February 19th, 2010
SPOILERS DANCING AHEAD: The world of “Caprica” continues to be revealed one layer at a time in Gravedancing. This episode allowed me to play with character themes again and follow their ever-changing arcs. But, I was also able to introduce more pop music into their society, including themes for Baxter Sarno’s TV show, and multiple songs featured prominently on Caprican radio, straddling the line between source and score.
First of all, I just have to say Patton Oswalt is one of the funniest and most unique comedians working today. I will confess when I first learned he would have a role on “Caprica,” I wondered if he could effectively blend into the world. However, at this point, my only regret about them casting Patton is that they didn’t make him a series regular! Somehow, adding this kind of personality to the grim and brooding texture of the series adds a layer of authenticity to the city, and to the entire world.
With Patton adding his own dynamic personality to his scenes, I knew I didn’t need to worry about supplying energy with the music, so I focused more on the intimacy and character arcs of Amanda and Daniel. Poor Daniel really gets put on the spot here, and Amanda comes to his rescue, showing the audience that they are real people too.
This cue, scored for woodwinds, harp, piano and gamelan underscored her speech on the Sarno show. The music ignores all the conflict in the media, the lights, the audience, even Sarno himself, and focuses solely on two grief-stricken parents. A solo clarinet states the Graystone Theme…
… before the harps, piano, gamelan and flutes introduce a simple, steady Graystone Ostinato:
As with many episodes of “Caprica,” the greatest musical challenge wasn’t in the score at all, but in the source pieces. And there were multiple places in this episode where source music played a pivotal role.
One of the episode’s most memorable moments is when Philomon dances with the U-87. First he flips through some radio stations (anyone notice him skipping past the “Colonial Anthem,” by Stu Phillips and Glen A. Larson in there?). Eventually he settles on a song and begins dancing.
I wanted this song to have a high-tech feel to it, after all, its about a dancing robot! So I turned to my friend Jonathan Snipes, whose band Captain Ahab has contributed many source pieces to Caprica, Eureka and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Snipes is also an expert sound designer and synthesizer programmer, and has crafted custom sounds for me on Terminator, Eureka, Trauma, Human Target, Dark Void and Dark Void Zero.
(Captain Ahab live. L-R: Jonathan Snipes – everything but dancing, Jim Merson – dancing)
I gave the scene to Jonathan and asked him to come up with a song that would both be believable as a pop song and help underline the emotional connection forming between Philomon and Mecha-Zoe.
“I watched the scene a lot before and while writing,” Snipes told me after we were finished. “I wanted to create something that felt both new and nostalgic, and wasn’t *quite* a love song, since this relationship has some pretty ridiculous barriers to overcome. If it was too sweet, it wouldn’t land since this isn’t a real relationship – a song about being in love would feel empty, but conversely if it was too on the nose (say, a song about being unable to say “I love you”) it would feel silly. So, I wrote a song half about a failed relationship, and half about the end of the world that’s still beautiful and tender.”
Because of the obvious and nearly-overwhelming science fiction elements in this scene, I asked him if the genre was ever an influence on his music. “It’s impossible to make electronic music and not be inspired by sci-fi,” he told me. “My studio looks like a fucking spaceship and I constantly find myself writing and saying retarded things like, ‘Patch the clock cable into the pulse divider, then use that to retrigger the low frequency oscillator that’s modulating the resonance of the bandpass filter.’ Total sci-fi nonsense. I’m also currently composing the score for a Bulgarian puppet show based on the writings Stanislaw Lem. Can’t escape it.”
The song Jonathan wrote, “Was Love,” is poignant, catchy and blends seamlessly into the Caprica universe. It sounds perfectly like the kind of song a smart geek like Philomon would pick out from the radiowaves to dance along with. “Was Love” is available now as a FREE DOWNLOAD and will be on the new Captain Ahab record, “The End of Irony,” due out in April.
With several Captain Ahab tracks appearing in the V-Club, I asked Jonathan what it was like to hear his unique sound creating such an impact on the series.
“Honestly, it’s a little weird to be responsible for so much source music,” he explained. “My background is in theater sound design, which is essentially music supervision, so I’m very tuned to editing and choosing music to fit a visual. My impulse is to be a total control freak, so having the specific usage choices out of my hands is a new experience. I love being involved with the project, though – ‘Battlestar’ has left such a legacy that it’s really exciting to be a part of the next step in the development of its world.”
The robot dance sequence was not the only song to be featured prominently in Gravedancing. The episode’s climax pits Amanda against Sam, who had been sent to assassinate her. He poses as her driver and takes her through a bad neighborhood. As they talk, Amanda gradually realizes that her life is in danger.
