Xena Magazine #6 - Melody Maker - Joseph LoDuca

Joe Nazzaro talks to Joseph LoDuca about Xena, Hercules and his latest work for Renaissance Pictures
Source: Titan`s Xena Magazine #6
Date: April 2000

While some composers can spend years working on a single work of heroic proportions, Joseph Lo Duca has to create a mini-epic every week. For the better part of a decade, the Detroit area native has been creating the musical score for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. In recent months, Lo Duca has also added two new projects to his resume: the post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama Cleopatra 2525, and the historical comedy action-adventure Jack Of All Trades.

Creating the opening theme can be a major undertaking. Because that melody can become as much a signature for the series as the look or characters, a composer has to be aware that his work could well be around for the life of a series. "Rob Tapert is really big on that," says LoDuca, referring to his friend and executive producer on Hercules and Xena. "As you`ve probably noticed, he`s never re-shot the main titles for Hercules or Xena, and we`d never think about doing it. To be honest, Hercules was dashed off in an hour on my way to a meeting with Rob before I got on the plane! Xena was pretty much the same, although initially, I think there was some resistance on the part of the studio because they wanted to know why these women were singing in Bulgarian for an American television show! It just wasn`t what they were expecting, but Rob of course fought very hard to keep it the way it was.

"This time around, with Jack and Cleo, we actually started with a concept that was sort of different," Lo Duca reveals. "In the past, I wrote a theme that was intended to be, for lack of a better word, a one-minute instrumental orchestral theme, and they would adapt the footage and the narration to fit the music. This time, it was a lot more collaborative and a lot more effort, and I think everybody is very gratified by the results. I love it when people say, `Damn you Joe, I can`t get that out of my head!` I remember the first time Hercules was on, and I went to the gym and heard the guy in the stall next to me going, [hums the opening notes of the Hercules theme]. It was very gratifying in a strange way."

Lo Duca`s work on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, which ended a successful run earlier this season, is one of his most impressive credits. Looking back, he finds it tough to come up with a list of his own personal highlights from the series. "It`s sort of difficult to pick amongst your favourite kids," he explains. "I would say that the most gratifying season musically that I can remember was the season before the last, because there was a tremendous reliance on music in episodes like the trip to Eire and Sumeria, or the whole Wagnerian opera in the Norse land episodes. Those ones were tremendously reliant on music to pull them off and to pull them off well, so that was really gratifying. "I know that Kevin Sorbo was really happy with last season as well as the last eight episodes, which were just as memorable for the same reasons. For me, those were perhaps the most musically adventurous and among the most gratifying. For the episodes which took place outside Hercules` Greek stomping grounds, Lo Duca spent a great deal of time researching each civilisation and its musical ethnicity. "For example, we had the Dracula episode," he relates, "with the Hungarian string influence. We also went to Egypt, so it goes without saying that we had Egyptian influences. Once again, it`s not that it`s difficult, it`s really the time frame we have available and pulling the talent together to do it and doing the best you can with the short time span.

"Hopefully, in all these different places, we`ve gotten to explore their music, and I`ve heard and learned enough of the music that I can at least use its influence to tell a narrative story. I have books on ethno-musicology just to understand how the music is put together, which in many cases are systems that can be quite different from our musical systems in the west. I try to understand the cultural significance of the music, and I listen real hard. I`m mostly looking for the emotion - at the end of the day, I forget about everything else and just listen to the emotional quality of the music... When I`m speaking to a musician brought up and trained in a different culture, hopefully I can at least use enough of their language of music to get what I need out of that particular scene or moment."

Xena: Warrior Princess has also covered a great deal of ground recently, metaphysically as well as in terms of distance. "In reviewing what`s been created for this season and the end of last season," says Lo Duca, "it`s the use of orchestra and the way I`ve been able to explore things. To me, the two big episodes are Fallen Angel - for a composer to write about heaven and hell, it doesn`t get any grander than that - and Ides of March, which has the assassination of Julius Caesar and the simultaneous crucifixion of Xena and Gabrielle. This is the stuff of opera, so those immediately stand out in my mind in terms of places where we`ve gone full-out in the series.

"We also got to revisit Chin for two episodes, and went back to the Amazon culture and dealt with Alti in Them Bones, Them Bones. So in many ways, I got to expand on those ideas that were established last season, and for me, especially in the first half of the season, I`d look at an episode and say, `Oh no, another epic; I just had one last week!` The comedic episodes come as a welcome relief. We did a pie fight in one of the episodes [Punch Lines] that goes on forever; we did a western in Animal Attraction. So those are some places we haven`t gone before. For me, the challenge and the excitement is when we go to places where we`ve never been before."

One of Lo Duca`s biggest challenges on Xena this season was the rock musical Lyre, Lyre, Hearts on Fire, which incorporated a number of present-day songs, but with an offbeat Warrior Princess spin. "Once again, it all stemmed from Rob, who said he wanted to do a rock musical. So we collaborated on what that should be. I think my involvement beyond the actual arranging and producing was to help in the selection of the songs, and also to say, `Okay, what`s our musical premise here?`

"The basic premise of the musical was to take songs from the late Sixties and early Seventies and do them in a way that you haven`t heard them before, and in most cases, to try to contemporise them. I also got to play all the guitars for the episode, so that was tremendous fun." Regarding the choice of songs, the composer worked closely with Tapert, each of them making suggestions, so the idea of using `War` came from the show`s producer, while Lo Duca suggested `Dancing in the Moonlight` as a Latino dance number for Joxer`s brother Jace.

