Da Vinci’s Demons: The Sun and The Moon

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“The Sun and The Moon” was the most ambitious score I have composed yet for Da Vinci’s Demons. As Da Vinci sets foot on the new world, the score needed to tell us he is in a completely alien environment, meeting a foreign culture. I had a year and a half to mentally prepare, because Da Vinci’s voyage to South America was hinted at as far back as the second episode of the first season. I distinctly remember David S. Goyer telling me, as we were working on that episode, that our characters would indeed travel to the new world in the second season. Even then I was nervous at the prospect of adding another continent’s worth of music to this already globally-influenced score.

Finally seeing the costumes, visual effects and lavish production design that bring Machu Picchu to life for this series, I was overwhelmed and inspired at the same time, and dove headfirst into the challenge of bringing this adventurous run of episodes to musical life. I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I had to find someone with an expert knowledge of music from the region, who could guide my composition in the same way that music historian Adam Knight Gilbert guided my Renaissance-style writing. A heavy-metal animated rock-musical would lead me to that person.

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Last summer, I orchestrated a rock-opera for the Adult Swim hit series Metalocalypse: The Doomstar Requiem, for my friend Brendon Small, who created the series and composes its outstanding music. During our collaboration, Brendon introduced me to his high school buddy Renzo Staiano. Renzo is also a guitarist, but his true passion is ethnomusicology. We were chatting away, and I asked him about his particular area of expertise, which happened to be Peruvian music. That caught my attention as a useful cosmic coincidence, because I knew Da Vinci’s Demons Season Two was around the corner. Several months later, when I was faced with the task of actually scoring “The Sun and The Moon,” I called Renzo up and asked him for his expert advice.

Wherever possible, I always try to use the geographic and historical aspects of a project’s narrative to influence its score. The music of Florence draws from composers and instruments native to the region during Da Vinci’s time. The characters from Naples are accompanied by themes derived from Neapolitan music. So, it should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I intended to use historically accurate Peruvian music as the basis for the score for these episodes.

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In this case, the geographical aspect was easy: Da Vinci is in Peru, so Peruvian music is a clear influence. However, the time period complicated the matter. Da Vinci has arrived in Peru a few years before any other Western explorers. Much of the Peruvian music we hear today carries a strong Spanish influence, including the language itself as well as the use of guitars, charangos and other lute-like instruments. None of these sounds would have been heard in Peru in the pre-colonial era, so I could not use any of them in the score.

What exactly could I use? This is where Renzo’s knowledge became essential. He sent me hours of field recordings of indigenous music from the region. I heard vocal songs called Harawis, which have a very distinct character. I heard wind instruments such as the quena and pan pipe, and hide percussion such as the bombo, similar to a bass drum, and cha-chas, which sounded like large rattles. The more I listened, the more I assimilated a sense of what rhythms and grooves would be appropriate, and I began to imagine how I could translate these ideas into score for the various emotions I would need in this episode and beyond.

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I was enchanted by the vocals. The human voice is the most immediately expressive sound a composer can employ. Hearing these other-wordly Harawis immediately transported me to another time and place. Often performed by a solo or duet of female vocals, the voices were piercing, almost yodel-like, and yet haunting at the same time.

How could I possibly incorporate this sound into my score? This was the challenge I was facing, as the clock for the deadline ticked down. I frequently work with vocalists I know in Los Angeles, who can master various styles. In those situations, I learn the musical style myself, and compose my own melodies in that cultural style.  However, I knew we couldn’t possibly achieve this level of authenticity for a vocal style as incredibly unique as this. If I were to write out a Harawi as an original composition and find a singer in Los Angeles to impersonate these regional singers, the result would have been pitiful at best, and insulting at worst. (One of the lessons I learned from my mentor Elmer Bernstein was that film composers have a responsibility to accurately represent ethnic music in film and television. He was outraged by composers who write ethnic music supposedly from a region and just make up what they thought that music should sound like.)

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I knew I didn’t have the right people here in Los Angeles to do this properly. I needed to go to the source. I asked Renzo if there were a way for us to coordinate a recording session of true indigenous singers, and do it very quickly. Renzo reached out to his friend Mario Orozco, a guitarist famous in Peru for his solo guitar interpretations of traditional Peruvian music. Mario agreed to find singers and produce a recording session for us in Lima, Peru.

Thus began a very exciting but increasingly tense few days as we waited to see who Mario could find. As it turned out, finding singers who are comfortable singing traditional Harawi is difficult, even in Lima! With my deadline to finish the episode inching ever closer, I had to hold off composing any of the Peru scenes until we heard how these sessions turned out. For a composer in Hollywood, there’s nothing scarier than not being able to get started!

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Finally, Mario was able to coordinate bringing a few singers down from the mountains into his studio in Lima. He recorded two traditional singers named Carmen Ynés Ascarza Mendoza and Edith Ramos Guerra, who are featured prominently throughout the next four episodes of the score. Mario also worked with a singer named Sylvia Falcon whose tone was beautiful, but more contemporary and thus less appropriate. I told Mario the kinds of emotions, tempos and styles I was hoping for and he recorded hours worth of traditional Harawi songs. The language, melody and performance style pre-date the Spanish influence of the last five hundred years. It is an ancient sound, unlike anything I’d ever heard before.

