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Homicide’s Music Master

Music Supervisor Chris Tergesen
Keeps the Homicide Beat Harmonious

By Keith Loria
APB News
May 14, 1999

When “Homicide: Life on the Street” executive producer Tom Fontana needed a music master to score the closing montage for the second-season episode "Black and Blue," he turned to an old friend, recording engineer Chris Tergesen. Until then, music hadn't been a primary component of the gritty, meditative cop show. Dialogue rather than score provided the rhythm of the story.

But Tergesen soon convinced Fontana that the NBC series' fast imagery and long segments would profit from a soundtrack, and before long he was creating at least one musical montage for almost every episode, adding a pulsating new tempo to a show already acclaimed for its throbbing dramatic elements.

Now the show's musical supervisor, Tergesen uses an eclectic mix of songs, including work from such diverse artists as Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, The Bee Gees, Nine Inch Nails, James Brown, Seal and Tori Amos.

His choices have gained so much popularity with Homicide viewers that NBC's Web site contain[ed] a directory of songs and performers.

Tergesen rhapsodized about his role with the show to APBnews.com.

APB: How do you choose songs for the video montages, and how do you decide what other music to play throughout the episode?

Chris Tergesen: Sometimes those songs are generated by the writers in the script. It will say, 'We hear so and so sing so and so song.' Sometimes it says 'music plays,' and then it's my job to find a piece of music that works well with that scene. When I see the scene written or when it's shot, I see it in a rough-cut form. We don't have a specific style or sound that we adhere to. It's about what song fits what scene -- it's a case-by-case basis. Basically it comes out of my CD player.

APB: Is it hard getting record companies to allow you to use their stuff, or do they overload you with material, hoping to get their stuff heard?

CT: Some of both. In the beginning when the show wasn't as established, I was greeted with a lot of skepticism, and artists didn't want their stuff on TV because of the stigma attached to it. Now, a lot of people don't refuse. A lot of record companies submit stuff to us that I just go through to try to find a good sound.

APB: In the fifth season, the song "Boom, Boom, Boom," which was featured in the montage segment of "The Documentary," was so popular that NBC switchboards were swamped with calls about it. Did this validate for you how important the music had become on the show?

CT: It's very rewarding to hear, but there had been response to other shows prior to that one, and I don't think I was aware then that that show had generated a bigger response.

APB: There's obviously more to the job than just picking music. Explain what your job entails for each episode.

CT: My job is basically content. I also hired the composer way back when-- it was one of my first tasks -- and I deal with him on an episode-by-episode basis. Usually now the producers spot the show to determine where each piece of original music goes, and I give notes on what's written. I mix the music in and produce the final audio mix. Then I work with NBC and the studio, and they have a music clearance department that actually does all the paperwork and gets all the licenses.

APB: Since the show is shot in the Baltimore area, do you ever utilize musicians from the city's strong musical crop?

CT: If the script calls for background stuff, such as a band onstage or a nightclub, every time it's been a local band. I try to use a lot of Baltimore-based bands for the show.

APB: Are you surprised that music became strongly associated with Homicide?

CT: Very surprised. We had no idea it was going to become such an integral part of the show. It's very nice to see a piece of music work so well with a scene. It's also very nice that the fans like it and talk about it on the Web site all the time.

APB: You use a very diverse selection of music. Do you make a concentrated effort to do that to keep different people interested?

CT: It's very important [to use] different styles. We are doing it from a dramatic standpoint, what works with the show, what works with each scene. It's important to be open to any genre and not to be tied down because we don't do this and we don't do that.

APB: Do actors ever request certain songs for their scenes?

CT: Sometimes an actor directs an episode and has specific ideas for a scene, or once in a while they will tell me about an artist they like, but no one has ever really asked me to get any specific song.

APB: What's your favorite part about the job?

CT: Finding a well-placed song in a great montage. You don't know until you see it against the footage -- sometimes it works better than others do-- but it's great when it's a perfect fit.

APB: Do you have a favorite episode?

CT: That's tough. I liked "The Documentary," and I liked "Every Mother's Son," but I probably could change my answer every so often.


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