BG4: “Sometimes a Great Notion”
January 17th, 2009
“Sometimes I live in the country, sometimes I live in the town. Sometimes I get a great notion, to jump in the river and drown.”
From Ken Kesey’s novel “Sometimes a Great Notion”
EARTH-SHATTERING SPOILERS AHEAD: Last April, the mid-season cliffhanger Revelations ended with my rousing “Diaspora Oratorio,” a musical orgasm for choir, orchestra, percussion and ethnic soloists that accompanied the fleet’s arrival at the end of their long journey. Picking up immediately where that episode left off, Sometimes a Great Notion is the tonal opposite: the darkest, most grim and foreboding episode of Battlestar Galactica ever produced. Our heroes have found their promised land, Earth, a desolate nuclear wasteland. But, that’s just the beginning.
The entire episode deals with their reactions and deteriorating emotional states. Long stretches of screen time are dedicated to wordless montages of our beloved characters coming to grips with the crushing reality of their situation, in ways that range from bad to worse.
*** The Unintended Finale? ***
I asked co-writers Bradley Thomspon and David Weddle about their experiences working on this unusual episode. David Weddle said that they “wanted to realistically depict the despair that our characters would feel after discovering Earth was a burnt out cinder. We did not want to make everything okay by the end of the episode. Our characters had been chasing the dream of Earth for three and a half years. It became an allegory for the dreams each of us chase: of achieving success in our chosen career, of finding our soul mate, starting a family, buying our dream house, etc. When those dreams are shattered, as they are for all of us at one time or another, we must find a way to pick ourselves up and go on. But movies and TV shows frequently portray this in a false melodramatic way. Someone makes an uplifting speech, or gives someone a hug and the despair melts away. In life it is much, much harder to rebound from a crushing blow. And many people never manage to rebound at all.”
Bradley Thompson added “’Galactica’ was heading into the final act of its four year story and Ron felt we should have the wind totally knocked out of us. We also felt that the colonists had been relying too much on prophecy — it should fail and the gods shouldn’t hand us paradise on a platter. The Colonists and the Cylons needed a serious boot up the arse to start rethinking what they believed about themselves and each other in order to create their own future, together or separate. We also felt that the truth about Earth would be too much for some people to take.”
Naturally, my score for this episode had to match the tone of the show and resulted in the bleakest music I’ve ever written. And I’ve composed some dark music for Battlestar Galactica! But I realized that even the most ominous composition I’d written up to this point would be too happy and upbeat for Sometimes a Great Notion.
This was a heavy episode not just for me, but for everyone involved. It was the last script produced before the writer’s strike shut down production. Everyone involved in shooting the episode worked in fear that this could be the last episode of Battlestar Galactica ever made. Can you imagine that? The end of this episode being the end of the series forever?
The prep for this episode was extraordinarily stressful. Bradley Thomspon recalled “until the weekend before the strike, we didn’t know if SciFi was actually going to shoot the episode. We’d written something colossally over budget, and had rewritten it to bring it within a producible figure, but didn’t deliver the pages until Ron cleared them about two days before the strike. Our last changes were delivered hours before the walkout went into effect.”
David Weddle told me “this was one the most personal scripts that we had written, and so it was particularly difficult to just walk away from it. When we left to return back to LA there was a concern among many in the cast and crew that ‘Notion’ would turn out to be the last episode because no one knew how long the strike would last and if the studio would finally decide to pull the plug and tear down the sets.”
However, the prospect of Sometimes a Great Notion becoming the unintentional series finale “affected the crew and the actors tremendously,” Thompson said. “And I believe that the emotional turmoil played perfectly in sync with the emotions our characters would be feeling after ‘Revelations.’”
David Weddle added “Eddie Olmos has a brilliant ability to use things like that to catalyze his performance and those of the other cast members. So he was talking himself into the belief that it would be the last episode and convinced many of the other actors that this was the end. It brought a visceral power to all of their performances. And Michael Nankin, being a brilliant director, knew how to exploit that and build on that.”
