This interview was originally published in two parts over two weeks in July of 2005. The second season of Galactica was premiering and interest in the show, and in Bear’s music, was on the rise. Seeing as Bear is now one of the most highly sought after composers with numerous CD releases of his television, game, and film scores to date, this interview is a neat look back at a particular moment in time in the career of one very focused and talented musician not yet privy of the shape of things to come.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with composer Bear McCreary in March of 2005. Battlestar Galactica was pretty much my favourite show on television at the time and it would not be a stretch to say that Bear was, hands-down, my favourite composer. We talked a lot about the music of the show and his process and I’ve always been really pleased with how this conversation translated to print. It was a great pleasure revisiting and rereading it while formatting it for posting. I’ve actually been listening to the Galactica score while working on it and I’d almost recommend throwing it on before giving it a read. There’s something about it that just…works.
For those of you who don’t know, Bear McCreary is the multi-talented composer for the Sci-Fi network’s top-rated show, Battlestar Galactica. The series, which was recently rated by Time Magazine as one of the six best drama on TV, has managed to carve out a very specific, and highly-regarded, place on the television landscape. Despite it’s origins as a reimagining of a short-lived, but much-loved, series from the ’70s, the Galactica of today stands out as a truly fresh and original hour of television with some of the sharpest writing and effects I’ve seen in a very long time.
It would be entirely fair to give some of the credit for the show’s success to its fantastic array of music cues, for it is the music which drives much of the tension, drama, and action making this show a must-see-event week in and week out. And, although it was Richard Gibbs who developed much of the original sound and texture during the Galactica mini-series (with McCreary on as an assistant), it is McCreary who has continued on with the show, growing along with it and discovering new challenges with every episode.
With the premiere of Season Two on July 15th, 2005, I thought it was the perfect time to run this interview Bear and I did. In it we discuss the process of making the music for the show, what some of Bear’s favourite cues from Season One are, the Season One CD release, and touch briefly on what to expect for Season Two.
MIKE JOZIC: Let’s start with the mini-series since Galactica is probably going to be the focus of this. Now, you’re credited with ‘Additional Music By…’
BEAR McCREARY: Yeah.
JOZIC: So, what exactly does that mean?
McCREARY: Well, it usually means exactly that. There’s a certain amount of music that needs to get written and sometimes, as was the case on the mini-series, it’s a lot of music with very little time. One of the ways that Richard [Gibbs] got around it was having me writing music with him. I’ve worked with him in this capacity for a while, and at that time he called me back in to start writing when he got the call to do the show. We ended up on this sort of constant 24 hour rotation where he would write for 8 or 10 hours and I would come in at 6 or 7 at night and I would write for about 8 or 10 hours. We had somebody writing on his rig pretty much 24 hours a day to get all the music finished. At the same time I would work with the producers and Richard developed a lot of the thematic material. I focused on mainly the percussion side of things.
We split it up and we were able to get it all done.
JOZIC: Did you get any original cues of your own in the mini-series?
McCREARY: Oh, substantial, yeah. I mean, I don’t know percentage-wise, but I wrote close to forty minutes of music for the mini-series, probably.
JOZIC: You commented in another interview that the ‘Additional Music By…’ credit was a really generous one to have been given. What did you mean by that?
McCREARY: Well, it is, and the reason that it is is because this happens a lot more often than is credited in the film music business. It’s not something that is new. Richard is really cool because if you write something with him he’ll credit you. We split cue-sheet credit on cues that I wrote so if there’s royalties involved I’m not shut out of those. There are situations and scenarios in which that doesn’t happen. Richard is really upfront. He’s not only literally crediting me on the film, but sharing the credit with the producers. When I was writing with him he kept me involved in working with Michael Rymer. If Michael would say, ‘Oh, I really like this cue, I want to talk about it’ for the cue I wrote, he would bring me up and I would talk to Michael about it and we would work it out. It wasn’t like he was trying to take credit for work he didn’t do, so that was cool.
JOZIC: I remember Danny Elfman getting some heat for that.
McCREARY: Yeah, but that was…It’s funny you mention that because I was just talking with Steve Bartek about that today.
JOZIC: I hesitated to bring it up because of the Boingo connection.
McCREARY: It’s cool. And I literally had this conversation with him, like, eight hours ago.
That was all speculation. To my understanding, which is pretty good, he doesn’t do that. Not to say he’s never done it. I mean, everybody gets into a time crunch. It’s quite possible it’ll happen on the Battlestar Galactica series with me because you’ve got so much music to write and so little time. But, I think Danny took the brunt of that because when he really hit it big he was really vocal about his level of experience in orchestral music and, I think at the time, kind of naively assumed that people would understand that. Of course, nowadays, to say you have people orchestrate your music for you, people don’t even blink. It’s totally commonplace. But Danny was right at that transitional period where all the composers were supposed to be these collegiately trained guys and he’s not. He’s intuitive.
