Features Interviews News

There’s a Halo Around Greg Tripi: A Deep Dive into the Cliff Martinez Associate’s Elaborate Scoring Career

Gregory (Greg) Tripi might be one of the best composers you don’t know much about. For nearly two decades he’s contributed, to some degree, instrumentation and arrangements to a host of Cliff Martinez scores. Drive, Only God Forgives, The Knick, The Neon Demon, Contagion, and, most recently, The Wilds, among several others, bear some Tripi fingerprints.

No one’s trying to hide Tripi’s work, though: You will see him duly credited either on screen or in liner notes for a soundtrack album, or usually both. This is a Martinez practice that not all composers in Hollywood afford their team members (AKA “additional composers”).

But the Virginia-born, LA-based Tripi isn’t only working on someone else’s music. He’s also got a lengthy CV featuring himself at the head of the table. Recently, he’s done music for films like the Peter Dinklage-starring Rememory and director Agata Alexander’s Warning. Of course, genre fans know his work from Tate Taylor’s Octavia Spencer-starring horror film, Ma. His dynamic, synth-driven electronic score pairs well with the unhinged psychology of Spencer’s Sue Ann “Ma” Ellington. These scores aren’t particular similar in some foundational ways, because Tripi can tackle everything from synths to guitars to the hand pan to orchestrations, and all points therein. (Although there is inevitably an underlying Tripi quality to them.)

That Tripi can move so deftly across the spectrum of scoring owes heavily to a dedication to the musical craft that long precedes his work in the field — or even his scoring focus at Berklee School of Music. He says he was fascinated with the idea of adding music to films before he even knew it was a job that people did as a full-on career. It all started with Tim Burton’s Batman film in 1989.

“Danny Elfman’s score was really the big catalyst that just melted everything down and rearranged the atoms in my brain,” Tripi told Vehlinggo in a Zoom chat recently. “I think that’s a pretty solidifying moment for me.”

greg tripi composer drive the knick ma halo
Greg Tripi in the studio, playing one of his Halo hand pans. Photo provided by him.

Strong Out the Gate

After Tripi graduated from Berklee, he left the Boston-based hot-bed for professional musicians and found himself in Los Angeles. Even more so than New York City, LA is the ideal destination for those looking to center their careers on scoring music for film and television. It’s where most of the stuff happens, after all.

He applied for both the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences music fellowship and BMI’s Pete Carpenter fellowship for aspiring composers.

“Surprisingly,” he said, “I won both of them that year.”

They were both supposed to start at the same time, which posed an interesting challenge. How would (or could) he start working with legendary TV composers W.G. Snuffy Walden and Mike Post at the same time? How to choose?

Walden counts among his accolades an Emmy for the theme music for The West Wing. (Walden is a bit of a powerhouse in the network TV world, really, providing music for such touchstones as My So-Called Life, The Wonder Years, Ellen, Roseanne, and Felicity, along with other such notables as Thirtysomething, Early Edition, The Drew Carey Show, and steady stream of many more to-date.)

Post, who co-founded the Pete Carpenter fellowship to honor his late co-composer, is responsible for one of the most recognizable sounds in TV history: DUN-DUN. That is, he’s the composer for the Law & Order franchise. He also did NYPD Blue and other law enforcement or practice-of-law fare like LA Law and Hill Street Blues. Add to that shows like Doogie Howser, M.D., and The A-Team. Like Walden, his fingerprints were and are everywhere.

Luckily for Tripi, he didn’t have to choose between them. Walden and Post were close friends and agreed to let Tripi work for the former as an assistant for a few months before he would then go on to work with Post, according to Tripi.

west wing tripi

Walden was tackling seven shows when Tripi began working with him: The West Wing, Surface, and Huff, among others.

“I was more of a studio assistant, but I did get to try some writing,” he said, noting Post was “much more of a fly-on-the-wall opportunity to see how “composing” works.”

Although Tripi “did learn a phenomenal amount of stuff from both those guys,” he says. “[They were] really fascinating experiences.”

Eventually, Tripi’s career found him working with horror composer Christopher Young on popular genre fare such as Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, Scott Stewart’s Priest (2011) and Mark Steven Johnson’s Ghost Rider, which memorably starred Nicolas Cage.

It was a notabey CV even at that point, but it would be with Martinez that Tripi would get involved in some particularly noteworthy fare.

cliff martinez greg tripi contagion
Cliff Martinez (back-right) and Greg Tripi (foreground) hard at work on the score for Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film, Contagion. Photo provided by Tripi.

Thai Food with Cliff Martinez

Tripi has been a fan of Martinez’s work for a long time, and furthermore the two were friends before becoming work colleagues. They were both into exploring the unconventional side of scoring.