I asked director Michael Nankin, whose many BSG credits include Scar, Flight of the Phoenix, and Maelstrom, about the working conditions leading up the WGA strike during the prep for Sometimes a Great Notion. He described that “during the two weeks of prep, Ron Moore had not released the final script, so we didn’t even know if we were going to shoot the thing. The night before the strike, Ron gathered the entire cast and crew on the set of the CIC to give an impassioned, emotional speech. His voice quavering, he declared his love and pride for the show, for everyone involved, his frustration that the strike would not allow him to be with us — and, finally, his absolute trust in me and my artistry in overseeing what could possibly be the last episode ever. It was one of the most stunning things anyone ever said about me. It was an amazing moment for everyone. Soft-spoken Ron Moore turned into Patton. He was so choked up at the end of the speech that he could only turn and walk out when it was over. He went straight to the airport.
‘Everyone took what he said very seriously and the unanimous reaction to the possibility of this being the last episode was to turn in the best work possible. I have never seen a more dedicated, hard-working troop in my life. The cast rose to the occasion and gave everything they had in their hearts and spirits. All their feeling about the show, the entire beautiful ride, came through in the moments on-screen. Everyone was at the top of their game. It was a privilege to have been a witness to it.”
By the time I began scoring Sometimes a Great Notion last June, that threat had passed. Production had long since resumed and I was recovering from the brutally difficult and exhausting experience of scoring Revelations. I finished that mid-season cliffhanger last April, and spent the majority of May up in Vancouver on the set, working on an episode you will see later, and finally got back to composing Sometimes a Great Notion in June, actually just a few weeks after the premiere of Revelations.
*** A Dark Orchestra ***
With Revelations I created a bigger sound by expanding the musical ensemble, including brass and choir that are not normally used in the score. To create the monochromatic, dark textures needed for Sometimes a Great Notion I took the opposite approach. I thinned out the ensemble, often featuring nothing more than the string orchestra for long stretches screen time.
(photo courtesy of Dan Goldwasser)
Sometimes a Great Notion represents my first introduction of atonal writing into the Battlestar Galactica score. Of course, not all my writing has been overtly tonal over the years. Many cues, particularly suspense and horror moments, have featured clusters and tonally-ambiguous colors. However, this episode is the first time that an atonal pitch cluster has been given thematic meaning. The use of atonality was necessary in this episode because anything melodic, no matter how sad or bittersweet, was too comforting, too familiar. This episode is beyond just “sad.” This episode is an assault on the psyche. I set out to create in the audience the feelings of isolation and anguish that our characters are experiencing. So, all the usual Middle-Eastern or Western harmonic progressions that have been featured on this soundtrack for four years were momentarily thrown out the window. In their place are bleak, dark clusters of frozen sound.
More than the harmonic language of the score changed. The string orchestra itself is highly unusual. Until this session, I’d typically used a traditional string orchestra, positioned in the classical formation: first violins to the conductor’s left, seconds and violas in the center, celli and basses on the conductor’s right. But that ensemble wouldn’t get the dark sound I wanted, so we got rid of the violas, and replaced them with two additional sections of celli.
(photo courtesy of Dan Goldwasser)
The new string ensemble featured first violins on the extreme right, second violins on the extreme left and three sections of celli in the center, with the basses also centered in the back row. This arrangement brought orchestrational risks, but ultimately provided incredible power in the low end of the orchestra and allowed me to create very murky chord clusters in the celli, that would be impossible to create with a single section of celli and violas.
*** Among the Ruins ***
Creating a sense of symmetry with Revelations, tonight’s episode begins exactly as the last one ended. The sound of waves gently lapping against the rocks accompanies images of a cold, barren landscape. The following three-minute sequence is nearly devoid of dialog, reminiscent of the opening montages of Kobol’s Last Gleaming Part II, Home Part II or Unfinished Business. However, the rolling string ostinatos of those scores are nowhere to be heard. Here the strings are bleak and desolate. Long clusters and simple atonal melodies are stretched to the breaking point, layered over the images like an oppressive fog.
