You might not recognize composer Bear McCreary if you passed him on the street, but chances are you’ve heard one of his iconic television scores.
McCreary has created original music for TV shows like "Battlestar Galactica," "The Walking Dead" and "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." His first gig creating music for TV was on "Battlestar" when he was just 24 years old. Working under the original scorer, Richard Gibbs, McCreary took over as principal composer after Gibb's departure only three episodes into the series.
Over the years he’s forged a niche for himself, creating orchestral scores for shows mainly in the sci-fi and horror genres, but his more recent project includes the period epic “Black Sails,” the Starz series about the golden age of pirating, which just started its second season.
For this series, McCreary wanted to use period-specific instruments, like the hurdy-gurdy, to lend authenticity to the show and break the mold of "epic orchestration" that has become standard for shows and films about pirates.
When McCreary came by the Frame studio (hurdy-gurdy in hand), we talked about the current landscape of music on television, cutting his teeth on "Battlestar Galactica" and the enjoyable restrictions of working on Starz.
How early did you find your love for film and TV scores?
I was 5 years old and I was in a movie theater, and I started bringing these little Fisher-Price tape recorders? [laughs] And I guess I wa—
You're the original bootlegger!
I was! I would bring them to the movie theater and hold them up, because I wanted to take the music home and listen to it. And when I was about 6 I realized you can go to a store and buy a tape or vinyl of the music from a movie without the dialogue and sound effects. And then I was hooked.
My impression of music in television is a little bit like arts education in public schools: it's like the first thing to go. But you're able to work with very talented musicians. Are you the exception to the rule? Are you fighting against a trend here?
Sometimes it feels a little like that, although really I think that trend is reversing. The orchestra that I record every week on "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." for Marvel, for example, is every bit as big as the orchestra that records on their movies.
I think that perceptions of television have been changing over the last 10 years and there's been a sort of gold rush in terms of talent moving from other arenas into television. So when your producer is Joss Whedon or Frank Darabont, and we go to the studio and say, "Hey, we want to do this for the music," there are no arguments. People are very excited to help them find their vision and put it on a screen for audiences; it happens to be the small screen, but we get to tell pretty big tales. It's very exciting.
Let's talk a little bit about the orchestration on that track — what were you trying to do, and what was the setup?
[laughs] I was working on the season finale for the third season of "Battlestar Galactica," and I got the memo that the producer wanted a version of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower." So I kind of wanted to do a "George Harrison meets Rage Against the Machine version," which I think was actually written on the score where it would normally say "adagio" or whatever.
I pitched it to Ron Moore, the showrunner, and I was expecting it to be shot down gloriously because it's so bizarre, but everybody loved it. And it was one of the pivotal moments, both narratively in the show — it was a big reveal — but also in my career, because it really allowed the music to become a character in the show.
From that point on, for the rest of "Battlestar Galactica," my score was integrated into the narrative in a way that was very daring and unusual.
When you're thinking about what role music plays in storytelling, how would you define your job? What role do you see music serving in terms of informing the audience or getting them ready for something to happen?
It's different for every film, show, or even video game. In some cases, you get out front and you make a big, bold statement, and you help guide the audience through a fantastic environment, an environment that needs some emotional support in order for you to believe.
In other situations, music really needs to take a backseat role. I don't get out in front of the drama; I do everything I can to stay out of the way. If you look at "The Walking Dead," for example, there's very little music, and what music there is has just enough momentum to have an impact, and not a single note more than that.
[laughs] That was quite a workout. It's funny you mention that, because I definitely got some glares by the end of that session when I said, "No, we've gotta do it one more time." It was a workout, for sure.
What's your theory about combining a classic instrument, like a violin, with something more modern?
"The Walking Dead" is, I think, a timeless piece — it takes place in the modern day and it's in the genre of zombie horror, which of course goes back to the late '60s with George Romero. So I wanted something that acknowledged that, and I'm borrowing the concept for the string writing very blatantly from Bernard Herrmann and his works that he did for Alfred Hitchcock.
"Psycho" in particular?
Exactly. I always loved those string ostinatos, the angst of that string figure that repeats over and over. And the interesting thing is that in cinema that's very effective, and in television it might be even more so.
In particular, that figure in the main title — people have been listening to that for years. And it becomes this thing that burrows into your brain, and you hear it before the main title even starts. My goal was that it creates this Pavlovian response that when you hear that, you know you're watching "The Walking Dead."
But you're also developing a theme, and the theme is that musical idea that's going to anchor the compositions for that show. How do you discover a theme for a certain show?
For me, the theme is the most important part of a score, and I usually tackle the main title first so that I can get a sense of what the DNA of the score is going to be, like what the instruments are going to be. In the case of "The Walking Dead," it's funny that you mention that because I really didn't hear a theme.
I was writing the scene at the end with the main character. Spoiler alert! He ends up under a tank and immediately, when he started crawling under the tank and the zombies were crawling at him, I put my hand on the keyboard and I played "dun da dun da da da dun da dun da da da," and I stopped. I went, "Oh my god, that's the main title." And I quit that scene, I opened up the main title, I wrote it super fast, and I played it for Frank and we played it for AMC. That was it. That sort of sudden burst of inspiration is very rare for me; I usually chisel away at things, but that was really fun.
You have a knack for scoring sci-fi and horror. Is that something you were drawn to as a viewer? Is it what you find yourself most comfortable in? Does one job beget the other?
It's a little bit of all of that. I grew up watching and consuming all kinds of sci-fi, horror and fantasy, and it's definitely where I am most excited. But I also thrive on diversity.
I've been doing some projects on Starz lately which have really let me go back in time, and that was one of the big draws for me to start doing some premium cable shows — "Da Vinci's Demons," "Black Sails" and now "Outlander" on Starz — where it's not in an open-ended environment.
It's forcing me to learn about a specific time period and write music in a more restricted environment, and I find that after years of doing "Battlestar Galactica" and stuff like that, it's very liberating.
So I recognize the piano. What else is playing there?
[laughs] What you're primarily hearing there is an instrument called the hurdy-gurdy, which kind of became the rock star of this score. You hear it in every cue and it's kind of the backbone of all the music in the show.
I strove to use only period instruments, so in the case of "Black Sails," it takes place in Nassau in 1715, and it's about the golden age of piracy .The hurdy-gurdy is a primitive instrument that is similar to a violin or viola, but it has a crank that you turn instead of a bow.
You brought along something today and it looks like a little coffin. What's in your coffin box?
[laughs] Well, this is my hurdy-gurdy that I write and record a lot of "Black Sails" with.
It looks like a violin with a crank on the end, but instead of strings and frets on the end there are what?
There are three strings, only one of which you can change the notes for. So there's two drone strings, which is why it actually sounds very much like a bagpipe.
It's very much like a primitive violin; it's something that was developed before the violin, but it's a very bizarre sound, and as a keyboard player I grew up playing anything with a keyboard on it. But I did not take violin lessons when I was a kid, so this has been great for me to approach something that is a little between a keyboard instrument and a string instrument.