How Dave Porter honoured Choctaw Nation chants in Marvel’s ‘Echo’ score: “There's a whole legacy of that music”

Breaking Bad, acclaimed for his work on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, has firmly bid farewell to the two iconic and critically acclaimed series that brought audiences Heisenberg and Saul Goodman, diving into his next project: composing the score for Marvel's newest series, Echo.

As the composer behind the series, Porter weaves a captivating score that enriches the narrative, capturing the essence of Maya Lopez's (Alaqua Cox) journey as she confronts her family and legacy while being pursued by Wilson Fisk’s (Vincent D’Onofrio) criminal empire.

Known for his innovative dark approach, Porter explains how he incorporated an Indigenous chant from the Choctaw Nation, infusing the soundtrack with a culturally resonant and unique touch…

Is Echo your first big project since your Vince Gilligan projects ended?

This was the next thing that came along after the end of Better Call Saul and also on the end of a tenure run on a show called The Blacklist, so it was a big change for me. I've had the good blessing of having worked for such a long time on the same projects, that I haven't been out there looking for new stuff. So this past year was a great chance for me to hit the reset button and really try to push myself to try something new, and that's definitely what we did with Echo.

Was it at all difficult to switch up your creative mindset out of that Breaking Bad / Better Call Saul way of thinking in your approach to composing music?

It was tricky in some ways, but the fact that I was really looking for something new and looking to open my eyes to different ways of working with different people made me primed and ready to do it. I was definitely up for the challenge. But no question, working on a big project like this with a big entity like Marvel is very different from working from the small group of creatives that I've worked with on shows like Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad.

working with a big entity like Marvel is very different from working on Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad.

How did it feel getting to grips with a completely new genre? Fans are extremely invested in the MCU universe; did you feel pressure to do this project justice?

I mean, I'm used to the rabid fans from working on the Vince Gilligan stuff [laughs]. But this is on a whole new level. I honestly tried my best to tune that out. I'm not personally an Uber Marvel person, so the first thing that I said in the interview when I spoke to the folks at Marvel was, ‘Just know that I'm coming into this a bit ignorant about the overall universe. I know a little bit, but certainly not a lot’. They were okay with that, thankfully! 

I really tried to approach this as a standalone project and that's how they wanted to approach it anyways, so it really worked to my advantage in the sense that I didn't have to go back and watch 47 Marvel movies to understand what's going on here. The truth is that this was always designed to be a standalone show, with a relatively new character for the universe that has her own story, and that you don't need a lot of previous knowledge to follow it or have a good time watching it.

Echo is a spin-off of the series Hawkeye; Did you have to binge watch that as research?

I did watch the parts of Hawkeye in which she appears so that I can understand how she's introduced to the universe. But in talking to the Marvel folks, it was agreed that the show was going to have an entirely new tone for her anyways, and be very centric on her. So there wasn't too much that I needed to reference there.

Echo was always designed to be a standalone show, with a relatively new character that has her own story

The character is born deaf; how did this factor into the score, if at all?

It did, and in a way that I didn't really even see coming to be honest. I thought, ‘Oh, we're gonna do some great stuff where we move into her point of view and we drop out the sound so we can get a sense of where she is in her headspace and how she's experiencing the moments that we're watching with full sound’ – of course I knew we would do that. I think we did that sparingly enough that it works very well.

But the part that surprised me and was an interesting challenge was that in all of the scenes, where the characters are utilising sign language, obviously, there's no dialogue sound, so it creates these very intense scenes that involve very intense discussions between two characters who are signing to each other, which creates more space than I'm used to – sonically.

One of the first tenets that you learn as a film composer is to stay out of the way of the dialogue, so this created this landscape for me that I was unused to. The trick there was filling that space in a way that for those who are hearing-abled, it gives you a little more licence for drama, and a little more help driving those scenes without being distracting from the conversation. It was an interesting challenge.

Where did you start in terms of how you wanted the score to sound?

We certainly had a lot of discussions about it (working with Sydney Freeland, the director, and all the amazing producers on the show), to give a sense of what we wanted to do, but I think it was pretty clear from the get go: we were looking for something that is going to be identifiable in the Marvel Universe in terms of the scope and the scale of of music that people who are fans of this kind of project are used to, but that still had enough flexibility in it that it could be very personal.

For me, the show really pivots around the dichotomies of a couple of things that happen in the series: there's the difference between her as a New Yorker and her returning to her roots in the middle of the country in Oklahoma to very different settings. 

You've got her two families: her New York crime family under which she grew up, and her actual blood family, which is far from that, so the ability to be able to move back and forth between those two worlds was something that we certainly wanted to accomplish. And of course, involved in that is using music from her Native American heritage.

One of the first tenets that you learn as a film composer is to stay out of the way of the dialogue.