What I wrote here is nothing new, of course. Morton Feldman famously composed a string quartet that is performed so slow it takes six hours to complete. I certainly can’t say that Feldman is an inspiration of mine, but nevertheless a comparison can probably be drawn. Still, my cue lasts only four minutes. This approach in television is extremely rare. Composers are typically under pressure to “make it exciting” or “speed up this dragging dialog” and are rarely presented with the opportunity to create very slow, complex and evolving thematic ideas, especially in an atonal harmonic language.
The most important of these chord clusters is the following pitch set, which I will call the Earth Chord:
It first sneaks in as Tigh steps into frame, staring into the gray horizon, the chord almost indistinguishable from a rolling thunder clap.
This dark cluster of C, D, G# and B contains no inherent triad to define it in any particular key signature. Voicing these notes in the extreme low register of the string orchestra violates every rule of chord spacing in Orchestration 101. Thankfully, my mentor (and former Orchestration 101 teacher!) Jim Hopkins worked closely with lead orchestrator Brandon Roberts and myself to ensure that the sound would be appropriately grim and forbodeing without sounding like an orchestra playing wrong notes. I consulted with Jim frequently during the composition of this episode to ask his advice about this weird ensemble and his years of experience brought a lot to this score.
(L-R: Scoring assistant Jonathan Ortega, Jim Hopkins, & orchestrator Brandon Roberts at the orchestral recording session. Photo courtesy of Dan Goldwasser)
After the three sections of celli and the basses introduce the Earth Chord, the first and second violins introduce the next important musical identity for this episode, played in the extreme high register of the instruments, which I’ll call Earth Melody A:
These simple melodic notes, played at the top of the range are set against the murky, thick voiced chord at the bottom register of the celli and basses. With no violas to fill in the middle ground, the result is an orchestral chasm, an extremely unusual combination of the extreme musical registers of the orchestra.
The violins play the melody in extremely long tones, taking a full thirty seconds to get through a single statement. And the unique placement of the violins (on opposite sides of the podium) allowed me to create a very bizarre effect. The first and second violins each play this melody, but off set by about 6 seconds, creating an acoustic “ping-pong delay” effect. The delay between the violins is easily seen in the score:
Watch the show with a good sound system and you can hear it, the first violins begin the phrase on the left, followed by the seconds on the right. As the first violins on the left change to a new note, they clash in a nasty minor second with the sustaining note in the second violins panned to the right.
(photo courtesy of Dan Goldwasser)
Earth Melody A repeats in a second, languid phrase before giving way to the third atonal theme, Earth Melody B:
This theme is much more melodically interesting and is played at a normal pace. As such, it is the first part of this cue that actually releases some of the tension by providing us with a sense of musical familiarity. Earth Melody B underscores the conversation between Adama, Roslin, Helo and D’Anna, where we establish that there’s no life anywhere on this planet… although I think the score has told you that by now already.
Long whisps of Earth Melody A interweave as we watch Kara and Leoben tracing the signal from the emergency locator beacon. (This scene, incidentally, features my first ever up-front credit!)
As Baltar confirms our suspicions that this place is completely irradiated, the strings return to the combination of the Earth Chord in the low strings and Earth Melody A in the extreme high violins. However, the color is augmented by the presence of a distant electric violin solo by Paul Cartwright, doubling the melody.
As we center in on Dualla digging through the sand, the strings finally settle on a unison note, the first simple harmony in the entire episode thus far. Normally, hearing a single pitch in the score doesn’t really grab your attention, but after the atonal and arhythmic nebula of the scene thus far, it provides a surprising amount of resolution. Our ears are yearning for something to latch on to at this point, and this sequence with Dualla was the perfect moment.