“We spent a lot of time going out, having Thai food and talking about electronic music, sound design, and all these weird ideas for a year or two before we even tried to work together,” Tripi says. “It was more of this kind of friendship that happened because I was a big fan of his and I really was into the style of what he was trying to do.”

Martinez’s score for the 2002 remake of Solaris, one of the several collaborations between him and director Steven Soderbergh, was a big standout for Tripi.

“I was like, ‘What is this?!’” he said. “This is incredible!”

When they started working together, “it went real easy,” Tripi said. Their first foray was the 2008 Raul Inglis film, Vice, which starred Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and Mykelti Williamson.

Their partnership is one that Tripi finds comforting and inspiring. He’s a good friend with whom he can nerd out on music, but he’s also fun to work with.

“… Whether he intended to, or not, [Martinez] became a pretty big mentor for me in terms of just seeding my brain with all sorts of peculiar ways of approaching the task,” Tripi says.

Tripi also noted something somewhat unique about Martinez at which I hinted at the beginning of this piece: He’s not shy about giving his additional composers credit. If you open up the liner notes of your favorite Martinez soundtrack album, you’ll see Tripi named overtly for his compositional and instrument-playing contributions. (You’ll also see Mac Quayle, the Mr. Robot composer and Ryan Murphy go-to who worked alongside Tripi and Martinez on several projects.)

“He’s generous and collaborative — I’ve never worked for him, I worked with him,” Tripi says, noting that this type of arrangement isn’t something he was used to previously.

One example of that is that Martinez was adamant about Tripi’s name in the credits at the end of each episode of The Knick alongside his.

When he was in the trio with Quayle, it was a “team dynamic,” he said. Regardless, for a gig that in our modern era can be rather isolated, Tripi was psyched to work with a partner or two on a craft about which he was most passionate.

Greg Tripi with Cliff Martinez and Mac Quayle
From left to right: Greg Tripi, Cliff Martinez, and Mac Quayle, a veritable powerhouse of score composing across film, TV, and video games. Photo provided by Tripi.

That trio had a big 2011. That was the year Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Soderbergh’s Contagion, and Brad Furman’s The Lincoln Lawyer all hit theatres. (Contagion debuted on Sept. 9 and Drive followed a week later. Furman’s film hit theatres earlier, in March.) Tripi says The Lincoln Lawyer directly led to Drive. Lakeshore Entertainment was involved in both films and, as has been established, hired Martinez and crew to tackle the scoring for Drive after firing Italians Do It Better chief Johnny Jewel (Desire, ex-Chromatics) from such duties.

The timeline isn’t clean and tidy. Work for Contagion actually came first.

“[The film] went on for months and months,” Tripi says. “It was a long project.”

As they were working on Contagion — a picture that would no doubt gain poignancy when COVID-19 washed the world in its terror — the Drive opportunity arose. They paused work on Contagion for five weeks and turned around the Drive score in that tight window.

Vehlinggo has published Martinez’s take on that quick turnaround, as you probably know. Martinez said in that 2018 interview that time can “sometimes be your friend.” For his part, Tripi agrees.

“In any of my project experiences on my own films or [Martinez’s] movies or anybody’s movies, really, if you’ve got a good movie and good visuals and good story and all that stuff, it’s so easy to write music to it,” Tripi says. “It just kind of comes out.”

“It just kind of comes out.”

The vibe had really already been set by the pop songs, such as fan favorites “A Real Hero” by College and Electric Youth and “Nightcall” by Kavinsky (with Lovefoxxx of CSS).

drive 10th anniversary vinyl soundtrack
One of the variants of the 10th anniversary pressing of the ‘Drive’ soundtrack. Photo courtesy of Lakeshore Records.

Drive was a big break for them in a way, which sounds weird given all of the other marquee projects in which they were involved. However, it solidified for them an enduring cool factor that resonates even today. As Quayle put it in 2018 in his first of two interviews with Vehlinggo: “We were all excited about the film. We knew that it was something special, [but] we weren’t prepared for how much attention the music was going to get. It really was just pretty exciting.”

I have a fun anecdote for the producers out there. Although Martinez and crew had typically used Apple’s Logic software to create their scores, for Drive they used Ableton Live. Martinez had recently discovered it and got Tripi and Quayle into using it for Winding Refn’s film.

“Somehow we made the decision to do all of Drive using [that software],” Tripi says. “We didn’t even know if we could score a movie with it.”

But it does allow the use of video, so you can score “to picture.” Tripi says the vast number of plugins and tools made it perfect for scoring.

