Growing up in 1980s London, "Saturday night was music night," Ruth Barrett says.
And that was thanks to American TV. Barrett was drawn to the music of The Incredible Hulk and other U.S. action dramas of the era. "There was this lonely guy walking down the street with that theme ['Lonely Man'] playing. And I loved the music of Knight Rider and, of course, The A Team."
Barrett went on to earn a music degree at the University of Cambridge and began her career as a composer for theater and commercials. Currently she's creating music for a U.S. drama with plenty of action: NBC's Law & Order: Organized Crime, starring Christopher Meloni.
As L&O fans know, the actor is reprising his character from L&O: Special Victims Unit, NYPD's Elliot Stabler.
The detective is back in New York after living in Italy, where he took on organized crime and the people who now have murdered his wife. After an executive producer of Organized Crime heard Barrett's work in the Netflix thriller Collateral, she was hired to create a cinematic feel to suit the show's serialized format, a first for the L&O franchise. She approached the assignment as she does all her projects — by first observing the characters, though not listening to them.
"I just put the film on a loop and have it running and running, scene after scene, whilst I'm doing the initial ideas," the composer explains from London. "And I watch them and their body language and their expressions, and I get to know them really intimately. It's like being some weird stalker."
She then designates particular instruments and sometimes themes for the characters. As Stabler had lived in Italy, she decided the lute-like mandolin, which originated in that country, would be appropriate for him: "It's romantic, feisty and has pizzazz," she says.
Covid made recording the score complicated, as most of her musicians were living in other countries. One exception was the electric cellist: Barrett's husband, composer–musician–dubbing mixer Ruskin Williamson, with whom she shares two daughters and owns a music production company.
Barrett credits her versatility in part to early work in scoring a variety of documentary styles. She's since worked on dramas such as Masterpiece's Victoria (which brought her an Emmy nomination in 2017), the BBC's Bloodlands and Masterpiece's Jane Austen-inspired Sanditon.
"Whether it's Queen Victoria or Elliot Stabler or Carey Mulligan's [detective] character in Collateral, they're all human beings," she says. "And they've all got something they're upset about, that they want and desire. I think maybe musically, I'm good at tapping into that emotion with the characters."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2021