by Jonathan Jarry
On December 8th 2003, something refreshingly different happened. Stripped of their usual fanfare, starships flew and fought to the sound of taiko drums. This was all part of Ronald D. Moore and David Eick's revamping efforts for the new Battlestar Galactica: long-loved characters changed sex, enemies were reimagined, and the music followed suit. Although Richard Gibbs composed most of the score to the mini-series, then-24-year-old Bear McCreary was credited as providing "additional music" and was soon tapped to score the show's first season following Gibbs' departure. Over three seasons, the sound of the show has grown from its tight, almost tribal drumming to a rich soundscape that encompasses the many cultures of Earth. It is not rare to hear Uillean pipes alongside Japanese drums and a lonely duduk while a string quartet refines the music's fabric with a hint of Classical aristocracy. On the eve of the show's fourth and final season, SoundtrackNet had the opportunity to talk to Bear McCreary for the first time about his work on the Hugo- and Emmy-award-winning science fiction drama.
What's the schedule like for the scoring of an episode? Can you briefly walk us through the various steps from the spotting session to the final mix and how long you usually have at each step?
There's really no such thing as an "average" episode of Battlestar Galactica. Each one is it's own little adventure, with specific themes and instruments that may or may not return in subsequent episodes. In general, I spot a show with the producers first and then do my thing. The first and only time they ever hear my music is at the dub stage, where we are finalizing the mix of the episode. In between the spotting and the dub, I write the cues, they are orchestrated, recorded, mixed and delivered. The amount of time for this entire process varies wildly. I've had two months (unfortunately, only on a single occasion)... and I've had three days (fortunately, only a single occasion).
Who are the main people who help you write, orchestrate, and perform the music on the show?
Up until Season 4, the music team had been relatively small. We'd basically been a two-man operation. My co-producer and engineer, Steve Kaplan, had been the only person, besides the musicians, working consistently with me on the series. For the first three seasons, I did all the orchestrations and copying, and he did all the recording and mixing. Now that I have three full-time shows, we've expanded and are bringing in some additional orchestrators and copyists. But it's still a pretty small group. As for the performers, I'm extremely lucky to work with the best in the business. Chris Bleth (duduk, bansuri, and other ethnic woodwinds), Paul Cartwright (electric and acoustic fiddle), M.B. Gordy (taikos and percussion), Martin St. Pierre (erhu and yialli tanbur) and Eric Rigler (Uilleann pipes and whistle) are among just a few of the incredibly talented musicians who play on the score week in and week out. You'll also frequently hear Oingo Boingo alums Steve Bartek (guitars), John Avila (bass), and Johnny "Vatos" Hernandez (drum kit).
Indeed, I had noticed a strong association with Oingo Boingo. How did that come about?
Yeah... a lot of people notice it. Sometimes they call the show Boingo-star Galactica. The story of how that came about is a long and improbable yarn, but I'll summarize it by saying that I've always been a huge fan of their music, so the opportunity to collaborate with them on a near-daily basis is pretty amazing. I've also worked with them for three years in a row as Music Director for the Johnny "Vatos" Tributes to Halloween and Oingo Boingo. They are these totally insane Halloween concerts performed in Los Angeles and Orange County where the Boingo boys get together with me and my brother (vocalist Brendan "Bt4" McCreary) and perform tunes from Oingo Boingo and The Nightmare Before Christmas with an eighteen-piece band (I think of it as the rock-chamber-orchestra from Hell).
Richard Gibbs was credited as the main composer on the mini-series. Then you took over during the first season. How and why did this "passing of the torch" happen?
Working for Richard was my first gig in "the business" when I got out of school. I'd worked with him for nearly a year when the Battlestar mini landed on his plate. So, I pitched in on that, writing a lot of the percussion-based action cues, while he developed the thematic material. From there, I helped him score the first two episodes of the series that were produced (which were "Water" and "Bastille Day"). But before he could begin scoring the series' premiere episode, "33," he got the irresistible pull back to feature film work. So, I was the obvious choice to take over from there.
