Caprica: End of Line

SPOILERS & SPECIAL MUSICAL GUEST AHEAD: Writing music for the “Battlestar Galactica” universe has pushed me to compose in some very unusual styles.  I’ve written sonatas, fugues, arias, passacaglias, oratorios, lounge music, theme and variations, string quartets, jazz, rock, heavy metal, world music and even hip hop.  For tonight’s mid-season finale of “Caprica,” I was asked to write an opera: a challenge I was thrilled to tackle.

End of Line is the most narratively ambitious episode of “Caprica” since the pilot.  Fates are decided, characters die (actually, lots of characters die) and the music needed to be appropriately powerful, poignant and dramatic.  Here, the boundaries between source and score are shattered once again, as score becomes source and vice versa.

My themes have a habit of seeping into the “BSG” universe and becoming music that the characters are aware of (BSG’s Someone to Watch Over Me for example).  Tonight, Daniel Graystone sits down at the piano and literally plays his own theme song!

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Though only on camera for a brief moment, the evolution of this idea goes back to the first days of production on the show.  Actor Eric Stoltz told me he “requested the piano become part of the set when we shot the pilot, and also that Daniel plays it fairly well – as music and science have always been deeply connected. It’s a wonderful private facet of his character.” He asked for some appropriate piano music for his character to play.  I sent him several pieces, including the Stu Phillips classic “BSG Theme,” a.k.a. Nomion’s Third, which he played on camera in Rebirth.

However, I did not send him the “Graystone Theme” because… well, it never occurred to me that Daniel might play his own theme!  A few weeks later, I heard from Eric again, the day they shot this scene for End of Line.  “Today, I sat at the piano and played your ‘Graystone’ theme while looking at a photo of Zoe,” he told me. “The piano was out of tune and I clunked a few notes, but I got the music from your website in hopes you could tie it all in nicely.”

So, there you have it.  Eric was inspired to play the Graystone Theme by this very blog!  And, of course, it does tie in very nicely.  Daniel plays the “Graystone Theme,” and his piano transitions seamlessly into the score for the next scene.

Daniel’s piano performance was far from the most challenging musical task in this episode.  That honor goes to the operatic soundtrack accompanying Amanda and Zoe’s dual suicides.  The producers approached me with a unique idea, suggesting Daniel would play operatic music in the kitchen while preparing dinner for Amanda in Act 3.  This music would then return several times throughout the episode with increasingly score-like qualities.  Ultimately, at the end of the show, the opera would transition fully into score and carry us through the climactic montage.

(L-R: Julie Gigante and Katia Popov, violins)

Using classically-inspired orchestral music against long montages is, of course, nothing new to the “BSG” universe.  However, the presence of the operatic vocal was a refreshingly unique idea.  The last time I wrote music for an operatic voice was for “Battlestar Galactica,” season 1′s Battlestar Operatica, for a purposefully comedic effect.

(Neal Desby, conductor)

I set out to compose a new piece, temporarily and jokingly named Capricoperatica.  Regrettably, I never came up with a better name and now I’m getting used to it.

My first priority was to find a librettist.  I chose to collaborate with award-winning novelist Laura Kalpakian for the text.  I knew she would be able to craft a powerful libretto that mirrored the events on screen and simultaneously rose above them, to suggest a classical history to the opera.  She has a gift for visual description in her work that very few writers do, and she was ready to rise to the challenge.  Oh… and did I mention she’s my mom?  Anyway… she’s my mom.  :)

We spent a few hours discussing the format of the opera: how many characters it would have and how it would function within the score.  We decided that the piece itself should feel like a slice out of a larger opera.  Therefore, it didn’t require a complete story, just a simple yet resonant emotional arc.

(Elissa Johnston, soprano)

One singer might suggest an aria, or art song.  But, I wanted this to truly be an opera, to construct a narrative in the music: two speaking characters would allow that.  Dividing the opera into the four scenes it would underscore, we felt the first should feature a soprano, the second and third a baritone and the final act should include both singers.  From there, we concluded that the female and male singers would have opposing viewpoints, thus creating a dialog between them.

The lyrics “are based in Caprican / ‘BSG’ religious belief,  which are polytheistic,” Mom told me.  “So the references are constantly to gods (plural), but other than that,  it’s your usual tirade against any gods:  we die, they don’t;  they may seem to feel for mere mortals, but our travails mean nothing to them.  These sad thoughts befit the action of the finale.”

As I composed Capricoperatica, I discovered an increasingly rich and layered harmonic language.  I only had two singers and four stringed instruments at my disposal, so I was careful to rarely (if ever) write any unison pitches.  As a result, you are hearing six different notes virtually at all times (only three are necessary to suggest a single chord).  Therefore, a simple harmonic progression, like D major to E minor to G major, sits beneath a cloud of ascending and descending extended harmonies and contrapuntal lines.

The harmony had to be interesting, because, until the end, their is almost no rthythmic content aside from whole notes and half notes.  This is harmonically-dominated music.  Seeing all those “footballs” on the page at first glance, I suspect the string players thought this would be easy…  until they realized how complex the harmonic language was.

