This week’s episode of “The Cape,” The Lich Part 2, picks up right where last week’s left off. However, this story feels grander, darker and more epic than last week’s setup episode. So, I went from the smallest orchestra I’ve ever used on “The Cape” to the largest, as you will see in this week’s video blog:
The average orchestra on this series is about 65 players. The leap up to 90 players was not a huge difference. However, what made this session so remarkable for me was recording the entire orchestra together. Normally, I divide up the strings from the winds and brass, recording them separately to retain control in the mix. I discovered that the experience of making music in the studio like this was even more immediate, visceral and thrilling.
This process had it’s pros and cons to be sure. There’s a level of detail in the previous episode mixes that can not be achieved without splitting the orchestra up. However, there’s a remarkable unity of vision in the performances this week. Being able to hear one another and understand exactly what I’m doing with my music allowed the musicians to more quickly grasp the details. As you listen to the clips this week, you will hear a subtle difference: the score is more blended, the ambient orchestral effects are more blurry, and the distinction between strings and brass is less crisp. In short, it just sounds a bit more “orchestral.”
With that huge orchestra at my disposal, it was tempting to write a barrage of blasting action fanfares. However, this episode required a much more ethereal touch. There are a handful of great action moments, but in general, the orchestra this week is used to create dreamy soundscapes that transition to nightmarish drones and screeches. The large orchestra was not only used for added power, but for an expanded set of colors. I needed a full box of crayons for this one!
LICH-Y SPOILERS AHEAD: The episode begins with Orwell trying on a wedding dress, standing before a mirror and talking with her friends. Their tone is jubilant, but hers is more restrained, as if she can’t remember how she got here. I wanted the score to create a serene beauty. The episode would have plenty of opportunities for scary music, so I used this moment to create the perfect backdrop for an ideal “wedding dress” moment:
[audio:http://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/cape108a.mp3|titles=The Wedding Dress]
The basic harmonic structure here is relatively simple. However, I expanded on the chords with added harmonies including ninths, suspensions and added sixths. Some of these chords include nearly every note in the diatonic scale of the key! But, voiced correctly, it sounds elegant and beautiful. I took advantage of the expanded string section and divided the sections up achieve all these different pitches.
Behind the lofting string harmonies, the piano and harp dance back and forth with delicate solo phrases. This pleasingly beautiful passage is virtually monochromatic. You hear the sounds of the string ensemble, the harp and piano… and that’s it! Only three instrumental sounds; no other colors are present yet.
The color scheme changes dramatically, however, once Orwell begins to question her surroundings. Low brass and woodwind clusters sneak in while the violins gliss upwards, out of the key. A solo piccolo dances above it all, signaling the coming of something evil:
The strings hold a dissonant cluster as we get our first glimpse of reality. Orwell is tied to a wheelchair, in a faded wedding dress, struggling for consciousness. Beneath this horrific drone, the low woodwinds return with fragments of the Lich Theme:
The signature harpsichord and clavinet combo that figured so prominently in last week’s episode also return, adding creepy little phrases between the low woodwind growls.
Vince calls Orwell’s phone, but speaks with the Lich instead. Here, the harpsichord / clavinet texture becomes more energetic as the brass enter. This idea reaches its peak as Vince spins around, screaming at the captured Holloway. The French horns add an especially powerful punctuation to the low brass and string ostinato:[audio:http://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/cape108c.mp3|titles=Yelling at Holloway]
This passage sounds like superhero music, but vaguely unhinged. I wanted to suggest that Vince is losing control here.
This clip contains one of my favorite passages in the entire score, where the harp and piano create parallel arpeggiated 16th notes, accompanied by the violins and upper woodwinds. The piano and harp drift down by half steps against the violins which stay at the same pitches. (Players at the session thought I’d made a mistake, and I had to assure them it was the sound I wanted!)
Strictly speaking, this is not “textbook” orchestration, but I’d heard the effect somewhere in a Bernard Herrmann score and wanted to try it out. It sounds absolutely magical, but the low woodwinds and brass underneath still provide gravitas.
Vince rounds up Max and Rollo and they go to Orwell’s last known location: The Orchard Asylum. Here, they are attacked by a gang of brainwashed inmates, and I wrote the first real action cue of the episode:[audio:http://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/cape108d.mp3|titles=Asylum Fight]
This cue is a total assault on the senses. It was a blast to write, and even more fun to conduct! My philosophy here was to avoid ostinatos (repeating figures) for anything longer than a bar or two. So, while it’s only a 45-second cue, you hear 45 seconds worth of constantly new ideas. A few rhythmic patterns do repeat, but I always repeated them in different instruments.
