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A conversation with Miami Vice and MTV composer John Petersen

New York-based musician and composer John Petersen has worked on and off in film and TV for 40 years. In 1987, his name suddenly appeared alongside Jan Hammer in the music credits of the fourth season of Miami Vice. For more than three decades, fans of the TV show have wondered who Petersen is, how he got the gig and how the two composers worked together.

For the first time, John Petersen talks about his time on Miami Vice and other musical adventures in the film and TV business.

Q: Tell us about your youth, where you grew up and how you got into music. I wondered if you have a link to Scandinavia or Germany because of the E in PetersEn. That’s a quite common name in Norway, Denmark and Germany. Tell us about your youth and musical development.

I grew up in a suburb just 20 miles from New York City. Although my mother was born of Sicilian immigrants, my father’s grandparents were of Danish descent—ergo, the ‘E’ in PetersEn.

I starting playing guitar and writing songs at the age of 8. Once I heard The Beatles and Bob Dylan, that was it for me, I knew what I wanted to do. Having grown up in the 60’s and 70’s during an unprecedented explosion of music and culture, I consider myself fortunate to have grown up at an incredibly prolific and transformative time in our history.

Q: Tell us about your collaboration with composer Jonathan Elias, which lead to writing the iconic MTV «Man On The Moon» theme and the work with John Barry on Murder by Phone in the early 80s.

Jonathan Elias and I began writing songs together while we were in high school. After graduating from college, we formed a brief but very successful partnership in New York City writing and producing music and sound design for television commercials, film trailers, corporate logos, and feature films.

In 1981, we were asked by John Barry to arrange and produce an electronic score, the music of which he wrote for the feature film originally entitled Bells, but later changed to Murder By Phone. It was an honor at such an early start in our careers to be selected to work with an Academy award winning, iconic film composer like John Barry. We had made our names in New York by pushing the art of electronic music at a time that it was getting significant traction in film and media. It was exciting to be at the right place at the right time. We also had another feature stint during that period when we were hired to create all of the musical effects for the dream sequence in the movie 9 to 5.

If that wasn’t enough, also in 1980, we were approached by Warner Communications to write ten unique Rock IDs for a yet-to-be launched, upcoming video music channel called MTV. We had no idea of what was about to explode on the cultural scene, or how music videos would forever change the face of popular music. Nor aware at the time that one of the five IDs that I wrote would become one of the most played, most recognizable themes ever written for television. The «Man On The Moon» theme was the sound that literally launched MTV at 12:01am, August 1st, 1981 right after the countdown to the Columbia shuttle. “Ladies and gentlemen, rock-and-roll”. Looking back, it was an incredible time.

Q: Your first film score was for Atrapados in 1981, playing ARP and KORG synths, and recording it at Elias/Petersen Associates studios. How did this come about? Did you work with the late Daniel Licht on this score? 

Atrapados was actually a film project that began while I was in college. As music students at the same school, and with wonderful access to an electronic music studio, Dan Licht and I were asked to create the music for what was to become a feature length film. I’m pretty sure that we completed the project while still students.

We were experimenting a lot at that time with synthesizers (especially the Arp 2500) but we are also diving deep into the field of “musique concrète” — a form of composition that uses recorded sounds, found objects and musical instruments that could be manipulated in different ways to create abstracted sonic landscapes. Taking recordings that we made, we would then chop up the magnetic tape, splice calculated or random pieces back together (forward and reversed); and have tape loops that were wound around mic stands stretching all the way down the hallway.

Atrapados gave us a lot of opportunities to develop our experiments into music that supported long form narrative.

Q: You scored no less than 115 episodes of Voltron: Defender of the Universe in 1984/85. Tell us about this. Did you write new music for all episodes? Were you involved in the soundtrack release from 2008?

