Da Vinci’s Demons: The Fall From Heaven

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“The Fall From Heaven” concludes this season’s Peruvian story arc while setting in motion events that will have major ramifications for the rest of the season and beyond. The episode also presented my final opportunity to incorporate unique South American instrumentation and vocals into my score this season. It’s not as if I ever hold back anyway, but I definitely pulled out all the stops on this one, writing my biggest action cues and most lyrical orchestral passages yet for the series.

SPOILERS AHEAD: The episode opens with the full scene that teased the season premiere, where Da Vinci and Riario have an intimate conversation in a Peruvian dungeon awaiting their sacrificial deaths. We saw the beginning of this ritual in “The Blood of Man” and witnessed another ritual in “The Sun and The Moon.” In all three sequences, I combined score and source music to create music that exists in both worlds.

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The source music is the sound of the pounding tribal drums, chanting vocals from the crowd and energetic panpipes from performers at the base of the altar. As in “The Sun and The Moon,” I took great care to line up every visual drum hit and musician gesture with the drums in the score, and the rhythm of the chanting South American extras. Atop these source layers, the orchestra adds layers of emotion and urgency.

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While Da Vinci and Riario await their fates, Nico and Zo break free from their captors and plan a daring rescue. I underscored their scenes with a playful ostinato in the string quartet and small percussion, supporting Renaissance lutes and simple guitar textures. This musical texture adds urgency, but keeps their scenes rooted in lighter adventure. The only moment their score goes really dark is when we very briefly think that Nico has betrayed Zo and turned him in to the guards. Here, the score geniunely suggests that Nico has betrayed his friend, for just long enough to underscore Zo’s shock. Even after we realize that Nico has not betrayed Zo, we’re still left with an unnerving sense that his time with Riario has changed him permanently, a feeling the ominous score highlights.

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At the last moment before the sacrifice, Zo and Nico set off an explosion that causes a distraction allowing Da Vinci to grab a blade and escape. At this moment, the score introduces a blisteringly fast percussion groove that will underline their entire escape back to the Vault of Heaven.  Here, the drums are obviously no longer functioning as source music, since the drummers are no longer playing. I asked percussionist MB Gordy to add soloistic layers of congas, giving the tribal percussion a distinctly South American flavor. The combination of the heavy bombas, rattly cha-chas and virtuosic conga riffs resulted in a very exciting percussion texture, that kicked the score into high gear.

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The introduction of this drum pattern, at the moment of the big explosion, is a point where I’m breaking the rules I had previously established. Until this point, all the percussion in the score could believably have emanated from the drummers in the scene. Obviously, the drummers don’t start playing a new song when a huge fireball rips across the sky. This is clearly a point when the drums transition being source music elements to purely instruments in the score. If I wanted the transition to be more smooth, I would have avoided using percussion after the explosion, but then the music would have lacked that driving tension. So, this is one example of many where the aesthetic storytelling needs outweighed technical details. The Peruvian percussion added such a wonderful and urgent sense to the action cue that I couldn’t resist using it.

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Da Vinci, Riario, Nico and Zo run to the Vault of Heaven as their only escape route, while being accompanied by driving string orchestra and a fierce groove from the congas and tribal percussion. As Ima pursues him, I asked woodwind master Chris Bleth to improvise fluttering phrases on the ocarina, the same instrument that Ima played on camera in Episode 206, “The Rope of The Dead.” This formed a thematic connection between these two episodes. In one, Ima’s ocarina lures Da Vinci to return to her, and here it represents his escape from her.

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Once inside, Da Vinci instructs Zo and Nico to quickly assemble his theoretical parachutes while he and Riario solve the final mystery of the door to the Vault of Heaven. Da Vinci remembers his vision of the Mona Lisa from Episode 206 and realizes that he had hidden a code for himself within the arches in the background.

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On the surface, I needed to score his epiphany, and use threads of the Da Vinci Theme and the Da Vinci Ostinato to highlight his discovery of the hidden numbers. I also used a soaring orchestral statement of the Backwards Da Vinci Theme, which is thematically related to his mother, to remind the audience that he thinks he’s about to find her. These ideas are represented in the score by uplifting string phrases, expressive viola da gamba solos and a churning string quartet ostinato.