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Once I got the recordings into my studio, I spent hours going through them, marking the pieces I responded to in various emotional ways. Then, I composed my score around the Harawi, letting the traditional melodies, rhythms and tonal inflections guide my composition, instead of the other way around. This marks the first time in my career I’ve composed in this manner, and the score to “The Sun and The Moon” sounds unique for this reason.

This was an insane amount of work and stress for me and my entire team. Waiting for these vocals slowed down my entire composition process, and there was no guarantee the tracks would even be useful. As Tom Riley said to me in my most recent Da Vinci’s Demons video blog, “You don’t make life easy for yourself.”

The combined efforts of Renzo, Mario and my team paid off beautifully. These tracks were stunning and gave me more inspiration than I could have possibly imagined. I can very proudly say that audiences are hearing the real deal when they’re watching Da Vinci’s Demons. When Da Vinci first gazes upon Machu Picchu, the solo vocal in the score is a traditional voice singing a Harawi that could have been sung in that region during Da Vinci’s time. For me, this is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime musical opportunity that makes scoring Da Vinci’s Demons so rewarding and creatively satisfying.

Peruvian vocals are woven throughout the score in “The Sun and The Moon,” and offer a striking End Credits piece. However, they are not the only new color in the score used to represent Peru. I also expanded my woodwind and percussion palettes with new sounds, unique to this storyline.

My resident woodwind maestro Chris Bleth basically plays every woodwind instrument in the world. He is already a primary voice in my score, playing the concert and Renaissance woodwinds that I use each week. Here, I put his talents to use playing the South American flute called a quena, using it primarily for a new theme I composed for Ima, which I will discuss later. More importantly, Chris played the signature panpipes that are so evocative of Peru.

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I used the panpipes for background textures and rhythmic grooves. Panpipes are not an instrument ideal for melodies, because it is very difficult to make smooth intervallic leaps with them. I asked Chris to improvise long, fluttery textures that we soaked in reverb and washy delay, creating ambient drones and haunted textures. Chris would then rise up from the texture with the occasional flutter, or overblown harmonic. These resulted in unique drones and sonic beds that feel unlike anything else I’ve ever written: suspenseful, even terrifying, and yet distinctly Peruvian.

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For percussion, I asked percussionist M.B. Gordy to find new drums that we could use uniquely for the Peruvian storylines. He brought in large hide drums, played with mallets, evoking the bombos I heard in all those field recordings. M.B. also used large shakers to capture the sound of the cha-chas. I adopted a simpler rhythmic structure for my Peruvian drum writing. Renzo and I spent a great deal of time discussing the most current scholarly research on what pre-colonial drum patterns likely were. These are the types of drum patterns you will hear in the score, especially during the ceremony scenes at Machu Picchu.

Armed with my new vocals, woodwinds, percussion instruments and a basic knowledge of pre-colonial Peruvian music, I was finally ready to actually score Da Vinci’s trek into the new world.

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SPOILERS AHEAD: “The Sun and The Moon” opens with Da Vinci arriving at the new world. A simple shaker ostinato foreshadows the driving ethnic percussion to come as the Calder Quartet emulates the roll of the waves with a gentle ostinato. Above that, the string orchestra soars with a lyrical statement of the Da Vinci Theme as he steps out of the boat and sets foot in the new world.

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For the first half of this episode, series creator and executive producer David S. Goyer made me pull back as long as I could. I remember our spotting session when we first watched this scene, and I was so excited about diving into the Peruvian music that I proposed using it right from the beginning. But, Goyer told me to wait. Our best opportunity would come later. And he was right.

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Da Vinci, Zo and two companions trek into the jungle while Vespucci and the others stay behind. They come across a golden idol in the jungle, that Da Vinci recognizes as having the same face as his keys to the Vault of Heaven. This realization is underscored with a solo duduk playing an ethereal statement of the Book of Leaves Theme:

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The moment is interrupted when they encounter a native. The tense stand off is underscored with ethereal panpipe textures and rattles.

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This texture is amplified further on their next encounter, when they are suddenly surrounded by a group of armed Incas. Here, the Peruvian percussion is stronger and the flutters in the panpipes more urgent. Da Vinci tries to show them that he carries a key bearing their image, and the solo duduk returns once more with the Book of Leaves theme. The attempted bond is short-lived, as the warriors knock him out.

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Later, Da Vinci, Zo and their companions find themselves marching towards Machu Picchu, and towards certain death. During the exciting travel montage, Da Vinci observes their farming culture and tall corn. This sequence is scored with a combination of familiar and new music elements. The wailing Harawi vocal performance and fluttering panpipes represent the Inca and the new surroundings. Underneath the Peruvian elements, the Calder Quartet adds striking urgency with a frenzied metered tremolo line. This texture is common for my writing on this show, and is meant to represent our familiar characters in this new world, reminding us that we are seeing Peru from their perspective.