Writer / producer / director Jonas Pate threw me an unexpected curveball. He suggested that we “score” the scene with a source song playing on the radio. “Music can sometimes be very effective working in counterpoint to the dramatic tension of a scene,” Pate told me. “And the most effective way to do this is with a source song. If the source is indifferent to the dramatics, it can create a sense of unease and dread, and hopefully convince the audience that the murder of a central character is a real possibility: not an easy thing to do in TV when everyone knows the heroes aren’t gonna get knocked off.”
However, what he had in mind wasn’t just an ordinary pop song… he wanted to do a doo-wop song!
“We’ve built an aesthetic in ‘Caprica’ wrapped around the 1940′s: fedoras, trenchcoats and lots of deco,” Pate explained. “A doo-wop song was just in keeping with that overall spirit. It deepens the culture of Caprica, which is something that every department on the show strives to achieve.”
This was something I’d definitely never done before: score an impending murder with a doo-wop song. Never one to back down from a challenge, I set out to figure out how this could work.
The best solution I could see was one that began as doo-wop source and transitioned gradually into score. The doo-wop would represent Amanda’s naiveté, the score her realization and fear. Thus the transition from her one state to the other would be perfectly mirrored by the transition in the soundtrack.
There’s no one I know capable of writing a better doo-wop song than my brother, Brendan McCreary. “The producers wanted an old timey R&B tune, which is one of my specialties,” Brendan told me. “I grew up listening to Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding to name a few, so a song in that genre is not only easy for me to concoct, but extremely fun.”
He wrote a doo-wop song for the radio in the scene, but in the process he also wrote a great song. “‘I am a Man (Who Loves a Woman)’ was written under a serious time crunch,” Brendan explained. “Which is probably why it turned out so well. The entire song was written, recorded, and produced in just about 4 days.”
“My original vision for the lyrics, were to be a bit more like ‘Run for Your Life’ by the Beatles. A song all about how this jealous guy is going to do something horrible to his lady, over some mild transgression. But the more I went down that road, the more obvious it became, and it didn’t seem to fit the song itself, much less the scene. Which is how it came to be the opposite. In the end, the lyrics became all about a woman, who is abusive to her man, who is too cowardly or small to do anything about it.”
“I couldn’t be more happy with the song as it was a thrill to write and perform, which is why it is probably going to show up on my forthcoming album, due out this summer. If you live in LA, you should come see BrEndAn’s Band play. You never know…we might play ‘I am a Man’!”
In many ways, Brendan’s voice has become truly the cosmic voice of the “Galactica” universe. He’s a skilled enough vocalist that the ambient vocals from “The Cylon Prisoner,” the searing “All Along the Watchtower,” the Tauron Gangster Rap, the doo-wop song and many others throughout the years do not sound like they are sung by the same person. But, you loyal blog readers know that they are.
Brendan composing “I am a Man” was essential not only because he’s a better songwriter than I am, but because it allowed me time to focus on the score of the same sequence. Once Brendan’s first sketch was complete, I took his key, tempo and groove and began translating them into the “Caprica” instrumentation. Guitars, bass, drums and keyboards were replaced with shime daikos, nagado daikos, hand percussion, gamelan, harp and piano. The resultant track sounds nothing like doo-wop at all:
As different as these two pieces are, they had been designed to fit together. This next example pairs them together, similar to the final mix in the episode. First, your hear the doo-wop alone, then the score is gradually introduced, until it finally overpowers and takes over completely:
Pretty cool, right? This transition between two totally different styles of music perfectly represents Amanda’s casual conversation gradually giving way to realization, dread and despair.
“I love it,” Jonas said of the final song. “I think it perfectly captures that mood of indifference that I was hoping for; yet it also stands on its own as a well constructed piece of music.”
Needless to say, opportunities for musical experiments like this make Caprica a ton of fun to work on. And I owe Brendan and Snipes big time for coming through with such amazing compositions. They are both incredibly important components of the BSG / Caprica musical universe.
This subplot ends as Joseph confronts his brother. Joseph realized that killing Amanda was a mistake and had been trying to reach Sam on his cell phone all night. By this point, he’s very upset. Sam toys with him, first lying that he actually killed her and then refusing to give a clear answer about what really happened. The scene is well written and masterfully acted, and is among the strongest moments in this series thus far.
The first half of the scene is underscored with dark, brooding, ambient chords. The final release, when Sam admits that he didn’t kill Amanda, is accompanied by a bittersweet variation of the Tauron Ostinato…
… and Paul Cartwright’s solo fiddle performance of the Tauron Theme:
From there, the cue seamlessly transitions to Chris Bleth’s alto flute performance of the Clarice Theme…
… as she and Nestor watch the Graystone’s on Sarno.
Next week’s episode will introduce new themes and take the story to unexpected places. I think you guys will really enjoy it. So say we all…