Composer Benjamin Wynn, commonly known as Deru, is an expert at sound manipulation. He can make something organic and real sound like a synthesizer and vice-versa, crafting nuanced, often restrained fare that compels you toward a sense of contemplation.
Among his most famous bodies of work under the Deru name, 1979, is a prime example of the ways in which Wynn molds sound like Dr. Strange molds reality and time. Through subdued, ambient soundscapes, memorable refrains, and deceptively simple arrangements that are built on the twisting, bending, converting, and obfuscating of our expectations, Wynn crafts impeccably engaging experiences.
Wynn’s recent work — the score for Marvel’s thrilling Stitcher podcast, Wolverine: The Long Night, a dramatic modern radio serial that shows the potential for a whole new realm of the Marvel universe, and Impulse, a just-debuted YouTube Red show based on Doug Liman’s 2008 teleportation film Jumper — showcases the nuanced ways in which Wynn employs his Deru aesthetic to great end. Both are character-driven fare, which make them perfect for the compositions that spawn in Wynn’s mind.
I recently interviewed Wynn over the phone to talk about both his Wolverine and Impulse scores — one curiosity was how exactly one composes for a podcast. We also discussed his background, his musical philosophy, and what the future holds for him.
Along the way I learned a lot about the musician who helped found The Echo Society, a collective of composers, visual artists and engineers that puts on multiple events around Los Angeles using orchestral ensembles and electronic music. [Film composer Rob Simonsen, whom I interviewed in 2016 and for whom I premiered a Love, Simon cue this year is also a member. Drum & Lace (AKA Sofia Hultquist), whom I’ve written about, has also performed with the group.]
The 10-episode series Impulse, which debuted on June 6, is about a 16-year-old girl named Henrietta (AKA “Henry”) who learns she can teleport when she gets a seizure and disappears just as the most popular boy in school is trying to rape her. As in the antecedent film, Jumper, the teleporting process carries a great energy force with it, which renders the would-be rapist a paraplegic.
The circumstances of the plot, which focuses on how Henrietta deals with all that she’s endured and learned about herself and others, calls for a score that’s the antithesis of the bombast of a sci-fi blockbuster. Deru provides.
Wynn used a Cristal Baschet at the heart of the score — an all-acoustic instrument that electronic film score composers like Cliff Martinez have used in a way that to your average person might sound like a product of synthesis. Henry’s teleportation theme is among the cues that get the Baschet treatment.
Wynn did a couple things to blend the electronics and the synths with the Cristal Baschet: one involves tapping and another manipulation.
“With the Cristal Baschet, you wet your fingers and rub on glass rods, which are attached to metal tuning forks of various lengths that then vibrate these large, metal radiators,” Wynn says. “The metal radiators are what give it its unique sound, as they project a highly resonant and metallic sound.”
“I wrote some pieces for the Baschet player Lenka Morávková to play, but the instrument also worked its way into the score in subtler ways,” Wynn continued. “One was that I tapped on the radiators with a drumstick, and then used those recordings as impulse responses in a convolution reverb that I then sent my synths through. That imparts the characteristics of the radiators on the synths sounds and makes them sound as if they were playing through them.”
He also analyzed the sounds and picked out exact frequencies, which are the overtones that emerge when playing one note. He used those overtones as pitches for his compositions.
“I could go from having synths that sounded like they were the Cristal Baschet to synth sounds on their own. And I could then bend those pitches and play with them — there’s a lot of glissando in the score,” Wynn says. “The Baschet really seemed to capture the vibe of the show.”
Overall, the score is a warm, subdued blend of acoustic and electronic elements that together ignite a dark, visceral human experience blended with sci-fi elements.
“I really like blurring the lines between acoustics and electronics,” Wynn said. To achieve the seamless result we hear, Wynn notes that one thing he learned since his early days of sampling is that the best way to have material to process is to “compose it yourself with processing in mind.”
