'Caprica' countdown: The music of the master, Bear McCreary
Counting down until the Jan. 22 premiere of "Caprica," we take a look at a man who has helped shape the mood and tone of the "Battlestar Galactica" universe as much as anyone acting, lighting, writing or directing an episode: composer and musician Bear McCreary. His arrangements bring huge crowds of not only "BSG" fans but also general music fans out to concert venues around the country.
Hard-core fans realize the intricacy with which McCreary crafts tunes, creating themes for characters that define who they are, and even who they will be. The young accordion player (among other things) turns 31 soon, making him an Aquarius (or right on the cusp). And that transitions into our latest description of another planet making up the 12 Colonies, Aquarion:
A frigid ocean world, Aquarion functions as little more than a scientific research outpost to the rest of the colonies. There are small landmasses, usually volcanic, and there are native communities, both small and tolerant enough to effectively use a unique communal governing system.
And "unique" takes us back to McCreary. I saw the maestro play a concert in 2009 down the street from the Los Angeles Times building in downtown L.A. I felt like a final five cylon following the melodic sounds to the venue. The crowd assembled was the opposite of intimate, but the communal mood was palpable as McCreary and the band played to a raucous audience. That's where we begin our interview.
Doesn't seem like a lot of composers command the types of crowds and adulation you do. How are you handling that?
It's interesting 'cause that side of my musical life is not something that I ever pursued actively. I didn't become a TV and film composer because I wanted to play sold-out rock concerts, but that's what's ended up happening. And it's fun. I'm grateful for the opportunity to play the music that means so much to those people, and to me, live in a concert setting with all of the musicians that I work with in the studio. And it's an extraordinary chance for the fans to not only see it live, but to see it performed by the same men and women who play it on the series. It's very different than seeing something in the Hollywood Bowl conducted by a composer or a guest artist 'cause these are the exact same artists who play it on the series.
And for a show like "Battlestar Galactica," when you play at events like Comic-Con, there are some pretty fervent fans. Any special moments there?Too many to count, actually. Comic-Con was a blast! For a guy like me, who spends most of my waking hours in the studio, to be able to get out and play San Diego, and really be treated like a rock star anywhere I went, and be recognized ... it was fun. Mostly what's fun is that the audience at these concerts is so receptive. You have to keep it in perspective how unusual it is that you can play instrumental music and get that kind of response. Not only the energetic, jubilant energy from the audience, but also in quiet pieces, their attention is focused. In many ways they have the best of a rock concert audience and a symphonic audience, and that's really unusual. I've never experienced anything like that in my life. It's really a thrill to do that and I hope to continue doing it for the rest of my life.
You create your themes based on characters, so when something is not fully formed like "Caprica," do you just go on the script itself?No, never. I honestly never read the script if I can avoid it because a lot will change from the time it's written to the time it's produced. Sometimes the entire tone of an episode can be reshaped in directing or editing or acting. I don't like to base my ideas off of an alternative reality. With that said, there are times where I need to know in advance certain character arcs. "Caprica" is a great example. I won't give you any spoilers, but there are certain reveals that I know are coming in the back half of the season, so I'm already planting seeds. I'm not going to mention anybody, but after things happen, you can go back to the beginning and see where, musically, I was telling you who these hidden characters are. Stuff like that is really fun.
That's awesome to think about that level of nuance. Let's talk about the two main characters: Eric Stoltz as Daniel Graystone and Esai Morales as Joseph Adama. What, musically, stood out for each of them?
Both of them are featured prominently in the pilot, so my initial original conceptual themes came from the pilot. Daniel is aristocratic and sophisticated and wealthy and very intelligent and highly educated. He's really the kind of character that we never saw on "Battlestar." So I wanted his music and generally the tone of the show itself to be more familiar. I didn't want it to have that kind of tribal raw energy that the "Battlestar" score had. So it's more western; it sounds more like a traditional chamber orchestra. You hear instruments that are not foreign to anyone. English horn and harp and piano. So it has a really calm, meditative yet familiar aspect. One of the things I wanted to say with that is that the world of Daniel Graystone is our world. It's more far-fetched in that it's advanced, but unlike "Battlestar," which is like a submarine, Caprica City is an environment that we are familiar with. So the music should be familiar.
