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February 19, 2014IM -
The music for Battlestar Galactica plays a larger, more dramatic role than the tunes featured in many other TV shows, and it has grown since the show—a reimagining of the original 1978 series—began in 2004. “It’s a slow, evolving process,” McCreary says. “I’m allowed to adapt the music as the show evolves. They’ve not only allowed but encouraged me to push the boundaries of what the score can do.”
The score for the show started out minimally, with two ethnic instruments, the duduk and bansuri, with percussion accompaniment. He later added gamelan, an Indonesian traditional percussion orchestra, and uilleann pipes. “The palette has expanded tremendously, and the orchestra has gotten bigger and bigger,” he says. “It’s been an opportunity to grow as an artist.”
The initially limited scope of the Battlestar Galactica score forced McCreary to be resourceful, and as the show has grown more complex and attracted a wide audience, McCreary has allowed the music to grow as well. “Now that we have orchestra episodes, they stand out more,” he says.
Motifs for different characters in the show, and musical patterns change as the characters develop. A similar style exists in the operas of Richard Wagner and music for the Star Wars series by John Williams of Local 47, though with some differences. “The characters aren’t archetypes. Certain characters, like Starbuck or Dr. Baltar, have three or four different musical themes for different personalities and story arcs,” he says. “Right now, I’m combining themes from older seasons and newer seasons.”
One constant since the show’s beginning has been McCreary’s collaboration with the show’s writers and producers. “We speak on a daily basis and they’ve been supervising musical elements,” he says. “In just the last four episodes, the music is integrating itself in the story in new ways. The writers and producers really trust me.”
A similar level of trust exists between McCreary and the studio musicians who performed on the Battlestar Galactica score. “There’s a ton of reading, and it’s very constructed music,” he says. He recognizes that the players tackle such complex scores on a weekly basis, and he frequently compliments their skills.
Some musicians discover their calling when they sit down for their first piano lessons. For McCreary, it was his first encounters with movie music in the 1980s that made him sure he wanted to become a composer. Though he’s made his name in television music, it was films like Back to the Future and Beetlejuice that first caught his ear.
McCreary grew up in Bellingham, Washington, a town less than 50 miles from where Battlestar Galactica is now filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia. During his childhood, his musical tastes were atypical. “I really didn’t listen to pop music—just film music,” he says. Though he started playing piano at age five and played in the high school band, it was his interest in film music and an early connection to the late Elmer Bernstein, that eventually led him to the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California and, later, to his career in LA.
The work of Alan Silvestri and Danny Elfman, both of Local 47, lured him into film music at an early age, particularly Silvestri’s score for Back to the Future. “I liked a lot of Danny Elfman’s work—Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure—and then I discovered they had been inspired by the previous generation of film composers.” McCreary then discovered music from the era of Bernard Herrmann, when he says, “using unusual instrumentation was a commonplace substitution for the traditional orchestral sound.”
McCreary was also one of the last students of the legendary film composer Elmer Bernstein. “I first met him in high school, and he took me on as a protégé,” he says. “His music would have been an influence on me even if I’d never met him. However, he was really there for me, both musically and personally, and had a tremendous impact on my life.”
While studying with Bernstein at Thornton, McCreary also worked on resurrecting Bernstein’s score for the 1963 film Kings of the Sun, reconstructing and reorchestrating the music from Bernstein’s original sketches. “You learn more doing that than by taking any class,” he says.
In addition to the knowledge he received from Bernstein and other professors, McCreary tried his hand at film scoring for independent films during his schooling. “I was writing for whoever I could get to play, and I got a lot of experience orchestrating and conducting, and collaborating with filmmakers,” he says. He took on projects with 50 to 60-piece orchestras and with small choirs, putting together scores based on whatever he had on hand. “It was a tremendous learning experience, and I learned how to get a good sound out of a small ensemble,” he says.
