Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome

Tonight, the “Battlestar Galactica” prequel film “Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome” airs on SyFy. After premiering on Machinima’s YouTube channel last November, it will finally have a DVD/BluRay release on February 19th. Later this spring, my scores to both “BSG” prequels will be released by La-La Land Records, starting with a limited edition CD of “Blood & Chrome” in March and a comprehensive “Caprica” album in April (click here for details).

In tonight’s video blog, you’ll hear exclusive score clips, and get a look at my recording sessions for this long-awaited prequel film:


All of this has happened before…

When scoring “Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome,” I found myself returning once more to the musical universe of pounding taikos, minimalist strings and ethereal vocals I created for “Battlestar Galactica.”

Unlike the previous “Battlestar Galactica” prequel, “Caprica,” which took an entirely new visual approach to the franchise, “Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome” embraces the former “BSG’s” military overtones. The film chronicles William Adama, years before he leads humanity’s race for survival, as a hotshot young pilot entering combat for the first time.  The familiar imagery of vipers, raptors, cylons, and of course, the Grand Old Lady herself, the Battlestar Galactica, instantly draws connections to the 2004 “Battlestar Galactica.”

Tonally, “Blood & Chrome” departs from the heavy political and religious subtext of the previous two series and emphasizes action, adventure, sex and aerial dogfights. The visual palette of the film forgoes “BSG’s” gritty documentary approach in favor of a glossier, brighter and more dynamic look, fitting for the depiction of the military at its peak. Even at my first viewing of the film, I knew that my score had to take the audience on a ride, allowing them to get lost in the adventure.

I was initially nervous about simply retreading over work I’d already finished with “BSG.”  If I were to make my way through “Blood & Chrome,” I would have to find something new to say.  Thankfully, the producers agreed and encouraged me to explore new sounds. As I set out to compose, I found myself at a major creative crossroads. This score had to be rooted firmly in the instrumentation and styles of “Battlestar Galactica,” but “Blood & Chrome” would also require its own unique approach.

I reunited the band of amazing musicians who worked with me on “BSG” and “Caprica,” including Chris Bleth (woodwinds), MB Gordy (taikos and percussion), Paul Cartwright (electric violin), Steve Bartek (electric guitars), Brendan McCreary (vocals) and Raya Yarbrough (vocals).  These performers had a profound impact on my earlier scores and had much to offer “Blood & Chrome.” Though my two previous scores drew influences from around the world and throughout history, their sounds all shared a single trait: every instrument was performed by live musicians.  The taikos sound powerful because heavy sticks struck thick hide drumheads.  Air escapes from primitive wind instruments and bows creak during screaming electric violin solos.  These sounds are acoustic, organic and raw.

There was an entire world of musical sounds I’d intentionally avoided using in “BSG” and “Caprica,” sounds that would stand out immediately from those live performances: electronic synthesis.

Synthesizers have been a staple of the science fiction genre since it first graced celluloid. The most famous example is probably Louis and Bebe Barron’s iconic score for “Forbidden Planet.” Many other composers, from Herrmann to Goldsmith, and even John Williams, have used synthesizers to depict alien soundscapes.  But, synths can be a deadly trap for composers and filmmakers.  Because the technology develops rapidly, synth scores generally do not age well.  There are many great science fiction films whose place in history is threatened by a score that grows campier with every passing day.

In 2004, I avoided using synthesized sounds in “BSG” as a direct reaction to these pitfalls.  The heavy, dramatic tone of that series would have been undercut by synthetic sounds.  “Blood & Chrome,” however, is a different animal – it’s simply more fun.  The emphasis on action and occasional comedy one-liners gave me license to introduce synthetic sounds to energize the acoustic instrumentation of the “BSG” score.

These heavy synthesizer bass lines needed a human element to blend them with the live instruments. So, I recruited legendary guitarist and keyboardist Mike Keneally. We had just worked together on a Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert (you can watch most of the concert for free on my YouTube channel) and I was amazed at his virtuosic musicianship. I have always been in awe of Keneally’s playing, having heard him perform with Frank Zappa, Steve Vai, Dethklok and many other amazing acts.  Working with him was a dream come true and he did not disappoint.

