Da Vinci’s Demons: The Magician

Tonight’s episode of “Da Vinci’s Demons” introduces a new theme, for the titular magician, Cosimo de Medici.  His theme features a variety of new percussion sounds, expanding on the percussion I’ve used thus far for The Turk.  Tonight’s video blog details how percussionist M.B. Gordy and I discovered the right instruments to use for this series:

After “The Magician,” we are halfway through the first season. By this point, character arcs and conflicts are firmly established, and similarly, all the principal musical themes are clearly defined.  “The Magician” is musically remarkable not for introducing new material, but instead for the way in which the themes expand and develop, along with the twisted narrative.


SPOILERS MAGICALLY APPEAR AHEAD: “The Magician” starts off as Verrochio tells a (true) story about Leonardo Da Vinci as a boy.  The narrative cuts back and forth between the present and flashbacks to the past, with very clever use of editing and panning camera angles from director Jamie Payne.  I wanted the score to match the playful energy of the scene, so I had the Calder Quartet introduce the Da Vinci Ostinato:


Above it, I quoted the Da Vinci Theme in its entirety, this time in a solo lute, performed by Ed Trybek:


Da Vinci enters the episode in a scene with Lucrezia, as he still struggles to paint her portrait.


The chemistry between them heats up, even as Leonardo tries to keep his focus artistic.  Here, the solo celtic harp sneaks in with a simple ostinato, evocative of the Lucrezia Theme, which I shall name the Lucrezia Ostinato:


A solo recorder enters with her theme, a single melody set against the dreamy wash of synthesizers and harp. The cue is romantic, but also underlines Da Vinci’s focus on the mystery of the Sons of Mithras.


We cut to the outskirts of Rome, where Pope Sixtus discusses a financial arrangement with Medici rival Francesco Pazzi.  I used this opportunity to reinforce the Rome Theme, played on a solo viola da gamba:


Francesco Pazzi was introduced in the first episode, though here we fully understand his allegiance to Rome.  In coming episodes, Pazzi will become important enough to merit his own musical theme.  Though he’s not quite there yet.


In the following scenes, we witness Riario torturing the miners of Florence to send a message to the Medicis.  Ominous statements of the Rome Theme underscore this horrific scene, first in the viola da gamba, and again in harmonics from the hurdy gurdy.


Back in Florence, Lorenzo calls a meeting of his most trusted advisors to root out the spy in his midst.  Here, we see that he is becoming a tyrant, something that obviously concerns his brother Giuliano as well as Da Vinci.

The beginning and end of this important scene is scored with an ostinato played by lutes and other acoustic guitars.  I took the first four notes of the Medici Theme and converted them into a repeating pattern, the Medici Ostinato:


This is a technique I used in Episode Two to create the Rome Ostinato for Riario.  It is a very useful tactic to forge an obvious connection to a theme without having to state the melody, which can often add unwanted layers of emotion or intensity.  The Medici Ostinato tells us that Lorenzo is icy, ruthless and not to be trifled with.

As he calls for the arrest and execution of an innocent messenger, the ostinato returns.  This second time, however, I added period woodwinds playing a full statement of the Medici Theme:


The longer tones of the melody in the soft winds actually gives the scene an ominous sadness, underscoring both his ruthless actions, and the helpless reactions we see from Giuliano and Leonardo.


After everyone else leaves, Giuliano emplores Lorenzo to be reasonable and Lorenzo insults and diminishes him.  Here, low strings hold a sustained chord while the lutes and plucked guitars return once more.  This time, they play a solitary statement of the Medici Theme, not as an energetic ostinato, but as a piercing melody.  The guitars, which have come to represent Lorenzo’s coldness, have an emotion-less quality in this setting that underscore the growing rift between the brothers.