The music had more work to do, however. The score also needed to remind the audience that Ima and her warriors were still making their way through the traps and would be on them at any moment. I wanted to keep that clock ticking, even when we’re in Da Vinci’s memories and flashbacks. That tension was provided by the relentless South American percussion. I brought the dynamics on the percussion down, so they wouldn’t overpower Leonardo’s emotional revelation, and the resultant combination worked beautifully. (Truly, there is so much going on in the music here that only a fraction of it is finally audible when its combined with the dialog and sound effects of the final mix. This is a moment that I hope fans are able to discover and dive into on the soundtrack album, which comes out May 27th from Sparks & Shadows.)

At last, Da Vinci solves the mystery of the door to the vault and the golden gates part to reveal not the Book of Leaves, nor his mother, but… a Brazen Head.

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I wanted the score here to underline not the mystery of the Head but instead their crushing disappointment when they realize the book is not there. I felt that the presence of sad music here would still be too comforting. Instead, I wrote the score to feather down to a single sustained note before completely disappearing altogether, leaving Da Vinci and Riario in complete musical silence. I think this effect creates a more devastating sense of failure, allowing Blake Ritson’s line “where is the fucking book?” to echo through the cave with more profound impact.

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As Da Vinci picks up the head and realizes that it contains a recording of his mother’s voice, he gradually understands that his mother is gone, and possibly dead. Here is where music returns to make an emotional statement, with a viola da gamba quotation of the Backwards Da Vinci Theme, that has always represented his quest for his mother:

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As Da Vinci hears the recording of his mother’s voice, we hear other sounds in the background, seemingly random, disjointed musical tones. I wonder what those are? (Hint: check out my next blog entry!)

The emotion is short-lived, as Ima and her warriors storm into the cave. Now, the driving action percussion and full orchestra burst back into action. Our heroes leap out of the cave using the parachutes Da Vinci hinted at designing back in the first episode. Before he leaps, Ima begs Da Vinci not to take the book, as the score quotes a final statement of the Ima Theme on the South American quena:

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In one of my favorite moments in the entire season, Da Vinci turns to her, questioning whether he owes her the truth or not, before deciding to finally tell her there was no book in the vault. As soon as she realizes her people are now doomed, the score comes crashing in with a huge orchestral phrase, leading up to Da Vinci’s heroic leap from the cliff. What a cinematic moment!

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I have not always sided with Ima as a character, but I genuinely felt for her in this moment. After all, we know her people and culture truly are doomed to annihilation by Spaniards in her lifetime. Perhaps it would have turned out differently if they had the Book of Leaves. As Da Vinci soars through the air in his parachute, the string orchestra ripples across elegant arpeggios, the Peruvian percussion pounds huge downbeats and rich choral vocals fill the upper register.

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The stacked female vocals are not the traditional Pervuian singers, but the sonorous voice of Raya Yarbrough. Raya was featured prominently last season in the score for Episode 103 “The Prisoner,” and the track “Prayer to Saint Michael” on the first season soundtrack album. I needed a powerful vocal presence to raise the stakes in the score this week. I knew the intimate Peruvian vocal songs I had recorded for “The Sun and The Moon” would never hold their own against the huge orchestration for this scene. So, Raya came in and brought the score to a whole new level. I originally only asked her to sing during this climactic parachute sequence, but once I knew she would record for us, I also wrote her a vocal part for what became my favorite cue in the episode. More on that later.

The parachute sequence was originally quite a bit longer than the final sequence that reached the screen. On the soundtrack album, you will hear the extended cue in all its glory. This moment summarizes every instrument and theme I had associated with Peru in a single piece of music, and concludes the story arc with a bang.

Though the Peruvian themes came to a conclusion in “The Fall from Heaven,” other themes grew in prominence.

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In Naples, Lorenzo’s tender relationship with Ippolita is explored in several intimate scenes.  These sequences are scored with the simple repeating string figure that is now clearly established as the Ippolita Theme:

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In Constantinople, Lucrezia is held prisoner and encounters a fellow Florentine named Jacob Pasha, who outs her true identity. Dissonant variations of the Lucrezia Theme on the Celtic harp give their dialog tension, building up to the reveal of an exotic soothsayer woman who enters the tent.