“It just felt super creative — like this insane creative burst of stuff that we had going on for that movie,” he says. “And we all [worked on] it.”

Notably, Quayle and Tripi had an idea to mix the score in surround sound. This was not exactly something for which Ableton was built, but they did end up mapping it all out. They went to Martinez’s house and did indeed get it all together.

“Having that team dynamic in place… and this new set of software tools… and experiments [with things like] wind chimes… was just a good combination and flowed really well,” Tripi said.

It was five weeks of unmitigated inspiration, essentially.

Afterward, they’d operate as a trio until about 2015, just after they completed the music for video game Far Cry 4. Quayle then went out on his own, tackling the music for shows like American Horror Story, Pose, and Mr. Robot. Martinez and Tripi would continue to work together on and off, and still do.

Tripi says there is no typical division of labor, but rather he and Martinez evaluate how to approach music on a project-by-project basis.

“We just look at what [the project] needs and we start scratching our heads,” he said.

For The Knick, which was on Cinemax for two seasons in 2014 and 2015 for a total of 20 episodes, Tripi and Martinez would alternate between their houses. Tripi brought along a rugged external hard drive to Martinez’s place and they’d go into the studio and write.

“It was really just sitting there in each other’s studio, brainstorming and writing all day,” Tripi says. “That doesn’t usually happen, but it was nice that it happened that time.”

They most recently worked together on the Amazon series The Wilds. For that, Martinez would craft themes he’d delegate to Tripi to flesh out for certain cues.

“He knew I had certain instruments that only lived in my studio, and so sometimes that’s the deciding factor,” Tripi said, noting that “there’s not any real wholesale answer” to how they determine who does what. (Tripi is a master at the Halo, a UFO-shaped metal hand pan instrument that somehow sounds electronic.)

There are times when Tripi’s involvement is lighter. For example, he did some organizational tasks for Soderbergh’s recent film Kimi, but didn’t contribute any music. And although Tripi contributed bassoon parts to the first episode of Winding Refn’s 2019 Amazon series Too Old To Die Young, he wasn’t around for most of it.

“I was too tied up with my own [work],” Tripi says. “I didn’t have the bandwidth.”

The cover for the vinyl edition of Greg Tripi’s score for ‘Ma,’ released by MONDO/Death Waltz Recording Co., in conjunction with Back Lot Music. Artwork by Sara Deck.

Tripi On His Own

Tripi has scored a fair amount of material as a primary composer, too. He said he enjoys these gigs, because they allow him to work “aggressively fast.”

“I get hysterically excited… and do all my work right away,” he said. “I get into this headspace of always assembling, always arranging, and always thinking it through. I just really get into it.”

The teamwork among filmmakers — directors, producers, and composers — resonates with Tripi, too.

“I love the collaboration process,” he says.

Tripi’s solo work — which you can experience on titles like the sci-fi Warning, the horror Ma, the documentary Our Father, and the first season of Discovery’s anthology series Manhunt, which tells the story of Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski — certainly has similarities to the nuanced, often ambient passages and synthscapes he employs with Martinez. Tripi says their music exists in “these adjacent membranes of parallel universes.”

However, Tripi’s solo style is a bit more forthright. Or, as he puts it, “my personal style is probably a little more embellished and aggressive.”

The Halo hand pan colors all his work.

“It definitely feels like a voice that is in my head, kind of imprinted on an instrument,” he says, after demonstrating the halo with sacred aplomb during our Zoom call. “A lot of people have these ideas in their heads that are very hard to get out.”

The Halo hand pan is what is called an “idiophone,” which according to Merriam-Webster is “any of a class of musical instruments (such as a bell or gong) whose sound is generated by striking, rubbing, plucking, or blowing the material of the instrument itself not under any special tension.”

Tripi says Martinez’s use of steel drums (also called steel pans) on Solaris was a big influence on his finding his own voice with the Halo.

They had used hand pan samples on some scores. The sound was cool, but Tripi says it didn’t really have the full experience of one played live. He saw it in action at Burning Man about eight years ago and he “instantly hit the reset switch in my brain.”

Afterward, he intensely researched the varieties of hand pans that different manufacturers have made and decided on the Halo. The company has gained an interest in Tripi, making him some custom versions and even a bass iteration.

“It’s made its way into every score I’ve done on my own,” he said. “And it’s also in some of Cliff’s, too.”

greg tripi composer drive neon demon our father interview
Greg Tripi with his Halo hand pan. Photo provided by Tripi.

The hand pan recently showed up on Our Father, the 2022 Jason Blum-produced Netflix documentary about Indianapolis-based fertility doctor Donald Cline, who used his own seed to impregnate scores of unsuspecting patients.

