Summer Scrapbook 2010 Pt. I: BSG Symphony in Spain

Welcome to the first in my three part “Summer Scrapbook 2010” blog entry series.  I intended to summarize the past few months in only one blog entry, but I realized that so much had happened to me recently I couldn’t possibly fit it all into one blog:  I had my first experience conducting an international symphonic orchestra, premiering my first hour-long concert work in Spain.  I crashed Comic Con, and started an epic new season of Eureka.  I scored the season finale of Caprica, began two new TV series and a top-secret videogame.  My first studio feature film hit theaters.  I began work on an exciting new heavy metal horror film.  I was nominated for my first Emmy, for my work on Human Target, a show for which I just produced a massive four-hour soundtrack album.  I got married and moved into a new house, and began construction on a new studio…. whew!  I’m getting exhausted just listing it all.

This first blog entry will focus on just one of those adventures: my trip to the Canary Islands for the world premiere performance of the Battlestar Galactica Symphony, as part of the renowned Fimucite Film Music Festival in Tenerife, Spain.

The symphony was a unique performance, because it represented the first complete performance of my BSG score.  Previous concerts have either focused on the small ensemble / folk / ethnic / rock aspects of the score, or on the large symphonic elements.  The concert in Tenerife was the first to combine them all.  The audience that night experienced all the various musical flavors of the BSG universe under one roof.  It also meant I was dropped into the center of the largest ensemble I’ve ever conducted at a single time: over 160 musicians.

In order to pull this off, it was necessary for the Fimucite producers to bring my entire ensemble overseas.  I told them that no performance of BSG music would be complete without my key soloists and, thankfully, they agreed.  So, I brought with me Steve Bartek (guitars), Brendan McCreary (vocals / guitars), Raya Yarbrough (vocals), Chris Bleth (ethnic woodwinds), Paul Cartwright (violin) and M.B. Gordy (percussion).  I also brought my mom, but she doesn’t play taiko drums or anything.  :)

After a grueling 24 hour journey, we had a momentary scare as all of Chris’ duduks and bansuris had been lost by Iberia Airlines. My mind was already racing to figure out where one could find these rare Armenian and Japanese instruments on an island off the African coast.  However, after a day or two, the luggage finally showed up and the show could go on.

(Photo: David Olivera)

I had a day to collect myself and then began four straight days of non stop rehearsals.  The schedule was pretty grueling, since I had panels and press interviews to do between the rehearsals.  The lure of having leisure time in Tenerife turned out to be a fantasy.  But, I was happy to do it, since I’m the most content when there’s a monumental task on my plate.

(photo: Raya Yarbrough)

The musicians in Tenerife were fun to work with.  The language barrier took a moment for me to overcome, since I don’t speak Spanish.  However, I found I could articulate most of what I wanted through gestures while conducting and didn’t need many words to communicate what I needed.

M.B. Gordy plays a rippin’ dumbek solo on “Baltar’s Dream” in rehearsal. (Photo: Raya Yarbrough)

Raya Yarbrough sings “A Distant Sadness” in rehearsal.  (Photo: David Olivera)

The orchestra and rock band in rehearsal. (Photo: David Olivera)

When I saw the exterior of the Tenerife Auditorium I suspected that it was, in fact, a Cylon Baseship.  However, once I saw the inside… I was sure that it must be!  The modern white and mechanical grey design just needed an oscillating red LED light going back and forth across the front to complete the look.  It was the perfect place to premiere the Battlestar Galactica Symphony.

“By Your Command!” (Photo: M.B. Gordy)

(Photo: Tino Krist)

During the rehearsal process, I also took part in several panels.  The Thursday panel was a joint one with composer Bruno Coulais, whose work was sharing the bill with my BSG compositions.  The panel was a bit slow, since our answers had to be translated back into multiple languages, however it was a great opportunity to learn about Coulais and his process.  While I was aware of his seminal work on Microcosmos, I was first introduced to his unique melodic and orchestrational sensibilities with Coraline, as that was the film that made him known to American audiences.  Spending time with him and talking music with someone so experienced was one of the highlights of the whole trip for me.  He is a wonderful composer and a truly delightful guy.

