When people reflect on good storytelling, some may gravitate toward a standout performance from an actor in a film. Others might remember a particularly clever plot twist in a show’s finale, or even a video game character with a well-developed backstory. But for most, whether they notice it or not, it is the music that enhances the impact of a pivotal scene, amplifying the emotional resonance of the story being told. In visual mediums, the musical score is the invisible hand, guiding and shaping the narrative. It can heighten tension, highlight comedic timing, evoke the viewer’s nostalgia, or bring audiences to tears.
Tangelene Bolton, a composer specializing in film, television, and other media, recognizes the profound influence her music can wield over a narrative. Her portfolio of work includes the second season of Netflix’s fantasy drama Warrior Nun, Blumhouse and MGM+ horror thriller film Unseen, the Marvel’s Avengers game from Crystal Dynamics, and her current involvement in the third season of Comedy Central’s Awkwafina is Nora from Queens. While known for her unique music style that blends elements of neoclassical, electronic, folk, and jazz, what further sets her apart is her ability to boldly experiment and infuse classic and traditional sounds with a fresh perspective. Through her compositions, Bolton constantly challenges herself to reimagine the way stories can be told.
“I started playing piano when I was about two or three,” Bolton recounts. “My lola [grandma]—she's the one who first taught me how to play. From there, I was just always into music.” In her teenage years, Bolton’s creative path took a sharp turn when she got into film. “I had aspirations of becoming a director,” she says. “I was really into running around recording with my camcorder, making short films.” However, during this period of exploration, she noticed that she was dictated by the music that she was putting into her short films. It became clear that her true artistic calling lay at the intersection of music and film, where she could weave melodies together to shape the narrative.
Bolton notes that the biggest challenge in her line of work is time. “You're always racing against the clock,” she says. For television shows, she’s often looking at a time frame of one to two weeks. “I'm pretty much just cranking out cues, sending them, and thankfully, I don't have to do too many revisions—maybe first pass or second, version two. Every once in a while, there's a version three. For the most part, I try to get it approved on a first try. But that means I really have to make sure we're all on the same page, and that any questions I have are always addressed early so that I understand everything.” She finds it easiest to get work done late at night when there are no meetings, spotting sessions, or emails to respond to. “I can just get in the zone and pull from any inspiration I can without any external interruptions,” she says.
From there, Bolton's creative process hinges significantly on deeply understanding the characters and their narratives. She explains, “I love to have really in-depth conversations with showrunners and directors and really dissect each character and figure out how I can put myself in the shoes of each of the characters that I'm scoring for.” Then, using thoughtfully selected instruments or sounds, Bolton crafts musical themes that resonate with their story. “I just really want to tell their truths and be as authentic to them as I can,” she says. “I feel like that's the most important thing.”
A notable example of her work is on Warrior Nun, where Bolton utilized a lyre to depict Sister Lilith's journey. “I played it really ethereally with my fingers first to show her reflecting on her past and the expectations of her mother,” Bolton recalls. “As she went through her transformation, I bowed it aggressively and layered that with epic drums and vocals that I manipulated as she went on her transformative experience alone.”
In order to deeply understand the characters she scores for, Bolton makes it a point to read the scripts whenever they are accessible. “I love to get the different versions of the scripts,” she says, “because it's really interesting to me to see how the scripts change, or just to dig as much as I can into the scripts because they help me later on when I'm scoring the picture.”
Oftentimes, Bolton will also ask for as many spoilers as possible. When she was hired to compose for the second season of Warrior Nun, she immediately asked showrunner Simon Barry for spoilers about the lead character, Ava Silva. Initially, Barry attempted to remain vague, revealing that “there’s going to be a relationship between Ava and someone else”—which piqued Bolton’s professional and personal curiosity. “I knew I wanted it to be Beatrice,” she admits. Fortunately, she got her wish, and what resulted was “Ava’s Fall (Ava and Beatrice’s Theme),” a beautiful theme that shaped a pivotal scene for the characters’ relationship and for the show.
The setting and genre of a show also have great influence on Bolton’s approach to scoring. For Warrior Nun, a show involving a fictitious religious order and supernatural elements, she explains that she utilized a lot of ancient instruments as well as synthesizers, strings, and choir to build up scenes or pull them back and make them more intimate. With Awkwafina is Nora from Queens, a comedy that is less confined to a specific worldbuilding, Bolton enjoyed the versatility because each episode was so different from each other. One of the episodes this season took place in Iceland and involved magical elements. “I got to play around with different Icelandic instruments,” she recalls, “which contrasted with the more beat-driven tracks on the show. That was a lot of fun.”