Joseph is a foil to Daniel, so his music should be the opposite, and in many ways, his music is much more closely related to "Battlestar." Not the least of which the reason being is that he's sort of a phantom character on "Battlestar." We hear him talked about a lot, so I felt like coming into this series, we kind of know Joseph Adama. His sound is ... there's more ethnic instruments. I wanted to comment on his Tauron roots. We gather that they come from a very poor planet where they are workers and gangsters ... they're more blue-collar. So I like the idea of doing for Tauron music what Nino Rota did for Italian music in the "Godfather" movies to create this feeling that there's a culture and a heritage there. And that's something that's been expanded on greatly as the series progresses. You'll hear source music -- like the music that Taurons listen to in their cars and in their gangster hide-outs -- and even that music, like the score, has these little touches of the Tauron theme.
That's a lot of foreshadowing to listen for.
Well, look at it this way ... the entire show is foreshadowing. We know where this ends up in 58 years. In many ways, that's the fun of the show: We know things that the characters don't. The characters don't know that the actions that they are taking are leading towards apocalypse. And I find that to be thematically very interesting. So there's ways, especially in the first few episodes, that the music is commenting on the darkness of what's happening and the complexity of the characters, but there's also something in the music that helping to remind us that there's a bigger picture here. If you're aware of "Battlestar," you can listen to it on that level. And if you're not aware of "Battlestar," it still totally works. It's just an added layer that's there for the people that want to perceive it.
You mentioned the Taurons ... so have you thought about the different musical themes that each culture could create?
Absolutely. And there had been times throughout "Battlestar" where we're dealing with people from different colonies and I wrote particular themes for them. But this is the first time I really tried to craft an identity for, not only Tauron, but Caprica as well. And it's something that I think we're going to explore more. Eric Stoltz is already talking to me about the episode he's directing where we get to see a little more of another colony. He's asking me what the music sounds like and I say, "I don't know. I'm not there yet." But we're gonna get there.
Looking on your website, I saw that you were scoring a video game, an anime movie and more. What's out there that you haven't done that you'd like to do?
You know, I don't know. Honestly, I'm really busy right now. I'm completely creatively satisfied right now. I'm not sure I can answer the question. I'm very fortunate to have "Caprica," and having done "Battlestar," and I'm also doing "Human Target."
Yeah, it's interesting. ... It's not a coincidence.
If you could "retcon" or reimagine any song out now, what would it be?
If there's a song that is worth me listening to, it's probably a song that I admire so much that I wouldn't ever touch it. Especially having been asked to do the "All Along the Watchtower" rendition [for "Battlestar"] that I did. I was so nervous about that, taking this classic song and doing something different with it. I feel like I kind of lucked out in that people didn't hate it. In fact, I think everybody liked it. I'm happy that that worked out, and I don't think that I'd do that again if I had the choice.
What about for a TV show on the air?
Hard to say. I honestly don't have a lot of time to watch much of anything. ... But whenever I do watch something, it is difficult to shut off the old musical brain.
Also difficult because you're surrounded by music. How did/do you find the musicians that you play with?
The musicians that play on "Battlestar" and "Caprica" are, at this point, kind of my extended family. They work with me on everything. Some of them I knew before. Steve Bartek, the guitarist, is from Oingo Boingo, and I've been a huge Boingo fan my whole life. Getting to work with him on a near-daily basis is really exciting. The vocalist, Raya Yarbrough, is my fiancee, and the guy who sang "Watchtower" is my brother, so it literally is a family affair. I'm just really fortunate that I could find all of these people. They were a huge part in making "Battlestar" sound the way that it did, and they will have that same impact on "Caprica."
-- Jevon Phillips
Photos, from top: Bear McCreary. Credit: www.BearMcCreary.com. "Caprica" poster, Eric Stoltz as Daniel Graystone and Esai Morales as Joseph Adama. Credit: Syfy. Mark Valley as Christopher Chance on "The Human Target." Credit: Fox.