This approach gives this cue a real panicked feeling. And conducting this with the full orchestra in the room together was a thrill unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The sound washed over me and practically knocked me off the podium!
The Orchard turns out to be a dead end for Vince; the Lich has taken Orwell somewhere else. We cut to the Lich and Orwell at a dinner table, where he freaks out because Netta placed the wrong centerpiece. His conversation with Netta here is underscored with a spooky version of the Lich Theme in the harpsichord and clavinets, set above an ominous string drone.
The Lich snaps and runs outside to pick the lilies he wants for the table. This sequence was designed to do two things: to showcase his short temper and psychotic attention to detail, and to reveal their location to the audience. I underscored both ideas with a huge, gothic fanfare version of The Lich Theme. As he runs up the stairs, the strings offer a building ostinato, set against the harpsichord and clavinets. When the outer doors burst open, the French horns blast out his theme:
The arrangement already sounds huge, bigger than almost anything I’ve done in the series. But, I’m just getting warmed up! As he rips lilies out of the ground, with his decrepit family mansion in the background, the score modulates to a new key. Trumpets and violins take over the melody and the French horns are then given an adventurous countermelody, in between the main theme phrases.
This is the Lich Theme at its most menacing and glorious. This arrangement is so bombastic and over the top, I think I’m wearing my Danny Elfman influence on my sleeve here.
Later in the episode, we get one of the most interesting musical moments in the entire series. The Lich puts on a vinyl record and dances with the comatose Orwell. Yet, in her mind, she’s dancing with Vince in a beautiful park, before their wedding. This sequence required an original song, one that could function both as source (for the vinyl record) and score (for her dream sequence).
I enlisted the help of my brother, Brendan McCreary, whose voice you all know from BSG‘s “All Along the Watchtower” and countless other songs in virtually every project I’ve ever done. Inspired by the story, he composed a beautiful song called “Let’s Just Pretend.” The lyrics function on two different levels. They can sound like a genuine love song, or just as easily be interpreted as coming from a creepy stalker character. This gave the song the perfect tonal balance: in reality, it can be ominous and in the dream world, it could be serene.
When the song is first playing on the Lich’s record player, the arrangement is very simple. Two guitars and a solo vocal evoke a lyrical 1970s ballad:
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When we make the transition from the real world into Orwell’s fantasy world, suddenly an orchestra swells and the song takes on a new dimension:
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We actually recorded this beautiful orchestral passage a week earlier than the rest of the score, with the session for The Lich Part 1. Brendan and I wanted an intimate, smaller sound. A 90 piece orchestra here would just be too ridiculously too big. The smaller ensemble was especially important, because a few string players are actually visible on camera in Orwell’s dream. (Astute viewers may notice Battlestar Galactica Orchestra veteran Robbie Anderson back there on violin!)
Orwell’s dream sequences are important narratively because they provide glimpses into her personality and backstory that she has struggled to keep hidden from Vince. The most significant is the reveal that Peter Fleming is her father. This has been hinted at several times in the past, but her dream wedding finally confirms it once and for all.
This reveal begins with an ambient sustained cluster from the strings. Once Fleming appears on screen, the low strings and woodwinds state an ominous version of the Chess Theme:
The low wind and string writing here is relatively tonal. However, the violins are constantly droning on a dissonant cluster, at the very top of their registers. This creates the feeling that a shrill, evil cloud is hanging over the entire conversation.
This evil cloud takes on a much more aggressive persona once Orwell sees the spooky white door that has appeared behind her father. The clustered high violins suddenly shriek, glissing down their entire range while the brass flutter and trill beneath them:
That dancing piccolo line from the first cue returns, symbolic of her inner desire to wake from this vivid nightmare. She approaches the door, but her father stops her and tells her its time to get married.
The marriage ceremony begins in her fantasy world, in a beautiful glass cathedral. Here, a string quartet plays a wedding march version of Brendan’s song “Let’s Just Pretend.” The arrangement is evocative of the orchestral writing I added to the song, creating a sense of unity between the two sequences. Before long, however, we reveal that in reality, she’s being rolled down the aisle before the Lich in a creepy basement ceremony. At this moment, the full orchestra adds ominous pitch clouds and jagged, atonal phrases:
This sequence was a lot of fun to score, because I was able to represent two competing realities: the dream wedding and the real wedding. The four players in the string quartet were physically seated in the larger orchestra, and they just kept playing their beautiful music while the atonal evil clouds of music swirled around them.