Symbolism, either literal or figurative, also plays a part in the music she creates. “I love to try to find ways of combining sound with music, pictures, and the characters,” Bolton says, "and just finding ways to meld all of them together so that they can feel cohesive.” On Unseen, she recorded the electromagnetic frequencies of leaves and trees outside and turned those into pulses for scenes where one of the lead characters, Emily, was getting chased by an ex-boyfriend in the woods. For Warrior Nun, there was a torture scene where Pope Duretti was using an iron maiden to torture Cardinal Rossi who was caught as a traitor. In crafting the audio backdrop, Bolton wanted to pay homage to the Middle Ages and the medieval torture device. “I bowed barbed wire to symbolize the iron spikes,” she explains, “and used the hurdy-gurdy for low drones that I slightly distorted and pitched down by several octaves to signify the devolving of power and to create an eerie undertone.”
But it’s not just the projects’ settings or characters that shape Bolton’s sound. What makes her music uniquely her own is the way she infuses as much of herself into her work, including her Filipino identity and heritage. She fondly recalls a short film she worked on a few years ago where she had the opportunity to use the kulintang, a Filipino indigenous instrument. Traditionally played by women, it holds deep cultural significance, being used in various gatherings, healing rituals, and communication between villages. “It's just a beautiful instrument,” Bolton says. “I find playing it really meditative for me, especially when I am able to use it on projects.”
Sometimes, a project comes along where she can incorporate all sides of herself into her work. Reflecting back on her experience working on Awkwafina is Nora from Queens, Bolton shares, “It was amazing because almost everyone was Asian, or specifically, Asian and female, especially in my spotting sessions, which is so rare, especially in film and TV. ” When a team is made up of individuals who share a common background and understanding, it fosters a safe space where unique perspectives and ideas can thrive, leading to richer narratives and a more authentic portrayal of diverse cultures and experiences. “Everyone was bouncing ideas off each other in a really beautiful way. It's like this thing we all share already, but it's like that unspoken thing. You don't necessarily need to over explain anything about your experience.” She adds, “It was really empowering to be in that space. There needs to be more of it.”
In a conversation about what she would use to score a montage of the current season of her life, Bolton says, “I would probably use my OP-1, which is like a toy synthesizer. It's like the jack-of-all-trades for synthesizers. I would use that for a fun and quirky vibe mixed with my eight-string guitar. I feel like my life right now is all about contrast. It’s been a huge theme for me.” Bolton’s response underscores her personal creative expression and the diverse range of projects she has been involved in. “I love all genres,” she states. “I feel like I learn so much when I work on one type and then switch it up to a really different one. It really keeps me on my toes, and it helps me find new ways of scoring that I might not have done for the previous project.”
Apart from her composition work, Bolton enjoys the opportunity to interact with fans of the projects she’s worked on. The Warrior Nun fandom in particular holds a special place in her heart, and she expresses her gratitude towards them, saying, “I love hanging out with them on Twitter, just liking all of their fan edits. Everyone's so talented, and they're a huge part of its success. I'm really excited to see what cool projects they'll be a part of in the future. I love them.”
Looking ahead, Bolton envisions an exciting future, continuing to be open to a range of projects across different genres. “I would love to work on an A24 project, maybe a drama or an experimental horror film,” she muses. “But I also still love fantasy and world building like Warrior Nun, so I hope it can still get renewed for season three or get a movie or something.”
In her ongoing journey as a composer, Bolton's unwavering commitment to pushing artistic boundaries and blending diverse sounds and music styles continues to shape her evolving career. Each project becomes an opportunity for her to delve deeper into the essence of characters and stories, building musical themes that resonate with authenticity and meaning. Bolton's work serves as a reminder of the intrinsic connection between music and storytelling, leaving a lasting imprint on the minds and hearts of audiences who appreciate the profound impact of a well-crafted score.
Both seasons of Warrior Nun can be streamed on Netflix.
Unseen was released by Paramount Home Entertainment on Digital and On Demand on March 7, 2023 and on MGM+ on May 19, 2023.
The season 3 finale of Awkwafina is Nora from Queens is set to air on June 7, 2023.