Voltron was a completely new experience for me at the time. I learned a lot from that project. Having never written for an episodic television production before, I was given the opportunity to demo a theme for what was described as an animated, action, superhero cartoon series. World Events had bought existing Japanese anime that was re-scripted for an American audience. The theme I sketched out was well received so I hired an arranger and a fairly sizable orchestra to give the score the live, orchestral dimension that it needed.

Once the theme had set the musical tone for the series, I spent another few months creating a sizable music library where all of the music would be culled for the entire 115 episodes. I would create many different mixes and versions from all of the mood music in the library and supply the music editors with anything else that they needed as they edited the series.

There was no way of knowing that Voltron would become the hit that it did, but it soon picked up a lot of steam in the ratings and went on to become a major success. I believe the 2008 soundtrack is a compilation of all the original music I created for the Voltron series.

Q: How did you get involved in the fourth season of Miami Vice in 1987? Did you work from Jan Hammer’s studio, using his equipment through that season?

I met Jan Hammer at the 1986 AES Audio Engineering Convention in Los Angeles. My trip there was for the sole purpose of deciding between the purchase of New England Digital’s Synclavier system or another digital audio workstation called the Fairlight. Jan was there working for that company, demonstrating their premiere digital music system, the Fairlight CMI.

We had a good conversation at the Fairlight booth and I asked him if he would listen to my sample cassette (yes, an audio cassette!). On it was a sampling of some of my latest work. He said he would listen if it was any good. I remarked, well, I thought it was. Two weeks later, his manager called me to ask if I would be interested in scoring the fourth season of Miami Vice. Jan wanted to move on to other projects and he was ready to pass the baton.

I have to say that I was honored and thrilled — it was the hottest show on television at the time, and music was a huge, integral part of its success. I was also scared to death. Jan asked me to come to his studio in upstate New York to discuss the show, go over the various tools and instruments he used, and demonstrate some of his scoring process. We had a great afternoon hanging, talking and jamming. We agreed that I would ‘borrow’ from his sound where needed but, also, that I would be free to introduce my own style. Beyond a few guitar distortion units (think: Rockman — Jan fed his keyboards through this device), it wasn’t necessary for me to purchase any new gear for the show. However, Jan showed me some cool tricks in order to maintain the integrity of the MV sound; how to keep it fun and interesting, and the best way to navigate so many cues. Miami Vice had a lot of music in it!

We (he) decided that we would score the first two shows together in my New York City studio. From there, I’d be on my own (although he would listen to each show and stay involved to make any suggestions, if needed). To the best of my recollection, the initial episodes we scored together were «A Rock and A Hard Place» and «Missing Hours».

Q: In some of the episodes, the music sounds more like Tangerine Dream, Sylvester Levay or Harold Faltermeyer than Hammer. Did you try to move somewhat away from the established Hammer sound?

I would say that it’s probably a combination of a number of factors: a) the changing of the scripts and narratives in the fourth year of the show, b) me as a new composer with new influences and c) the writers and directors looking to try new things. There was never any specific directive to move away from Jan’s sound, although I do remember that some of the rough cuts came with temp music that pointed towards a certain style of music.

Q: In the episode «Rising Sun Of Death», you move towards Japanese music quite a bit, making it sound almost like a forerunner to Paul Hertzog’s Bloodsport and Kickboxer and even Hans Zimmer’s Black Rain. The sword scene is brilliant, as is the “final confrontation” cue. Had you written this kind of music before?

Thank you so much, and good call – that may have been my favorite episode in many ways. I had to experiment to land the right combination of Asian-influenced elements, cinematic sound, and a heightened, dark, modern vibe. It felt like everything came together for me, synergistically, in that episode. Not quite an homage to Blade Runner, perhaps, or a forerunner to Black Rain, but I’m sure some of Ridley Scott’s influence played in the background.

Q: Did you perform all the electric and acoustic guitars in MV yourself?

