io9 caught up with the great Bear McCreary at the Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California. Bear told us about his new soundtrack for Sony PlayStation's SOCOM 4, his favorite piece from BSG, and why he'll never compose a porno.
First off, you've done a ton of composing work on science fiction properties. When it comes to composing, did you choose scifi or did scifi choose you?
That's tough to say. Scifi probably chose me, but I grew up on scifi! My first gig out of school was Battlestar Galactica, which got me some scifi cred. After Eureka and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, I was like "the scifi guy." But I don't think of my music as [explicitly] scifi music – I think of it as dramatic music.
In terms of musical genres, you're stylistically across the board. You dabble in rock, orchestral material, and let's not forget those taiko drums. Are there any genres you would either A.) like to do; and B.) not touch with a ten-foot pole?
I would like to do a Western – I probably wouldn't do a porno. [laughs] If the money's right, hey, I don't know! I like variety, I'm very fortunate that I fell into the scifi television world, it's brought me a lot of work, but I've done some work in horror, I've done dramas, I just like doing things that are interesting and I do get bored staying in one genre for a long time.
One of the hallmarks from your work on Battlestar is your use of leitmotifs. What's the story behind this?
When I got hired on Battlestar, they said "No themes!" At the time Battlestar came out, if you were making a scifi show and you heard the word "theme," what most people think of is Luke staring off into the twin sunsets and the French horn is playing BIG! And they really did not want to do this.
I went out of my way to avoid themes in the first episode, but I wrote these little thematic pieces, but nothing that I thought would end up being a theme. When it came time to do the second episode, and we were with Helo and Boomer again, I thought, "Well, I wrote that cool little thing…but if I bring it back, it becomes a theme! But I don't want to write a new theme every week!" So I used it again and thought, "Maybe they won't notice." And they didn't! And then the third episode, I thought, "Well, we used that thing with Starbuck the last episode, let's use it again!"
I was ready to get fired over this. I'm not kidding! [laughs] Then around the end of season one, the producers said to me (we were looking at this scene in which Helo and Boomer are hiding in a barn or something), "This scene's not quite working for me, can you put that Helo/Boomer theme in here?" And I'm like, "Good idea, boss. Let's do that." And from then on I could use themes!
It's not coincidental that from episode 10 in season one, the use of themes becomes far more confident and now it's like "This Gaelic sound, this is the Adama family." It was really a process of showing the producers that a theme in scifi doesn't have to be Star Wars or Star Trek. A theme can be a little melody, it can be a couple of notes. It can underscore and add subtext.
Television is an involving process – there are a lot of times I wrote a big love theme for Chief and Boomer in season one, and then the next episode they break up! So I repurposed it for Chief and Cally, and then I repurposed it again for Chief and Boomer! You can't plan everything in advance. There were a few places where I wrote a cue and the producers didn't like what I wrote, so they'd throw in something else. So I'd see it on the air and there's Boomer's theme in a scene with Starbuck, and I'm like "Nooo!" [laughs] Most viewers won't pick up on that, so there's one way to think of the themes as pure, and then there's the reality of what they became.
"Wander My Friends" is another really good example. Originally it was Lee and his dad's theme, but it kind of morphed […] It became the family theme of the Adamas, but then it became the family theme for humanity and everybody. You've got to realize how unusual it is for a television show to change its music at all. Normally, the purpose of a television show's music is to identify the show and to remind you what show you're watching – think of the Seinfeld slap bass, which is in every episode. Battlestar is one of those rare, different cases.
What would you say is probably your favorite thing you composed for Battlestar?
My short answer is the ending of the midseason finale of season four — a piece I call "Diaspora Oratorio." It was a beautiful uplifting moment that was followed by this sucker punch, which made it even the more beautiful, as it wasn't the end of the series.
Are we going to see more of your work on season two of Human Target?
The first season of Human Target was to me the pinnacle of my career as a composer. It pushed me to become a much more sophisticated orchestral writer. It was a dream come true – this was the kind of music I grew up on, this was the kind of music that made me want to become a composer in the first place. And in the feature film world, you don't hear this music a lot. Styles and tastes have changed and being able to do this on television once a week, recording with the best orchestra in the world was a dream come true. We're working on putting out a soundtrack album. As for season two, I haven't been asked back yet, but they're still in the planning stages.
What can we anticipate musically from the fall return of Caprica?
Caprica is interesting because there are a lot of source pieces I'm creating – I'm helping to create the world, not just score the characters. What music are they playing in bars? What music are they playing on the radio? What's playing in the stadiums? So yeah, you'll hear more source pieces but you'll also hear a lot a more intimate character work. The back half of the season is a lot more focused – you'll see the first season's story threads come together. You'll hear character themes really start to be clearly defined.
Tell us about your latest project, SOCOM 4.
SOCOM 4 combines elements of Southeast Asian music and the traditional Western orchestral music that SOCOM fans associate with the series. So it's related to the sounds of the previous games, but it's very unique as well. The SOCOM 4 music is designed to be integrated into this game and reflect the unpredictable quality of its missions and setting.
How would you say game composing compares to television or film composing?
On a technical level, there's a lot of differences between scoring for games and scoring for film or TV, but those are mostly dealt with developers in the early stages […] Ultimately, TV and games are very similar – I'm thinking about character themes, I'm thinking about the big picture narratively, I'm thinking about how I want the audience to feel. In that regard it's the same as film or TV. Once I get writing, it's not very different at all.
Videogames are art. I've always love games, I've always loved game music. I got as many glowing reviews about the Dark Void Zero soundtrack as I did Dark Void. I did the DVZ soundtrack as almost a joke […] I just gave it to the producers and then someone was like, "Let's make an 8-bit game of Dark Void." That's why they made Dark Void Zero! They didn't even ask me to score Dark Void Zero, they were just like, "Yeah, we're going to use that piece!"
As a composer, what would you say are the quintessential science fiction soundtracks?
It's hard to say. I'll give you a short list, but they've inspired me at different times in my life. The score to Alien by Jerry Goldsmith, and I would say both versions of it – the score in the movie and the album that came out of the score as he intended it for the movie. Blade Runner for sure, Empire Strikes Back was one of the first things I ever saw so it really soaked in there. It's weird – for Battlestar, a lot of the music was inspired by non-scifi scores. The thing that most sounds like Battlestar to me is Conan The Barbarian by Basil Poledouris. Elmer Bernstein's score to To Kill a Mockingbird is so pristinely perfect. Ennio Morricone's music to The Mission I definitely draw from when I'm doing scifi.
Congrats to Kris (a.k.a. txtphile) for winning the chance to meet Bear. Also, thanks to Kris for the additional questions and input on this interview!