How ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ ‘Outlander’ composer Bear McCreary is raising the bar on music for TV

04.07.16 1 year ago

If you”ve watched TV in the past 10 years, chances are you know Bear McCreary”s music.

He”s become one of the most (if not the most) sought-after and prolific composers in television, ever since he came into his own writing the boundary-pushing score for the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series. He counts The Walking Dead, Outlander, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. among his credits. And this March theater-goers got to experience his music with a big screen presentation; he composed the chilling and thrilling score for J.J. Abrams” 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Today McCreary is juggling so many projects that he can”t count all his current TV shows and movies and video games – “I can”t even tell. I honestly don”t even know,” how many projects he”s in the midst of, he said during an interview at Cafe Laurent in Culver City, CA. 

The timing of McCreary”s foray into the entertainment industry was providential: The Battlestar job – his first professional gig as a composer, at age 24, which he acknowledges “is crazy” – came along at a time when music for the screen was breaking away from the confines of classical, European, symphonic influence. With artists like Trent Reznor and Junkie XL becoming in-demand film composers, it”s been the biggest shift in the industry since Vangelis put electronic film scores on the map in the early 1980s.

In this new era, producers and directors are more open to unconventional instrumentation, the realm where McCreary thrives.

“10 Cloverfield Lane,” and more unconventional sounds 

On 10 Cloverfield Lane, McCreary made the Blaster Beam – of Star Trek: The Motion Picture fame – and the yayli tambur centerpieces of the film”s score.

McCreary had used the yayli tambur, a Turkish instrument, on Starz series Da Vinci”s Demons when he needed a sound to represent the Ottoman Empire. The idea to use the lute-like instrument on 10 Cloverfield Lane came after a conversation with the thriller”s director, Dan Trachtenberg.

In an early meeting, “we totally geeked out over movies and over film scores,” Trachtenberg told HitFix. “When I mentioned the harmonica theme in Once Upon a Time in the West, we were both immediately in sync and excited to work.”

McCreary recalled the “hilarious pressure” of being tasked with creating something akin to Ennio Morricone”s iconic “Man with a Harmonica” theme: “Dan leaves the house and I'm like, ‘Thanks Dan!” ‘Just make something as iconic as one of the most famous pieces of music ever! No pressure!””

But “there was something about the timbre of the harmonica that really stuck with me,” McCreary said, and after brainstorming other instruments that might bring a similar tone to 10 Cloverfield Lane, he settled upon the tambur. He didn”t want it to evoke the Middle East, as it did in Da Vinci”s Demons, though. So he experimented with the help of Malachai Bandy, who had played the tambur on the Starz show.

“I brought [Bandy] in, and we played around with the tambur and found the upper register that he never used,” McCreary said.

The tambur-led, mysterious, unsettling “Michelle” theme that opens up 10 Cloverfield Lane keeps the Turkish instrument at a higher pitch than it”s typically played at. It”s such an unfamiliar sound that Bandy would “be surprised if people familiar with the instrument in its Turkish context would actually recognize it,” said Bandy, who”s currently earning a PhD in historical musicology at the University of Southern California (McCreary”s alma mater). The unconventional use of the tambur lends an otherworldly quality to the movie”s opening music, and the limited upper register is fitting for the claustrophobia of the movie”s setting, a bunker 30 or so feet beneath ground.

McCreary makes a regular practice of pushing what instruments and even everyday objects – like Sparkletts water cooler jugs and tin cans – can do musically. His gravitation toward unusual sounds frequently calls for the composer to get a crash course from a fellow musician in an instrument that”s new to him. During that lesson, he learns what the instrument is “effective doing, how does it work? What does it sound like in certain registers? What works well, what doesn't work well? I like being armed with that knowledge so I write something that's enigmatic for that instrument,” McCreary said.

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Bear McCreary with his hurdy-gurdy, as seen in Score: A Film Music Documentary. Photo credit: Epicleff Media

Getting those crash courses in unusual instruments creates a student-teacher relationship between McCreary and his musicians where he”s the pupil.

“It opens pathways for dialogues,” explained Bandy, who”s also worked with McCreary on pirate series Black Sails. “It puts us on what feels like equal, more collaborative ground. He really takes to heart what I say and what I think works well on the instrument and sort of turns it into something miraculous.”

McCreary used that Sparkletts water cooler jug as part of an assignment in his freshman year at USC when he had to write a piece of music for three players. While most students were using instruments like the flute, cello, or violin, McCreary brought in a Sparkletts jug and two instruments he plays: the accordion and the hurdy-gurdy.

In Bandy, McCreary found a musician who shares his passion for discovering unusual sounds.

“I love picking up new instruments,” Bandy said. “I”m drawn to them in a way that most people are drawn to people. I”m really attracted to their stories and learning their likes and dislikes. I feel a very similar predisposition in Bear as well.”

Scotland the brave. And awesome.

McCreary”s enthusiasm for one particular instrument was evident immediately when I brought it up.