As heard in Season 3’s shocking rendition of “All Along the Watchtower,” an overdriven electric guitar is not a new sound for “BSG.”  Oingo Boingo’s Steve Bartek (who also played on “Blood & Chrome”) is a master of the unusual on electric guitar and frequently contributed distorted textures.  For “Blood & Chrome,” however, I wanted a more recognizable heavy metal sound.  Keneally dialed in a massive distortion, and we drop-tuned down to low C.  The searing tone melted my face off when he played his first note.

Armed with custom synth patches designed by expert electronic musician Jonathan Snipes, and Mike Keneally’s blistering guitar lines, I finally felt confident I could compose music that would honor the legacy of “Battlestar Galactica” and “Caprica” while simultaneously taking the score to new places.

“Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome” – The Score

BLOOD, CHROME AND MANY SPOILERS AHEAD: The film begins with a prologue.  William Adama reads a letter to his father as we see images of the Cylon war.  A gentle gamelan backdrop recalls the texture of the Boomer and Number Six themes, though without quoting either.  Within a minute, we cut to a flight simulator dogfight and hear the first action cue of the score.

Familiar sounds like blistering dumbeks, breathy bansuris and pounding taikos bring us back to the glory days of “BSG” combat cues.  However, the most obvious new sound is a searing bass synthesizer, with a swelling envelope that emulates a sound that’s been turned backwards. The upper frequencies, that used to be reserved for metallic percussion and cymbals, are now augmented with crunchy white noise and filtered samples.  These electronics stand out like a sore thumb, and yet still blend in.

The next cue of the film is possibly my favorite.  Adama peers out the window of his transport and sees the Battlestar Galactica for this time.  For fans of the show, this is a nearly religious experience.  I wanted to write a cue that would strike a nerve with fans of the 2004 series and the classic 1970’s series as well.  So, as I did for the ship’s farewell in ‘Daybreak,’ I quoted Stu Phillips’ classic “Theme from Battlestar Galactica” for this stunning reveal.

I’ve used Stu’s classic theme on several occasions now, but I must admit I think this is the most rousing rendition yet.  The full string orchestra, pounding taiko drums and ethnic soloists are all there, but augmented further by heavy synths and soaring electric guitars.  Sound designer Daniel Colman told me at the final mix that this cue made him want to stand up and salute.  I couldn’t imagine a better review.

As we sink into the ship and reveal the hangar bay for the first time, I wrote an elegant vocal line for singer Raya Yarbrough.  Throughout “BSG,” Raya frequently represented the voice of the divine, foreshadowing or prophesizing events before they were to unfold.  With that in mind, I wrote her this passage and she sang it in Latin:

“Domini ducem dederunt agmen qui ducat caelorum.”

In English, this means…

“And the Lords annointed a leader to guide the Caravan of the Heavens.”

She and I both felt that was a perfectly appropriate text to use as Bill Adama first sets foot inside the Battlestar Galactica!

In the hangar, Adama meets his co-pilot Coker.  Here, I introduce a brief snippet of the melody that will come to represent Adama throughout this film, the Military Theme:

Though only quoted briefly in this hangar bay scene, the Military Theme will become an essential component in the score as the relationship between these two characters develops. I composed the Military Theme for the very first episode of “Battlestar Galactica,” ’33.’  Over time, it came to represent the friendship between Adama and Tigh, though it was used for other military relationships as well.  In essence, it was primarily used to underline the bond between men and women in service.

For “Blood & Chrome,” I chose the Military Theme to represent Adama, as he forms an unlikely friendship with Coker.  Since this film’s premiere on Machinima, astute fans have asked me why I never used the Adama Family Theme in it.  The Gaelic-tinted melody of the Adama Family Theme is associated with, as the name implies, his family.  We hear it throughout “BSG” and even “Caprica” for important scenes dealing with the Adama lineage.  But, Adama’s relationships in “Blood & Chrome” are not familial.  We are seeing a totally different side of his character.  That deeply emotional melody would not have fit the arc of this film, that of a rogue hotshot learning the value of teamwork and bonding with fellow soldiers.