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At the end of the journey, Da Vinci is brought before the high priestess, Ima Kama. Here, a solo quena introduces the Ima Theme:

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Her theme is built primarily out of fifths, because that interval was very common in indigenous panpipe and quena music from this time. As her mysterious relationship with Da Vinci evolves over the coming episodes, her theme will become increasingly emotional.

Ima leads them to a huge arena atop Machu Picchu, initiating the episode’s largest set piece. A huge crowd of Incas chant, while drummers pound hide drums and panpipes are played. Ima and the foreboding Topa present the newcomers a choice of three items, each of which seems to lead to the same reward: a painful death.

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This sequence was my greatest challenge yet in an already-challenging episode. Production had shot drummers playing and extras chanting, but no one had thought to coordinate efforts to make sure the tempos remained steady. The sound of the drums recorded on set were not going to cut it, so I needed to replace them with my own drums and rhythms. I had to carefully match the rhythm of the on-camera drummers and the sound of the chanting. This involved a painstaking process of matching the beats and assigning them to an ever-evolving tempo map. I needed to ensure that every time the drummers or panpipes were visible that the music in the score lined up with their every motion. Just making my tempo map for these scenes took hours.

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Further complicating matters, I had to compose two simultaneous pieces of music. There was the “source music,: referring to the sound of the drums and chants our characters were hearing. There was also an obvious need for score to heighten the tension, music that only the audience can hear that helps tell the story of what’s going on emotionally. These two ideas needed to coexist and coordinate, which led to some tricky compositional waters to navigate.

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I tackled these scenes by first composing the source music layers. I mapped out the beats and composed the drum parts for M.B. and the panpipe parts for Chris Bleth, ensuring that everything lined up visually.  Once that was done, I composed the score on top of the source, writing orchestral lines that weaved in and out of the drums, and urgent quartet tremolos that followed the dynamic rhythmic changes.

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(Each player in the Calder Quartet is so insanely in sync with the others that they were able to play an ostinato of steady 32nd notes that changed tempo every beat because the timing had to match on-camera drummers, and they did it with mechanical precision. This is the level of precision that only a seasoned string quartet that plays together very day can achieve.)

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In some moments, the line between source and score blurred. During the more dramatic moments, when Ima Kama stared at Da Vinci, as if to communicate a message with her eyes, the score quotes her theme on a quena. Or wait… maybe there’s actually a quena player there somewhere, because the instrument is playing in time with the panpipes we know are there! Either way, it works. The audience is free to interpret these moments however they like.

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My favorite sequence in the episode is the moment when Da Vinci finally solves the riddle and leaps up to give the correct answer, in their native tongue no less. As he assembles the objects in his mind, the score combines orchestra, Renaissance instruments and Peruvian sounds into a single glorious quotation of the Da Vinci Theme.

Later that night, after Da Vinci and Zo are reunited with Riario, Nico and Zita, Ima returns and reveals that she speaks their language (I suppose, technically Italian, though it sounds like English to us). She offers to give the answers to Da Vinci alone and takes him out of the cell.  This begins the final montage that wraps up the episode.

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I have not even mentioned the other subplots in the episode, and I won’t bother going into extreme detail on them, even though there are some interesting thematic developments. Most interesting to me is the scene with the assembled Medici bankers, where Carlo shows his true loyalty and Clarice takes great pleasure in having the treacherous Portinari pulled out of the room by armed guards. The score for this scene is built from the same lute and guitar ostinatos I usually reserve for Lorenzo, in his most powerful moments. This thematic connection in the score implies that the combination of Carlo and Clarice may succeed in being as powerful as Lorenzo in his absence.

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Lorenzo finds himself in the dungeons of Naples, at the mercy of the mad King Ferrante and his egotistical son Alfonso. In this episode, we meet Alfonso’s wife, Ippolita, who was once Lorenzo’s lover. Their scenes together are brief, yet tender.

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The final montage of the episode intercuts Da Vinci walking with Ima, an intimate moment between Lorenzo and Ippolita and a sex scene between Carlo and Clarice. These three pairings are underscored with a single musical theme that weaves between all the scenes, a theme that will eventually be known as the Ippolita Theme:

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This is a simple ostinato in the string quartet where the first and second violins take turns stating the primary theme, while the other tucks back into the background texture. There is something haunting and emotional about the music that gives the sequence a sense of meaning beyond the titillation of the sex scene.

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In the final scene, Ima reveals important information to Da Vinci. His mother was once here, with The Abyssinian, and she used the Book of Leaves to save Ima’s life when she was a little girl. This realization shocks Da Vinci to his core because it is his first eye-witness account that the Book of Leaves is real. As he realizes that Ima knew his mother, the score quotes the backwards version of the Da Vinci Theme:

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This variation of his theme is always used in Da Vinci’s more vulnerable moments, and has come to represent his quest for his mother, because it underscored the various flashbacks to her during the first episode. The score ramps to a crashing finale as we catch glimpses of strange idols and hallways, before the end credits pound away with chanting vocals beneath a floating Peruvian vocal solo.

“The Sun and The Moon” was one of the most challenging episodes of television I have ever scored in my life. Thankfully, I would be able to continue exploring these new sounds in the forthcoming episodes as Da Vinci’s adventures in the new world unfold.

-Bear