(Photo: Francisco Mesa)

The second panel, on the day of the show, focused solely on BSG.  While I have done many such panels over the years, this was the first where performers also took part.  Steve, Brendan and Raya offered their candid memories of what the show meant to them.  I hope that the small and eager audience appreciated how rare this opportunity was to hear from these remarkable musicians, who are also my family.  They were incredibly honest about what the show and working with me means to them, offering insights to the crowd that were new even to me.

The panels were also a great opportunity to meet some of the fans who came out to Tenerife for the show. I knew the concert would be a crazy event, so I was glad that the panels (which were also crazy, just not quite as much so) allowed for a few minutes to catch up with some of you guys.

(Photo: Raya Yarbrough)

What’s amazing is that I’m beginning to see familiar faces at concerts performed on different continents!

(Photo: Tino Krist)

At the last panel, which took place literally a few hours before showtime, some fans (I’m looking at you, Elin!) asked us directly if we were planning an encore.  If you’ve never been to one of my shows, then you may not know there’s a growing tradition here.  At the end of the concert, fans chant “So Say We All!” at the top of their lungs and then we come out and kick ass on a few more songs.  The instant they asked me this I realized what a mistake I’d made: I never planned for an encore!  With all the travel and orchestration preparations, somehow this little detail slipped my mind.

Brendan and I confessed that, no, there would be no encore no matter how loudly they chanted.  But, it seemed as though no one believed us, as if they thought we were merely being coy and keeping the encore a secret.  I brushed it off and figured fans would be happy even without the encore.  Still, it chewed at the back of my mind for the rest of the day.

Conducting soundcheck on the day of the show.  (Photo: David Olivera)

M.B.’s percussion set up included (L-R): shime daiko, nagado daiko, tabla, Tibetan bowls, snare drum and cymbals. (Photo: M.B. Gordy)

L-R: Antonio Fernández, choir master Cristina Farrais & Marta Bello – the remarkable trio of singers who joined Raya to perform the complex harmonies of “Cult of Baltar” and “Apocalypse.” (Photo: Raya Yarbrough)

Final soundcheck before the show.  (Photo: David Olivera)

As if the day of the show weren’t exciting enough, it was also when I found out I’d been nominated for my first Emmy, for the Main Title Theme to Human Target.  Everyone began complementing me on the honor, and all I could think about was just getting ready for the show!

While the final soundcheck was happening, and a large crowd was already gathered outside the hall, I struggled to make use of my nervous energy.  So, I made stupid faces in the background of Raya’s shots in her dressing room.

Her “Goddess of Kobol” dress (that’s not really what it is, but that’s what I always call it) looked awesome.  It certainly got the attention of the audience when she walked out in front of the orchestral musicians, who formed a contrasting backdrop of formal black attire.

(Photo: David Olivera)

At long last, the concert began.  I walked out, took up the baton and began conducting.

(Photo: David Olivera)

The first movement was “A Distant Sadness,” which opens with a huge clustered swell from the entire ensemble.  I raised my arms to cue the crescendo and felt like I might be blown over by the blasting chord all around me.  It was truly an exhilerating experience.

(Photo: David Olivera)

Though we’d already done several rehearsals, I was still stunned by the sheer size of the sound.  The amplified rock band and soloists only enticed the orchestra and choir to up their dynamics further, filling the hall with an ocean of sound.

(Photo: David Olivera)

After the peak of the swell, Raya took the stage and began to sing those lyrics I’ve heard her perform at many different venues now.  However, I don’t know if she’s ever sounded as incredible as she did here in this gorgeous hall, with a full symphony orchestra behind her.

Paul Cartwright & Chris Bleth solo in “Baltar’s Dream.” (Photo: ??, leave a comment, I want to credit you!)

The audience response at the end of each piece was absolutely thunderous.  In particular, “Prelude to War” really brought down the house.  Hearing those familiar taiko beats that close that piece followed by a wave of screaming BSG fans is a moment I will never forget.

However, I had to resist the temptation to bounce around, scream and jump like I do at our smaller rock club performances.  I had to be a nice, formal symphonic conductor.  So, despite the energetic screams from the house, I never put down my baton or turned around.  I kept my focus solely on the orchestra until the very end.