Adama and Coker receive new orders, to accompany the mysterious Becca Kelly on a mission.  Once they set out, Adama learns of her past, working at Graystone Industries. In my original version of this cue, a solo alto flute quoted the “Caprica” theme over this exchange, as a subtle nod to that mythology.  Though that melody eventually hit the cutting room floor in the film, you will still be able to hear it in the forthcoming soundtrack album.  This scene is still musically important, however, because it is here I introduce the Becca Theme:

Her theme is simple, usually played by piano, gamelan, vibraphone and rhodes to produce a shimmering, vibrating quality.  At first, the harmonies around her melody are mysterious and dissonant. But, as the chemistry between her and Adama heats up, the theme becomes increasingly more emotional. Becca is a complex character, especially by the film’s end, so I wanted her theme to have shades of darkness, even at its most lush moments. Like with Adama’s Military Theme in the hangar, this introductory snippet during their dialog is just a taste of the expanded variations to come.

They arrive at their rendezvous coordinates and find that the Battlestar Archeron has been destroyed.  Musically, this sequence is important because it is our first chance to really hear the new instrumental colors of this score in detail.  In fact, this scene was the first cue I wrote for “Blood & Chrome,” on the assumption that if I couldn’t make the new sounds work here, they wouldn’t work anywhere.

As Adama, Coker and Becca drift through the charred remains of the ship, the score offers a mournful and plaintive synthesizer melody, set against deep orchestral drones.  I never gave this melody a name, although it does play a role in future cues in the film.  Let’s just call it the Destruction Theme:

It would be disingenuous for me to imply that the inspiration for this cue was anything other than Vangelis’ “Blade Runner.”  So, yeah… there it is.  That score so brilliantly employed noire-influenced melodies performed by ambient synth tones that it essentially branded the sound forever.  However, I risked the inevitable comparisons because I wanted to try using synthesizers to create an evocative melody, and not just use them for growling basslines and stuttering percussion.  I wanted to use the synthesizers melodically as well.

To put my own spin on this genre, I doubled the synth melody with a solo duduk. The mix was a challenge, because each sound could easily dominate the other.  However, mixer Steve Kaplan found the perfect balance, where the duduk is tucked inside the synth and becomes nearly inaudible.  The synth draws your attention, but it sounds oddly expressive, because the vibrato is coming from a real player.  Chris Bleth’s expression, the subtle clicking of his fingers against the duduk, even the sound of his breath, all combine to give the synth lead an unmistakable humanity.  You may not hear the duduk in there, but you would notice immediately if we took it out.

The morose serenity is broken by an incoming Cylon attack and thus begins the first major battle cue.  For the Archeron attack sequence, I emphasized a quickly repeating synth bass line and punctuated it with gnarly, swelling distorted basses.  The percussion takes a more supportive position here, featuring the thinner frame drums and shime daikos (the small taikos) more often than the heavy nagado daikos (the big taikos).  However, once the chase moves inside the remains of the Archeron’s FTL drive, the musical texture is amped up with pounding nagados, distorted guitar lines and aggressive string orchestra chugging.  The cue climaxes with a searing Paul Cartwright electric violin solo that reaches a frenzied peak right as Adama blasts them to safety.

Eventually, they find a hidden fleet of ‘ghost ships,’ and board the Osiris.  While prepping for their next dangerous mission to an ice planet, Coker encounters his old friend Jim Kirby.  In a touching scene, Coker informs Kirby that he is now a father. Because we are seeing this tender side of Coker for the first time, I introduce the Coker Theme, played by a solo bansuri and supported by two accompanimental duduks:

Coker is such a wonderful, wise-cracking character, I felt that he didn’t need any comedic support from the music. That part of his personality shines through easily.  So, this simple six note melody is actually quite beautiful, and I reserved it solely for his emotional moments.  Sure, you only hear it four times in the entire film, but those scenes tell you a lot about this character, and the score needed to highlight them.

The next sequence, where the Osiris is attacked by a basestar, is the largest space battle in the film.  Each “Battlestar Galactica” soundtrack album I’ve produced features at least one massive battle cue, and ‘The Last Battle of the Osiris’ is absolutely the largest action cue in “Blood & Chrome.”  The entire piece is built around a pulsing 5/8 rhythm that eventually builds to a furious ostinato in the orchestral strings:

This rhythm was deceptively tricky for the string players.  While it stays consistently in 5/8, the turnaround in the fourth bar changes the subdivision from 3+2 to 2+3.  So, it requires constant mental counting to keep from tripping up.  (In the video blog, there’s a funny shot of me conducting this cue while bobbing my head and making a weird face… that’s because I was counting each beat so I wouldn’t screw it up!)

