Terminator: SCC – La Llorona
November 10th, 2008
SPOILERS AHEAD: Tonight’s episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, aptly titled Mr. Ferguson is Ill Today, is a particularly unusual story. The plot is fractured into multiple accounts of the same narrative from the perspective of each of the major characters, the location was unique and, above all, the story culminates in the death of a principle character, Cromartie. (The episode’s title is actually the first line of dialog Cromartie spoke in the pilot!) While the multi-perspective storyline provided interesting musical challenges, it was the episode’s Mexican location that gave me the most room to explore.
“Mr. Ferguson” allowed me a second opportunity to produce a song for Terminator, after the season premiere’s searing “Samson and Delilah” with Shirley Manson. This time, I arranged a traditional Mexican folk tune called “La Llorona.”
I first heard about this song a few days before I saw the episode. I happened to be hanging out with the episode’s director Michael Nankin (whose skillful touch Battlestar fans will recognize from some of the best episodes of that series, including Maelstrom) and he told me that he was experimenting with the song in his cut. So, even before the spotting session with the producers, I was already thinking about how I could take a traditional Mexican folk tune and Terminator-ize it.
When I saw the sequence in question a few days later, I knew the inspiration would come quickly. The last act of “Mr. Ferguson” takes on the feeling of a Sergio Leone western. Leone’s collaborations with Ennio Morricone have been a tremendous influence on me, in particular on my scores for the Rest Stop films. So, I felt right at home musically, and simply had to find the right balance between traditional Mexican folk instumentation, the electric strings, metallic percussion, and of course, the vocalist.
The music begins at the top of the act, on the Dia De Los Muertos imagery that haunts this entire episode. As Cromartie walks into frame, a trio of Nylon string guitars enters, arpeggiating a pitch set of B, F, A and E that permeates the entire piece. As the two rhythm guitars spell out the chord in accelerating and decelerating patterns, the lead guitar plays a melody that centers loosely around B and C. The result is a very dissonant harmony that provides tension, but also contains the wide open 5ths and 6ths that are natural to guitar music. If the intervals got too clustery, it would still sound scary, but it would lose the traditional folk guitar feel that I wanted to preserve.
Steve Bartek plays bajo sexto on “La Llorona”
Still, despite the fact that the chords sat well on guitar, this opening sequence was a bitch to play. I brought in the same guitarists who played on “Samson and Delilah,” Steve Bartek and Ira Ingber. And they played it down masterfully.
Cromartie watches Ellison from a distance and follows him toward the church. At this moment, the arpeggiating guitars take on more traditional harmonies of Am and Dm, while the lead guitar plays the first complete statement of the “La Llorona” melody in Am.
However, the dissonance doesn’t go away. The string ensemble sneaks in playing a cluster of harmonics, completely out of the key the guitars are playing in. This bed of harmonics gives the sequence a spooky, dream-like quality. A distant, moaning solo vocal also weaves in and out of the sonic texture. It’s creepy and yet beautiful.
Cromartie follows Ellison inside and speaks to him. Here, the string ensemble slowly crescendos on a dissonant cluster, while the guitars arpeggiate very gentle statements of the B, F, A and E pattern.
Finally the trap is sprung! Bullets fly as Sarah and Derek shoot at Cromartie from both sides. The sequence dissolves into slow motion and here, unexpectedly, “La Llorona” takes over the soundtrack. The simple waltz sneaks out of the dissonant string texture, played at first on acoustic bass, nylon string guitars and charango. A raspy, passionate vocal sings the haunting lyrics:
Salías del templo un día, Llorona,
Cuando al pasar yo te vi;
(You were exiting the temple,
Llorona, when I sighted you)
Hermoso huipil llevabas, Llorona,
Que la Virgen te creí.
(A beautiful blouse you had one, Llorona,
I felt the Virgin’s presence in you)
Ay de mi, Llorona, Llorona,
Llorona llévame al mar.
(Oh, my Llorona, Llorona,
Llorona, take me to the sea)
A ver a los pescadores, Llorona,
Que perlas van a scar
(To see the fisherman, Llorona,
What pearls they will take out)
The powerful vocal performance is from my dear friend, John Avila, bass player from Oingo Boingo and an incredible musician who you’ve heard on almost every project I’ve ever done.
I’ve always loved John’s singing voice, especially since I heard his rock band from the 80s and 90s Food For Feet. He wrote a song for that band called Retire (which I actually did an arrangement of for his daughter Leila’s record a few years ago), and his vocals on that track were in my mind as I was arranging “La Llorona.”
In addition to singing, John Avila also played bass and charango. My arrangement of “La Llorona” also featured Chris Bleth on woodwinds, M.B. Gordy on metallic percussion, Anna Stafford, Erica Walzak, Robbie Anderson and Jacob Szekely as the electric string quartet and additional electronics by Jonathan Snipes. It was co-produced by Steve Kaplan, and orchestrated by Brandon Roberts. And “La Llorona” was my first chance to play accordion on the Terminator score!
Steve Kaplan mics Ira Ingber
My favorite moment is the second verse (“Ay de mi, Llorona, Llorona, Llorona llévame al mar). These plaintive and sad lyrics are heard after Cameron has delivered the fatal blow to Cromartie and watches him with tender curiosity as he struggles to stand. I stripped the arrangement down to elegant, quiet arpeggios in the guitars, doubled with harp, piano and celeste. Over that, the strings play high, simple harmonies. The result is an ethereal and magical moment, in the midst of an incredibly violent scene.
What is Cameron thinking? Does she suddenly feel guilty for killing one of her own? What is going on in her unpredictable computerized brain? I didn’t want the score to answer any of these questions, only to raise them.
As the Connors surround Cromartie to finish him off, John Avila sings the final lyric. In the background, the strings and woodwinds play a romantic and expressive countermelody. Listen closely, and you’ll hear that it is, in fact, a statement of Sarah Connor’s theme:
The real beauty of this scene is that it feels tragic, rather than triumphant. Cromartie has been stalking the Connors for the entire series. In that time, we’ve seen a lot of terminators bite the dust. And yet, somehow, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him somehow. He’s bested and lays dying, his finger still pulling a trigger it no longer feels. John Connor, his former prey, steps forward and executes him.
The scene is simultaneously victorious, tragic and perverse. My favorite kind of scene to write music for! I also wanted to write a powerful cue for Garrett Dillahunt’s final scene, as I think I will really miss Cromartie on this show.
PS: I want to address the upcoming Sarah Connor soundtrack album. I know a lot of you are asking about it, and I apologize for the lack of information. The record label and I did everything in our power to prepare the album for an October release. But, the album is currently tied up in the bureaucratic red tape that makes the entertainment business occasionally maddening. But, I promise it will come out. We’re looking at a mid-December release, before the holiday. I’ll post the official track list in the next week or so. And I can also promise it will be worth the wait. All the best songs will be on there, now with the obvious exception of “La Llorona,” which will presumably be on a future release.