Finally, the atonal clusters give way to a melody, firmly rooted in B major. As her despair overcomes her, glimpses of the Battlestar score we know come through the fog. First frame drums, then taikos and tablas, and finally yailli tanbur, duduk and electric fiddle enter the mix.
Director Michael Nankin told me “Dualla takes the nuked Earth harder than anyone while on the planet. There is a moment in a raptor, on the way back, where she privately makes the decision about what she’s going to do: She’s going to give those around her every ounce of strength and optimism she has left, and then she’s going to pull the trigger.”
This moment is our introduction to the Dualla Theme, which I will discuss later. The mode of the theme is altered for this cue (the 2 of the major scale has been lowered for a more dissonant sound). The melody repeats over and over, finally culminating on the cut to Helo and Dualla in the raptor. The climax of the cue lands firmly on B minor, but as Helo comforts her, the strings slowly drift away from that tonality. As the cue ends, the strings have returned to the C, D, G# and B that they began on: The Earth Chord.
*** The Body ***
Kara’s Destiny theme returns in a haunting erhu solo by Martin St. Pierre, underscoring the entire scene where Kara and Leoben discover her body in the wreckage.
This theme was originally composed for Occupation for her captivity on New Caprica, and has come to represent their bizarre relationship and the promise that she has a destiny.
In Sometimes a Great Notion, this story arc and musical theme come to their conclusion. In this crushing scene with Leoben, Kara learns that the hybrid’s prophecy was true. She is the harbinger of death, and she has led them all to their end.
The score begins with the erhu solo, stating her theme in its original D minor key. As Kara reaches for her dogtags, the violins sneak in on osciallating open fifths and sevenths in their upper registers (listen again for that unique acoustic panning effect, due to their placement in the room). The sound is suspenseful, but not overtly scary.
Leoben cowers and steps back in shock as he realizes what they’ve discovered. At this moment, underscoring his confusion, the basses and three sections of celli enter with aggressive tremolo chords, rising and falling like waves. Martin’s erhu returns as the score modulates to a new key, set against a funereal frame drum pattern. This will be the last time this theme is ever heard in its entirety. And it will not be the only theme that comes full circle in this manner in this episode.
This scene never fails to give me chills. I’ve always viewed Leoben as an almost all-knowing prophet who chooses to speak in riddles, teasing Kara and the viewing audience alike with glimpses of the truth. This moment reveals that he is, in fact, lost and confused as his entire belief system crashes in on him.
*** Anders and the Guitar ***
In the next act, Anders wanders through the ruins and finds a broken guitar neck, which brings back memories of “All Along the Watchtower.” The score sneaks in with ambient strains of harmonium, tabla and electric sitar, recalling my “Watchtower” arrangement. This is the same sonic texture that underscored the Chief’s walk along the ruins, leading up to his memories of being in a marketplace on Earth.
However, the musical idea is taken a step farther here, as Anders remembers specific lyrics and recites them to himself. At this moment, the signature acoustic guitar riff that opens my arrangement of “Watchtower” enters, and you will also hear the distant vocal refrain of a new Brendan “Bt4” McCreary vocal performance.
(photo courtesy of Dan Goldwasser)
Even though you’ll only catch a couple lines in the show, we actually recorded a complete performance of “All Along the Watchtower” for this episode, complete with all three verses, set in this trippy, ambient style. Perhaps it’ll end up on a soundtrack album one day? :)
*** The Funeral Pyre ***
In its second act, Sometimes a Great Notion goes from dark to darker. One of the most upsetting images from this episode is Laura Roslin’s personal breakdown, and the loss of her faith. She burns the pages of the book of Pythia, the scripture that has been her source of inspiration for virtually the entire series (beginning with another Thompson / Weddle script The Hand of God).
