Salem's Lot


June 2004 sees the debut on Turner Network Television of a new mini-series based upon Stephen King's novel. Directed by Mikael Salomon (Band of Brothers) from a script by Peter Filardi (Flatliners, The Craft), and produced by the Wolper Organisation in association with Warner Bros. Television, the four hour mini-series features music by composer Christopher Gordon and the vocal talents of Lisa Gerrard (Gladiator). This new adaptation has attracted an exceptional cast: Rob Lowe plays journalist Benjamin Mears, confronting the evil Richard Straker (Donald Sutherland) and his silent-as-the-grave partner Kurt Barlow (Rutger Hauer). James Cromwell also appears as the insecure and emotionally-unstable Father Donald Callahan.

Salem's Lot has previously been adapted once for broadcast, in 1979. Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist) directed a television movie featuring David Soul, as Ben Mears, and James Mason as Richard Straker. Billed as "The Ultimate in Terror!", the adaptation by screenwriter Paul Monash (All Quiet On The Western Front) is widely accepted as a liberal re-telling of King's novel by the author and fans alike and maintains a cult following thanks to Hooper's vision and his flair for terrifying audiences. A follow-up to the television movie, A Return to Salem's Lot was released in 1987 and is a mere sequel in name alone, notable for having been both written and directed by veteran Hollywood screenwriter, Larry Cohen.

Salem's Lot sessions: Pro Musica Sydney with Cantillation behind


Christopher Gordon's soundtrack for the new Salem's Lot mini-series is an orchestral tour-de-force featuring the talents of many of Australia's finest performers to produce a spine-chilling and heroic score, nearly two-hours in length. His musical score features everything but the kitchen stake, utilizing many exciting orchestrational effects developed by the composer and a wealth of diverse instrumentation.

For this lavish production, Christopher has paired with internationally-renowned vocal soloist Lisa Gerrard, whose distinctive work with composer Hans Zimmer on Gladiator (2000) garnered her a Golden Globe. For Salem's Lot, Lisa jointly-contributed to three cues, which are represented on the soundtrack album as "Bloody Pirates, "Converting The Priest", and "Salem's Lot Theme". Lisa also composed "Salem's Lot Aria", with Patrick Cassidy, and "Free in Spirit".

Recorded between October and December, 2003 at the newly-constructed Trackdown Scoring Stage in Sydney, the score to Salem's Lot was brought alive by the choir Cantillation and the composer's regular session orchestra, Pro Musica Sydney. Gordon's score, whilst constructed around a diatonic key centre, derives a proportion of its material from a series of aleatoric cells and harmonic clusters used to form a structured montage. Thematically, his music is driven by a need to define strength in the face of sheer adversity, accentuating the nature of the evil that has overridden the Marsten House and which now pervades Jerusalem's Lot.

Salem's Lot premieres on the TNT cable channel on June 20th and 21st, 2004 to be broadcast throughout the summer and shown worldwide later in the year. The CD soundtrack album is available from Varèse Sarabande Records.


In 1973 acclaimed horror writer Stephen King penned Salem's Lot, his second novel upon whose success his reputation would be further established as a luminary in contemporary popular fiction. Using a modern setting of the vampire myth of Nosferatu (itself a transformation of author Bram Stoker's earlier masterpiece, Dracula), and transposing events from the Old World of Europe to a sleepy locale in the heart of American New England, King sought to craft a work that did more than just recant the demise of the fabled literary monster. It would affirm that one of the greatest and most terrifying creations in fantasist prose had a place in the present day.

The story follows the emotional journey of young, antagonistic writer Benjamin Mears returning to his rural home town of Jerusalem's Lot - a quiet, leafy haven, steeped in tradition and paternal familiarity, to which Mears finds himself drawn in order to confront his childhood demons. Arriving there he bears witness to the strange goings-on that surround the mysterious, new owner of the foreboding Marsten House; a mansion which overlooks the town and the site of a triple murder that has haunted the author from a tender age. Many of the town's residents begin to disappear in inexplicable circumstances and Ben is forced to confront the evil that has pervaded the town, with a disparate group of misfortunates - a faithless priest with a predilection for alcohol, a teenage boy orphaned by the monster that inhabits the mansion, a wizened school teacher, and an assertive young waitress.

Thanksgiving (excerpt)

Jerusalem's Lot (excerpt)

Dud and Barlow (excerpt)

The Mansion Burns (excerpt)

Salem's lot Theme (excerpt)


Q. When you were asked to compose the music for the mini-series, was there any pressure on you to read King's novel?

By the time I came on to the project the film was nearing the end of editing. I haven't read the book and I think it is important that the composer score the film that's in front of him or her. There can be quite a difference in structure, interpretation and tone from the script by the time the director has shaped it and the actors, cinematographer and editor have brought their ideas to it. So the book is even further removed. The composer's inspiration and challenges are what's on the screen.

Q. What elements specifically attracted you to this project?

I was immediately excited by the possibilities it provided for a textural score, where shades and colour are more important than melody, harmony and rhythm. For a long time I have wanted to incorporate a choir within the orchestra, simply as another section, another set of colours, rather than the usual choir-supported-by-orchestra - although, of course, there are a few moments like that in the picture. I was also a great fan of Band of Brothers and was really taken with Mikael Salomon's work on it so I grabbed the opportunity to work with him.