“So, I wanna talk bagpipes,” I said.

“Ooooo, let”s do it!” was McCreary”s eager reply.

The composer has gotten the opportunity to use bagpipes liberally in his score for Outlander, which re-teamed McCreary with Battlestar executive producer Ronald D. Moore. The Starz time travel series returns this Saturday with its season 2 premiere.

Last summer, McCreary released a video depicting himself on a long and labored quest to get bagpipes into his TV scores, only to have producers like David S. Goyer tell him, “Nobody likes bagpipes,” until Moore calls offering his dream project: Outlander, set in 1700s Scotland.

When I mentioned this video during our interview, McCreary hid his face in his hand in mock embarrassment, probably with some level of real embarrassment. It is a silly video. But one with “a big kernel of truth,” McCreary said.

The notoriously loud instrument hasn”t gotten quite the welcome that other unconventional instruments have for McCreary. He acknowledges that “producers find bagpipes so deadly and dangerous is it feels over-wrought. It can feel sentimental or overly manipulative to use it.”

But McCreary has long known the allure of the bagpipes and the tragedy and triumph the instrument can convey. As a teen growing up in Bellingham, WA, he attended the Highland Games in his hometown every year, spending a day surrounded by the drone of the Scottish pipes.

“The thing I remember the most was the B flat, “cause all the bands are warming up in different places. You hear this one pitch for 9 hours. Every night after the games, I remember going to bed, and I could still hear it,” McCreary recalled. “I was realizing the osmosis of that kind of music that happens when you”re there for so long. It”s unlike any other experience you have listening to music.”

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Bagpipes “have the reputation for being cacophonous, but actually for me, it”s sonorous because they can only play notes that sound good together,” he said.

His love for Scottish folk music was especially solidified in 1995, when he went to the Highland Games, and Braveheart and Rob Roy hit theaters, all within a few months of each other. McCreary later got to work with Braveheart piper Eric Rigler – “I was so starstruck. I couldn't believe he was playing my music,” McCreary said – on Battlestar, which featured both Great Highland Bagpipes and uilleann pipes. Rigler also plays on Outlander and appeared in that delightfully dorky “Nobody Likes Bagpipes” mockumentary.

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Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in Outlander, filmed on location in Scotland. Photo credit: Sony Pictures Television Inc.

Discovering a talent and a passion

McCreary”s fascination with movie music began at a very young age when his mother – novelist Laura Kalpakian – took him to the movie theater to watch films like Gandhi and The Natural.

“She took me to see movies that she shouldn”t have been taking me to see, like three-hour epics. And I was so small that the seat would collapse in on me,” the composer said.

At age 6, he figured out he could go to the record store and buy a cassette tape with a movie”s score, and at age 10 or 11, he began writing music. Piano lessons had begun at age 5, and McCreary remains grateful that his piano teacher fostered his love of film music. He knows other music teachers would have drilled him on scales and sight-reading lessons over and over again before letting him delve into arrangements of his favorite movie scores, so he recognizes he had a very tailored early music education (though he admits he had a lot of catch-up to do in high school and college not being an expert sight-reader earlier).

Now McCreary has his own record label, Sparks & Shadows, which has put under one umbrella a lot of endeavors that already had him connecting with fans, from soundtrack album releases to concerts of his scores to sheet music releases.

With a passion for movie scores being ignited back when he was three years old, upon hearing the Oscar-nominated score of Gandhi, a career in scoring for movies and TV has been a long time coming.

“Music is my passion – it”s not work,” McCreary said. “My life is inseparable from my work.”

His family has continually been a part of his music career. His brother, Brendan, sang the edgy, otherworldly rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” that concluded Battlestar“s third season. His wife, Raya Yarbrough, has sung on several of his projects since they met at USC. She sings the opening titles music for Outlander. McCreary walked to our interview at Cafe Laurent in Culver City from his home with his wife and daughter, Sonatine, taking a few moments to kiss each of them goodbye, crouching down to Sonatine in her push buggy, before heading into the cafe.

Sonatine, who will turn 2 this June, is now too spending time with McCreary in his studio and at recordings. When he brought her to the scoring stage for 10 Cloverfield Lane, he had her stand on the orchestra podium to conduct with him. When she looked out at the orchestra, she pointed toward the center and said “flute!”

“And then I said, ‘Honey, are there cellos?” And she kind of pointed!” McCreary recalled, with a big grin spreading on his face as he said, “I”m so proud. That”s so cool.”

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Bear McCreary with his daughter, Sonatine, conducting 10 Cloverfield Lane's score. Photo credit: Kevin Porter

So while other kids are learning their colors and numbers, Sonatine is learning her musical instruments. Though McCreary says he doesn”t want to pressure her into following in her parents” footsteps.

“I”m working very hard to encourage her to do whatever she wants to do,” he said, “and if she one day looks me in the eye and says, ‘Daddy, I wanna be an accountant,” I will say, ‘You got it.””

