BG4: “The Oath”

OATHY SPOILERS BEYOND:  The season premiere was a relentlessly dark and funereal television elegy.  Last week’s episode centered on coping with loss, depression and anxiety, and finding a way to pick up the pieces and move on.  If you have been waiting for the series’ pace to pick up and get back to kicking ass… your wait is now over.

The Oath is the second of an obviously multi-episode arc centering on a mutiny within the colonial fleet.  The tensions between human and Cylon are momentarily set aside as the humans divert all their rage and anger against each other.

The conspiratorial pairing of Gaeta and Zarek from last week is developed much further in The Oath, and as a result, their two themes are woven throughout the score.  As I was composing, I couldn’t help but feel a great deal of empathy for Mr. Gaeta.  I asked co-executive producer and this episode’s writer Mark Verheiden if he felt the same way.  He told me “it was challenging but a lot of fun… and it’s classic BSG, in that Gaeta isn’t necessarily wrong.  Teaming up with the Cylons was a fairly heady piece of business for Adama and Roslin, but clearly they didn’t do the prep work required to ‘sell it’ to the fleet or the people on Galactica.”

Actor Alessandro Juliani added “I’d like to think history will judge Felix well. But then again the road to Hell is paved with the best intentions…”

Musically, this and next week’s episode were tremendously demanding marathons for me.  A typical Season 4 Galactica episode will have between 24 and 28 minutes of score.  However, aggressively up-tempo action cues usually account for no more than 5 to 7 of those minutes.  The Oath required nearly 20 minutes of action score, and next week’s Blood on the Scales called for a staggering 25 minutes!

Needless to say, action cues require more time, energy and musical ideas than simple, ambient underscore.  And I’ve had a lot of practice writing action music on Battlestar.  Regardless, the action cues in these two episodes were more demanding than most, with the exceptions of Exodus Part II and the finale you’ll be seeing in a few weeks.

Believe it or not, The Oath is actually smaller and less action-packed than next week’s Blood on the Scales.  This episode focuses on the conspiratorial factions at work in the shadows that lead eventually to full-scale combat.  I knew I needed a musical approach that would capture the hurried, frantic energy of the episode, but that would also be adaptable into the epic cues necessary next week.

To infuse these two episodes with a unique sound, I brought to the foreground many of the Japanese instruments and musical styles that have always been a part of the Galactica score, but were often featured in the background.  Taiko drums obviously play an important role, but I also incorporated three Japanese instruments that are relatively new to the score: the biwa, the shamisen and the tsuzumi.  These three instruments can be heard throughout the episode, building in intensity with each scene.

*** The Biwa ***

The biwa is, by far, the most rare instrument I’ve used on Battlestar Galactica.  I was very lucky to find a masterful performer, Doctor Osamu Kitajima. Doctor (yes, that’s his name, not his title) has performed for us before on Battlestar Galactica.  His biwa can be heard loud and clear during the surprisingly meditative and haunting score for the assault on the Resurrection Hub, in The Hub. That score was the first time I’d ever hired him and I loved the sound of the instrument so much I knew I had to bring him back.

The biwa is a Japanese stringed instrument that “originally comes from China and reached Japan during the Nara period (710-759 AD),” Doctor told me.  “It used to be played by Biwa Hoshi, who were wandering biwa players, similar to today’s buskers or street musicians.”  In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the instrument’s prominence faded and it virtually disappeared from popular use. “It is a very rare instrument, even in Japan these days,” Doctor told me.  ”I don’t know why it nearly became extinct.  Maybe because it’s very limited in terms of hitting western notations and notoriously difficult to play.”

And he added “Nobody would appreciate this instrument anymore except me and Bear.” :)

I had no idea how difficult it was until I watched Doctor play it. The biwa is “held upright in the lap and struck with a lacquered pick the size of a shark fin,” producing an extremely percussive sound.  The fundamental pitch is actually quite soft, and the tone does not resonate very long.  We found that once the instrument was put into a mix featuring heavy percussion and other instruments, it got buried very easily.  I can’t say I mastered writing for it on this attempt.  During the sessions for The Oath, I realized it was getting clobbered by the percussion in my orchestration. As a result, you’ll hear it more in next week’s Blood on the Scales, as I did a better job making space for it in the arrangement.

