Simpsons' Alf Clausen is in Music Ville

Rob Hochschild
December 5, 2013

For any fan of The Simpsons—whose original music is composed weekly by alumnus Alf Clausen '66—the TV show's opening "couch gag" sequence is a much-anticipated and constantly changing demonstration of how to create suprise in the medium. But in late November, Clausen and his team took it to a new level with "Music Ville," an extended two-minute-plus mini-film featuring the show's animated characters redrawn as instruments engaged in a pitched battle for musical freedom.

"What was cool with "Music Ville" was that I had the opportunity to dig into jazz in a way that is quite unusual for a television series," Clausen said during a telephone conversation while taking a break in his Los Angeles office this week. "I wanted to make it traditionally contemporary, if that makes sense. There's a certain history to this one. Like Horace Silver's quintet and Miles Davis's early groups, but with my own take on it, and perhaps more contemporary, harmonically."

According to a blog post written by Chris Ledesma, music editor for The Simpsons, "Music Ville" was inspired by "Music Land," a Disney cartoon that aired in 1935. Show creator Matt Groening and his producers first introduced the idea to the music team last summer, eventually leading to an intense period of writing and recording during the weeks prior to the episode's original airing on November 24, 2013.

"Matt (Groening) explained that he wanted something very loose and improvisational," said Clausen, who works 80 to 90 hours a week on the show. Ensembles ranging from full orchestra to single instruments recorded more than 40 short sections of music for the project, including jazz passages penned by Clausen; 30-second excerpts from works by Mozart and Grieg that Clausen augmented to fit the timing and design of the narrative; and very short segments of bagpipes, sitar, brass, and other instruments.

"I don't think there's a television show on the air doing what we're doing," said Clausen. "It's very humbling to know that the producers have the faith in me to pull this off in the direction they want it to go. I'm honored to be in a situation where the music can be so open, creative, and energetic."

Clausen, who has been The Simpsons composer throughout its 25 seasons, says a big reason for his loyalty to the show is the pleasure he takes in the challenge of having to write so much music in a wide range of styles. That sort of job fulfillment notwithstanding, Clausen considered a question about what might come next in a theoretical post-Simpsons career.

"How about retiring?" he quipped. "What I think would really be a hoot would be to create a Broadway show. We're already doing Broadway-style work on this series."

If "Music Ville" and the rest of Clausen's work is any indication, Broadway fans would have a lot to look forward to.