Just as Kara’s Destiny theme completed it’s arc, here Laura’s Religious Theme returns, bringing with it memories of the hope and mystery of her prophetic destiny:
But this time, it is not orchestrated with a sense of hope, but in a funeral dirge, set in the orchestral strings. As Laura breaks down into tears, Chris Bleth’s solo bansuri picks up the melody as it leaps to a new key. The last time Chris played this tune on the bansuri was at the end of “Refugees Return” from Season 3’s Exodus Part II when Laura learns that Hera didn’t escape New Caprica. Here, like that moment, we see Roslin’s strength give way to despair.
But the funereal setting of this cue is just a warm up for the next scene. We cut to Kara building a funeral pyre for her own decayed corpse. I’ve scored several funeral scenes for this series, usually with lyrical and moving solo duduk. But, as with the rest of Sometimes a Great Notion, I wanted to make the music as bleak and oppressive as possible. The duduk would have simply been too moving to capture Kara’s emotional state.
The strings state a dissonant, countrapuntal chorale, based on conflicting statements of the Starbuck Theme:
This simple theme goes all the way back to early season one, You Can’t Go Home Again. It’s made several subtle appearances in Season 3 and 4, but her character has really outgrown it. Over the course of Season 2 and 3 I wrote the Kara and Anders Love Theme, Kara’s Destiny Theme and the Kara and Lee Love Theme, all of which represented a more dynamic persona than the Starbuck Theme. Traditionally, this theme symbolized her rebellious spirit and that flirtatious smile that we rarely see anymore now that her character has darkened.
Kara’s Destiny Theme would’ve been the obvious choice here, but I wanted to use the Starbuck Theme to help underscore the idea that she is burying herself. At this moment, she must come to grips with the undeniable fact that she is no longer the adventure-seeking hot shot pilot of before. This dissonant, funeral setting of the Starbuck Theme removes the joy, vivacity, passion, lust and energy from the music and leaves nothing but a cold, emotionless melodic idea. To amplify this idea, I asked the strings to play without vibrato (vibrato adds warmth and emotion to the sound) and without expressive dynamics in the phrases. I wanted the orchestra itself to sound cold and lifeless, like a musical shadow.
*** Dualla’s Death ***
The next scene in Act Two takes us to the end of Lee and Dualla’s date, and of course, her life.
I asked the writer’s about writing a death scene for long-established characters. David Weddle confessed “It was heartbreaking to write about Dualla’s suicide. This was a character that we had lived with for four years. We had shared her ups and downs, her dreams and disappointments, and now we had to share her loss of hope and her decision to take an awful step.”
Bradley Thomspon added “It’s always demanding to get the death to resonate, to mean something. Personally, I know I’m on the right track if it does get to me emotionally. In “Sometimes…” Mr. Nankin staged the death with such shocking simplicity – I knew it was coming and it still knocked me over. And when he lingered on the image in the pool of blood… Sad sad sad.”
Director Michael Nankin said he wanted her tragic suicide “to come as a complete shock. I did some research and what I heard over and over was the surprise family members and friends expressed over loved-one’s suicides. Few people saw it coming. So I wanted the audience to feel the same way. We kept the scene that leads up to the gunshot as content and sweet as possible. The clues are all there–they’re just very subtle. I wanted Dualla to be the only bright spot in the show–the person you can relax with and take a break from all the gloom. Then of course she blows her brains out.”
The music plays a major role in misleading the audience in the first two acts of this episode. Amplifying the connection between Apollo and Dualla, and underscoring the joy in her eyes, only makes the suicide scene even more crushing.
After she says goodnight to Lee, she steps before the mirror, humming a little tune, which served as the basis for the Dualla theme:
Actress Kandyse McClure improvised this melody on set during production. She described that “there was no previous discussion about it, it was just kind of stuck in my head – at first I wasn’t even really aware that I was humming. It was just comforting to me in that moment – something like the hymns my grandmother would sing around the house when I was a little girl.”
