The Cape: Scales on a Train
January 24th, 2011
When Vinnie Jones’ character Scales was first briefly introduced in the pilot, I accompanied his grand entrance with a rockin’ metal / electronica theme. With such little screen time I really didn’t have the chance to develop his theme much beyond that. When I saw the title of Scales on a Train I knew right away I’d be incorporating his theme into the score in a big way.
There are many moments in this episode where the Scales electric guitar, bass and drum groove are stated very clearly. However, there are also subtle moments, where distorted electric guitars are merged into the orchestral strings and brass. The mere presence of rock instrumentation makes this score distinct from the previous episodes.
And I even altered the orchestra itself, to give it a heavier sound, more appropriate for Scales. We ditched all violins and violas and replaced them with three sections of celli and a bass section. The resultant sound is an aggressive, bottom-heavy sound that was perfect for the train-engine-inspired action cues. However, celli in their upper register would also prove useful for the emotional passages the episode required.
SPOILERS AHEAD: Scales on a Train begins as Scales meets with an amusingly snarky Ark trooper named… well… I never caught his name. So, I called him Brazil Nuts Guy. The score starts with understated tremolo celli, doubled with heavily distorted guitars. The guitars are mixed very soft so they don’t stand out, but they add that “Scales” quality to the music.
By the end of the scene, Scales temper flares up, and so his theme breaks out in full:
I started with muted guitars, allowing the score to build energy up to a fuller, more open sound.
I love the sound of the guitars on this episode. Brendan McCreary laid down the rhythm guitars, and the lead guitars were performed by Steve Bartek (who brought us the featured balalaikas on last week’s Kozmo).
The Scales Theme can be pretty aggressive, but this opening scene is all about the dialog, so I still needed to hold back. My first opportunity to really open up and bring out the guitars arrived when Scales shows up for an impromptu meeting with The Cape. He pulls up in a badass car, and here Bartek really let loose:
The Cape leaps down from shipping containers, accompanied by a brass fanfare of his theme. (As I said in the pilot, whenever The Cape does anything badass, the brass will blast his theme for him. I wish I could have 6 horns and 4 trumpets follow me around all day and do the same thing for me. That would be rad.)
He informs Scales that Chess’ true identity is Peter Fleming. Their dialog is relatively hushed and communicates information essential to the plot so I didn’t want to get in the way. I wrote isolated lines of sul ponticello tremolo celli, separated by timpani phrases played with soft mallets doubled with pizzicato basses. If that sounds like a foreign language to you, just listen to the clip, and you’ll hear the effects I’m talking about:
The passage is spooky, but understated. It stays out of the way of their dialog and yet adds all the emotion necessary to suggest their distrust of one another.
Using the intel he gets from The Cape, Scales crashes a fundraising gala about a train, where Peter Fleming, the mayor and many other city officials have gathered. One of the episode’s most amusing concepts is that the gala is a costume party. So Scales and The Cape blend in perfectly. Patrick Portman returns in this episode and is even dressed up as The Cape, which gave me several opportunities for light-hearted comedic musical moments.
Throughout these scenes, listen for the Scales Theme, undulating relentlessly in the background, suggestive of both his menace and the roaring engine of the train itself.
This musical idea reaches its peak during the climactic fight atop the traincar. Scales climbs the ladder and we reveal The Cape standing there like a badass, waiting for him. (Needless to say… the brass blast his theme precisely at this moment). However, this action cue is unique, because the string ostinatos, brass stabs and woodwind flourishes are competing with blasting electric guitars, bass and drum set:
The orchestral instrumentation of The Cape Theme and the metal / electronica instruments of the Scales Theme are at war with one another, just as the characters themselves battle.
Scales on a Train also gave me the chance to explore some new variations of our Carnival of Crime themes, because Max Malini and his gang are trying to rob the train.
After Scales thinks he’s escaped with the loot, he finds himself surrounded by the Carnival of Crime. The last time he saw Max Malini, he shot him three times. Now, the tables have turned as Malini has him at the end of a shotgun.
Malini’s dialog is very threatening and dramatic. But, rather than playing it ominous, I provided playful Carnival of Crime music. Bass clarinets, accordion, pizzicato strings and the assorted Carnival percussion give us a lighthearted two-step:
Something about the solo timpani phrases between the main melodic line just cracks me up.
Scales realizes he’s in big trouble when Rollo appears before him. In the pilot, I’d written a specific tune to accompany Rollo as he spars with Vince. That tune returned when Rollo first confronted Scales. I had never thought of it specifically as a Rollo Theme. However, by now I realized that it really was. So, the Rollo Theme returns again, played on the hurdy gurdy, announcing his entrance with flash and style:
They force Scales into a cage, and here the scene takes an unexpected turn. Scales suddenly has hallucinatory flashbacks to what must have been his early life as a circus freak.
(“No cake for you!!!”)
The music here was particularly fun to write. Each flashback edit is accompanied by a circus waltz phrase, played by accordions, piccolo and glockenspiel. This combination is evocative of bouncy calliope music, but because the phrases were isolated and jagged in their use, the result isn’t playful; it’s disorienting and suspenseful.
