Black Sails – Bodhrán & Bones

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The second episode of Black Sails has aired, and I’ve released my second video blog! Allow me to introduce Bruce Carver and Brad Dutz, the percussion duo who bring the sublimely clackity rhythmic intensity to my score, playing Bodhrán & Bones:

Percussion tends to be a defining sound for all my scores. But, this particular combination for Black Sails was a creative risk for me. Going into the first episode, I really had no idea whether it would work at all. I normally have the security blanket of very meticulously notated percussion parts. Here, I went into the first sessions with only basic grooves and a few specific beats. I had to put an immense amount of trust in Brad and Bruce both as musicians and as storytellers. As I suspected, my faith paid off: they immediately brought a signature sound to the series and elevated my music at the same time.

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For the first episode, my initial experiments with the rhythm trio, the percussion duo, the hurdy gurdy and other unusual instruments all worked beyond my wildest hopes. So, I set out to score “II.” with a clearer sense of what the score should sound like, giving me confidence that I think is evident in the music itself.

Musically, this episode is important because it introduces The Flint Theme:

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This theme is heard during his conversation with Eleanor, when he describes his vision for “A Nation of Thieves,” and is featured on the soundtrack album in the track with the same name. We’ve seen a lot of Flint being a badass up to this point, but this scene reveals another side of his personality. We are given a glimpse behind his tough façade at the dreams he harbors underneath. His theme reflects his inner ambitions.

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The Flint Theme is played as a solitary, haunting solo on a South American flute called a quena. The performer, Chris Bleth, has played woodwinds for me ever since my first episode of BSG, so I knew I could trust him to bring an evocative feeling to the solo. These gentle tones are at complete odds with Flint’s visual appearance, but they provide his character a sense of depth. This is the kind of scoring I live for: scoring the subtext and letting the obvious elements speak for themselves in the visuals.

This is not a theme you will hear all the time. The Flint Theme is reserved for only those moments when we get to see a side of him that is rarely revealed. You can probably count on two hands the number of times you’ll hear the theme this season. But, those moments are increasingly powerful.

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Speaking of themes, there are several scenes in “II.” where we hear quotations of “Wondrous Love,” functioning as the Max / Eleanor Theme. Their relationship takes an unexpected twist in this episode and it allowed me to write a melancholy and heartbreaking rendition of the tune that sounded so romantic just one episode ago.

In “II.” I found opportunities to improve on the lessons I’d learned scoring the premiere. Some of my most playful grooves come from this episode. “Streets of Nassau,” from the soundtrack album, combines a number of my favorite passages. The chugging guitars, fiddle, crackling bones, fluid bodhrán, string quartet and electric bass just work so well together. I had a joyous experience imagining these musical ideas and hearing them brought to life by these brilliant players. They capture the bustling energy and chaos of Nassau.

One of my favorite textures from the entire season comes from “II.” – “Silver Overboard.” The second half of this piece comes form the scene where Silver watches Max negotiate with Rackham and Vane through a peephole, powerless to help her.

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The scene begins with a strange ostinato performed by a cello and hurdy gurdy duet. I used the tip of my finger brushing the lowest hurdy gurdy string to create rhythmically-timed harmonics that pop in and out of the drone. I then had the cellist create the same effect on the cello. Naturally, the intonation in the cello is much more consistent than the hurdy, so the result was a discordant pattern that drifts in and out of tune, providing a hypnotic tension to the sequence. In particular, check out the note sustaining at the end of the track – the hurdy gurdy drifts so far sharp against the string quartet that it makes my teeth hurt listening to it!

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“II.” also features a substantial action cue called “The Wrecks.” I composed this for the energetic chase scene through the wrecks and set it in a swinging 7/8 groove. This piece was the biggest challenge of the episode for me and showrunner Jonathan Steinberg to figure out. Early drafts felt overtly cinematic while later drafts became too minimalist. Toiling on this scene revealed the essential dilemma of scoring Black Sails: the music has to function like score, but can’t sound like its trying to be score.  I don’t know if that even makes any sense, but once I started thinking that way, I was finally able to crack this one. It was a tough experience, but by the time I finished this scene, I finally had a grasp of what this score is about.

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In the final scene of “II.” Flint travels inland to the home of a mysterious woman playing the clavichord. I worked closely with the producers, the props department and music historian Adam Gilbert to ensure that her piece is historically accurate. Gilbert found at least a dozen pieces to audition for this scene. As with Da Vinci’s Demons, I encountered the problem of needing historically accurate music that is also melodically and harmonically modern enough to resonate with contemporary audiences. I gravitated toward Chaconne in G Minor by Henry Purcell, an English composer whose music was very popular at the time.

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To record the live clavichord on set would have been prohibitively challenging for production, so I re-performed the Chaconne in sync with the actress’ finger movements and body language, creating the illusion that she is casually practicing in her home. The Purcell Chaconne is a delightful piece of music, and I enjoyed arranging it. I always intended to go back into the studio and rerecord my arrangement for the soundtrack album, but I just ran out of time.  Perhaps I’ll include it on a subsequent release.

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“II.” is an exciting episode because it really kicks the storylines into action, and allowed me to introduce a theme for our primary character. There are still a few important character themes this season still to be introduced, and I suspect you’ll be hearing one very soon.  Just a reminder, the Black Sails soundtrack is already available now, both digitally from iTunes and on CD, from Sparks & Shadows.

See you guys back here for “III.”

-Bear