A life lesson from a legendary composer

Even McCreary”s time with his mentor, the prolific and celebrated composer Elmer Bernstein, ultimately left him with a big life lesson that”s stuck with him more than any nugget of music education.

At age 16, McCreary met Bernstein – the man who gave us the music of The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Ghostbusters, to name a few – and the Oscar-winning composer took the young musician under his wing, giving him jobs like organizing his archive and housesitting his Santa Barbara estate while he nurtured McCreary”s developing composition skills.

McCreary got the gig to compose music for Battlestar Galactica, stepping up from his position as assistant composer on the Battlestar miniseries, while still in touch with Bernstein. But his mentor never learned about the big news of McCreary”s first professional composer credit before he died in 2004.

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Photo credit: John Allen Phillips

Then just 24 years old when asked to compose “33,” the stunning season 1 opener of Battlestar, McCreary believed “it was still up in the air whether or not the producers were going to let Richard [Gibbs]” assistant do that episode while they were looking for somebody else,” he explained. “So I was just, ‘I”m not gonna jinx it,” and I didn”t say anything to Elmer.”

It was August 18, 2004 when McCreary set to work writing music for “33.” Ready to dive in and focus on the exciting task, he took his phone off the hook and turned off his cell. The first cue he wrote was for the climax of the episode, when Apollo is faced with an impossible decision about the passenger vessel Olympic Carrier. Once finished with that piece of music for the powerful scene, McCreary turned his cell phone back on.

“I had 15 voicemails,” McCreary recalled. “And that was really weird. And I listened to five seconds of the first one – Elmer passed away that day. He passed away the day I started. And I never got to tell him.

“The lesson I learned at the end was never withhold good news with the people that you love. If there”s something that might turn out to be a good thing, now there”s certain people that I tell. I don”t wait. I don”t tell the world. But you just realize some people, just tell them even before it becomes real.”

McCreary did go on to write the score for all four seasons of Battlestar.

David Eick, who showran the series alongside Ronald D. Moore, told HitFix that promoting Gibbs” assistant “was just sort of one of those decisions you make, partly out of belief in someone young who you hope can jump into the deep end of the pool and swim and partly as a function of necessity where you don”t have much other choice. So I was most impressed with Bear and by his ability to step into that role and to really own it as a composer.”

Eick praises McCreary for “taking on more and more sophistication and more and more complexity as the show was becoming more sophisticated and complex,” pointing to “Gaeta”s Lament” in season 4 as an example of greater depth delivered by both McCreary and actor Alessandro Juliani.

So the timing of McCreary”s career was also providential in that it began as television entered its new golden age, taking on production quality and scope and sophistication previously associated more with the big screen.

Variety is the spice of life

Reflecting on scenes like that with Gaeta and the mind-blowing revelatory conclusion of the episode “Someone to Watch Over Me” (an episode that was a singular composing experience, as fans aware of its (spoilery) build-up and behind-the-scenes story know) McCreary admits, “when I finished Battlestar, I was wondering if I'd ever do anything that good again.”

So he made sure the next job he took on was starkly different from Battlestar: the whimsical, Americana-infused score for fellow Syfy (then Sci Fi Channel) show Eureka.

Since then, McCreary”s musical stylings have spanned the big, traditional, punchy score for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the minimal score of Walking Dead, and the gritty, hurdy-gurdy-led music for Black Sails. And he”s taken on such unusual challenges as creating a palindrome main title theme for Da Vinci”s Demons, which earned him an Emmy.

Next to unconventional instruments, versatility has become McCreary”s signature.

Eick, who”s currently developing a TV adaptation of 1977 sci-fi novel Gateway, said, “I would work with [McCreary] again when I wanted to subvert a genre. If I wanted to bring a musical character that you would never associate with that genre to that genre. That”s when I think you would turn to Bear. If you wanted to do a Western with all operatic vocals, you might go to Bear to try something like that.”

McCreary had broken the sci-fi music mold with Battlestar when the show”s producers largely encouraged him to stay away from the orchestral fanfare associated with the genre (though for Battlestar“s series finale, themes previously carried by gamelan and solo fiddle and Irish whistle got the full orchestra treatment.)

McCreary said he has turned down job offers that he worried would push him to write music too similar to Battlestar, instead continually taking on gigs that he sees as fresh opportunities. He hopes to expand the scope of what he does by taking on more video game scores, and he”s working on one now (though he can”t reveal which game it is just yet).

“My goal is to keep on my toes. I wanna continue to be surprised by the calls that I get and opportunities that I get, and I wanna keep doing unexpected things,” he said. “When I finished Battlestar I had the opportunity to be the taiko drum guy/alien invasion guy. There was a point at which I thought, ‘Am I ever going to get to do anything else?”

“Now I just get calls for the weirdest stuff.”

So TV fans, expect the unexpected and the weird in many more projects to come from Bear McCreary.

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