Although the idea of using pots, pans, and even toasters to represent the Cylons seems logical and pretty funny, how did you end up using throat singing as well?
Even though I was working with incredibly small budgets, I didn't want to resort to using too many samples or synths, so I filled the score with whatever live performances I could get in those early episodes. This meant scraping trash cans, banging on pots and pans... and my girlfriend's dad can really let loose with the throat singing. It was a very spooky and ethereal sound, but it didn't ultimately stay in the series. There are a lot of little experiments like that one that sometimes lead to exciting thematic development, and other times become a sound unique to a particular run of episodes. [Play "Helo Chase" from Season 1 MP3]
How did the use of traditional Irish music come about for the season 1 episode "The Hand of God"?
There were some Celtic-inspired pieces in the temp score (the Holy Bible to film and television producers). So, rather than just have the bagpipes arbitrarily show up in one scene, I decided to give them thematic meaning. I didn't know at the time whether or not the relationship between Lee and his father would get any more screen time in subsequent episodes, but I was very pleased that it did. That theme is really a lovely piece of music. It's the only genuinely warm and uplifting melody in the whole score, a nice break from the relentless darkness.
The funniest and most distinct piece of music on the season 1 album has to be "Battlestar Muzaktica". Tell me more about that piece.
There was a hilarious scene in "Colonial Day" that took place in a gaudy public bathroom with these hideous, round mirrors all over the walls. Since the episode was already a bit of a farce (big band music and lounge piano jazz, etc.) I thought it would be fun to really go over the top. Incidentally, the solo on that piece is the only time I've ever played melodica on the Galactica score. A few years later, I was scoring my first episode of Eureka and there was a scene that was filmed in the exact same bathroom! I was hoping to bring the Muzaktica back, but it didn't work out. [Play "Battlestar Muzaktica" from Season 1 MP3]
Whose idea was it to bring back the original BSG theme for the documentary montage at the end of "Final Cut"?
I presume the idea was Ron Moore's, though I can't say for sure. All I know was that it was written into the script that the music heard in the background was Stu Phillips' theme from the 70's series. [Play "Colonial Anthem" from Season 2 MP3]
Was it recorded with a live orchestra or did you use samples on this one?
Are you kidding me? No way, man. That was the real deal. It always is! I actually met with Stu before I did the arrangement. He showed me his original sketches and lent me a couple scores so that I could get it right. He's a very cool guy and I'm always excited to use his theme on the series.
The piano is rarely used on the show: was there a reason to bring it in for the season 2 finale?
The producer had his heart set on hearing a piano at this specific moment, so it was basically out of my hands. Almost coincidentally, the piano that represented Gaius' exhaustion and guilt in the Season 2 finale came to represent his confusion and fear while he was imprisoned on the Cylon basestar throughout Season 3. [Play "One Year Later" from Season 2 MP3]
How did you come to using American instruments and idioms to represent the Pegasus?
Again, this was a situation where the producers decided to go in a different direction with the music. But the idea we ultimately came up with was to have the music indicate to the audience that this episode was going to be something different. So, from the opening strains of the first cue, the audience can tell that this story was going to be unique. And of course, it was. I still think that "Pegasus" is one of our strongest episodes. [Play "Pegasus" from Season 2 MP3]
You adapted Bob Dylan's song "All Along the Watchtower" for the second part of the season 3 finale, "Crossroads". Did you ever hear from Dylan's people regarding whether or not they liked it?
Not yet, but I hope that Dylan hears it eventually.
Let's put a rumor to rest now: a lot of people have noticed similarities between Roslin and Adama's Theme and the cue "Leave No Man Behind" from Hans Zimmer's Black Hawk Down. Was it intentional or purely coincidental?