“The [director, Lucie Jourdan,] and I are both big fans of the hand pan, and we decided to try using it in a horror setting,” Tripi said in a followup email to Vehlinggo. “So, my jumping off point was ‘melodic Halo lines meet sinister bassoon textures, sandwiched between creepy strings and emotive plucks.’ There were still themes and recurring motifs for the featured characters and events, so it wasn’t really that different from a feature score.”

The early stages of Our Father are a bit instructive of Tripi’s overall approach to the scoring process: He always starts by looking for new sounds, whether those sounds are an acoustic instrument, a synth or software. They are means to allow him to “create a library of phrases and sounds to use for composing,” he said.

“That’s how Our Father began,” Tripi said. “I played my bassoon through a bunch of different effects pedals and software effects, and then created all these drums, textures, and drones out of my playing.”

Peter Dinklage, Sundance, & Loud Neon Music

Over the course of Tripi’s career, there are some notable moments that resonate with him even today. One of those centers on Mark Palansky’s Peter Dinklage-starring Rememory, which also has Julia Ormond and the late Anton Yelchin. It premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

“[It] was exactly the type of movie I want to score,” he says. “I like the sci-fi vibe it has… and [it] had good actors and good performances. The score just poured out of me on that one.”

Tripi had a blast doing the orchestra recordings and mixing in the synths. And, of course, there was the hand pan.

At Sundance the film premiered to an absolutely packed house. Dinklage was also a judge that year, and Tripi speculates that perhaps the Game of Thrones star’s presence at the screening helped bring in the masses.

“[The score] sounded amazing,” Tripi says.

Adding to the overall scene was a robust intensity of snow falling outside. After all, Sundance takes place in the mountain resort town of Park City and Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort in January.

“It was a good goosebump moment,” he said. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is exactly the connection and feel that I want’. It was a fantastic experience.”

Another notable story dates back to around 2016, when Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon came out. Tripi, Martinez, Quayle, and Martinez’s agent went to see the film at the now-shuttered ArcLight Hollywood theatre complex in LA (specifically, the Cinerama Dome).

They’d heard that the film would have their music higher up in the mix — basically, louder — but they hadn’t yet seen the fully finished feature. When the film started, they were in for a treat.

“It got progressively louder as the movie went on,” Tripi said.

And during a key scene toward the end — which I’ll be cagey about because some of you haven’t seen it yell still — there’s a character just bathed in blood. “And the music is just ridiculously loud,” Tripi says. “It is the loudest I’ve ever heard music mixed in a movie.”

“I just remember looking at Cliff and he’s laughing his eyes out and I’m crying, I was laughing so hard,” he continued. “Mac was clenching his teeth. It was amazing.”

The music was so loud, they all thought that “something’s gonna fall off the walls,” he said.

After it ended, they’re all breathing heavily from the raw energy of the moment.

People sometimes complain about a film being loud in the theatre, but it’s usually related to sounds coming from explosions and machinery and all that sort of thing. Often, as Tripi confirms, “the music is barely audible” underneath them. Not so at the Dome that day.

“It was nice to see one scene where it was so loud, it was like the composers were afraid it was going to destroy something,” he said.

And of course another standout for him is the MONDO/Death Waltz vinyl release of the Ma score. It was the first vinyl release of his solo work. [Full disclosure: I wrote the OBI strip for it.]

“It was a big bucket-list moment for me,” he says.

The Changing Face of Composing Scores

Over the years Tripi’s experience with composing has changed in one key way: He works with a lot more live elements than in the past, when he relied a lot more on samples or recording everything on his own.

Now he is at the point in his career when he can work with a go-to group of live musicians — specifically for string or percussion parts. He’s brought them along with him as he’s worked on production-music libraries, in which he’ll make an entire album of “one vibe of underscore,” he says. He’s just finished one that has a marked solo violin and solo cello character.

That is all far easier to achieve when working with trusted musicians with which he has a developed rapport.

“It really helps shape the composition a lot more than if it was just me on my keyboard playing a violin solo,” he said. “It’s an awesome way to work having a live collaboration element.”

Of course TV work is often fast-paced and reliant on a vast quantity of output, so the live element isn’t always possible, he added.

Overall, Tripi has based a sizable amount of his identity on his work.

“I really think of it more as a lifestyle than a job,” he said. “It’s this thing that is always going. I love being ensconced in all of this and submerging myself in projects.”

If he’s not doing anything, he said, he gets “a little nutty. I have a hard time decompressing from it all, but you know it’s a great lifestyle to have.”

%d bloggers like this: