The Walking Dead: Beside the Dying Fire

MEGA-SPOILERS AHEAD: “Beside the Dying Fire”, the Season 2 finale of “The Walking Dead,” is the biggest episode of the series thus far in every sense.  It features the most action, the most zombies, main characters slaughtered, a highly-anticipated new character introduction, and was viewed by over 9 million people last night, making it the most watched episode of the series, earning “TWD” a place in basic cable record books for highest ratings in key demographics. Similarly, my score had to be super-sized to keep pace, so our normal string sextet was expanded to a mammoth, full-string orchestra.  Go behind-the-scenes of our session in this week’s video blog:

Filling the studio with string players added incredible depth to the score. Intimate solo violin melodies became thick, piercing violin sections lines that soared effortlessly over the pounding rhythm track.  And the chugging, reedy sound of two celli was replaced with a roaring section of celli and basses. I knew that I’d need to beef up the rest of my writing as well, to match this orchestral intensity.

Steve Bartek’s layers of electric guitars and banjos were augmented further with stacks upon stacks of additional overdubs from guitarists Ed Trybek and Brendan McCreary, building mountains of distortion. Bryan Taylor’s drum kit was compressed to the point of destruction, until the cymbals sounded like they were cracking open.  The kicks and toms were doubled with digitally altered samples, occupying impossibly low frequency bandwidths, giving the percussion a deep, electronic impact. The stringed percussion, played by Jonathan Ortega, including dulcimers, psaltery and autoharps were doubled and tripled more than usual. And I brought back brilliant electric violinist Paul Cartwright to add crunching fiddle solos.

I borrowed a lot of these tricks from contemporary rock, heavy metal and electronic music, and those influences are easy to hear.  The first cue alone, features all these new sounds, in addition to the huge orchestral strings.

We open on a montage of walkers gathering in herds and marching toward the farm from various sources.  Without dialog, this was a tricky story point to communicate visually, so I wrote music that helps underline this narrative in a subtle way.  The orchestral strings start off with improvised spidery phrases, each player playing their own pitches at their own pace.  The result would be cacophonous, except I took care to control how many notes the players played and ensured they would gradually move up the range of their instruments as the cue evolved.

The result is a musical emulation of the physical events on screen, analogous to the sound of a faucet dripping water that steadily picks up speed, until eventually it forms a roaring current.  Because that was my inspiration, I named this cue “Coalescence.”

Beneath this orchestral texture, the acoustic guitars introduce the main melodic theme of “Coalescence,” a repeating arpeggiated pattern of C#m and Cm:

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These two chords typically don’t co-exist in a harmonic progression, partially because they have no common tones.  However, I gave them a loose connection by giving the C#m arpeggiation an exotic twist, using a D natural instead of the more common D sharp.  The D natural appears naturally in the C minor scale, and so that common tone between both arpeggiations locks them in a harmonic balance.  It’s a subtle shift, but without it, this whole passage would feel much more disjunct.

As the pattern repeats, the spastic electric banjo in the background gathers energy and fury, representing (as it always does) the increasing threat presented by the walkers.

With each repetition of the pattern, I pulled strings players away from their creepy effects and put them on complimentary harmonic passages, beginning with the celli.  This increasingly harmonic writing in the strings draws our attention to the chord progression, and takes attention away from the chaotic clutter – the musical equivalent of a blurry image being drawn into focus.  From the chaos, an image is becoming clear: the musical representation of a single herd of walkers forming from a scattered group of individuals.

The tension ratchets to a breaking point when the zombies burst through the wooden fence.  At this point, purely harmonic, chordal writing “bursts” out of the chaos of spidery string effects to form a single, pounding ostinato – the herd has formed and the threat has materialized in full:

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This moment introduces the musical texture that will underscore the majority of the episode.  Full orchestral strings, pounding percussion, digitally compressed drum set, stacks of distorted guitars, electric banjo, wailing electric violin, and chugging stringed percussion.

After the title sequence, the story picks up directly where “Better Angels” left off.  Rick and Carl quickly realize they’re surrounded by a herd of walkers and run into the barn, while the rest of the characters in the farm house make the same discovery and prepare for battle.

This sequence needed to be intense but quiet. The walkers have not yet discovered the humans. So, the sound of their approaching footsteps and moans could provide a huge amount of the fear.  I needed an instrumental color that would add an ominous presence, but not be distracting, so I went back to the “kazoo choir” I had explored a few episodes ago. I used the digitally altered sound of my voice singing through a kazoo to create thick chorales of ominous chords, using the same process I detailed in my video blog from “18 Miles Out.”  The ominous choral texture was surprisingly effective once again.

Before long, the walkers realize the farm is littered with fresh meat and the slaughter begins.  What follows is a 10-minute action scene that clearly required non-stop music.  I dove headfirst into the fray and composed the most adrenaline-inducing piece of music I possibly could, one that spanned the entire sequence from beginning to end.

Composing a long piece of music that constantly develops is a challenging task, especially when the action on screen is constantly shifting between characters, events, storylines and emotions.  Our heroes quickly fracture into various subgroups and each has their own tale of escaping the farm, which required musical attention.  However, I couldn’t simply bounce back and forth between disparate themes or styles because it would get jarring, and ultimately, distract the audience from the urgency and terror.

In order to keep myself sane in this process, I first looked at the larger structure of the action cue, approaching it the same way I would a symphony.  If I could plan my themes and emotional narrative in advance, then I could dive in and focus on the individual moments without losing sight of where the whole piece was ultimately going.

Our heroes start out defending the farm.  Herschel makes it clear he’s willing to die to protect his land.  They charge out with cars, shotguns and bikes as if they’re going to save the day.  So, I decided that the cue should begin with action music that has a heroic edge.  The music, in addition to providing energy and tension, clues us in that they think they’re going to succeed in defending the farm.

Ultimately, they fail.  The sequence ends with a heart-wrenching shot of Herschel watching his farm burn.  So, clearly the music at the end of the sequence had to represent sadness and failure.

Knowing my beginning and ending emotions, I carefully mapped out a gradual transition that would take place over the course of ten minutes of music.  I wanted this shift to be subtle and almost imperceivable.  There is no clear moment where sadness takes over the action, it just creeps up closer and closer until, before we notice it, the action dissipates entirely.  This idea gave me the road map I would need to compose the sequence.

Most of my action cues are built around a singular rhythm or riff, from which variations spring forth.  ”The Dying Fire” is no exception. After an initial attack of horror clusters and distorted percussion when Carl and Rick first start the barn on fire (a musical texture I took from my final cue in “Better Angels”), I introduce the main ostinato of “The Dying Fire,” a syncopated pattern in the high toms combined with a chromatic, chugging acoustic guitar riff:

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Once that riff is clearly established, I make the arrangement fuller, bringing in string orchestra clusters, dissonant electric banjo, pounding kick drum, electric bass and strumming stringed percussion.

Our heroes start circling the zombies, picking them off one by one with gunfire.  The money shot of this sequence is Glenn leaning over the roof of the car with a shotgun like a total bad ass.  I chose this shot be the peak of a steady crescendo and kicked the groove into high gear.  The drummer smashes the compressed cymbals with all his might, while the violins and violas stab a dissonant repeating figure over the main ostinato in the lower strings and guitars:

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Inside the barn, Rick and Carl prepare to leap out the back, avoiding the escalating flames.  Here, I kept the main ostinato chugging, but in the background behind lilting, spooky string chords punctuated with the occasional snap pizzicato:

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(Orchestration note: the snap pizzicato is a fabulous effect where the players pluck a string so hard it actually strike the wood of the neck, creating a crackling percussive sound.  A snap pizz on the upright bass releases so much energy, because the string is so thick, that it can drown out the other 30 players in an orchestral section, so I frequently let the basses do it alone, or augmented by snap pizzes in the celli.)

Outside, Daryl rides his motorcycle also looking like a total badass.  Here, I tweaked the groove so it would play in 7/8 instead of 4/4, simply by dropping the last eighth note from the pattern.  However, by keeping the high hat pounding on steady half notes, it masks this new unevenness in the rhythm.  (A good audio clip of this effect is coming up later.)

Daryl tells Jimmy to bring the RV up the barn to rescue Rick and Carl.  Jimmy successfully saves them, but not before being eaten by walkers. His gruesome death is accompanied by jagged rhythmic stabs from the orchestra, percussion and guitars set below a wailing electric fiddle solo from Cartwright:

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The main groove returns when we cut back outside to Rick and Carl fleeing.  In the next act, the action continues right where it left off.  The characters circling in their cars are beginning to feel over run, as they run low on ammo and realize there are more walkers than they thought.  Here, the main ostinato reaches a new level of intensity.  I used the full instrumentation of drums, guitars and strings I used before, but added a chugging electric violin rhythm line that sounds downright evil:

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Back at the house, Lori is panics because she can’t find Carl (does anything positive ever result from him sneaking away?).  Here, the orchestral strings add a subtle hint of sorrowful chords to the relentlessly chugging percussion and guitar ostinato.  This is where the score crosses the event horizon of despair.  There is no turning back.  The music will gradually shift from intense action to heartbreak and sorrow from here until the end of the second act.

The percussion and guitars build energy as Lori runs out to the porch and scream for Carl.  From there, she can see Herscehel, standing defiantly with his shotgun, picking off walkers.  Here, the series’ Main Title theme crawls up from the darkness in the violas and second violins, while the drums reach peak intensity:

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An instant later,  Patricia is eaten alive while still grasping her daughter’s hand.  The horrific texture of jagged percussive stabs from Jimmy’s death returns.  But, instead of having a solo violin improvise wailing textures above the fray, I had the entire string orchestra do it.  The result is a horrendous cacophony.  I increased the terror even more at the end of the scene, by having every player in the orchestra gliss gradually from their random improvisations to a single, unison F.  The single pitch melts away the chaos like a flame illuminating the darkness.

Cutting back to the characters driving, their situation is becoming even more urgent.  I again augmented the main ostinato by setting it in 7/8.  The high hat ignores that 7/8 and still pounds out a pattern in 4/4, resulting in a rhythmically ambiguous pattern that heightens the tension.  And here, I turned Paul Cartwright loose on an electric fiddle solo from hell:

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In the next sequence, Andrea rescues Carol but is attacked by walkers in the process.  T-Dog and Lori think she’s been killed and flee the farm.  Moments later, Glenn convinces Maggie to abandon the farm.  These consecutive scenes are where the emotive strings truly come to the forefront and begin to consume the score with melancholy.

The first violins begin by introducing a new variation of the Herschel Theme:

After stating the melody once in the lower register of the violins, I moved the Herschel Theme an octave higher and added the series’ main ostinato underneath in the violas and second violins.  A third statement of the theme gets even more thunderous, where I put the melody in the celli and basses, underscoring Daryl’s heroic ride to save Carol:

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The last people to escape the farm are Herschel, Rick and Carl.  As they drive away, Herschel looks back and watches his farm burn.  This moment marks the complete musical transition from action to sadness.  All rhythmic guitars and percussion have faded away. Dark string chords and a solitary solo piano are all that remain, offering a plaintive statement of the Herschel Theme:

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The massive cue ends on a slow motion shot of the flaming barn and RV, as the Herschel Theme echoes away with the crackling embers.

The second half of the episode chronicles the dramatic aftermath of this huge action sequence, building up to the reunion at the highway wreckage.  This scene starts off with a dark orchestral undertone, as Rick begins to tell his son they’re not going to go back and look for his mother. However, before Carl can process this devastating news, various cars pull up and the group is reunited.

The cars are revealed in a POV shot, where each car passes into frame one by one.  I used contrapuntal writing in the upper strings to create a transition from the ominous tones of Rick and Carl’s previous conversation to the uplifting and heartfelt reunion that happens 20 seconds later.  (This was not an easy task.)

The first motorist to pass into frame is Daryl.  For his appearance, I wrote a single moving line in the upper violins.  The line spells out an ambiguous harmony, not really major or minor.  Yes, it’s a positive moment, but Daryl is not exactly the person who Rick and Carl are hoping to see at this moment.

Then, the Maggie’s car drives into frame.  The second violins enter underneath with a complimentary harmony line, adding some hope and motion. With two groups now visible, there are suddenly two musical lines.

At last, the truck with Lori in it drives into frame.  The violas jump in to the texture offering a third melodic line, that now clearly spells out a major chord, thus dissolving any remaining tension.  Now, the stage is set to transition to a more hopeful passage:

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Carl runs to his mother’s arms.  Using that contrapuntal string passage as a launching point, I was ready to write an unabashedly lush emotional moment.  The lower strings enter, along with gently arpeggiating acoustic guitars:

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For their family hug, I threw in what is probably my favorite chord: a half-diminished chord.  I almost never use this chord, saving it for special, emotional moments. (Throughout the course of “Battlestar Galactica,” I probably only used one four or five times. To the best of my recollection, I’ve never used one yet in “The Walking Dead.” I’ve already seen some fans online observing that this episode’s score reminded them of “BSG.”  I would wager that this singular chord is responsible for that.)

The group assesses their losses.  As they decide to leave, the camera lingers on the message and food they had left for Sophia (in an improvised shot by director Ernest Dickerson, who has brought many such moments to this series).  This sorrowful shot acts as the final farewell to Sophia, the farm and the whole story arc of Season 2.  For that reason, I wrote a solitary solo piano statement of the Sophia Theme, last heard at the heart-wrenching season finale:

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The fourth act of “Beside the Dying Fire” has major revelations and character conflicts. Because the first three acts were so overwhelmingly scored, the producers and I felt we should ease off the music and use a more subtle approach.  This resulted in one of the most interesting cues I’ve ever written: one that presented the polar opposite challenges than the ones I’d faced up to this point.

