Surgical Instruments: The Knick's Cliff Martinez on Creating the Show's Musical Heartbeat

By Adam_Bryant

Aug 21, 2014

If you were initially thrown by the modern, electronic music used to score Steven Soderbergh's 1900-set medical drama The Knick, you're not alone: The idea also caught the show's composer, Cliff Martinez, off guard at first.

"The most important thing that Steven usually does that outlines the approach is that he sends me a rough cut of the picture. The big curveball in The Knick was that the temporary music [he used] as he was editing—he was using my music from Drive and Contagion and Spring Breakers, which was a surprise because it didn't acknowledge the period whatsoever. In fact, it kind of went in the opposite direction," Martinez explained to me during a recent interview. "At first it seemed like a risk because the whole idea of the show was to try to put the viewer in 1900 in New York and everything was pulling in that direction except for the music. I had a phone call with Steven and then I just said, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' He said, 'Yeah. It's going to be all electronic. It's going to be modern. That's intentional.' And after a few weeks, it had become the sound of the show."

Indeed, the propulsive, synthesizer-heavy score is the show's beating heart, injecting it with an energy that feels right, regardless of how anachronistic the music may be. In fact, the themes of the series—which stars Clive Owen as the cocaine-addicted John Thackery, a pioneering surgeon at the forefront of "modern" medicine—perhaps lend themselves to a forward-thinking soundscape.

"You come up with these theories about why it works after the fact. I read a review that said one of the themes of the show is future and modernity, the Industrial Revolution and so forth. I thought, 'Okay, I'm going to use that,'" Martinez says with a laugh. "But in all honesty, I didn't have any theories as to why it worked at the time; it just seemed that it did. I think it's just the way music operates, and I think it also proves a theory that ... as long as the music serves the dramatic functions of the film or TV show, it'll work."

Martinez, who is also a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (he was inducted for his work as the drummer of Red Hot Chili Peppers), did look to at least one instrument from the period for inspiration. "The only thing that really struck me as a period sound was the calliope," he says. "There were a lot of electronic sounds that I used to try to emulate that sound, which kind of connoted something dated." Martinez also used guitars and one of his favorite instruments, the Cristal Baschet, to fill out the score. "That sound always makes an interesting contrast when you place it up against something that's overtly electronic and synthetic," he says. "I've always liked to mix organic and inorganic sounds, and the Cristal was one instrument that I thought was evocative of this calliope sound."

But Martinez says he often draws musical inspiration from things that have nothing to do with the project he's working on. "When I did Solaris, I had just purchased baritone steel drums and I was just itching to shoehorn that instrument into the score one way or another. So, there's always something else going on in my life musically that catches my attention and in one way or another has some subconscious effect on the music," Martinez says. "I think at some point while working on The Knick, I had seen Kraftwerk at Disney Hall and I kind of went, 'Ah-ha, that's it!' I realized I wanted to do something that sounded like the early pioneering stages of electronic music. They were one of the first main artists that I heard that made pop electronic music, so they were kind of an inspiration."

The Knick continues a longstanding working relationship between Martinez and Soderbergh. The duo has collaborated on such films as Sex, Lies and Videotape, Solaris, Narc, and Traffic, the last of which earned Martinez a Grammy nomination. "He's got a very strong artistic personality and he's got a unique take and philosophy on how music is used in film," Martinez says of Soderbergh. "I agree with most of his thinking about film music, which is to keep things simple, don't be obvious. Try to leave things a little bit dramatically and emotionally ambiguous—leave some room for the audience to make decisions for themselves. He usually uses music sparingly, and I think that gives the music more impact."

But there's another, more important reason Martinez keeps saying yes when Soderbergh calls on him. "When most people come to you because they liked one of your scores, there's some sort of unspoken obligation to sound like some other score that you've already done. Steven always says, 'I want you to do something you've never really done before,'" Martinez says. "Most people won't hire you to do something you haven't done before, but people that you have an ongoing relationship with, they demand that."

With The Knick, Martinez is definitely doing one thing he's never done before: creating a score for a 10-hour series. "The biggest challenge was the speed with which you have to crank it out," he says. "Usually, there's one or two themes in a film, but when you're doing something that's 10 hours long, I found myself cutting and pasting and recycling material quite a bit. The challenge was to take existing material and repurpose it for something that is slightly different, to reuse it in a creative way. I liked that it gave a lot of continuity to the show, to use the same melodic, harmonic material."

And even though The Knick is only two episodes into its run, viewers don't have to wait to hear all the music. Milan Records has released an original soundtrack that is available digitally now. The physical CD will be released on September 16, with a double vinyl release in the works for later in the year. Although Martinez struggles to identify a favorite composition from the album, he is fond of several experimental tracks featured prominently in the closing credits.

"There was no main title... and I didn't make a theme for [the end credits] either because I always wanted to leave on whatever tone the outgoing scene had. So there was a different end-title piece of music each time," Martinez says. "It's one of the most important chunks of musical real estate because it's a chance to sum up your musical story, but there's no picture, there's no dialogue. It's not competing with any other sound. It's a great spot to showcase the music.  So, the end titles became my favorite spot. But I also used it as a place to do something that was unexpected. One track is called 'Falling Off a Bicycle,' and another one is called 'Goodnight Nurse Elkins.' Those started out as one-of-a-kind pieces. I hadn't written anything like that for the rest of the show. So, I threw my hardest musical curveballs for the end credits."

Martinez, who also collaborated on The Knick with fellow composer Gregory Tripi, has little time to rest: Cinemax has already renewed the show for Season 2, which Soderbergh will once again direct. Martinez will be back too, which means he has to get busy working on new orchestrations.

"I don't know exactly what the tone of the second season will be," he says. "I would definitely like to keep up the thematic continuity, but I doubt that I'll get to be too lazy and just cut and paste my way through the second season."

The Knick airs Fridays at 10pm on Cinemax, and the soundtrack is available for digital download now.

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  • Sanity_Bleeds Sep 05, 2014

    The music seems so unfitting for the period, and yet so incredibly fitting for the mood and tone of the show. Incredibly bizarre and enjoyable how well it makes itself fit where it doesn't belong.

  • AlexFrey1 Aug 22, 2014

    I liked it when the music started, it gave the whole thing an interesting touch, unfortunately for me (and I might be alone with this opinion) I find the show extremely boring, it's well done, great acting but just plain boring and uneventful.

  • wudntulik2know Aug 22, 2014

    It is excellent. Much like the music of True Detective ground its way into your brain for awhile, so too does this music.

  • donatos Aug 22, 2014

    I haven't seen the show yet, but everything points to it being one of the great ones.

    I was impressed to learn about Cliff Martinez and about the inspiring work he has done outside his very successful band. I knew his work but I didn't know it came from him. I'm always happy to hear about artists branching out from their main medium and being good at it. It shows them as true, improving artists.

    I hope that both the series and the soundtrack are commercially successful, if only as a reward to their quality.

  • Ian281099 Aug 21, 2014

    I must admit that I was surprised when those first synth notes started in the show, but it completely works for in its favor. The score adds a whole new layer to The Knick.

  • edshrinker Aug 21, 2014

    Everything about this show has been brilliant. The fact it never occurred to me that they were using that "Tech Synth Sound" means I was so engossed int the story and it must have added to it. This show is amazing thus far.

  • xubxerox Aug 23, 2014

    I have to agree ed, If I hadn't read discussions about the theme everywhere, I wouldn't have noticed.