Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series dates back to 1989, with a new Netflix adaptation bringing the story of dreams and nightmares to life. Since the original is a comic book, the streaming series has a visual reference for audiences looking for their familiar characters. But the sound of this world is brand new for the series, including a score by composer David Buckley.
The full interview with David Buckley is part of our YouTube series Behind The Playlist. It is embedded below.
The format of The Sandman presents a particular challenge for its composer as each episode introduces new characters and environments. Buckley described having to move “nimbly” between dramatic perspectives “from full on horror to absolute sweet cuteness” so that each piece of the story shares at least some musical DNA. And of course, the audience enthusiasm for the source material was overwhelming – this adaptation was decades in the making. All of which brings a lot of pressure to get things right.
Buckley did read the comics, but also saw his own newcomer status to the material as an asset. “It’s equally for people who have no initiation into this world,” he said, describing positive feedback from his own mother as well as long lost friends.
The characters who populate the world of The Sandman could easily have lent themselves to existing works of classical music. Lucifer and Death especially could have been pointed to via melodic figures that have become tropes – tritones for the former, and the Dies Irae for the latter. But Buckley avoids this, which is appropriate since Gaiman also built these characters more fully than their usual archetypes.
Lucifer, played by Gwendoline Christie, is blonde and fair in a more angelic image – less Dante, more Milton (and certainly far from the Lucifer in Gaiman’s recent streaming adaptation of Good Omens).
Dream’s visit to Hell is scored with long rumbling sounds, punctuated with drumbeats and squeaking metallic noises. Buckley pointed out that this Lucifer is less devil, more “fallen angel.” And tension builds during a battle of wits that Lucifer and Dream execute.
Death on the other hand, as portrayed by Kirby Howell-Baptiste, is gentle and kind.
The soundtrack to Death’s visits completely lacks anything foreboding or ominous. Especially in her time with Harry the violinist. It’s a sort of musical hovering in place, peppered with notes that have a fast decay – disappearing from existence sooner than expected. Buckley described Howell-Baptiste as showing “death’s warm embrace – it’s gorgeous.” Dies irae may often stand in musically for death, but Gaiman’s Death shows the least rage of anyone in the show.
Avoiding Death is the path of one of the few humans who enter Dream’s story. Hob Gadling is the subject of a wager that a man will want to die if he isn’t given the chance. Dream and Hob agree to meet once every 100 years, and we are treated to a montage of music through time.
The diegetic instruments evolve through the centuries. A voice with a small consort of musicians is audible in their first meeting, a lute scores Dream’s encounter with Shakespeare in their second. Viols are heard in 1689, a pianoforte playing a rondo by Mozart in 1789. It’s the modern piano in 1889 that indeed comes out of time, playing the Passepied from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque (a piece composed just a bit after their meeting).
Buckley’s music for the journey of Hob and Dream’s friendship also takes us through time. Starting with strummed strings and fiddle with recorder, transitioning to full orchestra.
Another other existing musical insert is squarely on the nose. Or, to complete the pun, on the rose. In the later episodes as Rose takes up more and more of the space between the dream and waking worlds, her landlord Hal performs songs from the musical Gypsy. Just as we learn that Rose is indeed the so-called vortex, the revelation is punctuated – “Here she is, boys! Here she is, world!” Her power grows and so does the pull of her energy on everyone’s dreams. Rose’s Turn indeed.
Dream, also called Morpheus, was someone who Buckley described as particularly tricky to compose for. At times, Buckley found him unlikeable – somewhat mean to those around him. But also able to arouse sympathy. Dream is a person (albeit not a human) carrying the burden of a terribly difficult job while at the same time coping with a century-long trauma.
The Sandman opens with a bell sound. It’s actually a celeste with a touch of electronic distortion – sounding a bit like an alarm bell in reverse. Dream narrates the difference between the sleeping and waking worlds. And an orchestra swells as we enter Dream’s realm, with its dreams and nightmares personified as a kingdom with rolling fields and a castle.
But all of the musical color disappears abruptly as we enter the waking world. Without spoiling too much, while Dream is trapped in the waking world there is one particular moment of heartbreak and surprise that would never have had such intensity without the musical buildup that gives absolutely nothing away.
Dream’s own theme plays to both his timelessness and otherworldliness – he is, after all, one of The Endless. But his melody is played by two instruments at once: a viola da gamba (last in fashion in the baroque period) doubled by an analog synthesizer. Buckley liked both the anachronism of the combination as well as their actual combined sound.
It’s the fifth episode, titled 24/7, that is positively horrific, especially compared to the rest of the series. It starts, however, with an aria from a comic opera. “Che soave zeffretto” from The Marriage of Figaro might be familiar from its appearance in the film The Shawshank Redemption, as it gets played over an intercom into the prison yard. Known as the Letter Duet, it is scene of a light and comical deception.
Like the countess and Susannah in Figaro, John is also (albeit more dangerously) engaging in a bit of a deception as he enters the diner in the opening of the episode. John possesses a power he cannot handle, and tries to control it anyway. The results are as disastrous as they are terrifying.
While it’s the midpoint of the series, Buckley scored the diner episode second. But, he said that it was so radically different from the first episode that it kept him on his toes – feeling like he would never be in a routine for the show.
The music for this episode almost completely lacks melody – Buckley refers to it as “spiraling mayhem” – but it is still awash in sound. Just sound that one feels rather than hears. And with an actor as strong as David Thewlis is here, Buckley makes the astute choice to just mostly stay out of the way.
In all, Buckley produced over eight hours of music for the series. For reference: even a video game, with its extended play-through time, would only have about three hours of music overall. While it was a massive undertaking, Buckley is hoping for a second season – with a few ideas forming in his mind for the dreams that may be on the way.
Find out how time as a choir boy set composer David Buckley up for his chosen career, as well as which character from The Sandman he would most like to meet in our Behind the Playlist series: