The man responsible for one of the most iconic theme songs on television—and really in television history—stopped writing music and took to the skies instead. Yes, instead of writing music for seasons 28, 29, or 30 of Survivor, Russ Landau learned to fly planes.
Why did he leave the CBS show? To find out, I interviewed with Landau for a few hours earlier this year in his primary studio. It’s adjacent to his house in the hills above Los Angeles, off a winding street. Speakers surround two screens and guitars hang from a wall, while skylights reveal the gray L.A. morning skies.
“I wanted to do something different. I got my pilot’s license, I got my instrument license, I got my commercial license. I was just having fun,” Landau told me.
It was a well-deserved break after 14 years of composing for reality television since the dawn of the modern era of unscripted television. “I started at the beginning with Survivor and Fear Factor.”
Landau’s journey in television began years before Survivor, but it was his friendship with Mark Burnett led him to this project and television history.
The origins of “Ancient Voices,” the Survivor theme song
The music that opens every episode of every season of Survivor, and that seems to perfectly calibrated to the show’s sensibilities, was actually not written initially for Survivor.
“I wrote that piece years before Survivor, just as a piece of music—when I used to do more of that, just writing for writing,” Landau told me, leaning back in his chair. “It was experimenting, and I really liked that piece. I’d written other pieces to be the theme for Mark that were much more blockbuster movie-sounding trailer kind of things, because he wanted it big, big, big. We almost settled on one of those, and then I brought this in. I thought the whole concept of Survivor was Lord of the Flies meets MTV Real World. And I thought this piece of music I had some of that Lord of the Flies vibe, with that nasal Russian chant in there. And they agreed. I played it and everybody went, Shit, that’s it. I had to rewrite it a little bit, and re-orchestrate it. It worked out. It’s a unique piece of music to be a television theme song.”
The title of the theme song, “Ancient Voices,” is “a working title that stuck,” he said. “It was me experimenting with some ancient voices,” songs with a “mystical vibe.” The theme song was nominated for an Emmy in 2001, but lost; Landau, however, won an Emmy—for Mark Burnett’s Pirate Master, which was cancelled mid-run and burned off online.
That “nasal Russian chant” that is “there as a motor for the piece,” Landau said, came from a recording he did earlier in his career. “I was a bass player for The Paul Winter Consort for 10 years, and I became his record producer. We were doing his Earthbeat album—and I wasn’t a full-on producer for that album, but I was starting to take on some of the recording duties—and the Earthbeat album had all this ancient Russian folk music. One of the songs that I recorded was this circle dance; they call it “Kurski Funk.“ (Go listen to a preview of that track; it’s surreal to hear that familiar bit of music on a 1987 album.)
Landau said he asked Winter, “‘Can I use a four-bar clip of this thing that I worked on?’ He gave me permission. Later on, we got into some hassles with it, and I ended up rerecording it so I wasn’t using his version of it.” (Those “hassles” are well-documented.)
The re-recorded version of the chant, the one that is in the theme song now, uses “session singers from LA [who] do the harmonies.” The theme itself “was actually recorded orchestrally,” Laundau said. That matters because it’s increasingly rare, but makes a difference, especially on “Ancient Voices.”
“The one thing that, for me,” Landau said, “is that chill factor in the theme is that French horn line, halfway in the middle. It’s just there, and it’s just enough to give you a little angst, and I love that. Of course, they’re probably not playing that in their truncated version. A live French horn player played that, and you feel it.”
The now-iconic yell that starts the theme song is, incredibly, “a blend of a conch and a warehouse yell sample that came off a library,” he said. “The first season, every time there was a scene change, [the yell] became a punchline.”
For a while, when Survivor seasons were more thematically tied to their locations, Landau would travel to locations to gather both audio and inspiration to update the theme song, though the last time he traveled to research was China. “I did it where it made sense,” he said. “They didn’t send me on those things; I would do those on my own and get sponsorship, and have fun, and turn it into an adventure.”
Two of those adventures, Africa and China, have accompanying behind-the-scenes documentaries on his YouTube channel (he calls them “silly, only because I’m trying so hard to be serious”). Those two seasons also happen to be “probably my two favorite” theme songs, Landau said. “I really loved the way the ancient Chinese folk song blended with the Survivor theme. It was just a really lovely threading between the two—a very nice counterpoint. Finding that, and people were just lovely to share their personal music experiences.”
How composing for Survivor works
Landau and Burnett were friends before Survivor, having come to their friendship in an unexpected way: after a fight their wives had over a parking space at their kids’ Montessori school. “They became best friends, and we became best friends for a while—for a while. Everything’s changed. Mark’s life has changed hugely,” he said.
Landau and Burnett talked about the show Burnett was bringing to the US, and “We just started working on it from there—on trips with the kids to Mammoth for skiing, we’d listen to music and talk about it.” He added, “I was doing big, dramatic stuff before then; he wanted big, dramatic music for the show originally. I was writing these great big themes; it was really satisfying.”
Landau has high praise for Burnett. “When the show first started, Mark showed me some rough cuts, and I was horrified. I just thought, This sucks. This is going to suck. Mark thought it sucked too. He went into the editing bay himself with the editors, and came out about a week later with a re-edited, re-scored, totally redone concept of the show that was amazing. Mark really fixed it himself. He went in there, rolled up his sleeves, and made the show the show.”
During season one, the music was also frequently changed. “As the show’s airing the first season, we were realizing what works and what doesn’t, and throwing out a lot of stuff that didn’t get used,” Landau said.
There were actually two composers working on Survivor: Landau and David Vanacore. “I was brought in by Mark Burnett; he was brought in [season one showrunner] Craig Piligian.” However, they did their work separately. “We do not work together. He has his system and his team and his people, and I have mine,” Landau said.
“I did the themes; he did Tribal Council. And everything else, we just split it up,” he said. “You never know how it’s going to be because it’s all going into the editorial pool, and the editors are choosing whatever they choose. Sometimes it’d be more me, sometimes it’d be more him.”
Scoring Survivor became more technical, less creative
The “editorial pool” he referenced is a vast digital music library. Landau says that was “a system that I basically created for Fear Factor and Survivor, to make the scoring easier, because there was wall-to-wall music. We would just crank out music, and give it in all these different categories to the editors, and then they would cut it in. So basically, it became a custom music library.”
While the editors draw from that library, there are still parts of each episode that are scored just for it, though maybe only about 10 minutes or so. “They would usually temp [music] in. We’d sit there and say, that needs to get hit, that needs to get hit. Early on in the shows, we scored all the challenges. They were scored. Now they’re kinda cookie cutter. They had to cut corners, and they did.”
Creating music and putting it in a digital archive limited the amount of footage-specific scoring that happened. “Because of the way we would pre-score it, it meant that I only had to score maybe 10 minutes a week rather than a whole show. You’re scoring huge music for little moments; it’s not the understated scoring that I studied and that I prefer, and that’s in the scores I like to listen to. It’s over the top. If somebody catches a ball with their little basket, it’s gotta be a huge moment scoring-wise. Big orchestral hits: Boom! He caught the fuckin’ ball! It got to a point where it just got silly for me.”
Landau described that discontent with the creative process. “I came from scoring, and ultimately, I wanted to go back to scoring a scene. It’s a lot of work to create music blindly. You’re trying to score something you’re imagining that is not there for the editors to use. … That methodology became very unsatisfying for me. It was satisfying financially, but not satisfying as a composer and it got to the point where, sitting down here, alone in my studio, I think, Well, I’ll do a challenge. Okay, so let’s do seven minutes of challenge music. Then you have to cut it into little pieces so the editors can shift it all around. It became very technical.”
Technology actually complicates his work. “It’s made it harder for me because you end up doing so much personal librarian work,” he said. “It’s pervasive and it’s everywhere and it’s in every score, and there are certain things that are expected that you can do on the computer before you can go in with an orchestra. So you have to always stay up to date with the technology and with the sample libraries, so you’re doing a lot of personal librarian work all the time, and I find that really annoying.”
After 14 years, writing music for the CBS show had become less creatively interesting. “Cut 13 years later, [Burnett] wasn’t as involved in the show, and it had gone through a series of stepping through different executive producers as they went down the line. It got to the point where it wasn’t satisfying for them or me. I wasn’t getting to score. I was just putting music in a bin.”
That library Survivor’s editors have drawn from now includes the work of other composers, too. “Now they’re using a bunch of things from Hans Zimmer’s library, too,” Landau said. “Mark worked with Hans on The Bible and was smitten.”
In fact, there are so many composers’ work in the library that, when Landau checked about the possibility of an Emmy submission for season 27, the Television Academy told him “it was disqualified because there were 17 composers listed. What happened was: I left before the season actually started, they started bringing in, trying other things. They turned into a library show, and all the sudden they had 17 composers. I felt pretty good; I guess it took, like, 15 guys to replace me.”
Survivor Blood vs. Water, season 27, was the last season he worked on. “Jeff [Probst] talked to me a lot about it until I just came up with whatever they’re looking for. The theme song is still the theme song, and all I was doing was changing some colors—maybe change the depth and the tone of it with subject matter that related to the season. You always have two or three iterations before I’d get to the thing everybody loved. That was probably the funnest part of my job.”
Here’s the extended version of that season’s theme. It’s all too rare that an episode now includes the full theme and title sequence like this, as they’re usually—tragically—cut down.
How Russ Landau got started composing
“I always wanted to” score movies and TV, Landau said. “I realized that was the best medium. I think Star Wars had come out; John Williams blew me away. I probably saw it five times the first week it came out just because I couldn’t believe the music. I love John Williams; to this day, he’s an idol.”
During his sophomore year of college, Landau changed his major from pre-med to music. “I know a lot of really talented musicians that are doctors.” Taking classes at the University of New Haven, he said, “I had a great mentor there,” someone whose first name was Tom. (“I’ve been looking for him and I can’t find him,” Landau told me.)
At the University of Bridgeport, which had a strong film program, Landau said “all these great young filmmakers were looking for music; it was just a way to start creating. It was gonzo composing—it was great.” He was also performing: “I worked my way through school as a bass player. I studied classical guitar as my main instrument. I didn’t feel at the time, because I was naive, that bass would be an appropriate instrument.”
After college, Landau “worked in New York for 10 years as a session player” and “got to meet a lot of interesting, world musicians through [Paul Winter], and he exposed me to all this stuff internationally. And that bled over into what I loved to do. I didn’t just love one kind of music; I loved putting it all together.”
He eventually moved to Los Angeles and “was still chipping away at trying to write theme songs for pilots,” because back then, in the late 1980s, if “you wrote a theme song; you got the show. So I was writing theme songs so I could get a show.”
In 1995, Landau’s dad was sick, so he moved back to Connecticut for the summer to be near his father. “As my grand piano was going up the stairs, I get the call—this is in like April or May. ‘Would you be available to score an episode of SeaQuest in October?’ That was Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg’s company.”
That call came because the show’s season-two executive producer, Patrick Hasburgh, was a friend. “He put in a word for me,” Landau said, but the reception at the show wasn’t entirely positive. “‘If you fuck this up, we’re going to run you out of town, tarred and feathered’—I got that from the head of the music department at Universal,” Landau told me.
That summer, “My dad actually built me a space for a studio, so I was there on his farm, with him there. I worked out themes and things for SeaQuest. And I just sort of got back into it, pencil and paper. I hadn’t done pencil and paper scoring since I was in college 10 years earlier or more.” He eventually returned to Los Angeles to conduct the orchestra playing the music he wrote.
Landau was “unbelievably nervous” going to that recording session. “Everybody from Universal is there, and they’re going to run me out tarred and feathered if I don’t do good. And I can’t remember a single thing I’ve written. As I’m pulling into the driveway, I told myself, You know what? You’re a fucking record producer. Just make it sound good.” Landau said that he was channeling advice from his dad, who died that same year. “One of the last things I ever got from my dad was, he said, ‘Keep your fuckin’ eye on the fuckin’ ball,'” so “this is me telling myself the same thing. I had to have the ‘fucking’ in there to be like my dad.”
Once Landau made it inside the studio, he made a critical decision. “One of the smartest things I did, accidentally, was I leaned over to the concert master and said”—Landau whispers—”‘Don’t follow me, follow the click.’ I haven’t conducted ever, except in college, and I know I’m gonna be terrible. Because I said that, he took care of me.”
He still remembers what happened. “The music came up and it was chills: the sky opened up and the heavens came down, light. What the hell is this? Who wrote this music? It was so beautiful to me. From then, I was done; I had a love affair with orchestra from them on.”
“My arm was so stiff from trying to conduct properly,” Landau told me. “On the first break, everybody from Universal runs out and says, ‘We love you! We knew you’re gonna be fabulous. We want you to do all the rest of the shows.’ I can’t even bring the coffee to lips because my arm is palsying from the baton.” Landau asked them, “‘How about every other show?’ Because I didn’t know if I could do. They laughed because they thought it was a joke.”
That was his “first weekly gig in television,” which Landau notes “was pencil and paper—writing the score out from your head, put it in the fax machine, you show up on the stage, and the first time you actually hear it is when you actually go click-click-click with the baton, and everybody starts playing. And that was glorious—glorious feeling when you hear something come to life played by live musicians like that that you somehow created in your mind. That was just the best feeling ever. And now it’s all in the box. I’m rarely given a budget to record with live people. I insist on having some live instruments just to give it the depth and geography; otherwise it just sounds very flat.”
Russ Landau’s post-Survivor future
The jacket he now wears while flying his plane, a Cirrus SR22, is one from SeaQuest. While he went on to composed Survivor, Fear Factor, and many other reality shows, in addition to films, his music shows up everywhere, thanks in part to the library he created and people now license clips from. “I’ll be watching TV late at night, and flipping through the channels, and there’s a bear catching a salmon and I’m hearing something on timpani that I did,” he said. “There it is: racking up the royalties.”
Although Landau is done with Survivor, you will still hear his music, and not just in the theme song. “There’s a vast amount of music in the libraries at Survivor that I created that has not been used yet. My music’s in the show still, based on my last ASCAP check,” he said. “They’re trying to make a good show on a little tighter budget.”
Landau also took 2014 off because, he told me, “I’d like to rebrand myself. I really got pigeonholed as the reality guy, and I’d really like to go back to a fresh slate.” Hollywood has a way of defining someone by their last work: “He’s the reality guy. We can’t use the reality guy,” Landau said, repeating what studio executives might say. But he is working on a prime-time game show for NBC that recently got picked up, and said, “Then again, if I’m working with a team whose fun to work with, and it’s collaborative, I don’t care what we’re working on.”
Prior to his break, Landau said, “I basically worked 16 hour days almost every day. Not all that time was spent composing; a lot of it was managing and doing paperwork.” Now, he works eight-hour days, broken up between the afternoon and evening, after “the house goes quiet.”
He flies several times a week, and sometimes makes long trips, including flying his son to college in Santa Cruz, and going to and from his studio in Connecticut last summer. “I fly little missions for people; I do some dog rescue for Pilots ‘N’ Paws,” he added. Recently, he received his multi-engine commercial rating and plans to be flying jets by the end of this year.
“Having done [Survivor] for 14 years, that’s a long time to do any one thing,” Landau told me. “I cannot do the same thing day in and day out all the time, and luckily the success of these shows and of my career with these shows is that I can afford to pick and choose now, and not work if I don’t want to. But I do want to, I do have music in my soul that wants to come out. It’s amazing the ideas I get at 10,000 feet.”