I asked Doctor how he managed to add biwa to his list of instruments.  “I was born after World War II as one of the baby boomers,” he told me. “Since then, American culture has been so widely and intensively accepted by the Japanese that it has come to be an integral part of Japanese culture.  As a young man I studied classical guitar and piano, and formed a band [in the style of] The Beatles when I was 18 years old.  I lived in England for about 6 months in 1969 and formed the new band with 3 other English musicians.  While I was playing with these guys I started realizing that it was not what I was looking for, then I went back to Japan and started to study Japanese traditional music from scratch as a biwa player.”

My Galactica scores are not the first time the biwa has been incorporated into western music.  “As far as I remember, the first well-known usage of the biwa in western music was done by Toru Takemitsu,” Doctor told me.  “The composition is called ‘November Steps’ and it was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic on the occasion of its 125th anniversary, and premiered in November 1967 by the orchestra under the direction of Seiji Ozawa.  And also the instrument was used in ‘Shogun,’ an American television miniseries based on the namesake novel by James Clavell, and of course I was the one who played it.”

*** The Shamisen ***

The shamisen is another Japanese stringed instrument, this one dating back to the sixteenth century.  It originally came to Japan from China, where it was called ‘saxin,’ or ‘3-stringed instrument.’  It was traditionally made from many different materials.  The Okinawan and Chinese instruments both used snakeskin (as does the Chinese erhu), however other Japanese shamisens used cat or dog skin.  The instrument is made with an ebony neck, ivory tuning pegs and is plucked with an ivory plectrum called a ‘bachi.’  The top part of the bachi was traditionally made from a tortoise shell.  Of course, today the instrument is made with artificial skin, plastic and imitation tortoise shell because some of these components are illegal in the United States and other countries.

To my western ears, the construction and timbre of the shamisen are reminiscent of a banjo.  Its performance practice is actually quite similar.  In fact, in many Hollywood scoring sessions, a guitarist will simply approximate the Japanese playing style on a banjo.  But, I wanted a truly authentic sound.  When played in the traditional styles by a performer who has studied it, the shamisen is unmistakably unique.

Bringing me that authenticity and playing shamisen on The Oath and Blood is Greg Walsh.  My brother first ran into Greg playing in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles outside his favorite noodle place.  He called me from the sidewalk and said I had to check the guy out!  We brought Greg into the studio and he really let it rip.  After a particularly blazing cue I enthusiastically declared him “the Yngwie Malmsteen of Shamisen!”

Greg gave me a crash course in writing for the shamisen.  I asked him how he happened to pick up such an unusual instrument.  He told me he was living in Japan on a tourist visa and playing street music to make money. I was browsing around a pawn shop and saw a shamisen for sale for only 5,000 yen. So I bought it and started playing it around the streets of Tokyo like a guitar.  Some people really hated me but I made good money and really fell in love with the instrument.  I learned of its great tradition, history and passion. I bought a CD of a blind shamisen master named Takahashi Chikuzan who was like a God in Aomori, where Tsugaru shamisen comes from. It is in northern Japan just underneath Hokkaido. Very cold! So I met some other players and they taught me. I’ve been playing now for 13 years.”

Greg and I spent a good amount of our recording sessions experimenting with different tunings.  Most of our Battlestar session was recorded in the Tsugaru shamisen tuning.  We also re-tuned to “Nigari, which is a D-A-D or C-G-C tuning. We also used Honchoshi, which is the tuning they use in Okinawan music and Tokyo shamisen called ‘Nagauta.’  [In this tuning] you drop the [middle string] A or G down a step.”