JOZIC: Well, you hear every other department on a show talking about how they’re struggling to meet their deadlines so it’s only natural that you guys are equally crunched.
McCREARY: Oh, music gets it worse than anybody else. The saving grace on Battlestar Galactica is the visual effects. Because what that means with having to render all these computer effects, they have a rough cut of the film done, like, a month before it dubs. So, rather than having four days to score a show I will have a month to score a show. The flipside of that is, in a month I’ll have more shows than one just to score but it does give you a bigger window of time. So, for the first time in my experience, and generally speaking in TV you don’t have a lot of computer effects and it actually really benefits me. It really buys a lot of time for me to try and do something cool.
JOZIC: Do you do everything? Do you do the writing and the orchestrations and…
McCREARY: Yeah. I do orchestrate and copy. I have an engineer that does all the recording and mixing and I do all of the synthestration. It’s basically a two man team. He’s mixing all day while I’m writing all day and then we’ll do sessions together and I go home and write some more and he mixes more. Like before, it takes the two of us working 24 hours a day to get it done.
In fact he was the engineer on the mini-series so he’s familiar with everyone’s expectations there.
JOZIC: How much of the score is electronic and how much of it is natural sounds?
McCREARY: Well, it fluctuates but I would say close to 50/50 – maybe 60/40 for synth.
JOZIC: Do you actually have sessions with an orchestra?
McCREARY: We don’t get a full orchestra session, no. In the season finale that is a real orchestra, yes. So, I worked with an orchestra for the two-part season finale but even that, I didn’t actually score the whole thing with an orchestra. We just had a little bit of time with them.
But the rest of it is a composite with a lot of synth tracks. A very minimal number of musicians but we do a lot of tracks. We’ll layer in lots of live percussion and I have an electric fiddle player that comes in and does these really weird violin effects. Nine times out of ten you’d never even know it was a guy making those sounds with a violin. He’s really strange. There’s also some guitar but it’s the same thing where he doesn’t want to sound like a guitar and we do some weird effects, stuff like that. Basically, anything I can do to help enrich the sound. The synth is the basis and then after that…
JOZIC: You lay a lot of tracks?
McCREARY: It’s a ridiculous number of tracks. It’s embarrassing how many tracks. Yeah, it’s insane.
JOZIC: Now, would that be well beyond the ‘industry standard’?
McCREARY: So far beyond that it’s ridiculous. When we first started my engineer was kind of like a deer in headlights. Working on all my projects he used to complain, like, ‘God, man, this is, like, eighty tracks, ninety tracks – this is ridiculous.’ The main title of Battlestar Galactica is somewhere in the order of 230 to 250 tracks. You can’t even mix that at Fox. I mean, it’s a lot. So, at this point, now, he’s got this stoic attitude about it where he’ll say, ‘Okay, bring it on.’
It’s not necessarily because I like a lot of tracks – though my engineer might argue that – but when you’re doing a synth score it’s a lot harder than doing an acoustic score. And, in order to really get a lush, rich sound I try to use as many sounds as possible and layer in things and mask things and I try to make it really thick so that it hides the synthiness of it. It takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of tracks but I think it’s worth it and hopefully the fans will notice a difference in the quality of the music.
The other saving grace, I should say, is that we’re not trying to do orchestral music. I’m not doing orchestra mock-ups. It’s not trying to be orchestral music so it gives us some leeway to mess around and try to create other timbres and other textures and I find that orchestral mock-ups are really frustrating. To me it’s the indicator of a low-budget project when you’re watching a TV show or something and you hear strings and French horns and it just feels kind of tinny and canned. It’s not real but they’re writing it like it is. It’s difficult because, obviously, most of the things on TV are low-budget but I’m very, very grateful that the people at Battlestar have opened up some other options and let me mess around.
JOZIC: I’ve heard some composers do TV scores and they sound canned, like you said, but then you hear them cut loose with an 80 piece orchestra on a feature and you think, ‘Oh, they can write something rich and moving.’
McCREARY: Yeah, and it’s funny because you can hear that it’s good music a lot of the time. Not all of the time, but a lot of the time it’s good music. The feeling is genuine but somehow in the translation through all the synth it’s lacking. I look at a show like Galactica and I don’t think that it wants an orchestral score. The whole tone of it is different so I think it’s really a good situation. Even if there was a budget to do a full orchestra on every show we wouldn’t go with a traditional orchestral sound.
JOZIC: You commented in another interview that having that many tracks gave the producers more freedom when they were editing.
McCREARY: Yeah, you’re talking about the final mix?
