'Orange Is the New Black' Composer Talks Scoring That Emotional Final Scene

Chad Michael Ward
Brandon Jay, Gwendolyn Sanford and Scott Doherty.

[Warning: Spoilers for the third season of Orange is the New Black]

Gwendolyn Sanford can thank cheery children's music for getting her the gig as the music composer on the decidedly adult Orange Is the New Black. 

A decade ago, the singer/songwriter, as well as her husband Brandon Jay, were known around L.A. as Gwendolyn and the Goodtime Gang, a popular kids group. One big fan? Orange creator Jenji Kohan's kid. "When [Kohan's previous show] Weeds was looking for a replacement composer Jenji said, 'Why don't we ask Gwendolyn and Brandon to do it because we listen to them all the time?'" Sanford explained to Billboard. "And we auditioned a piece and got the job, which was a little out of the box. But that's the way Jenji thinks.  So we kind of dove in at that point and worked with her for seven years on Weeds. Totally different sound than the children's music!" 

When Kohan was cooking up Orange for Netflix, Sanford, Jay, and collaborator Scott Doherty came aboard. Below, Sanford discusses the challenges of scoring the show, the 11-minute piece of music that accompanied season 3's final moments, and working with Jenji.

What's the process like episode to episode on OITNB?

Sanford: I do see a script early on, and then we get together a week before. We create a library of sounds and tunes that are pulled from previous episodes and we kind of test some music in where it is called for. Some of it's good! Some of it [the editors] keep in that spot, and then some of it they go, 'This is sort of what we're looking for, but not really.' 'We want it to get a little dangerous here.' We take all those notes home and within a week we create a new score for that episode.  Come back, go to a review, and then Jenji laughs, smiles, dances or is like, 'Can I see that again?' Which means we need to do it again. [laughs]

With backstories such a key element of the show, you're working with characters from different eras and places. How does that factor into the music?

Oh yeah. It's very complicated, the score, the stories, it's not a cut and dry comedy. It's not a cut and dry drama. There's action. It's jam packed with all that stuff; we have to be kind of acrobatic about it. We  have to be able to do anything that the story requires yet keep a cohesiveness that the story requires. It keeps us on our toes....

As far as Piper goes, there was this cue in season 2 when Soso was getting on Piper's nerves. And Piper just kind of laid into her. And we hinted at what a badass Piper might be [in the music] just for a second and then it was gone. And we were able to bring that cue back, which was so satisfying, when she sent Stella to max. That was so intense. And we're like, 'Wait. Didn't we do a badass Piper cue? Let's pull that out and see how it's working.' And it totally worked. And we got to go full circle.

So I'm really looking forward to next season seeing 'Who is Piper now?" That's the kind of slow burn storytelling that we deal with on the show. Because there are sooo many stories to deal with. So many stories to develop, still, it's not like the music is "Oh yeah, here's Piper's theme, the sneaky theme again." These songs may show up in season 1, you might hear it again in season 3. And then  something that shows up in season 2 comes full circle in season 4. As it's all unfolding we just have to be ready to have all of tools out and kind of keep track of everybody's music and think, "Where can we revisit that again?"

Do you have a Homeland-esque whiteboard with lines and arrows somewhere?

I wish! It's all in our heads at this point. [laughs]

What would you say is the hardest moment to score this past season?

The finale. [The ending scene with them in the water] that piece of music was, oh my God, 11 minutes long. And usually TV composers don't get that opportunity unless you're doing like Battlestar Galactica and there's a big long fight scene. That would normally be reserved for film. But this was just a huge opportunity for us to create a backdrop for a scene that essentially had no dialogue. It was just all music. So we were given a head's up about that which was a huge gift because we were able to really relax with the material and make sure we were hitting all the moments and I think it turned out pretty good, considering. I think that was my favorite experience, just because we were given a little bit more time to work with it. Because that's the challenge of doing television scores. You don't get more than about five days to create a double record. So a lot of it is: How quickly can you write? How prolific can you be? And hopefully the quality stands up.

And did Jenji give you any notes for that scene or were you kind of on your own with the script?

They had – sometimes an editor, if they don't have the music they need, they'll cobble together music from other sources and it's hard because it's not your music, it's not the sound of the show, it's just a placeholder. So there was that and the piece was just too long; there was no 11-minute cue available to cover that basis. So we really had to strip it away and go beat by beat. And there wasn't really any guidance beyond that. At this point, working with Jenji for a decade we share an instinct that's helpful, so sometimes there aren't even words necessary. We just kind of look at each other and nod or grunt! [laughs] That's a good thing to have with your boss.

I feel like this season was a lot funnier in some ways. How did the rallying speech moment where Piper convinced the other inmates to join her business come together?

It was like political fanfare! That wasn't us, actually. That was one of the moments where [the editors] temp in something and then are like, 'Actually, we really like this. This is silly.' And we're like, 'Great. Let's buy it.' Whatever works for the episode. But because [that speech moment] was a little bit of a parody, it worked. Quite frankly, anything we would have done would have been so close to that that we might as well use what was there if it was working.

Are you coming back for next season?

We start next month. I'm really excited for season 4. Everybody's excited. We wrapped season 3 mid-February so we got a few months off, but the writers, they jump back in.

Have you gotten any word on what the themes are going to be for season 4?

I haven't heard a peep! [laughs] I'm just as excited as everybody else is.

Season 3 of Orange is the New Black is streaming now on Netflix. Orange is the New Black – Original Score album featuring the score from the first two seasons is available now on Varèse Sarabande Records.