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I scored the soothsayer’s arrival with a groove on a percussion instrument called an Udu. The udu is an old instrument built from a clay jar with a hole in the side. Have you ever tapped your hand on the top of a wine bottle, and heard that little scooping sound it can create? The udu is essentially a bigger version of that. The instrument hails from Africa and the Middle East, and so was appropriate to use here. I wanted to create the sense that the soothsayer could be a threat to Lucrezia. (Astute listeners may recall I actually used an udu once before in this series, at the end of Episode 107. In that scene, Lucrezia is under threat from Roman soldiers and then Giulliano, so there is a thematic connection between the instrument and Lucrezia being in danger.)

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Due to Lucrezia’s involvement in The Prisoner’s machinations, Bayezid goes to Rome to seek peace with the Pope.  Instead, he is treated to an audience with Alfonso and Sixtus that starts off tense and builds into a full-blown sword fight between Turkish warriors and Vatican guards. Their stand-off is built from threads of the three relevant character themes, the Rome Theme for Sixtus, the Naples Theme for Alfonso and the Ottoman Empire Theme for Bayezid.

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My favorite moment in this sequence comes when the fighting breaks loose. I set a steady tempo and then jumped back and forth between Eastern and Western instrumentation doing two unique rhythmic patterns, signifying the conflict between nations. As Bayezid fights valiantly, the trio of signature Turkish percussion that I have used throughout the season dances with an energetic Middle Eastern groove. As Alfonso gains the advantage, chugging string quartet, viola da gamba and Western percussion drive a more straight-forward, military pattern in response. The effect is cool, though admittedly buried a bit beneath the clanging steel that inevitably dominates the mix in a big sword-fight like this.

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At the end of the episode, the defeated Bayezid is stripped and marched out of Rome like a beggar, while a solitary ney plays a melancholy statement of the Ottoman, or Bayezid, Theme:

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Quon Shan, who escaped during the skirmish, climbs once more to a rooftop to signal to The Prisoner that their plan has been completed. As the reflected light flickers across The Prisoner’s face, his signature bansuri and viola da gamba duet quote his theme:

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The quotation of the theme is as enigmatic as James Faulkner’s performance. The actor plays this moment with reservation. Is Bayezid’s disgrace the successful execution of their plan, or its failure? All we know for sure is that the news is weighty and meaningful. The thematic statement of his theme here makes a direct connection to the character’s introduction in Episode 103, “The Prisoner,” and implies that The Prisoner has a grander plan than we yet know.

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With all of the action in “The Fall From Heaven,” it may be surprising that my personal favorite cue in the entire episode comes from a dialog scene with flashbacks. In their final scene, Riario and Da Vinci sit on the beach, waiting for Vespucci to return. Here, Riario is at his lowest point, having lost his faith, his God, his father and his purpose. He confesses to Da Vinci the horrifying truth that he killed his mother at his father’s request, to prove his loyalty. This is the most intimate scene Riario has had yet, so naturally I scored it with the Riario (or Rome) Theme:

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This particular version of Riario’s theme is unique. The theme is typically heard from an ominous male choir or a steely viola da gamba. Here, it is sung by angelic female vocals for the first time, once again featuring vocalist Raya Yarbrough. I used a unique harmonic progression and Raya’s angelic tone to give new emotional warmth to the twisted contours of this usually sinister melody.

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The close intervals of the Rome Theme always give it a sense of foreboding. Framing it in a new harmonic progression, I was able to set the melody in a more accessible pattern of major and minor chords. In short, I was able to make it pretty. Raya’s ethereal vocal tone takes it even further, giving the theme a sense of meditative beauty and calm rendering the theme virtually unrecognizable. Listen carefully, though, and you’ll hear that every single note of the Rome Theme is intact. It is the exact same melody, heard in a touching, new context.

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The final cue of the episode begins as Vespucci’s ship appears on the horizon, ready to return them to Florence. Our heroes stand on the shore, ready to face the new challenges that lie ahead, more dedicated than ever to find the Book of Leaves and follow the mysterious clues left behind by Da Vinci’s mother in the form of the Brazen Head. A rousing 6/8 pattern in the low strings promises adventure to come as it carries over to the credits, where Raya’s solo vocals and Malachai Bandy’s viola da gamba perform a duet variation of Da Vinci’s Theme.

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“The Fall From Heaven” concludes the ambitious Peru story arc and was brimming with enough action and revelation to be the season finale. Thankfully, however, we have two more episodes to go, which are probably the best two episodes we’ve created yet. The next episode integrates music into the narrative in a surprising way, so check back soon for my blog about how we pulled that off!

-Bear