"Rob said, `There`s this song that no one has ever done anything with,` so I thought about it and said,`I know how I can do it.` and when Ted came in for the vocal session and heard the Latin part, he said, `How do you say `Get up off your ass!` in Spanish?` or something like that. I was actually in New Zealand working with the actors on their singing parts at that time, and when Ted started doing the accent, I said, `That`s funnier!` so he came back with that wonderful character and it was just hilarious. "I think I was pretty much involved in a lot of the choices. The word had to spread around town [about the battle of the bands, between Draco`s men and the Atnazons], and I said, `What about `Telephone Hour?` One of the songs that didn`t make it and which will hopefully be on the album is `We Can Work it Out`, which is a duet between Xena and Gabrielle, done in a grunge fashion. I think `War` and `Sisters are Doing it For Themselves` came from Rob. The idea behind `Always Something There to Remind Me` was the inclusion of a Burt Bacharach tune. "In some ways Lyre, Lyre was a bit of a jig-saw puzzle for the writers. As a composer who post-scores, you`ve got to make things fit by backing into them because you`re last in the process, but we had to impose that on the writers this time, because we said, `We`ve got these songs, and this is the way we can tell our story. However, you`ve got to get us from here to there.` So that was a challenge for them.` "Lyre, Lyre is actually Xena`s second full- length musical episode,` Lo Duca explains, "following the surreal third season episode The Bitter Suite. "Basically, Xena and Gabrielle end up in the land of Illusia, which is where they have to work out problems they have between them. They blame each other for the death of each other`s child and try to kill each other, and end up basically in Oz or Wonderland, but somewhere which is decidedly before Christ.

"We had the beat sheet, which is basically the storyline, and then had lots of discussions with Rob as to where the songs would fall and what they would be about. There are little snip- pets and ditties here and there, but there are seven main numbers, as many as you would find in a full-length musical. The whole score was brand new, although certainly the cue for the tone of the musical comes from our main characters. Gabrielle goes back to her village, and they each go to the place where they were before they met, and there`s a whole scenario set up between the warriors and the villagers.

"The tone of the music for Xena when we tackle big issues tends to be operatic anyway," says Lo Duca. "They`re already wearing the funny costumes, so why not take that next step and get them to sing?"

Musical episodes notwithstanding, one of the more unusual footnotes in Lo Duca`s career may turn out to be the `Joxer the Mighty` song, which originally began as an improvisation between Ted Raimi and director Josh Becker for the episode For Him the Bell Tolls. "That`s been a fun running gag from the first time it got introduced," he recalls. "They actually wrote a stanza, and then I added verses to it, and the writers took a look at it and said, `Well, okay. How about this?` So there would be another version. It keeps coming back and it`s turned into an ongoing joke. Ted made an appearance at a convention out in California and everybody was singing along and knew all the words!"

Lo Duca`s latest assignment for Renaissance has been to create the music for Rob Tapert and Sam Raim`s two new series, Cleopatra 2525 and Jack of All Trades, both of which are very different from their pre-Hellenic predecessors. `With Xena and Hercules, what I`ve been doing for the past couple of years is working with all these ancient musical instruments and different indigenous music from around the world. My focus has been on incorporating that in whatever contemporary scoring techniques I can bring to the party.

"On Cleo, the idea was really to make it sound different, and with the exception of some brass and percussion, those are the only things that resemble acoustic instruments in the show,` Lo Duca explains of the show, which presents three womens` struggle to take back the surface of the Earth from heavily-armoured airborne creatures which have forced the human population underground. `Everything else is electric and generated electronically. The excitement is created out of manipulating electronic sound, so I had to revamp my set-up to accommodate all these new toys and instruments. New technology has grown in leaps and bounds since I started writing for Xena, so that was a big and quick learning curve. With Cleo, I`m happy that I was able to make music that`s quite expressive out of that genre, where we can use the influences of, say, different types of electronic dance music but make them into emotional scores for our show.

"Jack is just completely fun," Lo Duca enthuses of the other new Renaissance show, which toplines Xena and Hercules guest and Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell as a swashbuckling, dashing, 19th Century hero. "The type of scene transitions and things I write are so much influenced by what I saw on television as a kid. Not only can people hum the theme to Gilligan`s Island, but they can hum the scene transitions as well, and that`s what I`m trying to do with Jack. You have to deal with the music of the time, so that`s been a little diversion to get into harpsichord music and things of the time and bring those little influences into the score. It`s a romp for the composer as much as it`s a romp for the actors."

Lo Duca`s work has turned out to be so popular that several Hercules and Xena sound-tracks have been released, and there are more on the way, including Lyre, Lyre and possibly a few surprises. "The credit goes to Varese Sarabande, who have been completely supportive in releasing a CD every season," says Lo Duca. "As a matter of fact, we`re currently compiling music from the last eight episodes of Hercules and from this season of Xena, and a soundtrack of the Xena rock musical. So there`s more music coming out and I`ve got some ideas for other projects inspired by Xena tucked in the back of my head if we ever get enough time to do theni. The fan base, by buying the records, have made the continuation of that possible, so that`s a wonderful thing.`

One might wonder how the Michigan-based Lo Duca manages to juggle three weekly series shot in faraway New Zealand, but the composer attributes his success to a combination of modern technology and the support he gets from Renaissance. "I choose to raise my family in Michigan." he explains, "and I`ve done everything possible to do as much as I can to work in my home studio and use the Internet to get my product to the workplace. We`re mixing the two new shows in Auckland, so my music goes to Auckland now when I`m done with it, and that gives me the sanity that I need to deal with the schedule, which is extremely intense.

"But at least I`m close to my family, so I`m physically present. The travel as a result has been curtailed as time goes on, thanks to the electronic age that we`re living in and the trust that Rob and the folks at Renaissance have in me."

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