If you don’t know his name, odds are you’ve heard one of composer Bear McCreary’s themes in some TV show over the last few years. His scores can be found in shows about people who stop at nothing to protect their target to space operas to a show about the zombie apocalypse to a show about Leonardo Da Vinci.
For the latter one, in STARZ’s new original Da Vinci’s Demons, McCreary had to compose something for the first time that was a score for a period show. Fans can download the theme, which can be played backwards and forwards, via iTunes.
To learn more about the theme he created for Da Vinci’s Demons, as well as nerd out about some of the other scores McCreary has composed over the years, I recently spoke with him via e-mail.
Da Vinci’s Demons currently airs at 9 pm ET on Fridays on STARZ.
Here’s what Bear and I discussed:
Bear, you're responsible for so much iconic music on so many diverse shows from The Walking Dead to Battlestar Galactica to now Da Vinci's Demons—do you find it challenging to go from so many different eras and time periods with these shows or do you find it freeing?
I find that working on diverse projects is inspiring and creatively liberating. Spending too much time in one musical universe can begin to have an adverse effect on my creativity. So, jumping from the dark percussion of Battlestar Galactica to the playful Eureka was refreshing.
What's the first few steps you take when you're coming up with a theme for a new show?
The theme is the most essential component of a new series and I spend a lot of time developing it.
The first step is to select instrumentation. I can't write a piece of music in a void, I have to know what instrument I'm writing it for.
In the case of Da Vinci's Demons, I knew I wanted to incorporate Renaissance instrumentation and musical styles with more contemporary orchestra, soloists and synthesizers. So, that got me started.
After instrumentation, the next thing I come up with is the actual melody. For me, it’s essential that the melody is memorable, otherwise... what's the point? So, I hammer away at various combinations of notes, sometimes for a week or more.
Talk about working with a music historian and how you were able to ensure, as much as possible, that your musical sequence was historical accurate?
I've been fortunate to score a number of projects that allowed me to build a musical world from the ground up. I really had complete creative freedom to design the sounds of Defiance, The Walking Dead or Caprica,"and that was liberating.
Da Vinci's Demons is the first historical piece I've worked on, and as such, I felt a responsibility to use the music to help transport us to that time period. I worked with renowned music historian and instrumentalist Adam Knight Gilbert, who runs the Early Music Ensemble at USC, my alma mater, though he wasn't there when I was a student.
He brought a wealth of knowledge to the table, including ideas for themes, instruments and lyrics. He was a priceless font of information and gave me more detail than I could ever fit into the music. He gave me the knowledge I needed to accurately represent the music of the time period, for the moments when I needed to.
I think I also read that the theme could be played backwards and forwards. What kind of challenges did that present and why did you decide to do that to yourself? (Haha.)
For Da Vinci's Demons, I looked to the real-life Leonardo for inspiration. He famously wrote backwards and forwards, so I decided to the same thing with his theme!
It was a nice idea at the time, but proved rather difficult to produce anything with emotional meaning. At the end of the day, an intellectual idea like that doesn't matter if it can't communicate effectively to the audience. I'd never been in a situation like that. When I changed the beginning of the theme, the end would also change. So, I had to think about both the backwards and forwards variations at the same time. It took a while to get used to.
But, ultimately, I think the end result works beautifully. It's emotional, and fits Leonardo's character beautifully. Yet, at the same time, it feels like a palindrome. Subconsciously, our minds can probably tell there's something odd going on there, which makes us lean in a little more.
Are their scores that fans have told you are their favorite? What's yours? (Mine—the All Along the Watchtower version from Battlestar Galactica.)
As I said, I've been fortunate to work on a number of genre projects.
I think Battlestar Galactica will always have a place in the hearts of fans for the rest of their lives, and I count myself in that same group. For a while, I thought it would be the only thing I was ever known for, and hey... there are worst fates, right? But, I found that as I kept writing, fans followed me to new projects and listened to what I was up to.
My scores for Human Target and The Cape really seemed to affect people. Caprica found its own niche crowd. And, of course, The Walking Dead has struck a cultural nerve many times broader than Battlestar Galactia ever did.
So, it’s nice to be able to work on anything and know that there's a loyal group of fans out there who will be listening and seeing what I'm up to. I enjoy writing for them.
What themes or artists inspire you? Either something in history or something a bit more modern?
I've always been inspired by film music. Ever since I was a kid, I knew it’s all I wanted to do. Composers like Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, Danny Elfman, Basil Poledouris, John Williams, Ennio Morrice, Nino Rota, Bernard Herrmann. I still listen to their music today for inspiration.
What are you working on next?
I recently completed scoring a fantastic little science fiction feature film called Europa Report, starring Sharlto Copley from District 9. I think fans of the genre are going to be blown away. The movie is the most realistic science fiction film I've seen in a very, very long time. It feels like a contemporary documentary. That comes out in August, I think.
And I'm looking forward to returning to The Walking Dead and Da Vinci's Demons which have both been renewed for new seasons.
And beyond that... there are a few other exciting things on the horizon. I can't be more specific than that just yet.