Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Eye-Spy

shieldlogoLast week’s video blog focused solely on me and my healthy creative process, so this week’s introduces three members of my production team, without whom my scores would not be possible.  This is the first in a series of recurring segments called “Agents of BEAR.” Tonight’s episode: “The Music Team.”

It’s fitting that this week’s video blog introduces my orchestrators and mixing engineer, because the score to “Eye-Spy” is my most orchestrally colorful and symphonic yet.

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SPOILERS BEYOND: “Eye-Spy” introduces Akela Amador, a former agent trained by Coulson who has gone rogue and become a diamond thief. Her arc throughout the episode is one of redemption. She begins as the mysterious villain, but we soon learn she is being manipulated by an unseen party. Coulson and his team ultimately rescue and free her. Her arc needed to be represented by a new musical theme, The Akela Theme:

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Her melody is a musical representation of her name. The six notes are arranged so that the syllables in her name land with the right emphasis. The melody basically suggests that you sing along with her name. (This is a little trick I picked up from Shirley Walker’s catchy theme to the “Superman: The Animated Series.” Listen and you’ll find yourself singing along with “Su-per-man! Su-per-man!”)  I also put two of the A’s and the D in Akela Amador’s name on those exact notes. If a choir were singing her theme, it would just look like this:

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Starting with this association with her name was a fun way to kickstart my creative process, and it also produced a malleable melody that could be adapted to my needs throughout the episode. Early in the episode, it is stated in the low strings as an ominous melody. When she attacks our heroes in their van, the low brass blast it out as an evil fanfare. And finally, when she reunites with Coulson for an emotional conversation, the strings repeat her theme in twisting, circular statements, adding angst and heartbreak.

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In these two emotional Akela scenes, the various sections in the strings weave statements of her theme back and forth like a twisted lullaby. Meanwhile, the celli and basses slip into increasingly dissonant bass notes. At one point, I go so far as to put the melody instruments in A minor and the lower instruments in Eb Major, the most distantly related key possible. The harmonic clash heightens the tragedy of her story.

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The real star of this score, however, is the expanded use of orchestral colors. The first cue of the episode is the most orchestrally rich piece I’ve yet written for the show. When producer Jeff Bell first heard my sketch, he said it reminded him of a Hitchcock score (without knowing what a huge Bernard Herrmann fan I am!).

As Akela heads down into the subway station, following the mysterious men in red masks, muted trombones and horns offer stabbing commentary between twisting string lines and the occasional chugging cello and bass ostinato. Col legno strings flicker like fireflies, while the high woodwinds slither on her theme in parallel fifths and fourths.

My personal favorite moment in the sequence is the shot when the subway train pulls up and the men in red masks step forward. Here, the violins and violas gliss between two chords with spooky bends. It almost sounds like something Elmer Bernstein would have written for ‘Ghostbusters.’  Then, as Akela boards the train, a solo English horn whispers her theme.  In fact, nearly every phrase stated by any instrument in this scene is built from a variation of the Akela Theme.

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“Eye-Spy” features another marathon action cue that sprawls across two acts. In it, Fitz and Simmons operate on Akela’s bionic eye, while Ward infiltrates a laboratory, carrying out Akela’s mission so her handler doesn’t suspect she’s been rescued by S.H.I.E.L.D.

The foundation for this entire cue is an aggressive synth bass line and hip-hop-inspired percussion groove, that constantly chugs beneath the richly layered orchestral passages. For me, these cues strike that perfect balance between contemporary instrumentation and traditional scoring that works so well in the Marvel cinematic universe. (You can hear excerpts of this goliath action cue throughout tonight’s video blog.)

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This sequence contains a gag that never fails to crack me up: the moment when Ward realizes that his mission is not to kill this security guard, but to seduce him. I play this comedy up as broadly as I can. First, when Ward gets ready to go in the room, I build up the orchestra as if to introduce the biggest action scene in history. Of course, this works narratively because this task actually is the biggest challenge for Agent Ward. Can he actually be friendly? It would be easier to just kill the guy!

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The conversation with the surly security guard unfolds and I keep the energy going with a bouncy ostinato in the strings. Every line Ward tries hits with a thud. I acknowledge these moments with slight little bends in the first violins, absolutely tipping my hat to classic animation scoring. Is it dancing with a cliché? Yes. Does it make you smile while you’re watching the scene? I imagine that’s also a big ‘Yes.’

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Another little tidbit to listen for in this scene is the muted trumpet solo about halfway through. Trumpet player Malcolm McNab owns a broken harmon mute that I’ve always wanted an excuse to use. It sounds… like shit – it rattles and buzzes like nothing I’ve ever heard. The orchestrators suggested he try it out for this bouncy little statement of the Main Theme and it was hilarious.

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Ward’s escapades in the Todorov building were a tremendous challenge, because I had to shift gears so many times.  After failing to charm the guard and ultimately kicking his ass, Ward next ends up in a strange room with mathematics scrawled all over the walls.  Here, angelic choirs of high strings float mysteriously over a clicking synth groove, which I used to keep the tension up. The music here is magical and sinister, even though we don’t yet understand the full meaning of what we’re looking at.

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The episode’s most triumphant musical moments come as Ward blasts his way out of the building. Here, the trumpets and French horns offer soaring statements of the Main Theme, which is always appropriate for these kinds of heroics:

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At the end of the episode, Coulson and Skye find a moment of piece and unwind.  I scored this scene with a very gentle statement of the Agents Theme:

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Originally composed for the end of “0-8-4,” this theme always represents the emotional bond between our protagonists. The Coulson Theme and The Skye Theme would not have really fit. The Akela Theme was equally inappropriate even though the cue carries over to her sleeping peacefully. For this final scene, the Agents Theme captured everything I needed. I stripped out all the guitars and percussion from the first version we heard and arranged it solely for con sord strings and a few woodwinds.  (‘Con Sord’ means ‘with mutes.’ String mutes are small dampers that are placed on the bridge of the instruments and dampen the upper frequencies. The sound is quieter, darker and more blended. The sound is very cool sound when used sparingly.)

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“Eye-Spy” is possibly the best episode of the series to date, giving us the show’s most emotional moments and also the biggest laughs. Next week’s episode is another big one, that features a performance by a musician who I’ve never worked with before. Our collaboration… is interesting. ;)

See you then!

-Bear