Da Vinci’s Demons: The Tower

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During the past four video blogs, I’ve detailed the main themes of my “Da Vinci’s Demons” score and introduced several essential instruments, including the Calder Quartet, choirs, and percussion. At last, my new video blog highlights the soloists and their instruments that give my score its distinctly Renaissance flavor:

SPOILERS AHEAD: The first few episodes of “Da Vinci’s Demons” were all about setting up character conflicts and musical themes.  Now, we’ve reached the point where story threads cross, characters develop and new conflicts arise. In response, I was required to develop the score and push the now firmly-established themes into newer variations to keep pace with the story.

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“The Tower” is probably the most dialog-heavy episode yet. Though it contains two thrilling physical set pieces, most of the episode revolves around the sodomy trial.  Regardless, it required a tremendous amount of music (more than any episode to date) and pushed my thematic development to the extreme. With all the primary character themes firmly established, I was free to use them for each scene that the characters were in.

In a typical scene between two characters, I usually select one POV or the other and score the scene with only one character theme at a time.  For example, in the first episode, when Da Vinci is telling Lorenzo about how man will fly in the future, I only used the Da Vinci Theme.  The Medici Theme would serve no purpose there, because Lorenzo is simply the passive listener in the scene.  Instead, I saved the Medici Theme for the end of the scene, when Lorenzo agrees to hire Da Vinci, but makes a stern threat at the same time.

“The Tower” is a whole new can of worms, however.  We now know so much backstory for each character that dialog scenes frequently present multiple perspectives. With the score, I began juggling multiple character themes to keep these various story threads alive.  The result is a frequently complex, operatically layered collection of themes, making direct references to scenes from previous episodes and foreshadowing cues that will appear in future episodes.  Themes weave on top of one another and often reflect the multiple levels of betrayal at work.

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For example, when Lucrezia confronts Pazzi, her Celtic harp theme underscores her defiant threats.  As Pazzi reciprocates, the lutes bounce back with his theme.  The two instruments spar along with the characters.

Lucrezia is especially interesting in this episode, assuming the dual roles of protagonist and antagonist.  When she appeals to Lorenzo, she’s acting as the hero, trying to save Leonardo.  However, we also know that she wrote the secret denunciation that damned him and is actively betraying Lorenzo to Rome.  For this scene, the score plays her theme with a balance of pathos and suspicion.  We get a sense that she’s trying to do the right thing, but her motivations are still shrouded in mystery.

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Speaking of Lucrezia’s Theme, I hope you guys noticed the scene in the bathtub when she’s shaving Leonardo: once again, Lucrezia is humming her own theme.  This time, Da Vinci asks her about the melody and we learn that her father sang it to her as a child.  (See last week’s blog entry for Laura Haddock’s thoughts on working with me for these scenes).  I also hope a few of you noticed that I reharmonized the Lucrezia Theme for this intimate scene.  I traded out a few minor chords for more sonorous major ones, which warms the theme up and really plays up that these two could have a true, deep bond.  That, and it just makes it sound even prettier!

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My use of themes in this series has evolved into a delightful challenge.  I feel like I’m trying a shoe with a dozen laces, and I can’t ignore any of them. That would be complicated enough, but each episode has required the composition of additional themes, and “The Tower” is no exception.

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The most prominent new theme in this episode is the Pazzi Theme:

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Francesco Pazzi is a primary antagonist for Lorenzo.  Since the Medici Theme was based on a historical piece of music (see my first blog entry for details), I wanted the music for his arch rival to be from a similar source.  The Pazzi Theme is based on a well-known musical theme from the Renaissance, from which many popular songs and liturgical pieces were developed. (In next week’s video blog, I will go into greater detail about how I selected these pieces and adapted them for the show.)

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Though we’ve seen Francesco in most of the episodes leading up to this point, “The Tower” was the first time that he has become important enough to justify his own musical theme.  You will hear this theme again before the season is done.

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I felt compelled to write a theme for another pivotal character in “The Tower,” Da Vinci’s accuser, Jacopo:

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We only hear the theme twice, once when he takes the stand and again at the end of the episode in a touching scene with Leonardo.  His evocative melody is performed by Chris Bleth on a solo low Irish whistle.

