SurrealEstate might be SyFy‘s most surprising show—a wild blend of horror and the house-hunting genre. That requires an equally unique kind of music, which comes courtesy of Spencer Creaghan. He creates a score which brings all the series’ twists and turns to life, and innovates himself by using different sounds and creating new ideas.
I recently spoke with Spencer to discuss everything that goes into the SurrealEstate score, and what it’s like for him to compose for such a genre-bending series. Get to know him and his music in our interview!
Brittany Frederick: When you’re looking for a project to take on like SurrealEstate, are there specific things you look for, or are you like an actor in that you see what comes along that might interest you?
Spencer Creaghan: I choose which projects I take on by which spark “an angle.” When I’m going to write music, I want to be really excited about writing that piece of music. If I can’t figure out an angle in the pitch, then maybe I’m not the right composer. If I can figure out some sort of angle to come in with [like] “This music feels right; excites me,” or, “What if we did music kind of like this; do you like it?” [and] they love this idea, then I know we’re going to have a really great time working together.
Or if they go, “I love that. We were thinking this. What if we blended the two? Or what if we did something like this?” If we’re on the same page that way, then we’re going to have a great collaboration with bold ideas. I find the SurrealEstate team were the best with that, where I was able to come up with crazy ideas, and they were going, “Man, that’s bold. Yeah, let’s do it.” Or they’d come to me with bold ideas, and I would just go, “I have no idea how I’m going to do that, but we’ll figure it out, because that’s a fun idea.”
It’s a lot of experiments and creative angles that can get our juices flowing. If that doesn’t exist, I find it hard to say yes to a project. Thankfully, the majority of projects that I’ve worked on have all been ones where I’ve been able to find some sort of angle, whether it’s genre or art house or indie.
BF: SurrealEstate enables you to push the limits of what a score can do, but where’s the balance between taking those risks and making the music so different that it might be jarring or just not entertaining?
SC: I’m very conscious about, will this be listenable on a soundtrack? If someone was to listen to this while they’d be working out, would they have a good time listening? I’m always consciously aware of that. A lot of the music in SurrealEstate was written equally on piano first, then translated to cues with picture. Our score has lots of melodies thanks to this method, and we’ve received many nice comments on the music thus far.
BF: Do you have favorite cues or favorite things you’ve gotten to try out with this show? What stands out to you that’s different from other projects you’ve composed for?
SC: Every episode, honestly, was a blast. It’s one of those TV shows where every week I was having just the time of my life. We specifically wanted lots of musical motifs throughout the entire show; I think I counted a total of 41 or something like that. There’s lots of little musical ideas representing family, representing the ethereal plane, personal failures, moving on—all these little moments that I hope the keen ear will start to pick up.
But we also wanted the music to not sound like anything that you’ve really heard of before, especially with ghost hunter shows. I was very inspired by the Newfoundland landscapes. It really brought to mind the idea of using Irish instruments and Balkan instruments—instruments that, like the land, captured the spirit of the show balancing the real world and the ethereal one.
Then from there, we just kept putting in other types of instruments to the point where we were like, “What if we started using non-musical instruments?” So a couple episodes use foghorns. One episode uses the grandfather clock. My favorite [is] the bathtub; we were able to get that into an episode, and that was a lot of fun to make that work and to make that have a emotional resonance.
BF: How would you describe your composing process? Do you have a certain workflow that you follow or things that particularly inspire you creatively?
SC: I’m a big fan of talking with my all with my director about story for hours on end. [Asking] where they view their characters, and figuring out how these characters live outside what we see in the show. Beyond just what we see, what are these characters like? What is their world like, their past, how was their childhood, what coffee do they drink? This all helps me figure out what the music might be sounding like with each character.
I’m a huge mythology nerd and a huge fairytale nerd, and because of that I think Joseph Campbell has really inspired a lot of how I write music with his whole hero’s journey arc. I think “How can we be bringing in these narrative elements into the music?” and “How can we ensure the music isn’t just underscoring the emotion, but it’s also becoming its own character, its own world, its own life in and of itself, walking beside the character?” Thankfully, SurrealEstate is the kind of TV show where that is welcomed. Each house has to come to life, the afterlife has to feel real, and all of these elements need to pop off of the screen.
I do this on every project that I’ve ever done. My mantra, I guess, is “What’s the thing that’s in the film, that’s not in the film?” We can’t visually see it, but it’s prevalent within the story. Let’s have the music embody that—let it be the metaphysical embodiment of this thing. For example, one film which I did years ago called Ashes is about a character having to send the ashes of his parents out to sea. I kept thinking, “It’s interesting that this movie is all about his relationship with his parents, but we’ve never actually seen him with his parents. What if the music was his mother and was guiding our protagonist on the journey, telling him it was okay?” SurrealEstate‘s score does the same, specifically in being the metaphysical connection between characters and the Ethereal Plane.
BF: Is there anything about composing that you wish TV audiences knew more about? Since it’s one of those roles that we don’t get to see, we only get to hear.
SC: My mentors and I would always joke that the one thing that people don’t realize about composers is that we spend a lot of time alone, hunched over in our room. I feel like we’re a socially awkward, nerdy bunch. (laughs) But as far as the TV show [SurrealEstate], one thing that I’ve always loved about it was how much camaraderie there was within the entire core—the production team, the on-set crew, those of us in post-production, and the writers. It really felt like we were our own agency in our own kind of way. I remember calling up one of the guys on the sound team whom I’ve known for a long time, and just being like, “Have you ever been on anything with a team this kind and caring?”
Everyone was really collaborative and open to different ideas. If people messed up, we worked together to walk out of that. You don’t get that very often. It makes the days working alone and the awkwardness that comes with that something to no longer worry about. We’ve all continued being friends outside the show, and we’re all hoping that season two or more happens, simply because we love working with these people and the collaborative energy that everyone brings.