Michael Nankin was so moved by it, he contacted me during his director’s cut and asked if there were a way to incorporate it into the score directly. He later told me “the humming is something that Kandyse did in one of the takes and I loved it immediately. So we repeated it in every shot thereafter. It was so haunting. It reminded me of the opening titles of ROSEMARY’S BABY, where the score is Mia Farrow’s hummed lullaby. It was haunting and perfect for the moment. I believe I called you from the set to talk about it. I insist you put it on the next CD.”
I wove this tune into the fabric of the score to Sometimes a Great Notion. Like “All Along the Watchtower” and “Gaeta’s Lament,” this theme is yet another example of the boundary between score and reality on Battlestar Galactica being blurred. Listen for it being played (usually by Chris Bleth on the bansuri) in every scene with Dualla on screen in this episode.
As Gaeta leaves the room, Dualla takes off her ring. The score enters with gentle, pastoral statements of Bmaj and Dmaj7. She then blows her brains out in what might be the most graphic moment of violence in this entire series (amplified I think because it involves one of the most gentle and beloved characters). As Gaeta cries out for a medic and the blood begins to seep out across the floor, a solo duduk in its lowest register moans out an echo of the Dualla Theme, this time disfigured and dissonant.
*** Dualla’s Ghost ***
Act Three represents the apex of darkness for Battlestar Galactica and the score played a major role in amplifying the misery and desperation. As Adama weeps over Dualla’s body in the morgue, my score enters in one of the most interesting cues I’ve ever written. At this moment, you are hearing actress Kandyse McClure herself actually humming the Dualla Theme, set against a searingly dark string cluster, punctuated by sul ponticello tremolo swells and quarter-tone trills.
Dualla was humming her tune right before she killed herself, and I wanted to create the feeling that, somehow, her voice and that melody were imprinted on the universe like a bloodstain. When you look into the sun and close your eyes, you can still the shape, seared momentarily on to your retinas. In the same way, I wanted her voice and her theme to be echoing away, our last glimpse of this beautiful character. Nankin felt that using her voice in this sequence “keeps her alive in the scene and allows you to experience Apollo’s sense of denial with him.”
I actually first pitched the idea to Kandyse at the second “Music of Battlestar Galactica” concert last April. Kandyse was a sweetheart and agreed to come in and host the show at the last minute when it turned out James Callis (who hosted the first night) had to be whisked away to Vancouver to shoot a pivotal scene. We were backstage during Brendan McCreary’s energetic opening act and started talking about this episode. When I asked what Kandyse first reaction was she told me “I thought it was awesome! I immediately wanted to do it. I was having such a blast with you guys backstage – the whole evening was kind of surreal for me. I kept thinking to myself, “who’da thunk it”? And I was really flattered…”
Several months passed and our deadline for the episode’s score finally creeped up in June. Unfortunately, at that point, Kandyse was no longer in LA. Frack, she wasn’t even on the continent anymore! She was in Australia for a convention and wouldn’t return until after the mix deadline. But, co-producer Paul Leonard knew that this was an important scene for the episode and helped us coordinate a recording studio in Australia.
I went to AneFx, the company that does the outstanding sound work for Battlestar, and met up with BG dialog editor Vince Balunas. Kandyse was already at a recording studio in Australia. We could monitor her via ISDN line, listening to her over the internet. This kind of long-distance recording is a very common practice with ADR recording (additional dialog that gets recorded and added after filming), but this working environment was a first for me. Kandyse later told me that it was “definitely not your average ADR session…
‘Once in a while I get to do really cool stuff like this and I think: ‘Who’s life is this’?! I felt so glamorous and worldly ;-) The session became quite emotional for me toward the end. I even cried! The poor woman at reception wasn’t sure what to do with me… I think she made me tea. I made the sound engineer very uncomfortable… ;-) And no, not because of working with you, Bear! You are an absolute pleasure to work with. You were specific; clear about the quality of sound you were looking for. We played around with it a bit until we found the rhythm and tone. I was learning a lot as well! It was really helpful – I appreciated your feedback. You have such an ear for all the subtle nuances of sound. I wanted it to be just way you envisioned it.”