In the recording sessions, I found the shamisen and biwa a fascinating combination.  Even though they are both stringed instruments of Japanese origin that are played with plectrums, they have traditionally never been paired in ensembles.  Surprisingly, I found they blended together marvelously to create a unique sound.  Like the biwa, the shamisen is extremely percussive, but it resonates tonal pitch more strongly and therefore survived better against the wall of percussion in the final mix.  The biwa got a little lost in the sonic texture, but did add very unusual percussive phrases.

*** The Tsuzumi ***

Fortunately, I anticipated that neither the shamisen or biwa would be percussive enough to cut through the loudest taiko passages, so I incorporated the third featured Japanese instrument, the tsuzumi.  Like the rest of BG percussion, the tsuzumi was played by resident percussion maestro M.B. Gordy.  The tsuzumi is an hour-glass shaped wooden drum, with a drum head on both sides.  Cords run along its length that can be released or squeezed to change the pitch and timbre of the instrument.  It is an unusually expressive percussion instrument that plays an important role in Japanese folk music and Kabuki theater.

“The tsuzumi is a bit difficult to play,” M.B. explained. “Traditionally, you would squeeze the drum with one arm pressing the drum against your body and the hand of that same arm pulling on the tension ropes.  The other hand strikes the drum to get that high pitch. This drum is quite similar to an African talking drum or squeeze drum.”

I wrote so many tsuzumi parts for The Oath and Blood on the Scales, that M.B. actually broke our drum during the last session!  “The [drum] head that I broke was on a high pitched African talking drum.  We liked the sound of that drum for these cues.  The head just gave out from squeezing and pulling on the drum continuously for an hour or so while working on the cues that called for the tsuzumi.”

This was not the first instrument to die while recording Galactica.  “I have broken two instruments so far: the talking drum and one of my favorite frame drums, otherwise known as ‘Jill,’” M.B. told me.  In our first ever Battlestar session, M.B., Steve Kaplan and I named all his frame drums so we’d remember which ones we liked.  He even wrote their names on each drum head with a permanent marker.  

“‘Loquisha’ has taken ['Jill's'] place for the time being,” M.B. reassured me. “Once I put a new head on her, ‘Jill’ should be as good as new though. And we still have ‘Jack,’ ‘Bubba’ and ‘Bertha.’  They are all doing just fine. I have also gone through quite a few pair of taiko sticks.  I think I went through 4 or 5 pair just during rehearsals and the 2 live shows at the Roxy last year.”

The biwa, shamisen and tsuzumi define the scores for Oath and Blood in my mind.  They give these episodes a unique musical signature.  I also wrote in a way that allowed them to stand out against the typical Galactica percussion ensemble.

My rhythmic ideas are usually performed by layers of multiple instruments.  For example, a low percussion idea is performed on bass drums, nagado daiko, toms, timpani and frame drums.  A mid-range rhythm will be covered by dumbek, tabla and shime daiko, while the high frequencies are accounted for by chang chang, shakers and rims.  No single percussion instrument is ever featured on its own as a solo.  (In many ways, the Battlestar sound is defined by its extreme excess.)  Here, I changed my approach.  The biwa, shamisen and tsuzumi are each featured as soloists, offering unique punctuating phrases and licks against the percussion ensemble backdrop.  This allowed Doctor, Greg and M.B. more freedom to improvise and instilled the score with the operatic and dramatic Kabuki-theater-feel I strove for.

*** Gaeta and Zarek Themes ***

One can hear these soloists in action almost immediately, beginning with Tom Zarek’s escape from the brig.  Isolated, solitary phrases from the three Japanese instruments punctuate an understated groove that builds energy as Zarek gets closer to escaping.  Above them all, Paul Cartwright’s solo electric fiddle sneaks in the Zarek Theme, as always in G# minor:

After four seasons of being a mysterious and conflicted character, Tom Zarek reaches his darkest moment in The Oath and returns to his revolutionary roots.  I asked actor Richard Hatch about the experience of bringing his character to this moral crossroads.  “Tom Zarek has struggled to work within a deeply flawed system, one that pretended to be somewhat of a democracy, yet in actuality seemed more like aristocracy, with Adama and Roslin at the head, making all the decisions,” he told me.  “The Council of the Twelve seemed to be more like a benign and gratuitous governing body with little power or influence.  This has left Tom with little option or ability to have an influence on what he believes are life and death decisions being made by Adama and Roslin.