The team behind Echo worked with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma to make sure the show felt authentic to the community. Tell us about incorporating the chant from the Choctaw Nation…

To be honest, I could never have done the score in the way that I did it without the incredible amount of help from the liaisons that we had with the Choctaw Nation and the artists that I got to meet and work with very early on in the project. One of the things that really excited me about working on the project was that I had a bunch of time at the beginning before I really started work just to research and learn a lot more than I already knew about Native American music, and particularly the music from the Choctaw nation's history.

Some of my very earliest recording sessions were in Dallas, Texas, which is a reasonable drive from Oklahoma, where I have a really good friend who has a studio. Through the folks that Marvel had contacted within the Choctaw Nation, they were able to introduce me to some great musicians and chanters who had not only a great historical knowledge, but of course, a great musical ability, as well. The whole process for me – and I'm still learning – has been a great adventure to learn as much about that music as I can and figuring out how it works best within the score.

What most people will take notice of the most are a group of folks from the Choctaw Nation who perform original chants that date back hundreds and hundreds of years about the history of the Choctaw Nation and their move from the Gulf Coast region of the US to Oklahoma, under obviously horrendous conditions.

There's a whole legacy of that music. One of the things that I wanted to do was record some of those traditional chants, and as I got to know these chanters and how talented they were, it dawned on me then that rather than utilise something that to them is important to their culture and hundreds of years old, there was an opportunity to create a new chant based on historical ideas, but unique to our show, so that's ultimately what we ended up doing.

we came up with a really cool chant that centres around the power of Choctaw women.

We worked together in the middle of the studio in Dallas and came up with a really cool chant that centres around the power of Choctaw women and the strength that they have, which has enabled the Choctaw Nation to survive and flourish, especially through those incredibly difficult times. That chant appears on the soundtrack as its own piece for people to hear, but it's also embedded in a lot of places in my score. We used it sparingly, but appropriately, in moments where our main character draws her power and her strength from her heritage and her lineage.

We certainly had a lot of Native American percussion that I recorded and sampled and then played into the score. Likewise, with Native American wind instruments, flutes in particular, or, some custom made instruments made by and performed by the folks who actually made them, which was really cool and fun.

Do you have a favourite cue or scene that you put music to in Echo?

One of the great strengths of the show is some of the set piece action moments. There's one that I particularly enjoyed that I believe it's in the second episode, which involves some fighting and some espionage on a moving train. That was a particularly lengthy sequence that we worked really hard on, but I am proud of how it came out and I had a lot of fun doing it.

Given the high profile nature of the shows that you work on, do you ever get used to reaching such huge audiences that pay such close attention to your music?

I don't think you can ever wrap your head around that kind of thing really. Occasionally I'll get an email from some far flung part of the world asking me an obscure question about a scene I've long forgotten from Better Call Saul, for example. It's stunning to me that someone in that far flung part of the world had even watched it, nevermind taken the time to digest the fact that there was music in it and had a question about it. 

I feel so blessed to get to do this work and in a small way, be a part of these projects that are our conversation pieces and points of enjoyment for people all over the place. It is a special thing, and I try never to forget that.

What is some of the equipment in your studio that you couldn’t be without for projects like Echo, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul?

I have a pair of Genelec monitors I've owned for 20 years – I think they're 1031A two-way active monitors that I don't know what I would do without, to be honest. I use them all the time, and when I go to other studios, I always request them because my ears are just used to them and I love them.

For this project in particular, I did a lot of recording of orchestras from other parts of the world, from my studio here in L.A., which is not ideal, but it is the reality of how things get recorded a lot these days. Never before has the need for the monitoring situation in my room been more important than listening critically to an orchestra that we're paying a lot of money for, on the other side of the world. I needed to be able to really hear what we're getting for this project.

Sometimes I was working with Europe at three in the morning, so I relied on them more than ever! They are a staple of the things that are important to me in my studio and honestly, the best blessing about them is that I've used them for so long, I just don't think about them.

Never has the need for the monitoring situation been more important than listening to an orchestra on the other side of the world.

You seem to gravitate towards high profile projects that are a big hit with audiences; can you talk about what you’ll be working on next?

I can’t mention it offhand, particularly…. we're in a strange moment here. I think for people in my position, last year was a topsy turvy year with the strikes and labour discussions that needed to happen, understandably, last year. 

Because people like me who work at the tail end of post, many of us have now reached the point where we've run out of that content that was already made before the strike. So now there's a little hole here while we're waiting for production to catch up back around to us. So I actually have a few weeks off before I start my next thing, which I'm going to very much enjoy…

Echo image credits via The Walt Disney Company.

More from Dave Porter:

Better Call Saul composer on *that* ending: “we wanted to leave the future unknown”

Dave Porter on scoring Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul: "there's a thread that connects them"