The scene where Rick confesses to Lori that he killed Shane is beautifully staged with a single push in on Rick as he speaks.  The scene goes on for over three minutes and I scored the whole thing… with a single note.  My process was much closer to sound design than composition.  I gradually evolved a G from a wind-like noise (starting with samples I took of air blowing through my air conditioner actually!) to an increasingly clear pitch drone.  There is no melody, or direction or emotion in the music.  Just an increasing sense of “G.” In the final mix, we ensured that the cue began imperceivably soft and gradually crept up as the camera pushes in.  Even at peak volume, it can barely heard.  But, its presence can be felt.

The next cue I composed introduces a new character to the series.  Fans of the comics are undoubtedly thrilled to see Michonne finally arrive.  And what an entrance!  Carrying a samurai sword, she’s flanked by two chained, armless and jawless walkers.

My score for her entrance is not thematically relevant.  I simply wanted to add importance to her reveal for viewers who hadn’t read the comic.  The deep pounding bass drums and clustered string writing just tell us that whoever this mysterious person is, she’s going to be important.  I presume that as Season 3 gets rolling, I will have opportunity to write her a theme at some point.  And, since I’m a fan of the comic and I’ve already been thinking about this for years, I’ve got a good idea what it will end up being.

“Beside the Dying Fire” is all about changes – in our characters, in our setting, in the very tone of our series.  But no transformation is as dramatic as that undergone by Rick.  In the episode’s climactic scene, he takes charge of the group with a speech that intimidates more than it inspires. “This is not a democracy anymore,” he warns them. After his words, the scene is masterfully edited by Jute Ramsay (with whom I also collaborated on “BSG”) to showcase the subtle differences in each character’s reaction.

My first pass at scoring this scene attempted to acknowledge the various reactions with subtly shifting chords in the strings. I placed discordant harmonies on characters who seemed scared (Lori and Carol for example) and more open, diatonic harmonies on characters who seemed to agree with Rick (Herschel and Daryl for example).  It was a nice idea, but ultimately didn’t serve the scene.  I felt like I was trying to grab too many different emotions, all within the span of a few seconds.

I consulted with showrunner Glen Mazzara and we came up with a new approach.  The score would simply underline the scene with ominous dread.  I thought of Rick like Captain Ahab (the Melville character, not the electronic group I frequently collaborate with!).  Deep celli and basses move along a scary slithering line, while high violin clusters gnash against each other in their upper registers.  In the middle, violas scurry through a tremolo line like wind rustling through leaves.  Following the basses, the harmonic foundation modulates unpredictably from Gm to Bbm to Bm, making it hard for the audience to find a key to rest on.

The result is a dark, uneasy tone — ominous, yes, but subtle enough that we can still register the emotional reactions on each person’s face.

For the final shot, the camera pulls up from the makeshift campsite, flies over the reservoir and reveals a dark prison beneath a full moon.  To fans of the comic book, this shot has huge meaning.  For viewers unfamiliar with Kirkman’s source material, it comes with no other meaning.  I needed to write a cue that would have an impact for both groups.

As the camera pulls back, I introduced what I’m going to call the Prison Theme — a repeated pattern of Gm, Bbm/A and Bbm, where each chord is announced with a pounding repetition of 9 notes:

As the prison is gradually revealed, the inner orchestral strings add rapid arpeggiations of the series’ main title ostinato:

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The cue builds intensity fast.  What began as subtle groups of 9 notes in the toms and guitars, is soon augmented by massive electric guitars, celli, contrabasses, electric bass, pounding kick drums and stringed percussion.

The escalation builds excitement, tension and wonder.  Even if you have no idea what the significance of the prison represents, I hope that the music alone told you it brings the promise of more intense action and drama in Season 3.  The Prison Theme is intentionally simple at this point, because I don’t yet know where the story will take us.  So, I wrote something rhythmically recognizable that I can manipulate dramatically as I need to next season.

Thus concludes my work on “The Walking Dead” for its second season.  This has been an incredible creative journey for me, with an ever-expanding palette of themes, instruments and ideas.  I am so excited about getting started on Season 3!  I suspect it will be even bigger, bloodier and more epic.  And I imagine my score will follow that same path.  Thanks for following along here on my blog. Check back soon, as I’ll have more “TWD” news and updates on other amazing projects in the very near future!

-Bear