These waltz phrases are separated by a blurry bed of sound. I created this using droning accordions and hurdy gurdys. I slowly turned the tuning pegs of the hurdy gurdy sharp and flat to create a dizzying, doppler effect. The combination of the drone and the stuttering waltz phrases is a really fun, yet genuinely disturbing sound:
It was never my intention to use the orchestra during this moment. However, our recording session went so smoothly that I actually got done with the rest of the score early. Using the extra time at our disposal, I actually improvised an orchestral part to augment this drone.
I gave each section in the orchestra a specific instruction. For example, on their first cue, horns were to sneak in on a cluster of G, Ab, A and Bb. On their second cue, they would each begin wavering from those notes by a quartertone, making the cluster drift in and out of tune. I gave similar pitches and instructions to the trombones, woodwinds, trumpets and strings. Then, I told everybody to watch me carefully for direction.
The red light went on and we started recording. And I basically made it up as I went along. When I wanted to hear the horns, I cued them. When I wanted to hear low brass, I cued them. I used my left hand to control dynamics, to create swells in the volume. And when the trippy flashbacks ended, I cut the orchestra off together.
It was a delightful experience and sounds great. I probably would have ended up with something very similar if I’d taken the time to compose the orchestra parts in advance. But, this process was a lot more fun.
(I’ve done this once before as well. Check out the Dark Void score, and listen to the track “Watcher Prison.” The orchestral parts were improvised in exactly the same way. It’s amazing what you can come up with when you get done early at a recording session!)
The most exciting part of this episode was the fact that it took place on a train, and I wanted to reflect that in the score. In the final act, Peter Fleming and The Cape must actually join forces to stop the runaway train. This is where I really put those three section of celli to work, chugging away at a relentless ostinato inspired by train engine sounds:
The string writing provided the engine, so it was up to the winds and brass to provide the color and excitement. Brass stabs and woodwind flourishes abound in this cue, as Fleming struggles to cut the brake fluid line and save their lives. My favorite moment in the cue comes when another train passes them by, narrowly missing them. Here I used the French horns to create a doppler effect, by creating wailing, bending phrases, evocative of a train racing by:
Listen also for complementary statements of the Chess Theme in here. These are not the ominous, slow versions I usually write. If anything, it could almost be considered a “heroic” version of the Chess Theme!
The brass writing gets even bigger towards the end, where the horns and trumpets trade off triumphant fanfares that almost sound like train whistles:
At the episode’s resolution, we have a charming scene with Dana and Trip (she finally gets home for his birthday).
Here, I used the orchestral strings at my disposal to create a warm, emotional sound. I was nervous that the lack of violins or violas would give us a murky, dark texture. But, the celli were surprisingly effective in their upper registers:
Because of the unusual string ensemble, the cue is definitely stronger at the bottom than my normal orchestral ones, but it’s a delightful sound. Also notice how I used the clarinets, flutes and trumpets playing softly to compensate for the lack of violins and violas in the upper register. I wouldn’t want to do every episode without the upper strings, but for this one, the cello orchestra worked beautifully.
The next scene features a wonderful confrontation between Vince and Max. I have been waiting for this moment, since there is an obvious disconnect between Vince and Max’s moral centers. The scene ends unresolved, and leaves us with Max pondering what to do about Vince. For this moment, I knew I wanted to state the Max Malini Theme, but I wanted it to be different, to suggest their relationship might be in real danger.
Typically, Max’s theme is always played on the hurdy gurdy. There have been a handful of orchestral statements of it, but they were so subtle that I didn’t even feel them worth mentioning. (At least one of them was in the pilot, if anyone wants to figure out where it was!)
However, this version really is something special. I was inspired by the works of Elmer Bernstein, in particular his score for Kings of The Sun, which I re-orchestrated for him several years ago. The original recordings and orchestrations had long since been lost. Elmer asked me to work from his original pencil sketches from 1968 and re-orchestrate them into a full score and concert suite, which he performed around the world in his final years. (A recording of my orchestration is currently available as a part of the Film Music Collection box set if you want to drop the cash for it. I’d highly recommend it. The collection is incredible!).
The score for Kings of the Sun was evocative of South American music, but Elmer didn’t use any ethnic woodwinds. He used orchestral winds, layered in fifths and fourths to imply the unusual harmonic overtones ethnic instruments often produce. This is a technique Stravinski and Bartok frequently used as well, to bring an exotic, folk-music color to orchestral music. I did the exact same thing here with the Max Malini Theme:
Clarinet and bass clarinet recreate the hurdy gurdy drone strings, while the bassoon, English horn and flute play the melody in fifths and fourths. The Carnival of Crime percussion sneaks in subtly between the phrases. Though Elmer didn’t necessarily invent the technique, this passage sounds like pure Elmer Bernstein to me.
The episode concludes with Trip waking up in the morning to find a birthday gift from The Cape. First, a solo flute offers a gentle statement of The Cape Theme, before the celli and piano give us a gentle Family Theme. At last, as Trip looks out into the city beyond, the French horns present the Cape Theme in a majestic, yet touching, arrangement:
There are some really exciting episodes and scores coming up in the next few weeks. You haven’t even yet heard what I consider the best cue I’ve written for “The Cape.” But you will soon! See you next week.