McCREARY: Well, this is what you’re probably getting at. Especially on Battlestar, the producers do not have time to listen to all the cues and mock-ups and give me comments. So, what it means is that most of the time, the first time they hear the music that I’ve written is at the dub stage and this is good and bad. The good side of this means that I do not spend a lot of time making revisions, making demos, running off demo CDs, burning DVDs, I just get the video, I talk to them a little bit and I do my thing. The bad side is pretty obvious. If they don’t like it, it’s already been recorded, it’s already mixed and it has to be dubbed into the show the same day they hear it.
So, we split the final mix into a bunch of stems. I’m not sure what’s common for TV, I mean, I know for theatrical films this is really common – you split it out into a ton of tracks, and we’re no exception because you never know what sound someone at the show might like or dislike. A lot of times it gives you the leeway to mess around, and a lot of times we’ll get to the final dub and we’ll take certain tracks out or move things around and it just lets the producers be involved, and, they should be. But, then they don’t have to listen to demos and the obvious requirement is that even if they don’t like it, I gotta be close. If I’m in the ballpark with the cue then it’s cool. And all of my experiences there have been good. We’ve never had a big disaster on the show.
JOZIC: So, how much trust and give-and-take is there?
McCREARY: A lot. The schedule requires a lot.
I think it’s really grown, though, over the course of the season. As the producers got to know me and got to know my work they trusted me more and gave me a little more creative freedom, and I trusted them more. There were directions they wanted to take the music that my first instinct was to say, ‘What?’ My first instinct was that it was wrong but they were right a lot of the time. So, they’d want to try something out so I would try it out and find a way to make it work. So, the score evolved in interesting ways and it’s been a really good experience.
JOZIC: Richard Gibbs originally came over from the mini-series and did a few episodes of the series, did he not?
JOZIC: He did how many episodes?
McCREARY: He did two. He did episodes number two and three.
JOZIC: When the show was picked up and Richard eventually decided to leave, did you have to audition for the show or was there a general attitude of, well, Richard’s gone so Bear is in?
McCREARY: A little of both. I know that there was some hesitation in the beginning. I think that’s natural. The producers higher up in the chain that I didn’t work with personally on the mini-series didn’t know who I was. So, there was a certain amount of that and I think that the first episode that I scored was an audition. I really think if that had gone poorly they probably would have gone with someone else.
The first episode that I scored on my own was the first one – “33” – and that went really well. I think everyone was really happy with it and I could tell that episodes four and five, the two-parter with Starbuck which were the next ones I tackled, went really well and from that point on I started hearing from them less and less. We met up at the dubs and everything sounds great and it was cool. But, I’m sure there was some hesitation on their part. I don’t blame them. It’s a big show and at that time I had no credits, really.
Richard was also very cool about that. Very encouraging of them to let me take a shot at it.
JOZIC: Did the two of you compose the main theme together?
McCREARY: Yes and no. [laughs] I wish I had simple answers for all of these questions.
JOZIC: Hey, the simple answers are the dull ones.
McCREARY: Well, no, we didn’t ever actually collaborate, but the finished main title that you hear in the US represents work from both of us.
Richard wrote a main title that aired in the UK and before it aired in the US there was a decision to change the direction on it tonally and Richard was busy working on Fat Albert by the time they really needed to make up their minds so he passed it onto me so then I rewrote the beginning based on a piece from the score. The producers found a piece that I did on the score and they kind of temped it in to the first part of the main title and they thought it was cool and they wanted someone to rework that into a theme. So, the first half is my contribution and the second half – with all the drums and stuff – is pretty much verbatim from what Richard’s UK theme had on it.
JOZIC: The part that shows the scenes…
McCREARY: From the episode you’re about to watch, yeah.
JOZIC: So, the main titles in the UK are different from the US titles?
McCREARY: Yeah. The main title theme, the music is different. They actually, technically, changed a couple of shots, too. It is my understanding that this is a point of contention with the fans so when we put the soundtrack album out in a month we’re putting both themes on there.
JOZIC: That’s a good idea.
McCREARY: Yeah. Well, Richard’s theme is cool. It’s got a vocal part to it and it’s neat so I’m glad US fans will be able to hear it on the CD.
JOZIC: Well, our episodes are longer so…
McCREARY: That’s true. Give and take.
JOZIC: When the Celtic piece, “Wander My Friends”, showed up in episode ten I had to ask myself, why is this here? It was just so different thematically from anything that had appeared on the series up to that point. I’m curious why you went in that direction?
