented this melody frequently on a Renaissance viola da gamba, as if it were played in a medieval court.
Lee Pace’s reedy, whispered performance as Brother Day provides all the intimidation we need, so the brittle tones of the viola da gamba help support him with an air of unease. As in my first David S. Goyer collaboration, Da Vinci’s Demons, the viola da gamba solos are provided by the brilliant Malachi Komanoff Bandy.
When the narrative jumps to Terminus, two new themes come to the forefront. First, I wrote a theme for The Vault, the mystery geometric object floating in the hills outside the colony. For this, I collaborated with one of my favorite artists, Morgan Sorne, who crafted otherworldly textures. Inspired by Tuvan throat singing, Morgan’s haunting multiphonic overtones drift over the scenes at the vault like a fog.
Eventually, Salvor Hardin and our protagonists on Terminus face off against a terrorist group from a planet called Anacreon. Their economy and culture are centered around wood and trees, so I wrote them a 5/4 rhythmic pattern played on wooden percussion, with a menacingly exotic melody twisting above it. These elements combine to form the Anacreon Theme.
Perhaps my favorite theme in the entire series is the Demerzel Theme. Light bell and harp tones create a hypnotic, clockwork bed for a gentle melody.
In the third episode, the melody is actually incorporated into the narrative when it is sung by none other than Demerzel herself! There are very few times in my career I’ve had the opportunity for a character to sing their own theme on camera, so this was a delight. The singing performance was provided by my wife (and Outlander Main Title vocalist) Raya Yarbrough, who also sings the same melody in beautiful layers in the score in the next scene.
Vocals play a crucial role in several significant scenes in Foundation. Choir sings in Latin throughout the first two episodes, most notably after the collapse of the Star Bridge. I collaborated with show writer and lyricist David Kob and linguist Fionnuala Murphy to create liturgical chants for a religion that will show up in a future episode, performed by Raya Yarbrogh and Ayana Haviv. I also wrote the Anacreon Hunting song sung by terrorists in the first episode, which provided a crucial plot point later.
I am thrilled to say that my music is available now on the Foundation soundtrack, which compiles my favorites tracks from the first half of the season. The album is available now at your favorite digital retailer.
01. Foundation Main Title
02. The Only Story
03. Gaal Leaves Synnax
04. Journey to Trantor
05. The Imperial Library
06. Visions and Arrest
07. The Trial of Hari Seldon
08. Star Bridge
09. Over the Horizon
10. The Promise of the Imperium
11. Escape Pod
12. The Dream of Cleon the First (feat. Raya Yarbrough)
14. The Chant of the Luminous
15. Foundation End Credits
Scoring Foundation gave me an incredible opportunity to reinvent the way I write music, and to use exciting new colors to support an ambitious, massive space epic. I am eternally grateful to David S. Goyer for bringing me on this journey, and for trusting me to create the score for this huge narrative world. I would also like to thank everyone at Skydance Media and Apple TV+ for their support, as well as Josh Friedman, Adam Banks, and Cameron Welsh.
None of this would have been possible without the contributions of Jonathan Snipes, as well as my tireless support staff at Sparks & Shadows, especially Etienne Monsaingeon who contributed incredible additional music, and Jacob Moss, who adapted the Seldon Black software directly into a plug-in that ran natively inside my sequencing software. I’d also like to thank our other support composers Michael Beach, Kevin Lax, and Trey Toy, who contributed wonderful cues when the schedule got crunchy. Thanks are owed to Joe Augustine for helping me with the soundtrack album, Brian McNelis at Lakeshore Records, everyone at Kraft Engel Management, music editor Michael Baber, engineers Ryan Sanchez and Ben Sedano, and Latin translator Michael P. Speidel. I would like to thank all of the orchestral musicians, singers, conductors, engineers, orchestrators, and copyists who helped bring this music to life.
And of course, endless gratitude goes to Isaac Asimov for first imagining this groundbreaking vision of the future and inspiring us all.