Children's programming is pacing the field of TV music.
For composers, it's where the action is.

The complex orchestral music builds and swirls ominous one moment, comical the next–supporting and enhancing ever image on the TV screen. It might be the music accompanying the broadcast premiere of a block-buster film; it might be the underscore for a TV series' special episode. But it isn't; it's the music of Cartoon Network's animated children's series "Dexter's Laboratory" pumping up the drama as the elementary school age genius title character maneuvers a giant robot suit to do battle with a similarly suited, evil-genius nemesis.

As original scores for primetime programming have diminished significantly often being reduced to "stings" played leading into and out of commercial breaks innovative and sophisticated approaches to TV music are thriving in children's animation. Such shows as Cartoon Network's "Courage the Cowardly Dog" and "Powerpuff Girls," Nickelodeon's "Rugrats" and "The Fairly OddParents" and the WB Network's "Static Shock" have little in common stylistically, but each relies heavily on original scoring to establish a tone and connect with their young audience.

That's not to say that Saturday morning fare is free of dim toons and hackneyed sounds. But for composers lucky enough to be affiliated with a strong, creator-driven children's show, the work can offer deep artistic satisfaction.

"There's no restraint on creativity," says Steve Rucker, who, along with partner Thomas Chase, has scored every episode of "Dexter" and the related short film that runs with the recently released "Powerpuff" movie. "In fact, it's very demanding work; you can be asked to do anything in the course of a few minutes _ go from rock 'n' roll to over-the-top orchestra to 'Star Wars' to Danny Elfman quirkiness. The animation can go anywhere, and the music has to go with it. What is especially great from a composer's point of view is that the music in these shows gets featured, not buried; these shows appreciate the value of what the music is doing."

That point is seconded by "Courage's" Jody Gray, who, like most composers in the TV industry, works with a mix of synthesizers, orchestral samples and live musicians. Gray has incorporated the influence of such modernist iconoclasts as John Cage and Harry Partch into the music behind his title character's battles with nightmarish adversaries.

"I've been allowed to create some very sophisticated, wall-to-wall music for this show," Gray says. "It's a kids' show and it works as a kids' show, but as a composer, I have the freedom to follow the Carl Stalling approach and the Stanley Kubrick approach at the same time. The Stalling approach is classic cartoon, and the Kubrick approach is that you play stuff that's completely against what's on the screen _ a goofy scene gets a serious, dramatic cue, and vice versa. There's a high level of musicality involved because it's not just little interstitial cues like what's on most network evening shows now; it's real scoring."

The adventuresome pedigree of animation music was established largely by Stalling, whose work as composer and music director on Warner Bros.' "Looney Tunes" created many conventions of the cartoon music genre. Stalling began his animation career with the Walt Disney Co. during the late 1920s, writing for some of the earliest Mickey Mouse shorts. But from 1936-58, he was maestro of the Warner Bros. scoring stage, providing Bugs Bunny and company with all manner of music in cartoons intended for adult audiences of the day.

Stalling commanded a 50 piece orchestra through remarkably intricate scores, often changing tempo, mood and style every few seconds. In addition, he predated sampling by incorporating popular songs into his scores. Perhaps Stalling's most enduring innovation, though, was allowing cartoon musicians the same artistic freedom that animators brought to visuals.

Richard Wolf has logged a long career as a record producer for such acts as New Edition and Coolio but is delighted with the freedom of expression he enjoys composing for the WB's top rated Saturday morning show "Static Shock."

"The beauty of doing a show like this is that you can draw on a broad spectrum of styles," Wolf says. "Superhero animation tends to be music driven, and it can be a virtual playground for composers. While maintaining fidelity to the story lines, I get to create and produce electronica, hip-hop, rap, rock, pop and traditional symphonic underscore. The breadth of creative self-expression is truly liberating, especially after coming from the field of record production, where you're invariably pigeonholed into a single genre."

That freedom is a result of decisions by network executives and show creators to embrace and support innovative sounds.

"Music has really become a part of kids' lives, and we're trying to reflect that in all our programming," Nickelodeon and Nick Records vp talent Shelly Sumprer says. "It's never just an afterthought. Kids are a lot more mature than they're sometimes given credit for, particularly in the broad appeal of music that they like and are willing to listen to. We want to serve them well, and we also give a lot of room to the shows' creators to pursue the kind of music they want, so when you look at all our shows together, we've ended up with a very interesting mix of approaches."

"OddParents" creator Butch Hartman considers his show's music so important that he has become a lyricist for its built-in song sequences.

"I write poems and give them to our composer, Guy Moon, and he turns them into songs," Hartman says. "We didn't think about using songs at first, but we started hitting spots in the stories where it just felt like it was right for a song. I love the mix of music we've ended up with because when I first started out to make a cartoon show, a lot of the shows I remembered from my childhood were the ones with the strongest music and the songs you could sing along to. I think hearing a kid singing the song from your show is probably the best compliment you could get."

Today's more innovative TV shows might owe at least a tip of the animated hat to composer Mark Mothersbaugh, who began subverting children's music clichés during the mid-'80s with his work on "Pee-wee's Play house." The distinctive work on "Rugrats" of Mothersbaugh and his brother, Bob, is instantly recognizable to millions of children, and the brothers have reached an even younger audience with their recent work on PBS' "Clifford the Big Red Dog."

"Animation lends itself to music having a more important place in the scheme of things, and a composer has the potential to be very creative," Mark Mothersbaugh says. "There is a lot more freedom in writing music for kids' shows because kids have a lot less preconceptions about what music they want to hear; they want to hear everything, so you can play things bigger and broader and go places that V on can't go on a show like (the hit NBC drama) 'ER,' where you need to stay within a genre. A lot of primetime music doesn't do much to accelerate things or impact the story line; it's in the background staining the canvas rather than making bold brush strokes."

The opportunity to make bold musical brush strokes is embraced particularly by younger composers who are finding some of their first work in animation.

"Part of what makes this work interesting right now is that new guys come up through animation," says James Venable, who has scored the "Powerpuff" TV show and movie. "It's the new guys who are the most excited to be working, so there's a high level of energy there to begin with and there's a willingness among the executives and show creators to try new things. For myself, I feel like I'm going back to the roots of animated music, and we're trying to bring that classic approach through to the current sounds of today, like electronica and techno."

Venable believes that another key to creative scoring is respect for young audiences.

"People arc going to react to the emotions of the music no matter how old they are, so on all levels I try never to play down to kids," he says. "A lot of times, if work is really specific to the age of a kid, as soon as they get past that age, they turn on it – whereas if you're just dealing with honest emotions and thinking of what you create as music rather than kids' music, kids don't get tired of it as they get older; they don't have to outgrow it."

If children feel a need to move on, they might decide to embrace the alternative works of their favorite kids' show composers

"I've already seen it happen, 'Rugrats' fans growing up to be Devo fans," Mothersbaugh says. "The kids write in, and the parents write in, and they talk about having common ground. They watch the show together then listen to the albums together and enjoy both. That warms a composer's heart."

By Chuck Crisafull
August 20, 2002