CINEFANTASTIQUE (February 2006)
A Different Trek
A Different Trek
Imagine Celtic bagpipes playing over an X-wing’s run on the Death Star. Then try hearing Japanese Taiko drums pounding away as the U.S.S. Enterprise takes on a Romulan Warbird. You could just imagine Luke Skywalker and Captain Kirk hitting the warp brakes and looking about for the composer who’d just played some bad joke on them. After all, the only thing you’re supposed to hear in space is a symphony orchestra churning away with big, heroic themes. But that’s exactly what composer Bear McCreary has not done for Battlestar Galactica (score album on La-La-Land Records). In replacing conventionally melodic strings with a minimal, ethnic approach, McCreary has helped the show achieve its goal of making you take what was once Star Wars-inspired camp with absolute and profound seriousness. No more so than with its music’s meditative, religioso tone. An accordion virtuoso and protégé of the late Elmer Bernstein, the 26-year-old McCreary had been working with composer Richard Gibbs when Galactica first appeared on a Sci Fi Channel miniseries. With Gibbs taking on the main thematic duties, McCreary concentrated on writing percussive cues as they struggled to find the sound of this radically revamped Battlestar. “Our first impression was to do an orchestral score, but the director Michael Rymer had the idea that the music should be minimal,” McCreary recalls. “We kept shipping demos to him, and he kept stripping out all of the orchestral elements. Until finally, we realized that he wanted to try this with just drums and Middle Eastern instruments. And that was definitely a watershed moment for us, where the music started to come together. Now the series has developed that sound even further.”
While Gibbs and McCreary talked about the possibility of a Galactica series, the young composer’s place on it was in no way assured. When Gibbs returned to scoring features, McCreary was given his shot. “The producers were a little hesitant about having me score Galactica, and I didn’t blame them. But my first episode ’33′ went really well, and they loved the music. From that point on, it’s been smooth sailing.” Yet McCreary often has an ocean to tread. “An average drama has 14 to 20 minutes of music for 44 minutes of programming. I probably do about 30 minutes of music for Galactica, which is a ton of music for a show that’s been described as musically ‘minimalist.’ So it’s a challenge just to get it all written and completed. And the schedule always changes. Sometimes I’ll have fifteen days to compose and episode. And sometimes I’ll have three. But I’ll always spend as much time as I possibly can to score a show.”
A Galactica episode’s soundtrack will typically jump through a galaxy of world music, drawing its suspenseful “Battlestar percussion” from such instruments as Middle Eastern frame drums, Japanese taiko drums and an Indian tabla. McCreary’s second “family” of instruments is the woodwinds, which include Duduk from Armenia, an India Bansuri, and Celtic bagpipes, which stand in for the Adama family theme. “The idea was to mix music from all of these different cultures into one score, yet also unify them,” McCreary explains. “Earth’s ethnic music has meaning to the colonies, who are trying to find our planet. So in a strange way, ancient instruments connect the show’s music back to our culture.
While an orchestra occasionally makes an appearance on Battlestar Galactica, it still comes across as being musically alien. “I layer the strings in the same, minimal way that I approach the percussion, gluing the scenes together without commenting on them too much,” McCreary says. “We use strings sparingly, only in the most important emotional moments. If we started using an orchestra on everything, then it would devalue the drama. As far as the other instruments we use, it’s totally up to me. Accordions have shown up in a couple of places. I’m sure that one of these days they’ll want a ripping accordion piece, and I’ll be there!” Nearly always playing mood instead of “hitting” laser blasts and the sci-fi like, Galactica‘s music sounds like no other sci-fi show out there. But even McCreary realizes that his music would have to be traditional in some sense. “The obvious thing that I’m trying to avoid is music that sounds like Star Wars and Star Trek, where you’ve got specific themes for specific characters, with every little event and nuance spoken of in the scoring. My music does that in Galactica, but to a much more subtle extent. However, my music does have to do something for the show. But, it can’t be overbearing, which can be a real balancing act for me.” Bear McCreary sees Battlestar Galactica‘s music as taking a more emtoional turn as it gets closer to the long-lost colony of Earth. “The miniseries was as far away from Star Wars and Star Trek as possible. But it was probably too far, and I think you can notice how things have been drfting towards the middle as the series has progressed — a way of being unique without being cold. It’s taken a season and a half to figure out a tone where we’re a little more emotional, and a little more narrative. You can see that in how Commander Adama’s character has gone from being very stoic to having a lot more feeling, with the music reflecting that progression. So I think we’ve found a really good place for the music now. Yet the music still doesn’t feel like Star Wars. It feels like Battlestar Galactica.”
[link not available]