Writing the music for the podcast Alibi was a project that resonated very strongly with me early in the dialogue with the show’s multiple award-winning creator Paul McNally. The written material deals with a distinctly South African theme – injustice; one benefiting from another’s misfortune. Every day in South Africa, you’re presented with opportunities where you feel compelled to balance out this injustice of your own volition. The ongoing parade of unfortunate individuals begging at traffic lights, lying on the sides of the street and drinking their hopes away is a byproduct of a systematic, decades-long oppression that all South Africans feel, whether they want to or not.
The ongoing parade of unfortunate individuals begging at traffic lights, lying on the sides of street and drinking their hopes away is a byproduct of a systematic, decades-long oppression that all South Africans feel, whether they want to or not.
So, finding the emotional reservoir to inform the musical composition of the series was no challenge. I found it necessary to emphasize the interplay between right and wrong that can be strongly felt at least once in every episode. The simple play between a minor and major chord in a single key on the piano amply conveyed the duplicity of this theme, as well as that of Anthony de Vries’s character. Is he lying in some respect or telling the whole truth? These themes are pressing realities for the everyday experiences of South Africans. It was something of a relief to be involved in a project that offered more value to society than the typical entertainment and commercial projects for which composers are recruited.
Conform or contrast?
I was given much creative freedom to sculpt the musical identity of the series. But however important it is to have a strong and cohesive sonic identity throughout any podcast series, it’s equally or more important to abide by the guidelines set by the leaders in the field. I was thus reluctant to give the show an overt South African soundtrack. There was no need to reduce the seriousness of the subject matter with literal interpretations of its setting. Although it is tempting when composing to be liberal with the music of your environment, I felt it would benefit the show more to create a sound that aligned more clearly with existing true crime podcasting tropes. Being able to be creatively risky is a luxury that should always be enjoyed very selectively.
One example of using existing tropes is what we came to call the ‘loss of cabin pressure’ moment. It’s a sudden, low synthesizer pitch drop coupled with a rhythmic noise pulse. It’s used a few times in the season at moments where a big and shocking reveal is intended. Our original reference point for this moment was inspired by my philosophy on writing music for film, came from the film ‘Fight Club’, at a moment in which the protagonist makes a discovery about himself that will change his life forever. Other popular influences included the TV show Gray’s Anatomy and the podcasts 99% Invisible, Criminal and of course, Serial.
Listen to Season 1 Episode 1 of Alibi
Keep it simple
While composing music in the digital age affords access to an almost limitless palette of sounds, it was also important not to stray too far from the familiar. The starting point for most of the pieces was the piano, which has long been the world’s most popular instrument and powerful composition tool. I kept the soundtrack to season 1 of Albi fairly piano-heavy for the sake of simplicity and broad appeal. Other standard instrument-specific tropes included the dark and brooding strings of ‘Suspense’, the rhythmic pulses of ‘Heist and Shooting’, and the pleasing piano cadence of ‘Welcome to Heaven’.
Unlike writing a pop song or movie theme, writing music for podcasts does not involve creating memorable, recognizable melodies. The core intention should be to underpin the dialogue with a subtle mood. You should almost aim for unrecognizability, a strange concept for someone with a songwriting background! Less thematic idiosyncrasy and more tonal and rhythmic padding. It’s an almost insidious art, as if your intention is to raise the water level from the listener’s ankles to their neck without them noticing. The ‘temperature’ of the music has to be just right.
Alibi is a South African take on the true crime genre, specifically enhanced by the realities of the country’s homicide statistics and the brutality of the apartheid regime’s lingering spectre. As one part of the show’s creative team, I found great satisfaction in sculpting appropriate moods at relevant moments, and feel we achieved in telling a story that needed to be told.