Although I am a guitarist, I didn’t really have the chops, and I certainly didn’t have the time, to play the kind of guitar parts that I wanted. I did create a lot of the ‘atmospheric’ guitar textures for the show but I left most of the heavy lifting to Ira Siegel, a very gifted New York player.

By the way, Jan doesn’t play guitar either, even though Jeff Beck famously stated that Jan was his favorite guitar player! Through working with Jan, I did learn how to make a keyboard sound like a guitar though.

Q: In some episodes, some of Hammer’s older themes like «Castillo’s Theme» and «Gina’s Theme» re-appeared. Did you perform on those new theme versions?

No, those were Jan’s babies. He performed, or re-performed, all of the original themes for those episodes.

Q: Do you remember if Hammer wrote anything for the episode «A Rock And A Hard Place»?

To my recollection, I wrote and prepped the music for that show and then Jan came in and performed on and added to a number of the cues. Seeing how Jan worked really helped pave the way for me in those beginning episodes once I took on the shows myself.

Q: In «Vote Of Confidence» and «Baseballs Of Death», I hear elements of the sound Tim Truman would lean on for season five of the show. Did you work with Hammer here?

No, that was all me.

Q: «Indian Wars» is also among your best efforts, with several extended themes, suspense and action material, also including percussion. Did you find the longer scenes in MV the most fulfilling to score?

I found the longer scenes to be the most difficult, but – yes – also the most rewarding. I learned (from Jan) that the first order of business is to write the main theme for a show and any secondary themes. Those themes are almost always the longest pieces, and from there you can extract many variations on those themes to work within the show. To your point, I did really enjoy those episodes that incorporated ethnic elements, percussion, action and suspense.

Q: In «Honor Among Thieves» you really nailed the Hammer sound, with that bittersweet theme that really gets used for what it’s worth in that episode. Did you score this by yourself? Do you remember who performed the saxophone towards the end of the episode?

Once again, another episode where I was given a wonderful opportunity to shine. I wrote and performed all of the tracks with the exception of the saxophone, which was played by a great friend, collaborator and truly gifted musician, Stan Harrison.

Q: «Hell Hath No Fury» featured a score that really didn’t sound like the typical MV score. It was more “symphonic synths” in a way, particularly the first half. Do you agree?

I do agree. And if I’m not mistaken, I believe the editor used an array of Bernard Herrmann film cues in the temp music track that was delivered to me. They wanted to keep it in that musical vein, but more of a hybrid.

Q: Did you search for a Spanish sound in «Badge Of Dishonor» with the acoustic guitar? And an Italian “mafioso” element in «Blood & Roses»?

There was no musical directive in those episodes – I think the subject matter just lent itself to the musical style.

Q: «A Bullet For Crockett» was a peculiar episode with all the flashback scenes with the older Hammer themes. How do you think this worked?

Because of the thematic material, I believe that was all Jan.

Q: Why didn’t you return for season 5? Would you have liked to? As some may know, there was a “duel” between Tim Truman and Patrick O’Hearn about getting the gig, with Truman winning out.

To be honest, I thought the show had run out of steam. Jan was no longer engaged and, if I’m not mistaken, Don Johnson got involved with the musical direction of the show. As much of an honor as it was to work on Miami Vice, I had no burning desire to do another year. Getting out so much music each week was grueling. Remember, everything had to be shipped by courier in those days which limited the amount of time to complete a show.

For the fourth season, the show was shot in Miami, edited in Los Angeles and scored in New York, all on a tight schedule, so I didn’t sleep during those 4 or 5 days of writing, engineering and mixing. It’s all part of being a television composer, of course, but I’ve always worked better with a little more time.

Q: Did you ever meet/talk to Michael Mann or any of the MV actors?

No. If anyone did, it was Jan.

Q: Did you or anyone else ever consider releasing any of your music from Miami Vice on record?

Yes, but there were two fires: one in my storage space which wiped out all of my multitrack tapes and original mixes, and one at Universal which destroyed all of the masters, I was told. Tragic.