Giuliano is compelled to visit the accused Becchi, whom he suspects is innocent.  In a touching scene, Becchi implores Giuliano to rout out the spy, not to prove himself innocent, but to protect Lorenzo and Florence.  Never has it been clearer that Becchi is no traitor.
I underscored this scene with gentle, clustered harmonies in the string quartet.  I grouped pitches together pulled from a major scale and continued to add new notes with each swell.  The music is not overtly in any particular key, but it is uplifting and emotional somehow.  This texture worked so well, I will return to it for future scenes with Giuliano.
We cut back to Lorenzo supervising his troops and war machines.  Once again, the plucking guitars reinforce his mindset by repeating the Medici Ostinato in a cold, sterile pattern.  A solo trumpet plays a statement of the Medici Theme (I will get more into this soon).
The following day, Lorenzo and Da Vinci ride out to the field of battle to meet Riario.  The tension is amped up with percussion, as featured in tonight’s video blog.  Here, I used an Irish drum called a bodhrán to create its signature, rhythmic clicking backdrop.  Then, we used the head of the drum to play the main percussive pattern, doubled by Middle Eastern frame drums.


Typically, when I write music for percussion, its very detailed in its construction.  I go into each session knowing precisely which instruments I want to feature, and the number of layers of each to record.  Using this technique, I’ve worked closely with mixer Steve Kaplan and percussionist M.B. Gordy to craft a signature style of percussion writing that is evident in my scores, “Battlestar Galactica” in particular.

I felt that approach, however, would be inappropriate for “Da Vinci’s Demons.”  As you can see from the video blog, I went to the percussion sessions with a more open mind for improvisation on this project.  As a result, the percussion passages are more natural and organic.  They lack the raw horsepower of, say, “BSG” or “Dark Void,” but that’s not the sound I was going for.  This approach feels more appropriately Renaissance.  The percussion in this episode worked so well, in fact, you will hear its influence in upcoming episodes.


Riario, in an effort to intimidate Lorenzo and Da Vinci, signals for his troops to be called from the woods.  A trumpet player is seen playing a cue on his trumpet and the troops emerge from the woods.

This moment goes by so quickly that I’m almost embarrassed to confess how much time and energy I invested in it.  For this 10-second piece of music, I hired trumpet player Melissa Rodgers, who specializes in baroque, or natural, trumpet.  These are the instruments that were played in the era before valve technology was introduced to brass instruments.


Beyond bringing an instrument accurate to the time period, I wanted to make the actual notes played historically accurate.  All too often in period pieces, we’re accustomed to seeing natural trumpet players lift their horns to the sky and play… well, usually whatever the composer felt like putting in there.  Any manner of brass fanfare will do.  This has always bugged me a little bit.  What did the trumpet players actually play?  Does anybody actually know?


The answer turns out to be ‘yes.’  Melissa brought with her a book of transcribed trumpet calls that dates back to the early sixteenth century.  She showed me that not only have the cues been notated and preserved throughout the ages, but their meanings have as well.  We know the calls for ‘ready your weapons,’ ‘mount your horses’ and so forth.


I worked closely with Melissa and we picked out a fanfare that both fit the allotted screen time for this scene, and had a historically-appropriate significance.  If you were a mounted soldier in the late 1400’s, this exact trumpet melody is probably what you would have heard in this situation.  (A future video blog will take us back to this recording session so you can hear the trumpet in action.)


Later in the episode, Da Vinci speaks with Clarice de Medici about Lorenzo’s grandfather, Cosimo de Medici, the titular magician of the episode.  As Leonardo is lost in the painting, the score introduces a new theme, the Cosimo Theme:


This theme is always played (by yours truly) on a solo hurdy gurdy, set against a simple chiming backdrop of gamelan, bells and celeste.  There is a subtle, instrumental connection to the Turk Theme which I hope is understated here and obvious at the end of the episode.

Meanwhile, Giuliano confides in Lucrezia and asks her to help him in his quest to prove Becchi innocent (oops!).  Here, once more, the string quartet builds up a lush harmony from the notes of a major scale, recalling the texture from Giuliano in Becchi’s cell from earlier in the episode.


We cut to Da Vinci lost in thought at the forge, staring at the statue of the lion given to him from Clarice. A solo yialli tanbur offers a quick, whistful statement of the Sons of Mithras Theme:


Though brief, this thematic statement helps connect this scene to the various scenes with the Turk from the first episode, the conversations with the Jew in the second and his visions from the third.  I use the score to maintain a connection to the Sons of Mithras even when they’re not mentioned by name, because they represent the constant allure and temptation that draws Da Vinci away from his immediate challenges.

