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Interview: Talking About Music with Composer Bear McCreary

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I first took notice of the brilliant work of film and television composer Bear McCreary while watching the Starz series Black Sails. I fell in love with main credits theme (and its unusual instrumentation) wondering if, indeed, I was hearing a hurdy-gurdy. And so I found my way to McCreary’s wonderful blog and website, where I learned that yes, in fact, a hurdy-gurdy it was. But, where I also put his name to numerous film and TV scores I had already long admired, from The Walking Dead to Battlestar Galacticaand much in between.

McCreary with hurdy-gurdy

McCreary with hurdy-gurdy

McCreary utilizes a wide array of conventional and unconventional instruments to create the unique soundscapes for his projects, and he is currently one of the most in-demand and prolific composers for television and film. I had the chance to sit down with him over coffee during this year’s San Diego Comic-Con to chat about his music.

McCreary grew up listening to film music. “I adored film music,” he told me. “It was composers like Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes), Elmer Bernstein (The Great Escape), Danny Elfman (Nightmare Before Christmas), Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), John Williams (Star Wars), [frequent Elfman collaborator] Shirley Walker (Falcon Crest), as well actually. These composers were my heroes.”

Every one of those composers created scores that are immediately identifiable, bringing to mind images, emotions, scenes, and each name could have been easily followed by a long list of acclaimed and memorable credits.

When he was a kid, and would go to the movies, McCreary would leave the theater thinking about the music rather than the special effects or “the hot actress or anything else. So that was always my passion.” Although he doesn’t believe their influence on his work is obvious on a surface level, he does feel like he “learned a lot about approaching projects from them.”

Painterly is a word that came to my mind when thinking about the work of McCreary’s early influences. “Yes,” he agreed. “And also thematically driven. Even a guy like Jerry Goldsmith; his scores always had very inventive sounds. Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Planet of the Apes—Goldsmith was pushing the boundaries and looking for unusual instruments. Gremlins, too, you know.” Goldsmith was known for coloring way outside the musical lines, and his Avant-Garde, Oscar-nominated Planet of the Apes score is still considered one of the best and most influential soundtracks ever composed for film.

McCreary mentioned his unusual choice of hurdy-gurdy in scoring Black Sails. “Why would I use a hurdy-gurdy in the score? When you grew up listening to Jerry Goldsmith, why would you not, you know? That’s probably where that influence comes from.”

McCreary also has a special appreciation for the bagpipes. He explained, “I have always adored Scottish, Celtic, Irish music. I grew up going to the Highland Games every year, so hearing the bagpipe bands, hearing the drone, that B-flat drone for two solid days was one of the highlights of my summer every year. I always thought the bagpipes were incredibly expressive, and becoming much more known in popular culture during my youth: as goofy as Highlander and as serious as Rob Roy and Braveheart. These are movies I saw a hundred times, so that sound was in my DNA. I have Scotch-Irish heritage and it always resonated with me.”

He explained that on his very first job (Battlestar Galactica) he really wanted to “incorporate bagpipes.” He noted that it was the first “experience realizing that the rest of the world didn’t feel the way I did about those instruments. I had this beautiful, emotional scene and I thought ‘there’s nothing more beautiful than bagpipes here.’ It pushed a lot of buttons with people, who felt I was making some sort of ethnic commentary.”

But despite some vocal criticism from a few “music nerds,” he kept using the pipes. “I didn’t care what they said, and I still felt like there was something really emotional about these sounds. Over time, I think, as the bagpipes became a part of the Battlestar Galactica score, it resonated a lot with people. Over the course of a year or two, it went from being something that got a few snarky comments to being the thing people wanted to hear the most, and I thought that was interesting that the more fans heard it the more they responded to it. Then I had the chance to specifically write for the instruments on a show called Outlander.”

Set partially in 18th Century Scotland, the hit Starz series appealed to McCreary, especially because he’d be able to compose for bagpipe. “It was actually one of the primary reasons that I wanted to do the job.” In fact, executive producer Ron Moore hired McCreary because of his familiarity with the music of the era. “It was a chance for me to channel my life long passion into a project. Bagpipes are expressive instruments, and that’s what I like about them. But, also, I always like to take on projects that allow me to learn something about music that I don’t already know.”

I wondered about some of his other less-conventional instrument choices, and whether he had a favorite (besides bagpipes). He explained, “I can’t say specifically there’s a kind of instrument I like writing for. I like writing for something new. I like learning about a new musical culture or musical tradition that I don’t know, and because of series and films and video games that I’ve scored, I’ve gotten to learn about Balinese gamelans. I’ve learned about Japanese percussion. I picked up the hurdy-gurdy and learned to play it myself. I’ve learned about Parisian baroque music, which I knew nothing about! This is, to me, the fun part of my job, is getting to learn. I don’t like repeating myself. It’s a very good profession for that, and it’s why I also really appreciate the opportunities I’ve been given, because people tend to come to me with weird projects, so that’s great.”

McCreary was kind enough to talk a bit about how he approaches a new project. “The process is different every time,” he explained. “But the parts of it that are the same are, I’m able to think of a lot of things early when I find out about a project. Sometimes I’m hired before a project is even shot. In the case of The Walking Dead I was hired very early, it hadn’t even been cast yet. I can make a lot of decisions and I can decide to explore certain things, but ultimately I can’t really start until I see it cut together.”