Q: How do you look back on those months working on MV?

More than any other gig for me, so much of Miami Vice was fueled on adrenaline. It was both exciting and exhausting. I learned so much— but when I look back, I wish I could do it all over again with what I know now. But that’s pretty much always the case for an artist. That said, we grow and evolve as artists often by being pushed to the limit.

Q: What kind of music did you write for Shuttlecock in 1991? Did you work with Barry Adamson there?

I was only involved with the newer (2020) director’s cut of Shuttlecock. Thirty years after the initial production, the director’s cut now spans three generations to weave a more complex film. I was fortunate enough to be asked to write an original song for the film.

Q: The Keeper from 1995 features music not too far removed from your MV material. It even received a nice score CD release. Tell us about scoring this film.

The Keeper was a wonderful, but deeply flawed film that never quite got the money or the exposure it needed to get more widespread recognition. Nonetheless, it was a labor of love —working with people that I really enjoyed, and following it around the world as it played the film festival circuit.

Q: Tell us about working on the animated TV series Yu-Gi-Oh! (2000-2004).

I was one of a stable of composers commissioned to score all five seasons of that hit animated series. It wasn’t a huge role for me, but it was great to work with quite a few of my composer friends on the show. At that time, we were all working under the same roof for a now defunct company, Paradise Entertainment. 4 Kids Entertainment was also under the Paradise roof and it was through them that we scored Yu-Gi-Oh and, right afterward, another successful animated series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Shuttlecock (1991, dir. Andrew Piddington)

Q: After some years of silence, you scored Childless starring Barbara Hershey and Joe Mantegna in 2008. How did you get the assignment? What kind of score did you write?

I am a frequent collaborator and a good friend of the producer of that film, Graham Leader. I was asked to create an ambient soundtrack that would play against a rather revolutionary and experimental film concept where the actors actually address their emotional issues directly to the camera. More than any other film that I’ve worked on, this was one where I had to ‘stay out of the way’ more than usual to allow the narrative. A very interesting film.

Q: How was the experience scoring the Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience documentary in 2011?

That score was my second of three films where I collaborated with the very talented film editor, Phillip Schopper, at HBO. Having been in New York during the events of September 11th, 2001, it was uncomfortable to relive some of that experience through the film, but it was a story that needed to be told. To see the perspectives of many of those most affected by 9/11, and to commemorate some of the unknown, unsung heroes of that tragic day was very powerful. The score itself was a tapestry of sound design, dark atmospheres and heroic fanfare.

The subsequent documentary that Phillip and I worked on together at HBO was San Francisco 2.0.

Q: In 2014, Shuttlecock was remade as Sins of a Father. How did this come about? Did you write new music for it?

Last I heard, it will be premiering on the Showtime network under its original name, Shuttlecock. So, yes, it coming to a TV near you.

As mentioned earlier, I wrote an original song for that film. The name of the track is «Flesh & Blood».

Q: Anything you would like to add about your career in music? I understand you’re a singer/songwriter too? What are your plans for the future?

I did record and produce a couple of original tunes a few years ago, but I never got around to releasing what was intended to be an EP. Getting back to what originally inspired and moved me, though, i.e. songwriting, was a true joy, and very illuminating. After working for so many years on projects for other people, songwriting is not nearly as easy as it may sometimes seem! It’s an art form where, I believe, you have to be willing to be vulnerable—to put yourself out there with no fire door. Just you and the bare naked truth.

More recently, I have been working on an ambient music series that fits more into the world of wellness and mindfulness than it does into a specific music category. Three or four years ago, I saw a need for, and a significant shift toward, utilizing the power of sound to benefit people. Sound has proven to positively affect the nervous system, to actually change the brainwaves. Whether it be for meditation, relaxation or inspiration, I started to explore ways that I could bridge the worlds of art and science and create a new body of music. It’s a fascinating journey. I hope to release the work to the world very soon. Stay tuned…

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