Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – FZZT

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In this week’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” video blog, we meet a handful of the amazing musicians who play in the orchestra each week. I’ve worked with these players for years, and their sound is an essential part of how I express my ideas. “Super Musicians” is the second in a recurring video blog segment called “Agents of BEAR”…

“FZZT,” the sixth episode of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” expands the relationship between Fitz and Simmons in an emotionally-charged story (pun intended) that explores heavy themes.  The episode plays against expectations, opening with the promise of a spooky story about an electric murderer and, before you know it, the narrative shifts gears into deeply emotional storytelling.

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SHOCKING SPOILERS AHEAD: I like to open each episode with a unique sound over the Marvel logo. “FZZT” begins with a snarling low brass and low woodwind cluster right out of a Bernard Herrmann score like “Citizen Kane” or “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”  I wanted the score to sound like an old horror film. The violins gliss up to a dissonant high cluster as we reveal a scout troop leader telling a spooky story to his campers. The low orchestral clusters play a central role throughout the entire scene as the kids come under attack from a mysterious electrical energy.

The scout leader is killed and our team is called in to investigate, ultimately leading them to a volunteer firefighter named Tony Diaz, who we know is in possession of a Chitauri helmet recovered from the battle of New York. Coulson confronts him at the fire station and the driving score amps up the tension, suggesting that Diaz is willingly using the power to murder his victims and that Coulson is in grave danger. As their dialog becomes more heated, an intense ostinato builds in the low strings while furious tremolo violin figures pierce the texture. (A nice clip of this moment is featured in tonight’s video blog.)

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Here is where the episode takes an unexpected twist that results in my favorite scene in the series thus far. The team figures out that Diaz is not a murderer, he’s the victim. He has contracted an alien virus that will cause him to die, just like his friends. Coulson kicks his team out and sits down with Diaz to talk him through the final moments of his life.

The score drops away entirely as the series delicately deals with the issue of first responders in New York City. Diaz is a firefighter who went to New York to help people and ended up contracting an incurable illness that will kill him. Coulson uses his own experiences to calm the man down, and make him feel like his sacrifice has meaning. The parallels to the plight of 9/11 first responders is obvious, and I’m proud of the series for addressing the issue.

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The real-world implications made the scene even more emotionally challenging to score. The producers and I chose to play the scene without music for as long as possible. Clark Gregg’s performance carries the scene beautifully. Finally, at the moment when he confesses that he once died, the orchestral strings sneak in with an elegant adagio. The strings are playing ‘con sord,’ with mutes, providing a dark, more blended sound. Gentle phrases in the harp and vibraphone offer brief commentary between the sighing string phrases. The low strings and low brass eventually enter and add gravitas to the moment when they see the floating knife, indicating that Tony will die within minutes.

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Here, Coulson knows he must leave and Tony agrees. A solitary flugel horn solo offers a touching statement of the Coulson Theme:

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The solo flugel horn (a slightly larger and warmer sounding version of a trumpet) immediately brings to mind a military funeral, highlighting Coulson’s sense of honor. He leaves the firehouse and allows Diaz to die with dignity as low strings sneak in with subtly ominous ascending phrases, reminding us this fight is not over.

Coulson and his team couldn’t save Tony, but quickly realize that Simmons is infected with the same alien virus. Now, the race is on to find a cure. “FZZT” takes its time establishing the emotional impact this has on the crew. Coulson feels guilty for not saving the firefighter, Ward feels helpless he can’t fight his way to a solution, and of course Fitz is heartbroken that Simmons may die.

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For all these scenes, I wrote gentle pastoral emotional orchestral passages, woven above ambient electric guitar arpeggiations. I knew the episode’s finale would have plenty of momentum, so I savored this opportunity to really explore these relationships musically.

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Obviously, the most important relationship at stake is between Fitz and Simmons. Until this point in the series, they’ve been a single unit, always facing every situation from the same perspective. Now, they are driven apart and it is up to Fitz to make the sacrifice to join her and risk getting infected himself. These scenes are the stuff that great TV is made of, and very inspiring for composers!

I introduced a new theme for Fitz Simmons that plays a crucial role in the second half of the episode:

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I wanted to tailor the theme specifically to them, so I made it less melodic than the other themes, and more motivic. It’s essentially an ostinato that rolls over itself again and again, evolving into subtly different variations with each turn through the pattern. This musically emulates their speaking pattern, where they are constantly stumbling over one another and saying the same thing in slightly different ways. While that often plays for comedy, in “FZZT” it is mostly played to dramatic effect, and so of course their music does as well.

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The Fitz Simmons Theme is first heard at the top of Act 4, as they are sitting back to back against the glass. Here, it is simply a handful of chords that are so sparse you wouldn’t think they have thematic meaning. As the act builds, the chords pick up energy and gradually weave into a truly memorable theme.

The real theme kicks in at the moment when they realize that the Chitauri wearing the helmet must have been immune to the virus. They have a starting point for a cure. Here, the bpm (beats per minute) start ticking up rapidly. The cue accelerates from a slow dirge into a driving scherzo, underscoring Fitz’s excitement. As we transition into the montage of Fitz and Simmons working in the lab, the strings sneak in again, with an even faster version of their theme.  (This passage is featured clearly at the end of tonight’s video blog.)

Beneath the weaving string lines, the French horns and low brass offer elegant counter lines, while undulating synthesizers and Steve Bartek’s electric guitars add momentum. I was very inspired by this sequence. Yes, its a montage and could have easily been scored with ‘montage music.’ Instead, I wanted to focus on the emotion between these two characters. That approach is always more interesting than simply playing suspense.

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The episode builds to a huge climax as Simmons leaps from the plane to sacrifice herself for her friends. Fitz tries to jump after her, but Ward stops him and saves her in a daring parachute rescue. The final cues of the act finally release the tension and play the heartfelt relief that Simmons is alive and cured. For these moments, I thinned out the musical texture and featured simple, beautiful, string chorales and French horn lines.

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I think these closing cues have a genuinely touching impact. In the scene where Coulson shows May his scar, listen for a warm variation of the Coulson Theme as she reassures him “There’s only moving forward.”

The act ends with Fitz and Simmons together on his bed. The intimacy of the moment is underscored with the electric guitar arpeggios, while their relationship is heightened with beautiful, weaving string statements of the Fitz Simmons Theme. The cue is romantic, but also a little sad. At the end of the scene, Fitz is alone.  The strings gradually fade away, leaving only a solitary electric guitar to conclude the theme, the loneliness of the note in the orchestration perfectly representing Fitz’s emotions.

That concluded the musical arc for the most emotional episode yet. But, as usual, there remains one more scene in the show. Here, Coulson playfully (or not so playfully) confronts Agent Blake. As the scene builds up to his defiant “I’d like to see them try,” the strings and low brass kick into high gear with a driving version of the Main Ostinato:

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As I’ve said before, I always like to save this ostinato for only the most exciting moments, when I want to tell the audience that something important is happening. As Blake walks away, the horns and trumpets blast away the Coulson Theme, ending “FZZT” on a triumphant note.

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Next week’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” continues to explore some of these themes and features the most bombastic combat cue I’ve written yet!  See you then…

-Bear