McCREARY: Going back to what we said earlier about trust, there are decisions the producers wanted to make that I was hesitant [about]. I mean, putting in a strong Celtic bagpipe piece with a choir, I would have never done that on my own, but they wanted to take it in that direction so I tried it out and it was pretty cool. The whole episode, tonally, is a little different from the rest of the series. It’s more emotional. It’s not so dark, you know? There is a lightness and closure at the end of that episode with the big celebration. There isn’t really another scene in the series like that, at least so far. Once we tried that out and it worked, I took the sound and kind of incorporated it into the rest of the score to soften the blow of the shift in tone earlier in the episode when Commander Adama gives [Lee] the lighter. And, ultimately, it kind of serves as this noble Adama family theme and it has an element of tradition to it and an element of military nobility so it’s kind of cool. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a chance to bring it back – I certainly hope so – but that’s how that one evolved.
JOZIC: If it’s an Adama theme than maybe you will.
McCREARY: Yeah, I would imagine so. I would imagine that there’s going to be more drama between the father and son.
JOZIC: Have you started thinking about season two yet?
McCREARY: I’ve definitely been thinking about it. I’ve got some great ideas but I haven’t started writing it yet.
JOZIC: Well, they haven’t started shooting yet.
McCREARY: Yeah, they started two weeks ago. We’re going on the air in July.
JOZIC: I heard it was going ot be a summer release.
McCREARY: Yeah, it’s soon. They started on the 21st of March so…
JOZIC: You’ll be getting some stuff soon?
McCREARY: I would imagine very soon, yes.
JOZIC: On a weekly series with new directors every week, and Richard having moved on, how closely do you work with the director of each episode? Or is it mostly producer-run?
McCREARY: Normally the TV show is entirely producer-run. I’m not even sure, on an average basis, how much the directors are involved with post at all. It’s not like theatrical films where the director makes a lot of the decisions all the way to the end. Really, it’s the executive producer who’s The Guy.
I actually never met with any of the directors, except for Michael Rymer who I worked with on episodes twelve and thirteen. One of the reasons I did that, you know, I think they trust him a lot and he was given a lot of creative freedom and creative power when he came back to direct those last two. So, I worked with him very closely on episodes twelve and thirteen and his guidance was pivotal in making those orchestral pieces work and getting what they wanted. That was just an awesome experience.
JOZIC: Did you have more time with those last two episodes? Because I remember Ron Moore commenting in the podcast how the network had coughed up a little extra money just to make it special. I was wondering if they coughed up a little more time, too?
McCREARY: Nope. No more time.
Like I said, there was a little extra money so we could do an orchestra because they wanted a string orchestra and they temped it with a string orchestra piece and I knew right from the beginning that you can’t fake that. Nobody would be happy with synth strings during those sweeping emotional moments. I was very grateful that the people at SciFi are great, obviously.
JOZIC: Battlestar Galactica is the first real science-fiction score you’ve done, right?
McCREARY: Arguably, yeah.
McCREARY: Well, you know, I’ve done a lot of independent films and a lot of student films and a lot of shorts…
I’ve done a lot of weird stuff but this is definitely my first show with spaceships and robots, yeah.
JOZIC: Do these scores allow you to stretch in ways a dramatic score would never allow you to?
McCREARY: I would say so, yeah. But, with that said, I score it like a dramatic score. I don’t score it like a sci-fi show.
JOZIC: I guess that’s the foundation of the show, too.
McCREARY: Absolutely. There are plenty of moments where you get to stretch your sci-fi chops and horror chops. There are a lot of horror cues suspense cues.
For example, one of my favourite moments is in episode one where they destroy the Olympic Carrier. It takes place in outer space, you’ve got spaceships flying around, Starbuck is firing her guns and they’re flashing their lights and there’s a nuclear bomb and the cylons show up and there is all of this stuff happening, but the whole way it’s written and shot and, ultimately the way it was scored, it’s really about three or four people. It’s about whether the president is going to make this decision of whether Baltar is right or not and whether Apollo and Starbuck will act on the order that they’re given. It’s just this intimate little drama between these people and when they actually pull back and pull the trigger and blow up the civilian ship, I find it really moving. There wasn’t anything in the score, especially at that moment, that was really sci-fi oriented. It was a dramatic scene and the fact that it took place in outer space was kind of arbitrary compared to everything that was happening.
JOZIC: So, do you find yourself drawing more inspiration from the images or from the writing?
McCREARY: From the writing, absolutely from the writing.
JOZIC: So, you go with the characters rather than the…
McCREARY: I go with the characters whenever possible. A lot of the time the philosophy is, if it doesn’t help the scene dramatically, don’t put music there. The best action scenes are the ones where there is something emotionally at stake, like that one, or the big battle at the end of episode ten. The thing that fascinated me wasn’t so much Apollo flying through the tunnel and all the incredible things that were happening, but every time they cut back to Baltar just quivering in the corner in utter horror as to whether he’s made a mistake or not. That just drove that entire ten minute sequence for me, and also Starbuck dealing with her responsibility.
