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The Handmaid’s Tale: how to soundtrack a TV show set in a world of silence
By
Holly Gordon

Published

May 1, 2017

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“I don’t need oranges; I need to scream. I need to grab the nearest machine gun.”

Elisabeth Moss’s face is expressionless, her lips unmoving as we hear her character Offred’s inner dialogue, nearly 15 minutes into The Handmaid’s Tale’s pilot episode. The show’s protagonist is standing in a stark white shopping centre in front of a pile of oranges while a jaunty piece of lyric-less flute music plays overtop the scene. Offred is sent to pick up food from that market, Loaves and Fishes, each day under the watchful eyes of the new regime in the Republic of Gilead, but not even snark will save her for this handful of seconds.

“The idea was to give [the scene] that kind of ... ‘50s instructional video [feel] when the husband comes home, you take his slippers off, he has a drink and you feed him dinner,” explains Michael Perlmutter, music supervisor for the new Hulu TV series. The piece is called “Strings and Things,” pulled from a source Perlmutter often uses for music searches — in this case, a short, stomach-churning snippet with sexist nostalgia attached.

“It was to show that this is something that [the handmaids] do all the time, and it is all that they do, and all that they can do ... that it's not so cheery.”

Not that The Handmaid’s Tale, the 1985 dystopian novel written by Margaret Atwood and now a 10-episode TV series on Hulu (U.S.) and Bravo (Canada), has ever been mistaken as cheery. While the book was set in the not-so-distant future, the TV show is set in our near present — with a flashback referencing Uber — after an overthrow of the U.S. government by a military theocracy that sets in place a fundamentalist regime called the Republic of Gilead that significantly restricts general freedoms, but specifically those of women. (Offred, for example, means Of Fred, and signifies that Moss’s character belongs to the (male) head of the household.)

Perlmutter, of Toronto's Instinct Entertainment, has a job that includes heavy collaboration with the show's various other parts: to place music throughout each episode, excluding the score, which is created by film composer Adam Taylor (August: Osage County). Perlmutter first worked with Sheila Hockin (co-executive producer of The Handmaid’s Tale) and Bill Goddard (post-production executive) on the 2000 show Queer as Folk, and the trio has worked together a bunch since. Most recently, Hockin and Goddard approached Perlmutter to ask if he’d work on the Atwood-inspired show.

“I believe that it is one of the most extraordinary stories of our time, even 30 years later. And there was absolutely nothing that was gonna stop me from working on it,” he recalls, laughing.

But there is one caveat to The Handmaid’s Tale’s sound: “In Gilead, there is no music.”

Instead, there is a lot of silence, and singles or pieces of music that Perlmutter places in the show will often jar you into another time and space — like when SBTRKT and Little Dragon’s slinky electronic track “Wildfire” shoots you back to Offred and her friend Moira (played by Orange is the New Black’s Samira Wiley) smoking, drinking and having consensual sex in university. You're rushed out of that flashback into the silence of the Red Centre — where Offred and Moira are now handmaids, corralled and forced into training to be surrogates for infertile married women.

But while there may not be a signature sound to the music — aside from the score — there is a signature thought: “I think the key word here is freedom.”

“And freedom comes in many different forms in music,” Perlmutter continues. “It can come from speaking your mind, obviously ... it's borderless, it's of every different kind of genre, whether it be pop, alternative rock, Brazilian, punk, country. There's freedom in expression, and I think that's the key about music itself is freedom of expression … it's all about what song fits in that moment or what artist could fit in that moment because of maybe what an artist is saying or what an artist has always believed in.”

Or to emphasize the lack of freedom. During the Ceremony scene, Offred lies fully clothed from the waist up, face-up on the bed in the master bedroom while Serena Joy (wife of the Commander, played by Yvonne Strahovski) holds her arms. The Commander, a.k.a. Fred Waterford (played by Joseph Fiennes) stands at the foot of the bed and has sex with Offred, all while the 19th-century hymn Onward Christian Soldiers plays overtop the scene. The hymn is wrapped in the score, and sets the chilling chorus of voices and organ against Offred’s (again) expressionless face.

“[Composer Adam Taylor] would take [Onward Christian Soldiers] from us and he would be able to create some kind of a soundscape in and around it to create that extremely uncomfortable feeling during the Ceremony,” explains Perlmutter. “And then also the sound design would work on something around it, so there was a serious collaboration of levels to create some atmosphere and environment for that moment.”

But by the close of the pilot episode, Offred, hand in hand with the music, takes some of that freedom back. Over the end credits, immediately after Offred says her real name to herself — June — and vows to fight back, a familiar feminist song plays: the original 1963 version of “You Don’t Own Me,” by Lesley Gore.

“You saw the beginning of [June’s] plight and her new life that was created without any choice ... and then by the end you find out who she is, you know?” says Perlmutter, of what caused him to choose that song. “I think the empowerment of ‘You Don't Own Me’ and you will never own me, even though that's all everybody is feeling — that they have been absolutely overrun by this new movement — we think that was her mindset at the time.

“If [there was] going to be a song rolling around in her head, in her life, that would be one of them.”

The first two episodes of The Handmaid's Tale have aired in Canada, and you can watch them for free via Bravo.

More to explore:

The Handmaid's Tale: 10 facts about Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel

Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale cameo is literally a slap in the face