(Don’t worry, Kandyse. It’s not the first time someone’s been reduced to tears at one of my sessions.) ;) But all joking aside, it truly was an honor to be involved in Kandyse’s final session for Battlestar Galactica. The experience was quite emotional for me as well, one of the most memorable sessions of my entire experience on this series.
The resultant cue is heart-breaking and creepy. I’ll never get to experience the scene without knowing that the score is Kandyse’s voice, so I’m curious to know what your experiences were like. Did you recognize her? Ideally, the music would be uncomfortably familiar without being easily recognized. The opportunity to work with Kandyse, to interweave the score with the narrative and to score a scene with a performance like the one Eddie gave combined to make this one of the most complex and layered scenes I’ve ever done. And it’s only 40 seconds long!
As Adama leans in and whispers “I let everybody down,” the strings swell and resolve to a dark cluster of C, D, G# and B: The Earth Chord.
The pervasive darkness in this third act reaches a level of despair that I’ve not seen in television before. When asked about directing an episode like this, Michael Nankin said his “overall feeling is that of gratitude for the chance to help create drama that doesn’t pull punches. Can you think of another show – ever – in which the single hope and dream and goal of the entire series (and audience) is crushed and a major character blows her brains out? Aside from HAPPY DAYS?”
*** Adama’s Promise ***
In the final act, Adama comes to his senses and rallies the fleet to a new cause, the search for a new home. Traditionally, Adama’s speeches across the wireless are scored with big, orchestral gestures. I recall scoring the “Call to Arms” from the miniseries, or of course, the “Diaspora Oratorio” from Revelations. But, this scene required a gentler touch.
After the oppressive darkness of this episode, I didn’t want Adama’s speech to feel like a phony, happy ending. After all, nothing is resolved except for the fact that Adama has decided not to give in to despair. A gentle gamelan and hand percussion groove sneaks in as he makes his case, reminiscent of Season 2’s “One Year Later” more than any grand orchestral cue. Chris Bleth’s solo duduk states a plaintive version of the Religious Ceremony Theme:
This melody, usually reserved for funeral services, gives Adama’s shades of a preacher’s sermon, rather than coloring it as a rousing, military oration. This subdued feel is all the episode could handle, since anything more grand or rousing would feel like a stark and unbelievable shift from the despair we’ve witnessed.
This sequence is especially important because it provides a realistic relief from the punishing darkness leading up to it. Michael Nankin explained the importance of the sequence first by confessing “I LOVE dark drama. I love opera and tragedies, the sadder the better. This episode was a gift in more ways than one. This episode is a tragedy in the classic sense–it’s cathartic. You go through the worst possible experience imaginable with the characters and yet there is hope. In the same way I wanted to give Dualla the only happiness in the show (which she gives to Lee as the gift of life,) I gave Laura Roslin the final image of hope.
‘Laura is the one most destroyed by the reality of Earth. It invalidates all her beliefs and decisions and makes her feel that she’s killed thousands for the wrong idea. She falls down the well of despair and is unreachable. Yet, in her final moment in the show, she is holding and contemplating a flower she picked on the planet. A tiny shred of life and promise that she won’t let go of. This was not in the script, but something I planned from the very beginning. Everything else I did was intended to make things as depressing as possible, including shooting the planet as if it were in a Bergman film. We even had the extras give up. It all made me very happy.”
*** The Final Cylon ***
From there, we cut to an intimate scene with Tigh and D’Anna, where we learn that D’Anna will stay behind on Earth. It is, perhaps, her last scene in the series.