Also, as far as the visuals are concerned, most of them aren’t finished when I’m writing music. I get to see them at the end with everybody else.
The one that blew me away, just knocked me off my feet, was in episode twelve where the raptors appear over Kobol and it turns out the cylons are there and there’s a big crash. When I scored that there was a series of black cards with text that said ‘raptors appear, there’s a crash, they scream stuff, they fall towards the planet’. I mean, there was nothing there, it was like an old silent film where they show the dialogue on the card. So, I just wrote some loud really rockin’ music and when I saw it at the dub my jaw dropped at how great it looks.
JOZIC: Do you get storyboards?
McCREARY: No, not usually. I mean, season two might be a little different, but by the time I got involved in the show they had already cut several episodes and there was just no time.
JOZIC: They just don’t make it easy for you, do they?
McCREARY: Man, you don’t get a lot of time. You don’t get a lot of time but the good thing is that the shows are so good it doesn’t take a lot of preparation to figure out what it needs. You look at it and the drama is so tight, so involving, that as a composer it’s pretty clear what it needs.
JOZIC: I suppose by now that the process is really familiar to you as well.
McCREARY: Well, that helps.
JOZIC: You see certain scenes and you go, ‘Oh, this needs this…’
McCREARY: Yup. But, you know, I didn’t realize what a challenge it would be, as far as the changes in tone. I know that the Gaelic piece in ten stands out, and I don’t know about the fans, but for me that wasn’t the first time I had departed seriously from the tone of the show. In episode nine they had temped it with an Italian opera. I thought it was like April Fools on the Composer day. I was like, ‘that’s a good one guys, what do you actually want me to write here?’ They looked at me and said, ‘Well, we just think this is kind of funny,’ and I’m like, ‘OK’.
JOZIC: That was “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down”?
McCREARY: Yeah. It was after the main title when Baltar is sitting in his laboratory contemplating suicide. It’s a really funny scene and the Italian opera makes it really funny, but that was an original opera aria that I wrote. I wrote the lyrics, we had an opera singer come in and sing in Italian [and] the whole deal. That was a really surreal experience. I mean, nothing…nothing like the tone of the show. There was a couple of other pieces like the one in episode four and especially in episode eleven and later on where there is some big band music and even some elevator music that’s played in the bathroom. Almost every episode had something in it where I had to kind of stretch and go, ‘OK, how am I going to do this?’
JOZIC: This is probably something to do with how my brain is wired but, even though those other pieces were departures from the regular tone of the show, I pretty much just accepted them and didn’t think twice about it, but the Gaelic piece still just stands out so strongly for me as being different.
McCREARY: It was used in more of a pivotal way whereas the muzak in the bathroom is literally background music.
JOZIC: I guess. It was also very thematic.
McCREARY: The Gaelic piece?
JOZIC: Yeah, because, other than the Number Six theme, I can’t really think of anything that just has that thematic quality.
McCREARY: Oh, it’s true, but if you listen carefully I’ve actually slipped several themes in there. I would say there’s about ten or fifteen but I have to keep them so low profile to not come across as thematic writing. Certainly nothing that gets as much play as the Number Six theme, which is just as well because I think the thematic approach would be overbearing on the show.
But you score enough scenes with Boomer and Helo together and you start tying them together. You can’t help it.
JOZIC: I don’t mean to ride you over “Wander My Friends”…[laughs]
McCREARY: No, it’s cool.
JOZIC: So, do you find it difficult scoring for characters without using themes? Or is that where you pepper in your ten or fifteen themes? [laughs]
McCREARY: That’s where I put in my ten or fifteen themes.
Yes, it is difficult. Well, I should rephrase this. No, ultimately, it wouldn’t be difficult but I really try to make the music as [interesting] as I possibly can and I try to put in as many little tricks as possible to help tie these characters together and help tie these scenes together. Some of them pay off, some of them don’t go anywhere because when I’m scoring an episode in the beginning I have no idea if I’m going to have a place to use that theme later.
One example, I wrote a theme for Boomer and Tyrel in episode number six – when they are in the hold, or wherever they have their secret rendezvous – and in the end he breaks up with her? There’s a love theme that I wrote for them. I thought, ‘Aww, this’ll be cool. I can come back the next time there’s a scene with them.’ Well, I didn’t know this then, but there wouldn’t be another one. So, I almost got it on but it didn’t go anywhere.
That said, though, in the first episode when Boomer rescues Helo, and I didn’t know where they were going to go with this, I wrote this little eight note gamelan tune and that got played in every episode. I mean, every time we go to Caprica I bring it back. That was really helpful and I made sure never to use that kind of sound when we were at the Galactica with the other Boomer. I was trying to do my best to sort of separate those two because they’re obviously two different people going through two different issues.