Steve Bartek solos during “Apocalypse.” (Photo: Tino Krist)

(Photo: David Olivera)

I found myself in the middle of the ensemble, which is an odd place for a conductor.  The choir and orchestra were in front of me, but the rock band and soloists were behind me.  This meant that the audience had a nice view of them, but I couldn’t see them at all.  So, I had to constantly turn my head to give them cues and tempos.

Brendan plays rhythm guitar on “Apocalypse,” one of several cues that required multiple drop-tunings for the guitarists. (Photo: Tino Krist)

The Battlestar Galactica Symphony was orchestrated and adapted by my mentor James Hopkins and frequent orchestrator Ed Trybek.  Together they were able to translate my hybrid rock / orchestral / ethnic / synth / choral scores that were produced through many layers of overdubbed recording sessions into a single piece that could be performed in concert.  While I spent many weeks working with them, perfecting the complex and layered contrapuntal lines, I somehow suspected that the piece that would be the most effective would be the one that is the most simple: “Apocalypse.”

Raya sang lead vocals on “Apocalypse,” accompanied by the vocal trio.  (Photo: ??)

In this piece, the orchestra and rock band both combined to play the simple, heavy-metal-inspired riff.  The resultant sound of 160 musicians pounding away at this bass line was overwhelming.  I thought we might shake the concert hall to its foundation.  I knew were doing something right when I observed members of the choir (who weren’t even singing on this tune) unable to stop themselves from dancing on the stage, with huge smiles on their faces.

(Photo: Pedro J. Mérida)

The movements of the Battlestar Galactica Symphony are:

I. A Distant Sadness
II. Prelude to War
III. Passacaglia
IV. Cult of Baltar
V. Baltar’s Dream
VI. Among the Ruins
VII. The Signal
VIII. Apocalypse
IX. Wander My Friends
X. Kara’s Coordinates
XI. Diaspora Oratorio
XII. The Shape of Things to Come

Some of the movements were little suites in themselves.  For example, “Wander My Friends” is not simply the track from the Season 1 album, but is a newly composed suite of “Wander My Friends,” “Roslin and Adama,” “Admiral and Commander” and “So Much Life.”  I wanted to write the ultimate combination of the Adama Family Theme and Roslin and Adama Theme.  Another example, “The Shape of Things to Come,” began as the track from Season 1 but ended with the finale from Season 4’s “An Easterly View,” providing an appropriately bombastic finale.

All of the movements sounded great, but I was not prepared for how incredible “Diaspora Oratorio” would turn out.   The singers of Tenerife really impressed me with their mastery of this piece, which is not an easy one to learn.  Hearing them for the first time in rehearsal, I found myself tearing up.  I had struggled for a long time to compose this work, and this concert made me realize that I’d written something unique, something that I may never top for a long time.  It was as if I were hearing it for the first time.

Paul Cartwright performed a blistering, improvised cadenza on “Kara’s Coordinates.” (Photo: Tino Krist)

(Photo: David Olivera)

The hour flew by and, before I knew it, the ending strains of “The Shape of Things to Come” were echoing away into a wall of applause and screams.  Finally, I turned around and took my bow, facing the audience for the first time since before I picked up the baton.

(Photo: Tino Krist)

Festival music director and conductor Diego Navarro joined me on stage and we took our bows.  However, the BSG musicians weren’t finished yet!  Thanks to those persistent fans at the panel a few hours earlier, we decided to do an encore.  Earlier in the evening, while I was getting ready to conduct, Brendan and Steve Bartek led our Spanish bassist and drummer in a last-minute green room rehearsal of my arrangement of “All Along the Watchtower.”

(Photo: Pedro J. Mérida)

The orchestra cleared the stage, leaving only the rock band.  I suspect that fans out there who’d been to our smaller rock-venue shows could guess what was coming next, but many others probably could not.  However, once Brendan started the signature Middle Eastern guitar riff that introduces the song, everyone cheered.

(Photo: Tino Krist)

Free of the constraints of conducting a massive orchestra, I was able to finally face the audience and have a little more fun on stage.  We all momentarily forgot we were wearing formal clothes in a symphonic concert hall, and gave a rock performance as if we were back at the Roxy or House of Blues in California.  I love making music with the orchestra, but there’s nothing like jamming with the band, and I was glad that the European audience could get a taste of what the heavier rock shows are like.