Wolverine: The Long Night debuted on Stitcher in March and the serial impressed critics and Marvel fans immediately. The story centers on two FBI agents, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger and Ato Essandoh, who are investigating a series of murders in rural Alaska that they think Logan committed. Meanwhile, Logan is trying to hide from the world.
Director Brendan Patrick Baker is known for his production work on Love + Radio, a podcast that featured an expert use of music in innovative ways.
“He uses music really well,” Wynn says of Baker. “He’s very well-versed in electronic music production and sound design.”
On his previous podcasts, he was used to having a large body of music from which to choose for editing into the podcast’s often nonfiction narrative.
“He’s very good at making musical edits,” Wynn says. “I understood that right away.”
That’s important, because the way Baker used Wynn’s score cues wasn’t traditional.
“Brendan was used to editing around pre-existing music, so I realized that maybe the smartest approach would be for me to deliver him a library — a group of cues for specific feelings and scenarios — that he could then start editing the episodes around,” Wynn said. “After that, he could give them back to me for further edits, if needed.”
“I delivered everything stemmed out, so that he could have the freedom do make edits if he needed,” Wynn says. “That can be a scary proposition, because it’s like giving someone the keys to your car and you don’t really know if they can drive stick. It’s not something that a lot of composers would necessarily suggest.”
Part of what endeared Baker to Wynn was the playlist Baker had set up as reference music.
“He sent me a playlist full of amazing ambient electronic music — some I’d never heard of, which is not so easy to do,” Wynn says.
The list included work by Ben Frost, Tim Hecker, Daniel Lanois, Arca, Burial, Paul Corley, and some other names that were new to Wynn.
“He’d also seen me perform live in Brooklyn when I was touring my 1979 audio/visual show,” Wynn said. “So he was well-versed in me as an artist, and it was clear that he had amazing taste.”
“Podcasting seems to be one of those mediums where a lot of the times it might be helpful to have the music first, so you can edit around it,” Wynn said. “I didn’t want to get in the situation in which he was using temp music and I was redoing it. That wouldn’t feel very creative.”
So Baker wound up picking from the pieces to create the musical component of Wolverine.
“Often he would take one element from a piece — the pieces he gravitated towards became some of the thematic material for the podcast,” Wynn said. “Kind of a reverse way of working.”
Then he’d pass it to Wynn and he’d do some tweaks.
There were also scenes that required specific cues, which would be added once Baker had the skeleton of the podcast down. Consider the main title, which the podcast team wanted to have a slight Western tone. Wynn had the idea to call in a string quartet.
“The main glissando in the opening of the main title… I ended up doing a whole bunch of wild takes of the quartet doing glissandos that I then processed and stretched and pitched for Logan’s main theme,” Wynn said.
Benjamin Wynn Is Deru
Going forward, Wynn hopes to compose his music under the Deru moniker whenever possible. For years he wrote electronic music as Deru in addition to his sound design and score work. Now he wants to merge these two worlds.
“I want to compose scores under the name Deru that have the same sound as if they were one of my records,” Wynn said. “I want them to come from the same sound world.”
Impulse is officially a Deru score and it certainly sounds like it could be a Deru record.
Wynn is also working on a new album, set to come out later this year. It’s centered on microtonal music and pieces written for woodwind quintet that are processed in the particular way for which Deru is known.
Over the course of his career, Wynn has developed a noble and compelling viewpoint about his approach to art.
“I have an optimistic viewpoint that if you pursue what makes you unique and what you find really interesting, then people will eventually notice you for it and want you for your unique voice,” Wynn says. “I would like to be known for having a unique artistic sensibility that I can bring to projects.”
“It’s very important to pursue the things you find most interesting — the things that make you you, and trust that the other things will fall into place.”
Impulse is out now on YouTube Red, which is also the home of Cobra Kai. Lakeshore Records is slated to release the Impulse score. To experience Wolverine: The Long Night, head over to Stitcher Premium.