Starbuck [also] has a theme that gets a couple of big moments.
Ultimately, thematic writing helps it just doesn’t always have to be big sweeping orchestral lines or plaintive French horn passages, it can be much more subconscious, much more subliminal. And that’s what I’m going for. You have a smaller palette but it’s still the same bag of tricks.
JOZIC: They do that visually on the show, too. In one of the podcasts Ron Moore commented on how they wanted it raining on Caprica so that it looked drastically different from the scenes on Galactica.
JOZIC: With the music, are you really conscious about it when you’re scoring the show?
McCREARY: Let me put it this way, I am very conscious about it [but], with that said, the differences are pretty subtle because I don’t want to jar an audience. I am very careful about the sounds I pick.
If you really dig at it – and no one would ever pick up on this – every time it cuts to the establishing shot of Caprica and it says ‘Cylon Occupied Caprica’ across the bottom, there is one sound I use every time to take us back to Caprica. And it’s the only place I ever use it – on the establishing shots. It’s a subtly different sound than a lot of the other stuff. I mean, it’s not like I’m doing a big gong here, but it’s there and it’s something that I’m very aware of and, even if no one notices it directly, I certainly like to think that it subconsciously kind of helps people go, ‘Oh yeah, now we’re going back here.’ And, of course, that’s the point of what that establishing shot is. It takes us off the ship and reminds people where we’re going. So, when they do it, I do it.
JOZIC: And do the producers notice when you do it?
McCREARY: We don’t talk about it, but I don’t know. If we’re talking about details of the show they’re usually bigger picture stuff. Also, I try not to use the word theme when I’m talking to them because, right from the get-go, as is pretty clear from the score for the mini-series that Richard and I did, they didn’t want thematic writing. So, if I start saying, ‘Oh, here’s the theme from Caprica,’ even though it’s not a big orchestral theme, it’s just the wrong word to use, you know what I mean? You don’t want to go around talking about themes. And it really isn’t a theme. I mean, a theme is like an eight bar tune with an eight bar B section – Star Wars, Superman, those are themes. These are more like motivic ideas.
A theme is more like a melodic tune. It’s something that really gets stuck in your head. Like, for instance, the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth – the four note thing that everyone knows. I call that a motivic idea or a motive, not a theme necessarily. It’s four notes. That’s all it is, you know? That’s the philosophy I tried putting into Battlestar. [You take] Starbuck’s little theme, or her motivic idea, and it’s, like, six notes. It’s not anything that gets repeated, it’s a very simple little phrase that I only use with her.
So, like I said, it’s pretty subliminal but it’s there and I’d certainly like to think that it helps to kind of tie the show together and tie the score together.
JOZIC: It certainly does, even though it’s not outwardly noticeable all the time.
McCREARY: And it shouldn’t be. That’s not my job. The show works so well by itself, the music should serve it.
JOZIC: What other composers or music or styles or anything influence your Battlestar scores?
McCREARY: I really don’t mean to cop out on this answer but what Richard and I did on the mini-series was, obviously, a major influence. It’s a direct continuation of that so you should probably ask Richard and Michael Rymer what sort of got them started. I know that Michael temped the mini-series with a lot of Peter Gabriel’s Last Temptation of Christ and a lot of traditional taiko music.
I’ve listened to a lot of ethnic music form around the world. I’ve listened to Armenian music, Japanese music, African music, and tried pulling things from that, but as far as an exact influence it’s kind of hard to say because it’s all been influenced after we sort of went through it in the mini-series and created the Battlestar sound. From there I’ve just been sort of adding to it and developing it and taking it in new directions as the show requires.
JOZIC: Is there an aspect of the Battlestar sound that is your favourite to play with?
McCREARY: The drums.
JOZIC: [laughs] I remember reading an interview, though, where you were talking about the drums driving you crazy because they kept asking for more drums.
McCREARY: Well, the drums on the mini-series were a different issue. It was a discovery process of figuring out what they wanted. Having gone through all that I feel like I’ve come to a really cool drum sound and the producers seem to really like it and we don’t seem to have those problems anymore. Working with synth and live percussion you can create some really cool drum textures and I think it’s a cool way to approach scoring.
JOZIC: Richard initially didn’t like the score for the mini-series very much when it was completed. What was your reaction to it?
McCREARY: I was really happy with it. It was a tremendous amount of work amplified by the necessary experiments that had to go into it. It wasn’t like we were doing a traditional orchestra score and we could just punch it out. I mean, we did massive rewrites and there was no time in the beginning. You know that eight-minute battle at the end of the mini-series, I think I scored that four different times. That part of it was frustrating but, ultimately, really rewarding and I was really happy with it.