Brendan sings “All Along the Watchtower.” (Photo: Tino Krist)

Our friend Yas snuck a little video of “Watchtower” and posted it to YouTube.  The audio quality isn’t great, but you can certainly get the idea.  :)

(Photo: Tino Krist)

(Photo: David Olivera)

At the end of the night, I thanked the audience and the orchestra.  After being on stage for an hour, that moment was literally the first chance I had to look out at the audience and see them.  I could feel their energy the whole night, but I had my back to them the whole time, so it was nice to finally see everyone there.

We retreated backstage, and celebrated a triumphant performance.

(L-R: Brendan McCreary, Cristina Farrais, Paul Cartwright, Steve Bartek, Raya Yarbrough, Bear McCreary, M.B. Gordy, Chris Bleth, festival producer Pedro J. Mérida, Bruno Coulais, festival music director Diego Navarro)

(M.B. Gordy and the percussion section)

I didn’t have the energy to properly thank them at the time, so I will do so now.  Thanks are due to the Fimucite organizers, staff and volunteers for a remarkable concert and trip.  However, without the passion and energy of Pedro and Diego, none of this would have been possible.

Now I know what most of you are thinking: was this recorded or filmed? The answer to both is YES.  The Fimucite guys are editing and mixing already, so I’m hopeful that there will be some sort of release in the future of this concert footage and audio.  Keep checking back here for details, and make some noise on the forums.  Let’s make sure Fimucite and NBC Universal know how much you want to see this concert video.  :)

*          *          *

The week was a very exhausting one, but incredibly rewarding.  I never really recovered from jetlag and had rehearsals, interviews and panels to do every day.  However, I still took as many chances as I could to roam the streets of Tenerife and soak up some Spanish culture.  It was quite a change from the hurried and busy life of Los Angeles that I’m used to.  The afternoon siesta is a serious thing over there.  Between 3 and 5, stores and restaurants shut down; it becomes like a ghost town.  And meals were never less than three hours long, even if you said you were in a hurry.  Riding as a passenger in a car is a bit more adrenaline-inducing.  If you eat meat (especially pork) you can eat anywhere, but if you’re a vegetarian, restaurants can be a little difficult; salads listed as vegetarian still included ham and bacon!

Another oddity that struck me was a curiously racially insensitive brand of tea.  Europeans, maybe you can explain to me how or why something like this is acceptable?  We were stunned and thought it was a joke (especially because ordered a “black tea” and thought the waiters were having a laugh).  We saw it in a few places and realized that it’s a common brand there.  Come on, Spain!  Time to advance your teabags out of the 1920’s!  :)

On our last full day there, a bunch of the band went up and saw the volcano.  I didn’t get to go because I was so drained from the previous week I could barely move.  But, they took some awesome photos:

When I first saw this, I thought it was an ocean coastline.  Then, I realized it was CLOUDS!

(L-R: drummer Siddhartha Dorta, Steve, M.B., Paul, bassist Javier Martín, Chris and Brendan)

Raya made a new friend at a cafe.

By far the most memorable night was the evening when Spain won the World Cup Semi-Final.  The streets were a party the likes of which I’d never seen.  The cacophonous wail of countless vuvuzelas filled the city blocks.  We bought a Spanish flag and waved it around.  Then, I realized I should try to blend in with the natives, so I tied it around my neck like a cape, and ran through the streets screaming “España!” at the top of my lungs.  Everyone thought I was a local.  :)

World Cup fever was at its peak as we were traveling home on Sunday.  We were literally in the air as Spain played for the title against the Netherlands.  I feared that meant we would miss all the drama of the match.  However, some fierce competitive spirit kept us entertained on the flight.  First, some Netherlands fans hung up their flag from their overhead compartment.  Soon, the Spaniards became agitated and started hanging their own flags all around them.  This kept up for about an hour, until finally some American guy went right up to the front of the cabin and hung up an American flag across the walkway.

This got a big laugh from everyone on board.  And, of course, when the pilot announced Spain’s victory, the plane erupted into cheers.

I arrived home from Spain exhausted, but thrilled at having experienced something truly remarkable.  But, I had no time to relax, for there were two more major events right around the corner.

Check back tomorrow for Part II of my “Summer Scrapbook:” Comic Con.

So Say We All!