Human Target: Embassy Row
January 26th, 2010
This entry presents my first official VIDEO BLOG:
SPOILERS AHEAD: Embassy Row shows Chance’s search for a spy who killed his former colleague Danny. In the process, he fights henchmen, rouge double agents, jumps a motorcycle over armed guards and joins forces with a sexy government agent. All in a day’s work for Christopher Chance!
Each episode of this show begins with a title card, featuring a unique variation and orchestration of the Main Theme (this is like my version of Bart writing on the chalk board, I guess!). For Embassy Row’s title card, I split the main melodic phrase into two groups. First, the flutes and violins play the initial three notes in their high register. They hold the third note as the low winds, brass and strings finish the last four notes in their extreme low registers. The combination sounds like two musical phrases, but they still form the Main Title melody:
As usual, the majority of the score is built around variations of the Main Theme:
Throughout this series, I’m finding more and more ways that this melody can be emotionally flexible and suit whatever a scene requires. I’ve found that the simplest way to add a new dimension to the melody is to simply re-harmonize it. A great example can be heard towards the end of the episode:
In this theme variation, the melody is stated in Eb. Normally, the second chord would be a B Major. Instead, I wrote a G-Major, resolving to a Bb/D. Then, before moving to the B Major a second time, as they normally would, the harmonies pivot to a Db major first. The horn and clarinet finish the first phrase and the violins and a solo flute pick up the second phrase. In its normal version, the second phrase has several great chords beneath it (minor iv with an add 6! So tasty!). For this variation, I didn’t try to make the chords even more colorful, but went the other direction, allowing the harmonies to simply rest on the tonic. This changed the energy in the second phrase, and gave it a calm warmth, different from its normal arrangement.
Despite all these changes, this musical phrase is still undeniably Chance’s theme. But its different, suggesting an emotional depth and complexity to Christopher Chance beyond what we’ve seen (and heard) so far. This particular variation of the theme isn’t especially important, or reoccurring. It’s just one of literally dozens that occur in a given episode. Harmonic and rhythmic variation are not only fun, but essential to prevent the score from becoming damn boring, since the A-Theme and B-Theme are quoted so frequently.
In the Embassy Row teaser, most of the variations are sad and contemplative, as Chance learns of the death of his friend Danny and resolves to sneak into the Russian embassy and find his killer.
After our kick ass Main Title sequence, Chance shows up at the Russian embassy, dolled up in a tuxedo, looking very James Bond. A bold statement of the Main B-Theme escorts him as he steps out of the car.
As he tries to get inside, he encounters an American named Blanchard and an intimidating Russian named Aliexi Volkov. Winston tells Chance that Volkov is actually a documented Russian spy, and our suspicions are immediately aroused. As Chance meets Volkov, the woodwinds introduce the Raven Theme:
I was hoping to create a dark, Russian-tinged tune, like something that fell to the cutting room floor of Hunt For Red October (one of my favorite scores, btw). This goofy melody doesn’t hold a candle to that score, of course, but that’s where my mindset was at the time.
Raven, as we shortly learn from Guerrero, is the codename for the spy that Chance is looking for, the one who killed Danny. The Raven theme returns as Guerrero explains this, further underscoring the connection between Volkov and Raven. In fact, literally every time Volkov is on screen, the score is quoting the Raven theme. I’m basically shouting at you: “LOOK OUT! VOLKOV IS RAVEN!!!!”
Of course, the reason I’m being so painfully obvious, is that it’s all a big misdirect. Later in the episode, we learn that Volkov is actually on their side, also looking for Raven. Too bad for him, it turns out Blanchard is Raven. And unfortunately, Volkov figures this out only after Blanchard puts a bullet in his chest. Bummer. But, I had a lot of fun letting the music play a role in tricking the audience.
The Raven Theme is also heard as Chance follows Volkov into the back rooms of the embassy, in an extended montage intercut with Guerrero searching for the source of the poison they now realize is afflicting Aaron, Danny’s brother (everybody still with me on all this plot stuff?). Anyway, the important thing to mention here is that I built several of the James-Bond-esque sneaking sequences around this 5/4 groove:
This riff isn’t really thematic, except that it served to unify all the various story threads being woven together in this episode. Plus, it sounds pretty cool and perfectly underscored Chance sneaking around. This episode was the closest yet I’ve gotten to what it must feel like to score a James Bond film, and I had a blast with that.
However, the most important new character Chance encounters in this episode is Barnes, a sexy, kick ass government agent who is very much Chance’s equal. Their on-screen chemistry brings a new dynamic to the show; Barnes is no damsel in distress, but a fully-trained operative in her own right. She also provides the episode levity, comedy, sexual tension and emotional resolution. I knew instantly that Barnes needed her own theme.
The Barnes theme is foreshadowed when Chance first meets her, believing she’s a prostitute. The arrangement is subtle, but on a second viewing, you’ll totally hear it.