Purely coincidental. [Play "Roslin and Adama" from Season 2 MP3]
Speaking of Black Hawk Down, do you feel Zimmer's use of non-traditional structures and instruments in that score and in Gladiator helped carve the way for the multi-ethnic and unorthodox approach you and Gibbs were allowed to bring to Galactica?
Our approach to the Galactica mini-series was a direct result of our collaboration with director Michael Rymer, who brought a lot of very solid ideas to the table. I think that Star Wars and Star Trek were the reason the producers and director wanted to go multi-ethnic with the music, to essentially use every musical idiom those epic franchises did not. So, no, I don't think that Gladiator had any impact whatsoever.
Did you experiment with non-traditional or "exotic" instruments while in college?
My time in college was mostly spent trying to master the standard orchestral instruments. However, I learned a lot about working with whatever you have at your disposal. I'd score student films with every musician I could convince to show up for a recording session. This ranged from three strings and a percussionist to an entire 50-piece orchestra and 20-voice choir. But sometimes the groups would be really weird, not standard orchestral instrumentation at all. So, I certainly picked up a sense of experimentation with my orchestrations.
How does one go about finding a duduk player in Hollywood?
The duduk lines are often very complex and sound improvisational for the most part. Do you write every note that Chris Bleth plays or do you give him general indications and leave him free to improvise around them?
Basically, everything that he plays (and everything that the vocalists sing) is written out. We'll improvise some of the ornaments, but I'm very specific with my thematic material. [Play "Starbuck on the Red Moon" from Season 1 MP3]
How many taiko drums have been used on the show?
Lots. So many that it borders on lunacy!
Is there a rare sound or instrument that you've used on the show that you are particularly proud of given how obscure it is?
I don't know, they're all pretty weird, actually. Guitarist Steve Bartek has a wonderful collection of strange stringed instruments... most of which have never been used in the studio except for on Battlestar Galactica.
What is the craziest direction you were ever given for a cue?
"Re-record the theme to The Deerhunter for an episode of Battlestar Galactica." That's pretty crazy.
How much of a typical episode's worth of music is recorded with live instruments as opposed to samples?
Some synth pads fill out the texture, but all the percussion, soloists, vocalists, guitars, bass, brass, winds, and strings are always live, and recorded union, here in Los Angeles.
What are the main components of your studio? What notation software do you use, for instance? What sample libraries do you use for BSG?
Yikes. I hate these questions. Um... I write in Digital Performer and orchestrate in Sibelius. As for samples, I actually don't use a single commercially-available sample library. I've spent years developing my own custom library. I think of my scores as a well-built house: it looks goods from a distance, but up close, all the little details are what make it special.
A lot of the music on the show consists of several layers of textures, melodies, and rhythms. How do you keep all of those recordings organized to facilitate the mixing?
We deliver all the cues to the dub stage in 5-channel surround stems. A big action cue can easily have ten different splits, so that means it will be fifty tracks wide! This level of splits is common for a feature film, but pretty rare in television. However, it's the only way to truly be prepared for anything that the producers throw at you during a dub.
You've explored different types of music on the show: Middle Eastern, traditional Irish, European Classical, Americana, among others. Is there a culture whose music you would like to explore in the fourth season, either as a recurring color or as a standalone, episodic score?
I don't really know yet. I try not to get my heart set on anything in particular, because I have to wait and see what direction the show takes...
Where is the show headed musically in season 4?
... and it's a bit too early in the season to really know yet. I'm only a few shows in so far. The fourth and final season will certainly bring back many major themes from previous seasons, and I'm sure will introduce new ones as well.
What about the upcoming "Razor"? Anything you can tell us about it from a musical standpoint?
When I first heard that "Razor" would be a film about Admiral Cain's back-story, I was hoping to use the opportunity to bring back some of the musical oddities from "Pegasus," the episode that first introduced her character. However, when I saw the film, I realized that it actually centers on Kendra Shaw, a completely new character. So, I ended up writing a theme for Kendra's story, although there are many recurring themes from throughout the series (including a tip-of-the-hat to Stu Phillips' original theme from the classic series).
