From the outset, Antonio Gambale’s unsettling score for Netflix’s limited series, “Unorthodox” gets under our skin with its twisted strings and synthesizers. And that’s how it should be, introducing us to the riveting story of Esty (Shira Haas), the young woman who escapes from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Berlin in search a new life. For the Italian-Australian composer, who is Emmy-nominated for both his score and main title theme, it’s a breakout work and quite a departure from his high-octane synth contributions to “The Grand Master” and “Taken.”
Gambale had to rethink his aesthetic for the sensitive, predominantly Yiddish-language drama from showrunner Anna Winger and director Maria Schrader, inspired by Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.” “You’re almost in documentary territory with the responsibility you have toward the music,” he said. “You have to be careful not to be melodramatic. It’s even more crucial to be totally aware of why you’re using music in scenes.”
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Every potential composer auditioned with a demo pitch for Esty’s theme during pre-production. For Gambale, the key moment in the script was Esty’s walk into Lake Wannsee upon her arrival in Berlin, throwing off her wig and embracing a new beginning. “I needed a modular way of approaching it,” he said. “There’s quite a long buildup, so I focused on a lot of repeated piano notes to establish a tentative feeling. After that, I needed a gentler version that was more stripped back, and another feature was sparse instrumentation, which addressed the intimacy of the story.”
This began an approach toward the use of solo instrumentation in the main theme and throughout the score, which is why Gambale gravitated to using an individual cello. He recorded samples of cello bowing with no expression (vibrato) and treated that, and then doubled it with violin pitched down an octave. “And when you start experimenting like that, those instruments have a haunting, almost vocal-like quality,” he said. “It feels like you’re hearing a female voice, a foreshadowing, which suited [Esty], and gave us a good shorthand to use her theme and other character themes during the collaboration with [Winger and Schrader] to grasp what I was doing musically.”
Winger and Schrader provided a bible for Gambale to follow. Mainly, they wanted to avoid stereotypical Jewish music in the score, since that would already be provided through source music. Also, they preferred a modern classical vibe, since they were already referencing Antonín Dvorák’s “Serenade for Strings in E major Op. 22.” Above all, they wanted scoring for scenes to chart the emotional journeys of Esty and her confused husband, Yanky (Amit Rahav), who chases after her in Berlin after learning that she’s pregnant.
“You’re dealing with character imperfections,” the composer said, “so it was important to make the music seem scratchy and a tiny bit out of tune. And other sounds, where I zoom in on the hiss with [equalization], were used quite a bit in Yanky’s theme. This was the type of technique that came from musique concrète [the recording of raw sounds]. And when you blend that in, it creates [ways of] distinguishing between characters and new types of scenes.”
The empowering tone of the Lake Wannsee scene was contrasted with a flashback in Episode 2, where Esty recalls the mikveh cleansing bath ritual as a bride-to-be. “We talked about both of those scenes together because they were written to be a hemisphere apart,” Gambale said. “One of them is ‘super cathartic’ when she opens up to the world as herself, and the other one is about what her community expects of her and what she thinks she wants.
“I played it with the absolute minimum string and bow contact with no vibrato,” he said. “They were a little worried about it sounding intentionally Jewish, but the harmony of that scene isn’t Jewish in any stereotypical way, and it felt generally heightened and spiritual, but less personal than the lake scene. We decided it didn’t need anything else.”
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