Scoring a film or television project, of course, requires acquiring a visual understanding of the sequence and scenes. “I have to see the sequence of scenes in order, I have to watch them all, and then I find that the film communicates to me what it needs. I try to kind of keep myself fresh and keep my mind open until that state. I don’t like to get too deep into the project before I got a chance to look at it as a whole.”

Which makes sense, because scoring is really painting with music, and how can you paint with music without seeing the subject, and hearing the emotional beats? McCreary agreed. “Absolutely, and reading the script or talking with a producer or director is great, but it can also lead you down paths that, the realities of production might alter.”

Of course, scripts themselves don’t take into account what the actors and director, even the production designer, bring to it. Once those are in place, you get a better sense of the emotional beats and scope. “Well if you think about it,” McCreary noted, “The script is a document that’s gone through, probably a half-dozen to a dozen minds: the writer, the director, some producers, some executives.

By the time I start working, hundreds of people have made thousands of decisions, down to the person setting a prop in the background, everything is informing the score. I am one of the last people along with the sound effects and the visual effects to come in. So it’s important to let everyone else do their job first, and then see what you really have.”

McCreary has no preference of one genre over another if it’s a good story. “Genre is, honestly, meaningless to me. I don’t like something because it is in a genre, I like something because it is well told, and I think I’ve been very fortunate that a number of the projects that I’ve taken on are very well told stories that almost circumstantially happen to be in genres that bring expectations to them that I tend to ignore, and that’s fun.”

For example, even though The Walking Dead is nominally about zombies, it’s really not about zombies. “Right,” McCreary said. “It is not about zombies, it has zombies in it. In the same way that Battlestar Galactica takes place in outer space. But was it about science fiction? Was it about killer robots? No, I would list those elements very low on the list of what that show is about. It’s about character, politics, war, religion, philosophy. I could list a dozen other things before I get to killer robots.”

I confessed to McCreary that, not being a big fan of the zombie genre, it took some convincing by some persuasive friends before I actually started watching The Walking Dead, which has by now become one of my favorite series on television. But after finally tuning in to the pilot, it took only half an episode to realize that the walking dead are the survivors, not the zombies. “But what a great first episode too,” McCreary said enthusiastically. “I am so fond of the first episode that we did. I just thought it was so bold. It was really great filming it.”

In both television and film viewers often come to recognize particular musical themes to associate with one or another character or situation. McCreary writes specific character themes, but only to an extent. “Especially in television,” he explained, “because in television you’re generating such a huge amount of material. Part of it is self-preservation, you can’t write 13 hours of music without some sense of developing an idea. Otherwise you’re just rambling. But also beyond that it’s useful as a narrative tool, as a way of communicating with the audience. It’s incredibly powerful to have thematic ideas that hook onto certain elements of the story. A lot of the time that, those elements are characters. But in the case of Outlander I only have a handful character themes because there’s dozens of characters. It’s too much, you can’t possibly hold it all in your brain, I wouldn’t be able to hold it all in my brain and I’m writing it. In the case of Outlander I’m scoring story arcs, I’m scoring factions, I’m scoring emotional narratives.”

He uses a similar approach for The Walking Dead. “The Walking Dead is very similar. I have a handful of character themes, but mostly I’m falling back on themes for story arcs, themes for emotional through lines, so you do recognize them, but it’s not the Carol theme, or the Darryl theme, because those characters evolve so much that it really wouldn’t support that kind of approach.”

He added, “I can tell you a series that I did very literal character themes was Da Vinci’s Demons. There were half a dozen primary characters, and another dozen supporting characters, all of whom had a theme, and I literally used the theme every time they did anything. You had two characters in a room talking, the two themes were woven into the score, and whoever was getting the upper hand in the conversation, their theme was on top. The third character walks in, their theme comes in. It was so ridiculously on the nose, however I tucked the themes into the narrative. The reason I could get away with that is that there was a lot of music, the music was basically constantly playing so I was able to play around in that language. In the case of Walking Dead, so much of it functions without music anyway, you can’t really associate a character theme when most character scenes have no music.”

Every show is different, he explained. “It just depends on the language of the show, the language of the score, and what the audience needs to kind of guide them through.”

When not composing, McCreary still listens to “a lot of the music I listened to when I was growing up. I still listen to classic film scores.” But beyond soundtracks, “when I want to decompress I listen to a lot of rock and roll, a lot of metal. Sometimes I just need something really loud, blaring in my face and my ears, to kind of clear my head. I work in music so many hours a day that my relationship to enjoying the art form has changed. It’s definitely changed. So it’s hard to shut off my critical mind and my creative mind even when I’m exhausted.”

Not liking to live in the past, it’s hard for McCreary to pick a favorite among the many scores he’s written. “Even if I’m very proud of something, almost the minute it’s done it’s out of my mind and I’m moving on to the next thing, you know? Very recently I was very, very proud of the work that I got to do on 10 Cloverfield Lane with J.J. Abrams, and when I listen to that score I’m very proud of it, but at the same time I’m already kind of beyond it and working on new things, so it’s impossible to sort of pick a favorite.

I wondered how hard it was to finish a project and let it go. “Moving onto the next project is easy, shutting it off is hard. That’s one of the great things about working in film and television, it’s not up to me when it’s over. It doesn’t matter what a perfectionist I am or how I could work on that cue and get it better, it is going on the air. It is mixing tomorrow, we are recording today. In a weird way, my OCD and perfectionism, it’s a useful attribute, but then at the end of the day it’s not up to me, and that’s probably a good thing because I would never finish. I would never finish.”

 


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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
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