Eventually, the evil music overpowers the beautiful quartet. I slowed down the rhythm in the quartet, and asked them to drift gradually out of tune. The result made the quartet sound like they were melting, the musical equivalent of a Dali painting. The further the quartet melts, the louder the horrror orchestra gets until they all combine into a giant swell, peaking right as she momentarily snaps out of her coma long enough to say Vince’s name.
In the final dream sequence in the episode, Orwell once again sees the door. In reality, she’s strapped down to a table about to be injected with poison by Netta. We know she has to snap out of her trance and it seems this door is the key. The suspended orchestra clusters return, but this time glissing downwards. Listen also for a fantastic cluster of random col legno string articulations from the violas and celli, which sound like spindly little spiders crawling across the music:
The soaring French horn fanfare at the end of that sequence is a herald of the action music to come in the final act.
Vince, Rollo and Max have tracked the Lich down to his home, the Chandler Mansion. There, they are attacked by zombified inmates and the Lich himself. The first half of the action sequence is comprised of fanfare brass representing The Cape’s battle with the Lich and flourishing strings and woodwinds underscoring Rollo and Max fighting the inmates:
During the struggle, the Lich reveals that he can feel no pain in a creepy sequence where he cuts his palm with a blade. Here, the music goes full-on “Lich Theme,” with strumming piano and harp scrapes, harpsichord and clavinet accompaniment and the low woodwinds stating his theme in an ominous register. At the same time, violins gliss upwards aggressively while low strings offer jagged tremolo phrases.
Meanwhile, Orwell awakens from her trance just long enough to jab Netta with her own needle. But her lucidity does not last, and she collapses to the ground. As her trance returns, the dissonant, glissing string clusters set the stage for a jagged French horn and trumpet line, which is one of the most distinctly orchestral passages in the entire episode:
We cut back to the fight sequence, and the action music returns. Here, the low instruments pound away at an energetic ostinato while the trumpets and French horns offer stabbing, punctuating phrases. Beneath it all, listen for the harpsichord and clavinets dancing playfully, mimicking the Lich’s complete insanity.
The two primary character themes really come into play in this battle’s closing moments. First, the brass state the Lich Theme as he gets the upper hand in the battle. Then, the strings and woodwinds counter with the Cape Ostinato:
Finally, Vince defeats the Lich by pulling a huge cabinet down on top of him. The trumpets and French horns offer the two phrases of The Cape Theme in triumphant fanfare.
Vince finds Orwell and helps her up. Here, Chris Bleth’s solo English horn plays a gentle statement of the Cape Theme:
The strings swell warmly, and modulate us to a new key as he carries her to safety. As we cut to Dana coming home to Trip, the piano offers a quick statement of the Family Theme:
The final cue of the episode shows Orwell in recovery at the Carnival of Crime’s hideout. This scene was a relief to score, because I could finally relax and write a passage that was simple. With the exception of the first 60 seconds of the episode, the entire score has been a non-stop barrage of screeching glisses and energetic action cues, so I saved this cue for last and wrote it with joy.
The passage begins with a solo bassoon, voiced very high on the instrument. Other woodwinds join the bassoon and eventually, the higher strings enter:[audio:http://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/cape108m.mp3|titles=Orwell’s Recovery]
The transparent orchestration here is a welcome relief from the chaos of the episode we just witnessed. As the lower strings enter and swell, listen for beautiful cascading woodwind lines tucked in the orchestration.
(session photos: Andrew Craig)
Vince leaves her to rest and a solo French horn plays the series Main Theme set against two parallel clarinets and a sustained string note. The music here is grand, and yet intimate. It really feels climactic, suggesting that the episode is about to end on this warm, resolved note.
However, the serenity is not to last. After Vince leaves, Orwell scans the room and suddenly sees the white door again. Here, all the screaming, jagged, clustered chaos returns for one final, horrific statement:[audio:http://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/cape108n.mp3|titles=The White Door Returns]
The Lich Part 2 is the most ambitious score I’ve written yet for this series, and the experience of working on it was a joyful one. Only one more episode of the series is likely to air, so check back next week for my final blog entry on this incredible musical journey.