JOZIC: That’s where the 200 tracks come in, right?
McCREARY: A little bit. I think I’m doing more tracks than we did on the mini-series because on the mini-series we had other resources and less time. There was a full orchestra we had access to on the mini-series. When you have a full orchestra you don’t need 200 synth parts.
JOZIC: I have to say that Battlestar has certainly developed a pretty diverse musical palette since it started out.
McCREARY: Well, that’s what I love to do. I love taking on projects that let me do different things. I’ve scored films with a klezmer band, I’ve done a film where the entire band was a 1930s French jazz band, all sorts of weird things. That’s what’s really fun for me, getting to experiment and do all sorts of different things.
I didn’t think Battlestar would be one of those gigs. It’s got the set sound we did in the mini-series and I didn’t think that it would give me the opportunity to do these different stylistic things but it has, so it’s been kind of like icing on the cake. That’s one of the things that makes my job kind of fun, is getting these kinds of challenges.
JOZIC: When a challenge like the Italian Aria comes up – when a ‘Hey, can you give us one of these,’ comes to you – do you have the background to just say, ‘Oh, sure, I’ll be right back with that’ or do you have to go and research it and dig that stuff up?
McCREARY: Most of the time…yeah. I mean, as a classically trained composer, knocking something out in the style of Mozart is, not to say easy, but I’m certainly familiar with it. I’ve done a lot of Rock ‘n’ Roll, I’ve done a lot of Pop, I’ve done Jazz, I’ve done all sorts of stuff. Even when I had to do that weird bossanova elevator music, I’ve done that before. The more weird stuff you do the more prepared you are for anything which, ultimately, is the answer to that.
But, where necessary, I always do my research. I’ve written Celtic style music before, but I always make sure that, musically, I’m right. I want to do it right. Even with bringing in all these other ethnic influences I do a little bit of research to make sure that what I’m bringing in I’m bringing in accurately. It’s obviously not exactly Japanese music because it’s being combined with all these other things and it shouldn’t sound, specifically, from any culture but I always try to do a certain amount of homework to insure that things are being done right.
It’s also just part of the fun.
JOZIC: That’s part of the fun for you?
McCREARY: Absolutely. It’s because you get to do something different. In episode nine, with the background music for when they’re eating dinner, they could have easily, easily found some cheap string quartet to license from somebody, but I said, ‘No, no, I wanna do it. It sounds like fun.’
JOZIC: And it avoids the problem of running into music that might be familiar to ‘Earth people’.
McCREARY: Yeah, and that’s what I first said when they wanted an Italian Opera but, ultimately, everything is familiar to ‘Earth people’, right? Everything comes from somewhere. Completely alien music, I mean, it would just sound like a bunch of noise so you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.
JOZIC: Yeah, you could write in the style of Beethoven but if you’re not using the 9th Symphony…
McCREARY: That was my philosophy. When I watched the temp hearing Mozart – and granted, I’m a classically trained composer – it was really distracting. They didn’t care. To them, the tone of music that was set against a guy talking about killing himself was really funny – and it was – but to me, having the musical background that I have, I was kind of like, ‘Yeah, but this is…Western European classical music’. People are familiar with it. So, to write this as similar, but still a little bit different, I think it’s pretty cool and it maybe helps give the sense that these people have their own classical music, that there is an art history in their world similar to ours but not exactly the same as ours.
JOZIC: How much score do you write compared to what actually gets used on the show?
McCREARY: Pretty much everything. In fact, everything I’ve ever written, except for one or two cues, got used. There’s not a lot of stuff that doesn’t because if something doesn’t get used in one episode chances are it’ll get put into another one. I think, so far, there’s only one piece that didn’t end up anywhere but I promise you it will. [laughs]
JOZIC: A lot of shows have cues they reuse…
McCREARY: Or there’ll be a library of music that they draw from if they have it.
JOZIC: Yeah, exactly. I don’t hear a lot of that going on in Galactica but I thought I would ask you anyway.
McCREARY: I keep that to an absolute minimum. That said, of course it happens a lot. Usually it’s a time thing but I always make sure that the really important scenes that need original score get it and that they get the attention they need and then you don’t end up having a really pivotal, powerful scene with a redundant score. At least that’s certainly my effort. A lot of times, though, you just end up in a time crunch and if there’s a scene that isn’t coming to me I’ll bring in something that got cut from another episode or that you didn’t quite hear because of the sound effects. I’m pretty careful about it because I don’t like that library music feel. I hear it all the time. When you’re a musician you’re so keyed into the music that, a lot of the time, it can tarnish your viewing experiences, but I don’t like hearing music that I recognize on a really cool scene.