‘To be frank, on the one side I’ve come to totally understand and sympathize with Tom’s perceptions and point of view, but dealing with his anger and coming to terms with Tom’s dark side has been quite challenging and almost unfathomable to me as an actor.  Probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do as an artist.  I was offered the role of Ted Bundy years ago but turned it down because of the amount of violence towards women.   Playing Tom in these final episodes was even more difficult for me to play than had I acted the role of Ted Bundy.”

With the introduction of the Tom Zarek theme last week, I now have a theme in play for every major character on this series.  The Zarek theme is, in fact, the last new character-specific theme I ever wrote for Battlestar Galactica. With all of my themes now firmly established, The Oath provided the perfect opportunity to begin shifting and adapting them.

During Zarek’s escape in the episode’s beginning, Laird confronts them.  Gaeta, hesitant to resort to violence, tries to talk his way out of it.  Here, a bansuri states the Verse of Gaeta’s Lament:

Originally written for Guess What’s Coming to Dinner, this melody was memorably sung by Gaeta as he recovered from having his leg amputated.  In The Oath, I twisted and distorted his theme to signify his conflicted emotions.  He believes he’s doing the right thing, of that I have no doubt.  But, clearly his hesitation in killing Laird proves he’s not quite ready to make the leap from angry dissident to full-fledged revolutionary.

Mark Verheiden also enjoyed working with Gaeta’s internal conflict.  He told me that “the contrast between Zarek and Gaeta was also interesting to play, since Gaeta is the true believer while Zarek is clearly an opportunist, and Gaeta is clearly uncomfortable going all Che Guevara…”

Throughout the episode, it was my hope that the combination of Gaeta’s Lament with the tense Japanese percussion and soloists would effectively communicate his inherent sadness, menace and warped idealism.

Gaeta fails to appease Laird and Zarek takes matters into his own hands, killing Laird with a brutal blow to the head.  The small percussion and Japanese instruments kick back in and take us out to the Main Title.  This sets in motion a chain of events that gathers steam throughout the episode.  With each subsequent scene, the small percussion and Japanese strings nudge up the tempo and intensity slightly, their soloistic lines becoming gradually more complex and sophisticated every time we hear them.  I wanted to create the feeling that we’re slowly, but surely, heading towards catastrophe, as if we’re trapped on a sinking ship.

These small Japanese-inspired cues reach their first peak when Gaeta successfully overtakes the CIC.  As he steps forward and takes command, Chris Bleth’s bansuri states the Verse of Gaeta’s Lament.  At this moment, the melody is clear and strong, adding menace and power to his coup.

However, at the end of the scene, when Adama says “You’ll die with nothing,” the zhong hu, duduk and yialli tanbur state the Chorus of Gaeta’s Lament:

This time the arrangement is much darker, underlining the fact that, as of this moment, neither one of these men will rest until the other is dead.  The Chorus of Gaeta’s theme was the melody line from Guess What’s… featuring Michael Angeli’s lyric: “To have her please, just one day wake.”  As the ethnic instruments play the melody, I can almost hear those words echoing in this chilling moment.

Not only was Gaeta’s Lament used in the score, but it was also heard occasionally on set during production of these episodes.  Alessandro Juliani confessed “It was my ringtone.”

The good thing about Adama being taken into custody was that it allowed Mark Verheiden to write one of my favorite scenes in the entire series.  When Adama and Tigh are escorted away by armed marines, Bill decides to kick some ass and escape custody (I leapt out of my seat the first time I saw this).  The powerful taiko drum assault that accompanies the scene was easily inspired.  I asked Mark how this moment evolved and he told me it “actually came during the writing.  We had discussed various scenarios for getting Adama and Tigh away from their guards, but while writing, I decided that Adama was the type of guy who would simply get fed up and get in the guy’s face, intimidating the hell out of them.  In the scene, Adama’s essentially testing the loyalty of the two guards, and when one guard actually allows himself to be engaged in the conversation, Adama senses an opening.  But I’m not sure, even as I say that, that it was as calculated as all that. To be honest, some of the inspiration for the scene came from working with Eddie Olmos… when he turns on the gravitas, he is one impressive fella.  And he was spitting fire all through this episode.” 