We transition to the lapping waves and gray clouds from the episode’s opening moments. With those images returns a familiar sound that accompanied them in the beginning, the Earth Chord:
I wanted this final cue to be a thematic retrograde of the first cue, so it introduces the themes in reverse order. As Tigh steps into the waves, Earth Melody B returns, stated first in the celli and then followed by a countrapuntal echo in the violins. He wades further into the water and the high violins play their high statements of Earth Melody A, again in long, emotionless, frozen pitches, devoid of emotion or lyrical phrasing. Listen for the return of the dissonant, acoustic ping-pong delay effect on the left and right sides.
He experiences echoes of his distant past, similar to Tyrol and Anders. However, this time I made no reference to “Watchtower,” which would have been the obvious musical choice here. Indeed, the Earth Chord, and Earth Melody A continue uninterrupted through the initial flashbacks. I chose this approach because I was saving up musical energy for the big reveal. There was no point in putting musical stingers on the flashbacks, because they were self-evident. No, I used this opportunity to begin a searing, steaedy crescendo leading up to the big sting.
Tigh, apparently a banker or businessman, runs through a bombed out bank and we hear a familiar voice call out his name from off camera. He reaches down and sees Ellen buried in the rubble. The cold and frozen orchestral textures of the score give way to a huge percussion groove, accented by frame drums and taikos. The low strings perform a driving bassline in multiple octaves that almost sounds a bit rock and roll, inspired shamelessly by the energetic string phrases in my favorite Jerry Goldsmith scores.
And climbing up through the aggressive musical texture, a familiar theme appears, first in the celli, tanbur and duduk and then much high in the two sections of violin, the Tigh Theme:
This theme, originally composed for Tigh’s military take-over the civilian government in Season 2 (and entitled “Martial Law” on the Season 2 soundtrack) went through some remarkable shifts in Season 4, Most memorably, it accompanied Tigh’s visions of Ellen in Escape Velocity. For that episode, I altered the mode slightly, lowering the second scale tone to give it a more exotic, Middle Eastern flavor. Naturally, that version of the theme is the one that returns here and echoes away as Tigh proclaims “Ellen, you’re the fifth.”
Ellen Tigh is the Final Cylon?! Another surprise from the writer’s isn’t merely the identity of the Final Cylon, but also the timing. I think many fans (myself included) were expecting this reveal in the last episode. I asked the writers how they decided to make Ellen the Final Cylon. David Weddle explained “we decided to make Ellen one of the Final Five at the same time that we chose the other Final Five at the end of Season Three. The decision was primarily made by Ron Moore, though all of the writers weighed in.”
I had to press, and ask them if they knew Ellen was a Cylon from the very beginning. Her introduction in Season One’s Tigh Me Up Tigh Me Down suggested that she was, but then that storyline seemed to disappear until Sometimes a Great Notion. Bradley Thompson confessed “We can take two roads from here – lie and say it was all planned from the get-go, or tell the truth, which is the story grew organically from what we’d set up – a practice some have called ‘ret-conning.’ We looked at the characters and their stories to date, we examined the potential for surprising but ‘right’ storytelling. We looked at which characters would be tortured the most by that turn of fate. And the room put the names on the board. Ron said, ‘Go sleep on it.’ Next day, they were the Final Five.”
*** Conclusion ***
While the music in Sometimes a Great Notion was dark and bleak beyond description, the creative process was an absolute joy. The orchestral session was a chance to play in the Bernard Herrmann musical soundscape that I’ve adored since my youth. “I’m sorry, you mean Bernard Herrmann rip-off, right?” Michael Nankin added. “The French have a word for it: homage. Anyway, it was delicious to see all the strings and to hear that you can be as dark and depressing as I am. It was fun to hear you pull all the themes together to create one of the great funeral dirges of episodic television. My partner in bleakness. But you’re looking for my opinion of your work–which is the same as it’s always been: I am astonished, moved and deeply affected by your work. You’re a composer who understands the interior life of the characters and tells a story about it. That’s rare, my friend.”
So Say We All,
PS: Somewhere in the score to this episode I’ve hidden a clue about the end of the series. Good hunting. :)