The strings build energy as our heroes prepare for battle.  The percussion gradually gets louder as the bass synthesizers increase tension.  When the intense dogfights finally break out, I add new layers of heavy, distorted synths and Mike Keneally’s electric guitars that merge into a pounding, rock-influenced riff, still in 5/8 naturally.

After a bombastic battle in the atmosphere, our heroes crash land on a barren ice world, where the majority of the second half of the film will take place. By this point, I’ve introduced all the major character themes and can begin playing with them in various combinations and developing them.  Some of my favorite cues result from these sequences.

Our heroes encounter a sole survivor from his unit, a soldier named Toth who seems somewhat unstable mentally.  I represented his madness with subtly chaotic electric sitar solos performed by Steve Bartek.

The electric sitar was featured most prominently in “Battlestar Galactica” during my arrangement of ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ but before that, I actually wrote extensively for the instrument in the first half of the second season.  The sitar was used thematically to represent Crashdown’s descent into madness as he went full “Colonel Kurtz” on Kobol.  While the connection is very subtle, I liked the idea of connecting Toth with Crashdown, on a subconscious level.  The electric sitar warns us that this guy may be losing it.

Toth leads them to an abandoned ski lodge in the snowy mountains, and it is here that I got to write a few of the most unique cues in the score.

In the extended version of the film, there’s an odd montage where Becca and Adama make love by a romantic fire, while Coker (having apparently drawn the short straw) gets to sit in a dark room, eating old canned beans with Toth.  I scored this entire sequence with an extended variation of the Becca Theme.  The piano, rhodes and gamelan perform a simple variation of her melody set against a drone of strings, ethnic woodwinds and synthesizers. As the tension builds, I gradually introduce percussion, first as sporadic tabla solos, then eventually in driving frame drums and taikos.

I had not planned on adding orchestral strings to this cue.  However, our orchestral sessions went so smoothly that I ended up with extra time with the players.  So, I came up with a resourceful way to write an orchestra part for this cue without actually writing anything down!

Knowing that the entire cue stays in D minor, I realized I could assign patterns to the orchestra and simply cue their entrances and dynamics while conducting.  So, I assigned each group (the first and second violins, violas and celli) a specific tremolo pattern of open strings, playing Ds and As.  Then, I instructed each player in the orchestra to oscillate between their two assigned pitches at their own unique speed – some people would play very slowly, others very fast.  The result, when the full orchestra did this, was a blurry, beautiful chord.

A five-minute chord, however, does not make an evocative piece of music. I needed to shape the sound to match the picture. So, I then conducted the group by telling them to only play when I pointed at them with my right hand, and infer their energy levels by how high I held my left hand.  With just enough time left in the session to record a single take, I watched the scene on my screen, and cued the players in, one at a time.  When I wanted a thin sound, I cued the violins. For a dark sound, I cued the celli.  It was a surreal experience, because it almost felt like I was composing the cue in real time – I was watching the screen and sculpting the music with my hands in response to the drama.

The result is pretty magical.  The percussion, synths and melodic soloists were all planned out very carefully in advance, but the string bed beneath them ebbs and flows in such a way that would have been almost impossible to notate.  At the climax of the scene, when the strings and melody reach a furious peak, you can distinctly hear the chaotic energy the strings bring this cue.

Immediately after the montage, Adama wakes up and is drawn by the sound of Coker playing piano.  The composition he is playing is presumably a piece of well-known classical music that he was likely taught as a child.  (Perhaps another composition by the renowned composer Nomion? You decide.)  In the film, you hear only snippets of it.  But, on the forthcoming La-La Land CD, you will get to hear the entire piece I composed, entitled “Coker’s Interlude,” expertly played by Joohyun Park.

Like my work in the “BSG” episode ‘Someone to Watch Over Me,’ I went to great lengths to ensure the on-camera performance felt natural, even though I was recreating the music in the studio, matching an actor’s performance.  As I played the piano piece, I left in some mistakes here and there, and allowed the music to start and stop at natural points based on Coker’s body language.  I pretended I was sitting right there at the piano, tinkling around a classical melody while having a conversation with Adama at the same time.  And the highlight of the scene, for me, was getting to smash the keys three times when Coker proclaims “dumb, dumb, dumb!”