 *** Other Themes ***

Many other character themes weave their way into The Oath.  Starbuck’s heroic theme is heard on the bansuri as she grabs her guns and gets ready for war:

Roslin’s Religious Theme underscores her renegade broadcast to the fleet, played first on the bansuri and then again on the erhu:

The Oath also brought the opportunity for me to revive a long-dormant musical idea, although I’d hardly call it a theme.  This episode brings back my two favorite royal assholes: Crewman Specialists Gage and Vireem.  These characters first appeared in Pegasus, and beat Tyrol and Helo in the brig in Resurrection Ship, Parts I & II.  In The Oath, Gage helps out with the mutiny and Vireem is out for revenge against Helo and Athena.

Back in Season 2, I wrote a specific little percussion riff for these guys, called “The Sunshine Boys,” (inspired by Helo’s mocking nickname for them).  For The Oath, I composed “Revenge of the Sunshine Boys.”  I went back to the original cue, and updated the signature 7/8 riff with my current ensemble of percussion:

Unfortunately, I was unable to recreate the specific group of synth pads that played in the background, since I’ve swapped out so many samples for updated ones in the intervening years.  So, I sampled the entire synth pad background from the finished Season 2 mix and edited it into this new Season 4 version. 

In doing this, I realized just how far my score has evolved since the early days.  While Season 2’s “The Sunshine Boys” and Season 4’s “Revenge of the Sunshine Boys” are musically similar, the newer one sounds infinitely more polished and sophisticated.  It was a fun way to look back on how far my percussion writing has developed.

And I had to write something special for the scene where Vireem confronts Helo, because I really hate these guys.  I’m sure the actors are wonderful people in real life, but on screen they are such marvelous villains that I’m constantly hoping someone will just kick them into an airlock and say goodbye.  I wanted the score to underline their callous viciousness and petty quest for vengeance, although I certainly don’t expect any of you caught the reference to their Season 2 music in the score.

One a more pleasant musical note, “Roslin and Adama” returns yet again at the episode’s climax, as Laura and Bill are reunited.  I hope all the fans are appreciating how much I’m using this theme this season!  :)

This scene is only the third time in the entire series that I’ve stated the complete A-Theme…

…and B-Theme…

…of “Roslin and Adama” in a single cue.  The only other moments this occurred were in Resurrection Ship, Part II and The Hub.  In his script, Mark Verheiden crafted a genuinely warm and romantic moment and I knew the score needed to temporarily pull the reigns back on the action music and play the emotions between them. 

Of the finished score, Verheiden said that it is wonderful, as always.  You were in the delicate position of balancing BSG’s version of an ‘action’ episode with the heart/sadness, and as always, do a masterful job.”

Of course, the romantic moment is not to last.  Our heroes learn that marines are headed for them, and prepare for battle.  To help shatter the mood, the biwa, shamisen, tsuzumi and the full arsenal of Battlestar score instruments kick into high gear for the most intense action cue in the entire episode.  We end with one of the more aggravating cliffhangers in the series, as Tigh and Adama are apparently blown up by a hand grenade.  (I assume you’ll all be tuning in next week?)

*** Conclusion ***

I’ve worked closely with the writers on their final episodes and, whenever possible, asked them their thoughts on leaving the show.  Mark Verheiden described the experience as “somewhat bittersweet, though in the moment it was mostly the usual chaos of trying to get it right and then get it done.  I’m not big on ‘looking back.’  I always assume the best is yet to come.  But in BSG’s case I do make a small exception, because we had such a singular, wonderful bunch of people involved.  As I go forward, my goal is to recreate that work environment whenever possible.”

I’m in the middle of scoring my own last episode right now, so I know exactly how he feels!

So Say We All,

-Bear