You were involved in the restoration of Elmer Bernstein's long-lost score to Kings of the Sun. What did you learn from that project?
I learned a lot. Elmer's sketches were totally complete. By orchestrating them, you're basically a glorified copyist. Sketches like that are a lost art, since very few composers today work with pencil and paper the way he did.
What was it like working with Elmer Bernstein? Is there a particular anecdote that you remember that you would say pretty much sums up the kind of man he was?
He was too remarkable a person to be summed up, I must say. Working with him was a remarkable chapter of my life and he was an incredible musical, as well as personal, hero to me.
Who are your influences as a composer? Do you listen to a lot of "world music"?
I listen to world music when I'm researching, especially for Galactica, but generally not when I'm driving around in my car. My influences as a film composer are Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, and Elmer Bernstein, and I'm also very influenced by the works of Debussy and Ravel.
Have you decided on an approach to scoring the upcoming Sarah Connor Chronicles? Will you revive Brad Fiedel's anthemic theme?
Brad Fiedel's theme is limited to a brief appearance during the Main Title card, for financial reasons. However, the score for the series is very much inspired by the tone of his first two Terminator scores. I am confident that Terminator fans will be thrilled with the show and the score.
In closing and since you might never make it to James Lipton's Actors Studio, I will give you the opportunity to realize a fantasy of a great many people. I would like to ask you ten questions adapted from Bernard Pivot's questionnaire from Apostrophes and Bouillon de culture. Ready? What is your favorite melody?
Wow, very tough question. The theme from To Kill a Mocking Bird is the first one that springs to mind.
What is your least favorite melody?
Beethoven's Für Elise is a great little ear-worm, but when it gets stuck in my head, the first two notes just end up repeating over and over and over and over...
What turns you on as a composer?
That moment when you've finished writing a piece and realize that you've composed something better than you've ever written before (this happens very rarely, I might add).
What turns you off?
That moment when you've finished writing a piece and realize that it's total crap.
What is your favorite musical symbol?
I like the notation for Accordion stops, since nobody knows what the hell they mean.
What musical sound do you love?
I'm partial to augmented triads and half-diminished chords (it's all that Debussy and Ravel on the brain).
What musical sound do you hate?
Sampled orchestra sounds... though I'd rarely call them "musical".
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
This is hypothetical, right? Because I'm pretty happy writing music for spaceships and robots. However, if for some reason I couldn't write music anymore, I'd love to have a job that let me see the world. You don't get any time to travel while scoring a TV series.
What profession would you not like to do?
I could never teach little kids. I have a tremendous amount of respect for people that can pull this off.
And if Heaven exists, what cue from a score of yours would you like to hear when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
At this point in my career, I don't think I've yet written that piece. I've got a long way to go still.
Compilation albums of Bear's music from the first three seasons of Battlestar Galactica are currently available from La-La Land Records. The Galactica movie "Razor" will premiere on the Sci-Fi Channel November 24th, but fans in select cities already had a chance to see it on the big screen this past November 12th. An unrated and extended cut of the movie will go on sale on December 4th. The fourth and final season of the science fiction drama is currently slated to premiere in April of 2008. The second season of the Sci-Fi Channel's Eureka, with music by Bear McCreary, finished its run in October, but a third season has been announced for the summer of 2008. A first-season, three-disc DVD set is currently available from Universal Studios. Finally, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a continuation of the Terminator movie franchise, will debut on Fox on January 14th and will also boast a score by Bear McCreary.
For in-depth information on the episodic scores of the third season of Battlestar Galactica (including a five-part detailed look at the themes of the show), be sure to check out Bear's blog at www.bearmccreary.com. Behind-the-scenes comments on each season four episode should resume when the show continues in April.
Special thanks to Dan Goldwasser.