McCreary’s music has a reach that goes beyond Battlestar Galactica’s weekly episodes. For a series of live performances of the show’s scores, McCreary assembled the BSG Orchestra, taking the musicians out of the studio for a special on-stage presentation. “It’s very personal for the fans to get to see this music up close and in the flesh,” he says.
An impressive collection of Local 47 musicians comprise the BSG Orchestra: woodwind maestro Christopher Bleth, guitarist Steve Bartek, bagpipe player Eric Rigler, violinist Paul Cartwright, percussionists M. B. Gordy and Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez, and bassists John Avila and Michael Valerio. For the Roxy concerts, this group of musicians, with McCreary conducting and playing keyboards, tackled the show’s music, which combines spacey, atmosphere elements with driving, percussion-based grooves.
The atmosphere of the concerts was energetic, to a degree that surprised McCreary, who wasn’t sure what to expect from offering film music in a live setting. “I was concerned about filling the Roxy once, and it sold out,” he says. “We scheduled a second night and then that one sold out, too.”
The rabid fans and the classically-inspired music made for an interesting mix as well. “There was this rapt attention you’d find in a concert hall, as well as all the enthusiastic energy and screaming you’d expect from a rock concert,” he says. “These are serious fans, and I’ve never seen an audience like that before.”
The show’s cult following has led to some other collisions between fantasy and reality, particularly in light of the show’s military themes. McCreary recalls a message he received from a US soldier serving in Iraq. “There was a piece on the second season soundtrack called ‘Two Funerals’ that I scored for a fictional funeral on screen,” says McCreary. “They played this music at a funeral for his friend who was killed in action in Iraq. I was deeply honored, but I was also upset because it shattered this boundary between fiction and reality that I realized I had as I was writing.”
“This show means a great deal to the people who watch it—it’s not just the adventure of the week,” he says. “And I know I speak for everyone involved in making the show, it’s something we take very seriously.” In terms of the show’s following and social impact, McCreary calls it “lightning in a bottle.”
With the popularity of the BSG Orchestra’s shows, though, McCreary’s scores seem to have the power to last beyond the TV show’s lifespan.
If going to school in Los Angeles was, in McCreary’s words, “my only choice,” then staying on in LA after graduating seemed like an even more obvious decision and one that’s quickly paid off. “I was working on Battlestar Galactica less than a year after graduating,” he says. “I had done a tremendous amount of work trying to find a way to get my music out there. There’s a certain amount of luck involved, and I did everything I could to make every opportunity I could.”
Good things are often said to be the result of being in the right place at the right time. McCreary has taken that maxim to an extreme; in his scoring projects and on the LA music scene, he tries to be “every place, all of the time.”
When McCreary joined the creative team for Battlestar Galactica, he also joined Local 47. “It was my first real gig and I wanted to be as involved as I possibly could,” he says. Advice from guitarist Steve Bartek, a former member of the band Oingo Boingo and an early partner in McCreary’s work on student films at USC, was critical in his decision to join. “It’s been really useful to have the resources of Local 47, and in rehearsals there’s such professionalism.” Whether in rehearsal or recording, he says, “I know it’s going to be on time and go smoothly.”
McCreary’s level of involvement with the show led him to recruit Paul Cartwright, a violinist in the show’s recording ensemble, to join Local 47. “He was so young, I don’t think he had spent a lot of time considering being a serious session player,” McCreary says. “He has a great rock and country fiddle player personality.”
The studio music scene in Los Angeles has led to many connections with other composers, and McCreary has found the resources of Local 47 to be very helpful as well. “I use the Local 47 directory, for finding some really weird instruments,” he says. “There are only so many people who play uilleann pipes, you know?”
McCreary also scores the FOX series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and the Sci-Fi Channel series Eureka, and he expresses great pride that all of his television work has been conducted through the AFM. Though he can foresee the end of Battlestar Galactica, he predicts a bright future ahead of him. “I think a lot’s going to happen to me musically,” he says. “I just want to soak up every moment, every cue, and every solo, every time we record. I don’t think there will ever be a show like this again.”