In 1900—decades before the advent of antibiotics and blood banks—surgery was still an evolving, experimental field defined by high mortality rates and less-than-scientific forays into the unknown. Hence the tagline for Steven Soderbergh’s forthcoming hospital drama, “The Knick”: “Surgery wasn’t always science.”
Set in downtown New York at the turn of the century, the 10-episode series focuses on the staff at the city’s Knickerbocker Hospital, a historic medical center known for its pioneering work in the treatment of alcoholism. Judging from the creepy and intense teasers Cinemax has released, however, the brutal realities of performing untested procedures with little recourse for operating-room failure will also be central to the story. “The Knick” stars Clive Owen as its chief, blood-spattered surgeon and features music by New Orleans pianist Tom McDermott.
“It takes place in 1900 and I’m a specialist in rags and older music,” says McDermott, who recorded roughly 10 solo piano tunes for the show. In addition to pieces like Scott Joplin’s “Original Rag,” McDermott recorded Chopin waltzes and what he casually called “old timey songs,” such as a composition from the 1850s by Stephen Foster, the songwriter behind “Oh! Susanna” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”
“They didn’t want to be anachronistic,” McDermott says in explaining that he took fewer liberties than usual in his interpretation of the music. “I can’t say I played the rags exactly as written but I didn’t modernize them, either.”
“The Knick” Sound Editor Larry Blake says McDermott’s music “helps set the tone” for scenes set in locales such as an Irish bar on New York’s Lower East side.
“I wanted Tom because of his skills as a piano player and as someone who knows the period and feel of the music from that time,” says Blake, who is based in New Orleans and has worked closely with the Baton Rouge-born Soderbergh since his 1989 thriller, Sex, Lies and Videotape. “You will definitely know [Tom’s music] when you hear it.”
“The Knick” will have its premiere on Cinemax on August 8.