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Even though Jacopo was a willing partner in accusing Da Vinci, we nevertheless, feel sorry for him at the end of the episode.  To heighten his loneliness, the Irish whistle is played without any accompaniment for the duration of their scene. It is only when the two men kiss that the string quartet sneaks in with warm chords.  I wanted to downplay any sensationalism in the scene, which was clearly written and produced with admirable restraint and care.

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“The Tower” also let me develop a new theme for Leonardo Da Vinci.  Throughout this episode, we question his sanity as he seems to grow increasingly more deranged.  To communicate this idea, I used beds of hurdy gurdy drones to create a wailing, wavering pitch.  As I held the pitches, I pushed in on the string to slowly bend the pitch sharp and then gradually drop it back down.  It just sounds… insane. I used the pitch bends, and the distinctly nasal and piercing tone of the hurdy gurdy to suggest Leonardo is losing his mind.

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The hurdy gurdy takes center stage in the cue for the big climax, when Da Vinci uses a camera obscura to blackmail the magistrate into dropping the charges.  (I named this cue “Camera Obscura.” In hindsight, I realized that I missed a rare opportunity to name a cue “Pig Fucker in the Sky.” Hopefully one day, I will get this chance again, but they say lightning never strikes twice. However, I did snag the chance to name a cue “Phosphorous Batshit Bombs,” so that must count for something!)

Da Vinci’s potential madness gave me another unique opportunity.  Early in the episode, he explains to his father the principal of sonar that bats use to find their way towards certain plants.  As he snaps his fingers, we see his visions of sound waves echoing through the air.

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Today, the principal of sonar is commonly understood, probably from most of us having seen a submarine movie or two. In fact, in most submarine films, they usually skip over any exposition explaining that the pinging sound is being used to map their surroundings.  It’s simply understood that everyone gets the concept.

Taking advantage of this common understanding, I actually sampled a submarine sonar ping and used it in the score! Obviously, a submarine sonar ping has absolutely nothing to do with the Renaissance.  But, David Goyer and I knew that the sound would help the audience immediately understand what Da Vinci is talking about.

Another scene of note is the moment when Da Vinci talks to his father about his mother, and we see how fragile Pierro’s ego really is.  Beneath his proud exterior, he’s a man who was shell-shocked that a woman he views to be below his status would leave him (or so the scene implies). The score here harkens back to the Backwards Da Vinci Theme (which tends to represent his mother) and the backwards ramping string chords that tend to underscore Da Vinci struggling with his past.

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Lastly, “The Tower” gave me another chance to play with some source music.  The Medicis stage a production of “The Decameron” for their Spanish guests, so I got to score a story within the story. There is regrettably no known record of specific music associated with this play.  So instead, I worked with music historian Adam Knight Gilbert to find a piece from the period that would be appropriately fun.  We landed upon a jaunty tune called “A Cheval Toutes Hommes A Cheval.”

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Drawing heavily from the original transcriptions of the tune, I arranged it for a Renaissance band that I imagined was playing offstage.  The piece is bouncy and even contains some surprisingly modern chord progressions.  (Check out the new video blog to hear some of this cue during the ‘Woodwinds’ segment.)

As one would guess, “The Tower” weaves together dozens of variations of the major character themes.  The Medici Theme, Da Vinci Theme, Lucrezia Theme and Pazzi Theme are stitched together into a sonic fabric that basically covers the episode from beginning to end. Another familiar theme returns in the episode’s final scene, the Turk Theme.

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Played on the expressive yialli tanbur, the Turk Theme has haunted the series’ score just as memories of their first conversation have haunted Da Vinci.  It was wonderful having the Turk return to the story so I could once again solidify the relationship between his character and this melody.

Next week’s episode is very special to me because it gave me the opportunity to pass a rite of passage for many composers, by writing a theme for a certain character that I’ve always wanted to write for.  It was a thrilling experience and I look forward to sharing it with you all.

-Bear