Q. Can you explain a little about the intervallic relationships throughout your score?

The score is not exactly thematic in the way that say Moby Dick or On the Beach are. Most of this score is developed from a short series of triads that are then manipulated in various ways to create different themes and motivic cells. Some of the musical ideas might only occur once or twice while others dominate the score but because they are all permutations of a single idea there is structural unity within the score. This is a technique I used on the short animation film, Ward 13, and later in the Bass Trombone Concerto. In the case of Salem's Lot all the chords are minor triads, each chord linked by a pivotal note. The relentless sound of minor triads brings not only an obvious sadness to the film but also an uncertain tonal centre...the ground is always slipping away. More complex harmony is constructed by vertically stacking up the minor triads on top of each other in various combinations.

To be precise there are two sets of minor triads: one being the more anonymous general idea from which such pieces as "Thanksgiving" and "In the Woods" are developed, while the second provides the basis for such seemingly very different themes as the piano piece in "Jerusalem's Lot", Barlow's theme, and the Straker music.

Then there is the second contrasting idea that comes from a series of unresolved seventh and ninth chords and only appears in a few places. This forms the basis of "Eva's Story" (as Weasel confesses his love for Eva and when she visits her husband's grave), the final choral section of "In the Cellar" (as Ben finds Susan in a coffin), "Salem's Lot Theme" (which was composed for the end credits of part two of the mini-series and so is the point where all is as resolved as it can be), as well as the nearly-heroic march section in "Approaching the Mansion". Someone described this musical idea as the hope theme but hope is far too bright a word for the dark town of Salem's Lot so I tended to think of it as a desire for comfort or rest.

L-R: Marc van Buuren (post-production supervisor), CG, Mark Wolper (producer)

Q. Having acknowledged that, we can see that your writing here is dominated by a rich, dissonant sound-palette. Having structured your musical approach, what method did you take to composing your score?

There is approximately 115 minutes of score in Salem's Lot. About 85 minutes was composed in my usual way with pencil and paper. For the other 30 minutes I took an approach that I had tried out in a smaller way on Much Ado About Something. I composed a large number of modules - short musical ideas that might be a single note or a bubbling cluster or one of those polychords I mentioned earlier or a sigh from the choir - that could be mixed and matched to picture. These modules were recorded very early on in the composing schedule so I found that I was able to work them into the pencil score treating them as another layer. This had the added advantage of making my small orchestra appear larger than it actually was.

Q. How did it come about that you collaborated with Lisa Gerrard?

By the time I came onto the project Lisa had already delivered "Salem's Lot Aria", which she had written with Patrick Cassidy. This piece is heard in the first minute or so of the film. Mark Wolper, the producer, was keen to have Lisa's voice in the score so I asked her to sing in a few key places through the film. When writing I carefully planned where she should sing and left some space within the orchestral score. Particularly I felt her unique voice should be attached to Ben Mear's memory of that fateful night in the Marsten house and to the house itself. Once Ben has been in the house and faced his fear I attached Lisa's voice to the general power of Barlow, hence her wonderful contribution to "Converting the Priest".

A few days after the orchestral sessions Lisa flew in to Sydney for a morning and added those vocals. Mark Wolper had some additional places where he thought Lisa's voice would be effective. She also did two or three short four-part vocal pieces (one of which can be heard on "Free In Spirit") which I later used as another set of modules within the film.

For the album I mixed her in a very haunting way so that she seems to be always just behind you, over your shoulder where you can never quite catch her but you know she's in the room. At times her voice seems to floats out of the choir.

Q. What size ensemble did you have at your disposal?

For the largest session I think the orchestra was around 57 players plus a choir of 16 and around 32 for the smallest. There was also one 3 hour call with just choir. Otherwise we recorded the choir with the orchestra because I was after that more integrated sound. We recorded at the new Trackdown Scoring Stage on the Fox lot in Sydney which has a beautiful warm choral tone.

Q. What texts did you use in the choral passages.

I took three approaches. First, is simply various vowel sounds for those places where the choir is a part of the orchestra.
Secondly, is the vampire language but the less said about that the better.

The third instance is one of those serendipitous events that occasionally come our way. The scene is where Eva is waiting at the church to marry Weasel. He can't enter the church as he is now a vampire, so Eva goes outside with him and bares her neck. Such is true love!

The scene needed some Gregorian chant as source music which as she gets up to leave becomes ominous underscore. I decided to score the entire piece with just choir and for the text turned to Ave Maris Stella (Hail, star of the sea), a medieval liturgical hymn from the 8th or 9th century from which I had used a few lines in Much Ado About Something.

The first two verses are:

Ave maris stella
Dei Mater alma
Atque semper Virgo
Felix coeli porta

Sumens illud Ave
Gabrielis ore
Funda nos in pace
Mutans Evae nomen

The second verse translates something like this:

Taking the "Ave" (from the first verse)
that Gabriel spoke
and reversing the name "Eva"
peace is in our lives

It might have been written for the scene! On the album it is the track "Mutans Evae Nomen".

Q. Finally, what do you believe you achieved the most success with in scoring Salem's Lot?

The textural writing and collage constructions were a very interesting experience. I found the moaning voices particularly rewarding!

Text and questions by Glen Aitken

© 2004 Magic Fire Music Pty Ltd