Because The Man in the High Castle comprises three different cultures, the music in the show must depict the world of the Japanese-occupied Pacific States, the Greater Nazi Reich in the east, and, in season 3, the neutral zone where a wild-west version of America clings to existence. So how do you write melodies for this off-kilter reality and the characters that inhabit it? Composer Dominic Lewis has been with the Amazon series from the very start, and his brand of soundtrack, from the Edelweiss opening theme and beyond, has been an integral ingredient of the alternate history story.
Lewis told us that although he utilized broad strokes to depict the different regions early on, it wasn’t necessarily the exact feel of our world. “The Pacific States early on in season one were represented [by] flavors of woodwinds and more string instruments,” he explained. “Then with the Germans, without sounding too cliche, there tended to be more brass instruments to represent the power of the Nazi regime, but at the same time not overtly. The neutral zone tended to be earthier, more folky inspiration. I have a hundred-year-old banjolin that my father-in-law gave to me which I used quite a lot… [and] a cigar-box dobro that I used.”
The Man in the High Castle season 3 also introduces the concept of travel to other realities, and the re-appearance of a version of Trudy Crain inspired Lewis’ other-worldly “Trudy Suite.” “There’s a scene when we first see Trudy walking around the farm where they are, and the scene starts out with a wind chime,” Lewis recalled. “And it conjured up memories for me as a teenager, you know when you’re sort of half asleep and you hear wind chimes… the peaceful and lulling-you-to-sleep thing, and you don’t know whether you’re awake or asleep and what’s going on. It’s very dreamy, but it’s kind of a weird, eerie dream feeling. I wanted to recreate that with the Trudy Suite.”
Lewis had to contrast the ethereal version of travel that Trudy and Tagomi used with the more mechanical route the Germans take in The Man in the High Castle season 3. “It was the first thing I wrote in season 3 to really give me a road map of what I was going to do with the travel because in this season it is a mixture of weird meditative dreamy travel and then on the flip side you’ve got how the Germans are going to use it, which is really messed up and crazy,” Lewis said. “So it had to have a little bit of power, and the power comes from the harmony as opposed to the instrumentation.”
Characters like Tagomi and Juliana, who both display both a quiet nature along with an internal fortitude, Lewis needed to bring out his favorite instrument, the cello. “I really love Tagomi’s theme because it means I get to get my cello out more often than not… The cello is a very prominent instrument in the whole score, ” he noted. “It’s a hugely versatile instrument. It can give you sadness; it can give you joy. It can give you aggression, and it can give you peace. It can go low, and it can go very high. So it can be very versatile, and I think you need that with the arcs of these characters.”
Contrast that with the theme for John Smith, which began in season one simply as piano pedal feedback, according to Lewis, and has evolved over the seasons. “There’s this little frantic piano thing that I wrote that I wanted to describe him not knowing what the answer was,” Lewis said. “This little piano figure that keeps coming back — it’s kind of frantic and a little bit skittish — helps to conjure up the problems that are just getting worse and worse and worse. And it’s a repetitive figure, so it helps portray that… It’s been really interesting scoring his journey because by the end of season three we’re sort of rooting for him.”
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But Lewis’ method boils down to making the score sound almost normal to depict the world in The Man in the High Castle that’s nearly like ours, but not quite. “If I had to sum up the sound of High Castle, it would be the familiar, which is the traditional orchestral instruments that I use whether it be clarinet, cello, piano, horn, whatever it might be, the Western orchestral instruments, and then the other half is the stuff that makes it feel weird, which is me messing around with instruments and getting the audio of it and messing with it so it doesn’t sound like that anymore.”
It all ties back to the signature opening credits sequence of The Man in the High Castle, in which a vocalist sings an oddly tragic version of the usually happy “Edelweiss” song made famous in The Sound of Music. “It comes from the whole idea of Edelweiss really,” Lewis admitted. “We worked on that first, and subconsciously it kind of got in my head as being ‘the Edelweiss method,’ which is essentially hearing something familiar and making that sound horrible and weird and creepy. Because that’s actually a beautiful song that he sings to his children, but we took it and we messed with it and it’s now super-creepy! So that’s kind of what I do with the score.”
The end result is a soundtrack that is as rich and layered as the narrative of the show. The Man in the High Castle has given viewers a complex and emotionally rewarding journey in season 3, and with season 4 already in production, Lewis will have more opportunities to create his slightly abnormal melodies that build off of the cultures in the alternate reality and give the story an aural backdrop that fits with the world that might have been.