Da Vinci tells Zo and Nico a tale of when the Byzantine empire used the first canons against the Ottomans at the siege of Constantinople, as a metaphor for the escalation in warfare he can sense coming to Florence.  For his tragic history lesson, I wrote an ominous string pad and a haunting, mournful yialli tanbur solo.

The yialli tanbur, to this point, has been used exclusively for The Turk, since its an instrument that hails from Turkey.  I could not resist using it here, however.  The melody is loose and ornamented with improvisation from player Martin St. Pierre. It allows us to fall in to Da Vinci’s tale without making any inappropriate connection to the Sons of Mithras Theme.

The weight of the situation pushes Da Vinci over the brink and he destroys his canons before they could be finished, thus breaking the cycle of military escalation but also likely dooming Florence to be dominated by Rome.


Meanwhile, Lucrezia feels the noose of Medici suspicion tightening around her.  First, she goes to confession and realizes with horror that even the priest is aware of her affair with Lorenzo.  Here, the Celtic harp quotes a diminished variation of her theme. This is the same variation quoted when Riario gave her commands in Episode Two. Increasingly, we only hear her theme in its original, beautiful, variation for scenes when she’s actually with Da Vinci.  The rest of the time, she’s in trouble and her diminished theme begins to take over.

That night, Da Vinci struggles once more to work out the problem of the canons and hits his worst case of writers block yet (as a creative person, I find these scenes distressful even to watch!).  Recapping the theme from the first episode, the Calder Quartet plays swelling chord clusters, emulating a recording that’s been turned backwards.  This texture has come to represent Da Vinci struggling in his studio, but now the quartet is augmented by a ticking percussion ostinato.  The prickly percussion track acts like a ticking clock, adding even more pressure to the theme.


This sequence lands in the middle of Da Vinci’s nightmare visions, which are underscored with the same dissonant clusters and reversed audio effects as in the last episode.


At the peak of his despair, Lucrezia visits him. As she slowly embraces him, the strings enter with beautiful harmonies.  They make love and a unique texture is introduced in the score.  The harp enters with the Lucrezia Ostinato, while the strings begin a quietly urgent ostinato beneath it:


This tempo is perfect for this kind of ‘metered tremolo effect’.  The strings add tension to this love scene, rather than emotion, underlining Lucrezia’s deception.  A solo flute enters with the Lucrezia Theme:


Later, they lay in bed together and Lucrezia hums a little lullaby to herself.  Musically-astute fans will notice that she is humming is her own theme!  “Da Vinci’s Demons” has given me that rare opportunity for my themes from the score to seep into the narrative directly, which is very exciting. Best of all, I was able to work directly with actress Laura Haddock, who plays Lucrezia, for this moment.

Her humming was recorded in Los Angeles, during an ADR session, because at the time they actually shot this scene, I actually hadn’t written a note of music yet.  This session was the first time I’d ever met Laura, and David Goyer wasn’t there to help guide the conversation.  So, I was pretty nervous going in.


I sat down recently with Laura, and discussed the first day we met.  “I remember going into the studio,” Laura recalled.  “You’d sent me the soundbite so I could listen to it and, honestly, I’m not lying when I say I found it so hard to listen to it without being moved to tears.  It is just so beautiful and… painful. And it is her. If she was a song this would be it.’

‘We were in the studio in LA and I sat, waiting out front with the mic infront of me to do my first pass at the humming.  I can sing, but I would never say that I’m a singer. So I was nervous. And as I started humming, Bear, you came up behind me and you started humming with me and it just felt so… I felt euphoric, I really did. We were in that booth together.  I’ve never done anything like that in my life.”

So apparently, she and I were both nervous about that session and it turns out we had no reason to be.  She hummed the tune beautifully and, in the final scene, it works perfectly.  It feels intimate and casual.  No one would ever guess the amount of work and preparation that Laura and I put into this brief moment!


