Scoring at Breakneck Speed Takes Courage

Cartoon Network's Courage the Cowardly Dog caught our ear with its quirky, wildly creative score. Episode to episode, it might he techno, lounge, opera, or just noise. We tracked down Jody Gray, one of the show's composers, to tell us how this wacky music is created.

Tell us a little about the show.
Courage's oblivious caregivers, Eustace and Muriel Bagg, are constantly assailed by extraterrestrials, paranormal events, and a variety of nasty visitors. Only Courage recognizes these evil beings for what they are, and in the course of each 11 -minute episode, he saves Eustace and Muriel from them. Each show is unique and special, so out of the 104 shows that we'll have completed by the end of season four, there are 104 different scores. Each one is like a mini-movie. It's a hell of a lot of work! [Laughs.]

You're not doing leitmotif, where each character has a signature theme?
Actually we are. The main characters have signature themes, but since there's a new villain each time, it's always a new ball game. Basically, it's driven by the villains. Recently there was one called Conway the Contaminationist a guy who thrives on pollution. My writing partner, Andy Ezrin - who is also a fabulous keyboard player and I took a grand piano and prepared it á la John Cage. Then we beat it to death. We did all sorts of things with hammers and chains. It's always different: One week we'll do a techno show, then the next one is a full orchestral thing, and then it'll be lounge, and then a really dark Bernard Herrmann kind of thing. It's insane.

What's the turnaround like?
Nutty. Actually we're doing them in a day now. We plan them out in advance and we've developed a shorthand with the director. We just go for it. When Andy's here, we kind of jam the show down. I might play a harmonium, and Andy'll play a Schoenhut toy piano. Much more fun than sitting in front of a computer and slogging through conventional programming.

Are you given a lot of freedom in spotting and scoring?
It's kinda like, "Go left and keep going?' The director, John Dilworth, is musically very astute. We'll spot it in a very general way together, and then ifs basically, "Go do what you want to do?' We disagree with John sometimes. Occasionally he asks for something different, but more likely, we're struggling to go further left.

With such a short schedule, what tricks and techniques do you employ so you're able to work quickly?
I have stuff divided into instrument categories; the strings I use, the winds I use, etcetera, all in a "Courage palette." Although each episode is a blank sheet of paper, certain things are similar and I tend to go to those. That's the most helpful thing. I can bring up the sounds and sort of feel my way through the first viewing. John has a shorthand - he'll give me notes like, "Very Bernard Herrmann through this scene," and that'll immediately give me a starting point.

What are the essential tools in your studio?
Apple G4 dual 533, Digital Performer, and Pro Tools. I used to be a Vision guy. I chose DP because several of the composers I worked with were already into DP, so I had a knowledge base around to help me make the transition. It's intuitive and very easy to negotiate. Went in Pro Tools. That's the easiest environment for us. I have three E-MU E4's, all maxed out. They've been a dream. I have a huge sample library. All legitimate, I might add. I went out and bought all of it. Ifs kind of a pet peeve of mine because I've made my living doing this all my life, and I really think that we ought to pay for our tools. It's just the right thing to do.
There's a Nord Lead, Roland JV-1080s with every expansion card ever, a couple of crummy old Casios that always seem to have sounds I can't get any other way. We've got a Wurlitzer, a Rhodes Mark V, accordions, a Voce V3, there's a wide variety of stuff. I have the studio configured so I can just plug anything in and go. Working this fast, I couldn't do it any other way.