Of course, the scenes on the ice planet are not all ambient strings and piano melodies.  The action cues take on a distinctly darker sensibility.  For these, I drew heavily from my horror experience on projects like “The Walking Dead.” The small string orchestra provides the chills with dissonant clusters, snap pizzicatos and sul ponticello tremolo textures. These small ensemble techniques weave through the ambient synths and pounding ethnic percussion as our heroes are attacked in the dark by a snake monster, and while cylons infiltrate the resort hotel. (Extra Credit Trivia: The music when Becca, Coker and Adama skulk through the lodge hallways directly references a particular episode of “Battlestar Galactica.”  Can anyone name it?)

Eventually, our heroes make it to the automated cylon transmission relay that they are tasked to destroy.  As they encounter the foreboding icy doors, a bizarre ethnic solo enters the score.  This is actually a new sound for the “BSG” universe: a hurdy gurdy.  I wanted an instrument here that would sound distinctly foreign, to signify that they’ve reached an alien destination.  I performed this solo on the instrument, and it is actually the only moment it is featured prominently, though I also used it to create oscillating drones throughout the Becca Theme cues.

After the climactic showdown (which features an especially dark variation of the Destruction Theme), Adama finds himself awaiting evac on a mountaintop with Coker, who is dying in his arms. This moving sequence is underscored with a beautiful string piece, built out of overlapping layers of the Coker Theme, gradually ascending and becoming more full.  It is probably the single most beautiful piece of music I wrote for the film, and one I hope fans instantly connect with other similar pieces in the “BSG” musical universe.

At the end of the film, Adama speaks with his commanding officer in sickbay. The military theme, performed by Chris Bleth’s solo bansuri, is set against a gentle backdrop of snare drums.

The scene shifts to a new key, however, when Coker is revealed to have survived.  Here, energetic frame drums (a staple of my percussion arsenal since “BSG” season 1) sneak in with an exciting groove.  The percussion builds energy and the strings modulate to a new key once more as we cut to Adama in the hangar bay, walking toward his first Viper.  This is the largest arrangement of the Military Theme I’ve ever written for any “BSG” series – one augmented by ethnic soloists, full string orchestra, electric guitars and searing bass synthesizers.

At last, Adama climbs into his own Viper, marked with his new call sign, Husker.  For the end of the film, I returned to a piece I wrote for “Battlestar Galactica: The Plan,” called “Apocalypse” and adapted it into an entirely new piece of music – “Apocalypse: Blood & Chrome.”

For this song, I collaborated with the two most important vocalists in the “BSG” universe: Brendan McCreary and Raya Yarbrough.  Raya sang the iconic Gayatri Mantra (the same chant from the “BSG” main title) and she also wrote the English lyrics, which were sung by Brendan McCreary (who sang “All Along the Watchtower,” among other contributions, for “BSG”).

Having a song with lyrics sung in English is a new approach for “BSG.” Initially, I wanted to pick another unusual language, as I had so frequently in the past.  But, Raya came up with such fantastic words that I didn’t want to obscure them in another dead language – I wanted to ensure that listeners immediately understood their meaning.  Brendan’s powerful voice blended perfectly with Mike Keneally’s distorted guitars, while Raya’s ethereal vocal layers floated effortless above it all.

“Apocalypse: Blood and Chrome” has become one of my favorite cues I’ve ever composed for the “BSG” universe. I could think of no better way to end this film on a high note than to watch Husker jet away in his Viper to this piece of music.

I had an incredible experience scoring “Blood & Chrome,” and feel I’ve only just begun exploring the possibilities of these sounds. The score was an experiment, combining the tried and true instrumentation of “BSG” and “Caprica” with new guitars and synthesizers, and merging familiar melodic themes with entirely new ones. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, the end result is pretty amazing – the score to “Blood & Chrome” feels like the angry, rebellious teenage son of my “Battlestar Galactica” music.

I can only hope…

… All of it will happen again.

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This post would not have been possible without the time and energy of Kevin Porter, Jessica Huber, David Matics, Andrew Craig and Christopher Woodring.