However, the first place the Barnes Theme is strongly introduced is in their energetic fight sequence in Act 2. Their moves are violent, but also playfully dance-like, evocative of a carefully choreographed tango. Well, I took this rare opportunity to bust out the accordion and wrote a fully-fledged Tango / Action Cue Hybrid:
There are a few blazing accordion lines in there that really challenged me as a player! Borrowing inspiration from Astor Piazzolla (who technically played bandoneon, but is my instrumental inspiration anyway), and the latin-infused scores of Lalo Schifrin, I set out to write a cue that straddles the line between a sexy dance and a blistering fight cue. This is a paradox, because the best tangos exhibit a simmering restraint, not screaming orchestral fanfares. Too much energy and rhythm can decimate the tango feel.
But, as you can hear, the key elements are there: the piano doubling the basses and celli, the exotic and ornament-laden string lines, the solo fiddle, the accordion and the castanettes and latin percussion. And, if I do say so myself, the visual timing is pretty damn awesome. The instrumental flourishes line up perfectly with every single punch, kick, step, glance and move. With a generic temp score, this scene was a fun fight sequence. But, by the time I was done with it… it was a real dance. ”Tango Fight” ranks among the coolest cues I’ve written for any project in recent memory.
As the tango ends, Chance and Barnes have reached a stalemate and discuss their options for moving forward (without killing one other by slicing their jugular and / or femural arteries). This dialog scene firmly establishes the two musical components of Barnes’ theme. First, the Barnes Ostinato:
And then the Barnes Theme:
Both of which are heard in this clip:
The Barnes Theme is a melodic phrase that was actually composed just to be a random accordion / violin flourish within the tango. Listen to the tango clip from 0:13 – 0:16 and you’ll hear the melody as I first wrote it. I never intended it to become her theme originally. In fact, I struggled for a couple hours to write a new Barnes Theme, to be introduced separately from the tango.
I was just writing in circles and getting nowhere. I’ve learned that when I get that stuck creatively, it usually means I’ve already found the answer and just didn’t know it yet (this happens with me a lot). The Barnes Theme was no exception. I listened back to the tango fight cue and heard her melody jumping out at me. Sometimes you just have to walk in a big circle to find out you were in the right place from the beginning.
Why write a Barnes Theme and a Barnes Ostinato? I don’t know. Ever since “Dark Void” and “Caprica,” I’ve been getting in the habit of writing a repetitive little riff (the ostinato) in addition to a big melody for characters. They are useful for suggesting a theme subtly without a melody getting in the way.
With all the new material for Embassy Row figured out, I was free to weave them together with the body of themes I’d already composed. The Barnes Theme proved to be especially malleable. What started out as a flirtatious tango in the beginning, had to be shaped into an emotional love theme by the end of the show. This is the kind of thematic development that makes Human Target so challenging and rewarding.
Here’s a great example of thematic development in action. This cue comes from the beginning of Act 3, where Barnes and Chance are handcuffed together in the Russian embassy dungeon. First, the Barnes Theme is stated playfully by a solo flute and harp as she tells him what she will do when she eventually gets out. As the flute reaches its highest note, a minor harmony adds an element of sadness as Chance interrupts her. The low strings, brass and winds introduce a deep, dark statement of Chance’s theme, as he reminds her that the poison is going to kill him before they can ever get out. The score shifts again as the strings, clarinet and solo tom state a playful and seductive version of the Barnes Ostinato, complete with castanettes and small percussion hinting at that tango.
Barnes says she’ll do whatever he wants “after the fact,” as in “after you die.” The score lends a seductive, playful energy to what could potentially be a dark subject. Chance leans in as if to kiss her and the Barnes melody returns, this time romantic and building into a sweeping, lyrical statement:
In the span of 30 seconds, these two themes shift back and forth four times, following the dynamic curve of their conversation. The score allows the comedy, seduction, charm, sadness and suspense to poke through at just the right moments. This cue is nuanced and layered, but honestly, not more so than most other cues in this series. If there were an extra 24 hours in a day, I could break down nearly every “Human Target” cue like this.
Listen for more emotional variations of the Barnes Theme throughout the last act, like this one from their all-too-brief moment of connection after escaping the embassy:
Speaking of escaping the embassy, did I mention that I scored a huge five minute kick ass motorcylce chase? This is one of the biggest cues I’ve ever written, spanning the entire act. We come out of commercial as this cue starts, and it literally ends when the next commercial break starts! The whole piece is set in an energetic 12/8 groove, at a break neck tempo. At the height of the chase, as Chance and Barnes barrel down the drive way to outrun the car behind them, the rhythm shifts momentarily from 6/8 to 3/4, creating an exciting shift in the momentum. As a second car blocks their path, the groove shifts back to 12/8 again for the climax:
I’ve got to call it a day on this blog entry, even though I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the interesting thematic variations going on here. The next few episodes continue getting better and better, so I hope you guys stick around and check them out. Oh, and what do you guys think of the video blog? I’m hoping we can do this more often, if you guys enjoy it.