I knew we needed a female vocalist to connect with the, not one, but two lead female characters killing themselves in this episode (wow, this is a dark show, isn’t it??).  We worked with Elissa Johnston whose powerful, operatic soprano is absolutely stunning.

Her voice is first heard during the “source music” version of the cue.  Amanda solemnly looks through her memories of her relationship with Daniel in the bedroom, while he prepares dinner in the kitchen.  Elissa’s pure, sonorous voice sings the first stanza of the libretto:

Our living plight, the gods cast aside
The gods allay
Our sleepless nights, our restless days
We shall obey their least command
And give our hearts, our minds, our hands unto them

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We began our vocal session with this cue.  The first time I heard her sing the high “A” on “sleepless nights” I teared up almost immediately:

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At this point, this remarkable performance is just source music, supposedly playing from a stereo.  However, the music pivots and shifts, following the fragile dynamic of their conversation.  Amanda, more shattered than she lets on, confronts Daniel about Vergis’ claims.  As their dialog becomes more tense, the music takes on an ironically hopeful, almost angelic quality, that actually heightens the suspense in the scene:

Our voices lift to praise your powers
And seek, seek your help in darkest hours
O gods! We pray with plaintive cries
And trust your merciful replies.

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She leaves and, in despair, walks through the park towards a bridge.  For these scenes, I wanted to incorporate a male voice, to act as a foil to the female voice.  And whose powerful baritone voice was that lamenting Amanda Graystone’s despair?  I certainly hope that a few of you recognized Alessandro Juliani, “Felix Gaeta” himself!  Since more than one of you guessed him immediately after my hint last week, I’m certain you weren’t too surprised after all.

AJ and I had worked together before, to create the powerful Gaeta’s Lament in “Battlestar Galactica.”  In fact, AJ’s solo voice opens the BSG Season 4 soundtrack album.  He sounds absolutely amazing on that recording, but he is still singing in a relatively pop style.  Considering he is a classically trained opera singer, I knew he was capable of an even bigger, more dramatic sound, and wanted this piece to showcase that.

AJ brought a powerful performance to my mom’s text.  Unlike the soprano, who lovingly accepts with complete faith that the gods live above mortals, AJ’s baritone character has a much darker view of man’s position in the cosmos.  He views the gods with contempt and jealousy.

The gods cannot a heart betray
They know not night
They know not death’s long day

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At the end of the fourth act, Amanda climbs the bridge and prepares to leap to her death.  AJ’s sorrowful voice returns, singing one of my favorite lyrics from the whole piece:

They sport in splendor with our fears
And look as dewdrops on our tears

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(L-R: Julie Gigante, Katia Popov, Brian Dembow, Steve Erdody)

Up to this point, Capricoperatica has been authentically operatic.  A string quartet, recorded at Capitol Record’s famous Studio B, and small woodwind ensemble provided the complete instrumentation.  However, in the fifth and final act, the music makes an undeniable shift towards becoming score.

Signature “Caprica” percussion, harps and piano enter the arrangement, subtly building energy as Lacy makes her tormented decision to detonate Clarice’s car.  Simultaneously, the soprano and baritone come together in harmony with the beautiful text:

Soprano:
The gods forswear, all mercies past,
Each mortal heart will beat its last

Together:
Each mortal hand in stillness lie
All mortal love, condemned to die

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(Steve Erdody, violoncello)

The car detonates, and Lacey weeps.  Steve Erdody’s cello pierces the melancholy silence with a heartfelt solo passage that transitions us back to Zoe in the van.  The music swells again, even bigger this time, as Zoe races towards her demise.  The percussion pounds even heavier.  ”The gods have wings.”  AJ and Elissa carry this hopeful message to the heavens, the music and text literally ascending together:

The gods have wings, and bright ascend!

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The gloriously uplifting music breaks like a wave as Zoe crashes into flames, and Elissa holds a soaring high “A” on the word “ascend.”

However, the opera is not yet finished.  Soprano and baritone, together, have accepted their mortal fate.  The gods have left us alone, weeping.  The music suggests a calm, peaceful rest.

To leave us weeping in the end

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Although I would never have guessed it in the beginning, Capricoperatica became one of the most creatively significant compositions of my entire life thus far.  Indeed, if I were to pick my five most important works to date, this nine minute mini-opera would almost assuredly be among them.

I also enjoyed working with my mom on the lyrics. “I worked very hard on these,” she told me, “writing them, as you might well imagine, in longhand on endless sheets of yellow paper till I got them right, sending them to Bear and making some changes, sending back and so on.  It was wonderful to work with Bear and a true thrill  for me to hear words of mine put to music and sung by such exquisite voices.”

(Julie Gigante, violin)

Believe it or not, I was actively working on an opera a few years ago, when I got sidetracked… by getting “Battlestar Galactica.”  This experience has re-kindled my desire to tell a larger story through music and voice.  Maybe one of these days, I’ll get back to work on it.  Certainly, Capricoperatica is an exquisite little opera in and of itself.  Oh, and its not bad as a soundtrack either!

So Say We All!

-Bear