I’ve written over five hours of music for Battlestar Galactica, of that, seventy-eight minutes is going to end up on a CD. That leaves a lot of music that people haven’t necessarily heard a whole lot. The more music you write the cooler you can be about it.
JOZIC: The show has run for yhirteen episodes now. It’s done, it’s familiar – with both the audience and you guys – do you still get the questions about, or the comparisons to, the old series and the original Stu Phillips score or have you all moved past that and nobody bothers anymore?
McCREARY: Well, I’m past it, Mike. [laughs]
McCREARY: You still hear…I think that will always be the case but, ultimately, that comes down to fans wanting the old show. I really think if you put a big brass fanfare at the beginning of this show, most people would be able to look at it and go, that doesn’t fit. It’s a totally different show, the tone of it is much more different and serious.
As far as the old theme, I think a lot of the fans responded positively to it being mentioned in a short piece in the mini-series but I don’t think there’s any plan to bring it back – and that’s not just my decision. I mean, I think the producers, from the very get-go, wanted to escape that. They’ve worked really hard to distance themselves from certain aspects of the original show and I think the music is one of those. Not because it wasn’t well composed, which it was – it was very skillfully done and was a great part of the show – but it’s just a different timbre. It’s the wrong tone for what we’re doing now, so…
JOZIC: Well, you guys are being referred to as the greatest sci-fi show since The Twilight Zone, so I don’t think you’ll be living in that shadow long.
McCREARY: As far as which show is more relevant I think the contemporary audience is really reacting to this one very well. Will there always be people that are pissed off that it exists? Probably. I’m sure Star Trek: The Next Generation went through the same thing so, who knows?
That’s what the DVDs are for.
JOZIC: [laughs] And reruns, yes.
JOZIC: When watching the final episode of the season, there was a reference Six made to Baltar about ‘the melody of life’ and it instantly made me wonder if that is going to relate to you in any way and how you might approach scoring this theme of the ‘melody of life’?
McCREARY: That last scene was really an anomaly, much in the way the end of episode ten was, but it was the chance to add this grandiose orchestral element to it. I don’t think it was overbearing, it was an opportunity to genuinely write an orchestral piece and the way that scene was done it was able to hold that – it was able to keep it in check. Also, the music had to be very carefully put together to make sure it wasn’t too overbearing.
JOZIC: I don’t think I made that last question very clear. Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that Ron Moore had expressed in one of his podcasts, I think, a desire to carry on or explore that theme and I wondered if that’s maybe going to come back to you where you’re going to have to create something to…
McCREARY: Ahhh…I really don’t know. I really don’t know what they have up their sleeves. I would imagine so, and I would certainly hope so because, on a completely musical level, that scene was a lot of fun. It certainly feels like it’s going to have a lot of importance down the road, story-wise, and it is truly thematic, old-fashioned, orchestral writing, which is fun.
JOZIC: So, what are you anticipating or thinking about as far as season two is concerned?
McCREARY: Adapting to doing twenty-three episodes instead of just thirteen.
McCREARY: That’s going to be interesting.
I’m really looking forward to it, actually. We really hit our stride by the end so I’m not worried about it. Maybe just ways to continue to develop the score and come up with some more tricks to make it sound as good as I possibly can.
I’m also just very eager to see where the story goes. That’s part of the fun of working on a show that is so good that I would actually watch it even if I didn’t score it. Every time I get a new episode I’m excited to see what happens next.
JOZIC: I’ve heard talk of the main titles changing for season two to fit the overall theme of the second season. Do you know if it will be the same or different?
McCREARY: Yeah, that was always a possibility, but I honestly didn’t even get the chance. They changed the MT again, before they even brought me on board. They’re using an edited version of the UK Main Titles. At this point, I’m not holding my breath, because I get the impression this will keep on changing, maybe even mid-season.
JOZIC: Finally, in another interview, you were asked what the ‘Additional Music by…’ credit meant to your career and, at the time, you had said that you had no idea what it meant. Do you have a better idea now?
McCREARY: No, not really.
I mean, as far as my additional music credit on the mini-series and other things they are, career-wise, eclipsed by the actual credit on the show. Now, the credit itself was actually secondary to the work that I did and I think that’s what got me the show, so I don’t actually know.
I think it’s too early to say. I’m spending so much time on the show and really trying to make sure that I do this right and make sure the music is the best that I can. I’m not really shopping around for new gigs right now.
My work with Richard made a big difference and I’ve also done a lot of other stuff and my philosophy is you just never know when something down the road is going to come from a gig you did yesterday. You just never know when things are going to open up. As long as you’re always working and doing your best it’s going to be cool.
Battlestar, I think, will be a great opportunity.