Lorenzo storms into Da Vinci’s studio and confronts him about destroying his canons. When he throws a pomegranate to the ground, Da Vinci is suddenly able to figure out what he’d been struggling to find the entire episode.  I represented his new idea with an ostinato in the Celtic harp.  The ostinato, itself, is not particularly thrilling:


However, its introduction is quite exciting.  I deconstructed it and introduced it note by note, beginning with whole notes and growing increasing agitated, evolving into half notes, quarters, and eveuntally filling out the triplet eighths:


When we cut to Lorenzo and Da Vinci riding out to meet Riario, heavy percussion joins the Celtic harp, recreating again the groove from earlier in the episode when they rode out to meet him. This cue, though brief, is one of the coolest in the series, I think.


Out on the field, Da Vinci turns the tables by introducing Riario to his new design, which he calls a ‘cluster bombard.’  As he tosses Riario a small model, the lutes and string quartet offer a new, exciting ostinato, interwoven with his Forwards Theme as he unveils the giant crossbow.


Riario  has underestimated Da Vinci in the past, and paid the price.  So, he backs down, but warns Da Vinci that “history is a lie.” This chilling reference to the Turk spooks Leonardo.  A slithery yialli tanbur solo sneaks in with the Turk Theme:


The Turk’s signature percussive bells and bowls (featured in tonight’s video blog) add an ethereal texture to the ominous moment.


After Riario leaves, Leonardo confesses to Lorenzo that the crossbow is a prop, completely incapable of ever firing.  He quotes Lorenzo’s grandfather, Cosimo de Medici, and a solo hurdy gurdy enters with a statement of the Cosimo Theme.

That night, at the Bargello, Lucrezia sneaks in, disguised a priest, then confronts and kills Becchi, to spare him being tortured on the wheel.  As she reveals herself to him, the Calder Quartet begins a quickly ascending ostinato built from a minor scale.  Their phrases alternate between ascending and descending, adding energy and confusion to the scene.  The Celtic harp plays a solo statement of Lucrezia’s Theme above the texture.


The score builds almost operatically, climaxing as she stabs him.  The strings drop the ostinato and play long, ascending chords, while the harp and lutes fill in a busier, rhythmic texture.  I wanted to emphasize the tragedy of the situation, the sadness of Becchi’s death and the way he feels helpless to protect the Medici brothers.

As Lorenzo approaches and Lucrezia makes her escape, heavier percussion enters and the quartet returns to the ascending ostinato, adding urgency.  When Lorenzo runs into Becchi’s cell, I had the quartet slow down their ostinato.  However, each player slowed down at a different rate.  The highly ordered, tense ostinato slowly breaks down, sputtering to a stop, as each player breaks away into a slower and slower variation.  The result dissipates the tension as Lucrezia escapes.


That night, before being given a special award from Lorenzo, Leonardo finds himself once more staring at the painting of Cosimo.  One again, the hurdy gurdy states the Cosimo Theme, above a bed of gentle bells, evocative of the Turk Theme.  Once Leonardo figures out that Cosimo was actually a Son of Mithras, the score modulates upward and the bells move to the foreground.

Chris Bleth’s solo duduk enters with the Sons of Mithras Theme, followed by a solo Yialli Tanbur variation.


The finale of the episode is scored with a rolling 6/8 variation of the Da Vinci Ostinato.  It begins triumphantly as Leonardo is presented with his award in front of all the cities dignitaries.  A solo flute flutters his Forwards Theme brilliantly.

However, once we see Dragonetti and the Officers of the Night marching towards the hall, we know something isn’t right.  The strings switch to a marcato, chugging pattern, built mostly from minor chords (in fact, a variation of the Backwards Da Vinci Theme).  They burst into the hall and arrest Da Vinci on sodomy charges.


As they march him away in chains, surging heavy synths fill in the bass frequencies, and pounding percussion augments the chugging strings.  Leonardo is in big trouble this time, accused of a crime we do not know if he committed.

Now that Francesco Pazzi has sprung his trap, you will hear the introduction of the Pazzi Theme next week!  As always, thank you for reading.  See you then!