Tonight, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns for a second season, and with it, my orchestral score blasts back into your speakers. I had an incredible experience scoring the first season, because I got to work with insightful producers and brilliant musicians, to create a score that was both retro cool and edgy. If you missed my video blogs last time around, I think “Looking Back at Season One” sums it up best:
In season two, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. still has its share of secrets and discovering them keeps the narrative intriguing. This time, however, our heroes face a very different task. Their infrastructure has been demolished. They are now on the run from the military industrial complex that once supported them. Our protagonists are still reeling from the personal betrayals they suffered last season, some in surprising ways.
The look and tone of this season is darker than last. The producers and I wanted the sound of the score to reflect this change. I used the season premiere, “Shadows,” as an opportunity to nudge the music into the shadows, crafting new themes and bringing a different perspective to our familiar themes that survived from last season.
(Hanging with the cast at a recent scoring session. L-R: Austin Nichols, Me, Chloe Bennet & Nick Blood)
The simplest solution to changing the sound of a score is to change the instrumental palette. By working with different instruments, the score will sound different naturally, before new themes are even written. I started by expanding the low brass section. Last season, I worked most often with 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 2 tenor trombones, 1 bass trombone and 2 tubas for our brass section. For the pilot and the finale, we expanded that section to 8 trumpets, 4 trumpets, 3 tenor trombones, 2 bass trombones and 2 tubas. The sound was monstrous, and was especially effective in the epic first season finale. This season, that expanded brass section is now part of the standard ensemble you will hear each week. I thinned out the woodwinds section by a couple players, and beefed up the celli and basses. Generally speaking, the orchestra has more weight in the lower frequencies now, giving it added punch and menace.
This season, I am also pulling back the reigns on my usage of electric guitar. The guitar has been around since the pilot, and developed the most when used in emotional scenes with Skye, as an ambient background texture. Skye was a lovable hacker, a relatable outsider from our world, so her music felt more natural coming from a common instrument that stood out from the epic orchestral texture associated with our true S.H.I.E.L.D. agents.
This season, Skye (like several of our characters) has a new look and a new attitude. She is now a full-fledged agent, as deserving to be on the team as anyone. The producers and I felt like the continued use of the electric guitar for her emotional moments would betray that story point. Generally speaking, you will hear less of Steve Bartek’s signature electric guitar this season, though I still bring it back for special moments.
Lastly, I changed my approach to synthesis. Synth programming has always been an integral aspect to my score. Despite having a full orchestra at my fingertips each week, I still find that my synth programming gives the score its edgy fingerprint. Last season, the synths were warm, round tones, built from simple sine waves with rudimentary reverb, delay and filters added for personality. They were clean. As the season evolved, I began to experiment with giving the synth sounds more dirt. Listen to my themes for Deathlok or Garrett in the last five episodes of season one and you can hear the synths darkening. In season two, my poor synths have taken a beating. They are mangled under heavy distortion, mutilated beneath waves of noise. I think the sound captures the spirit of the show, underlining the idea that Coulson and his team are not in the same shape they used to be.
SPOILERS BEYOND: The season opens in 1945, at the close of the war. A Hydra officer finds a mysterious Obelisk that seems to have great value. This scene is underscored almost entirely with variations of an ominous new melody I will call the Hydra Theme (aka The Whitehall Theme).
Why a new Hyrda Theme? Last season got pretty musically complicated. I had a theme that associated itself with Centipede, The Clairvoyant, John Garrett and Raina. That theme ultimately functioned like a Hydra Theme. I had a theme for Victoria Hand that, while the audience briefly suspected her, also functioned as the Hydra Theme. I had a theme for Garrett that also acted like the theme for Hydra. It got so complicated, I can barely keep it all straight, and I wrote it all!
Going into the new season, it was obvious I would need a theme for Hydra and the mysterious Dr. Whitehall who seems to exist both in 1945 and the modern day (fans of the comic know this character as the Kraken). All the themes from last season felt permanently associated with last season’s narrative arc. I felt a sense of closure with all of them. The answer was obvious: I needed to write a new Hydra Theme, one that could be associated with Dr. Whitehall:
In true bad-guy-theme fashion, the theme is constructed from distantly related minor chords, and contains lots of close intervals. I build a theme like this so it can easily more into increasingly dissonant variations. For example, the Eb in the C minor chord will clash against the E minor, as will the Bb in the G minor chord. Building the theme in this way means that, in the future, I can put this theme over any pedal tone bass note and it will always sound dissonant. The melody is constructed to maximize its spookiness.
You will hear the Whitehall Theme throughout the first scene, during scenes with Carl Creel and again with Dr. Whitehall’s modern-day reveal at the end of the episode. It will be a foundation theme for many upcoming episodes.
The 1945 sequence is notable because it introduces another character with a memorable theme. Agent Peggy Carter and her team burst into the Hydra camp and confiscate the Obelisk. As the smoke clears to reveal Agent Carter storming in, astute fans may notice the orchestra quoting a statement of the Agent Carter Theme, composed by Christopher Lennertz for the Marvel One-Shot short film, Agent Carter. This character is getting her own television spin-off that will air next year, and I was very excited to see her storyline integrated into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so I called up my buddy Chris Lennertz and asked him if I could quote his memorable theme song in my score.
(Chris Lennertz and I at Comic Con 2013… being photobombed by a far more accomplished composer!)
Chris and I had the fortune of debuting our two Marvel theme songs together at a Comic Con panel last year, and I was immediately struck by his badass Agent Carter Theme. I was excited for the opportunity to incorporate his music into my S.H.I.E.L.D. score, because it further cements the Marvel Universe together as a coherent whole, but more importantly… I just like Chris a lot and knew we’d have fun on this! Chris was thrilled and sent me his scores for reference. Despite my enthusiasm for Chris’ exuberant music, I had to be relatively restrained when implementing it here, because Carter’s cameo is brief. As she storms in, the first violins state an elongated version of her theme soaring above an aggressive, orchestral ostinato.
My writing in the first five minutes of the season ranks among the most shamelessly orchestral I’ve ever done for this series. I did not use any of my signature synths. I wanted the score to feel like it belonged in the 1940’s, with a retro, adventurous attitude. Just as the audience begins to get used to it, we cut to modern day and suddenly I bring in the new synths, with distorted basses blazing over the nastiest groove I’ve ever written for the show. The transition is hopefully as jarring as I intended – jumping from soaring orchestra to blasting electronica, as we leap forward in time seventy years.
After the synths are established, and we witness our familiar characters in an espionage situation, the orchestra sneaks back in over the aggressive electronic programming. This is truly where the new sound of the season is introduced.
This marriage of distorted synthesis and full symphonic orchestra really shines through in my favorite musical moments in “Shadows.” When our characters return to their base after the title card, the score announces their arrival, clueing us in that these new characters are part of the team (a misdirect considering the fates of two of them). As Skye interrogates Ward, cold synth tones underscore her attempts to suppress her anger, before the orchestra surges energy into the scene as he divulges valuable information.
The most memorable cue, however, underscores Coulson’s speech at the end of the episode. I wrote driving action music to highlight the urgency as Hunter tries to save Hartley’s life and Tripp, May and Skye race towards a quinjet. The score gradually evolves away from driving action and builds into a soaring emotional piece, reinforcing the slow-motion imagery and Coulson’s words. Having the opportunity to score scenes like this, and working with a full orchestra to realize it, makes scoring Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. insanely fun for me.
As the scene builds to a climax, I wanted to create a strong sense of finality. After the shocking reveal that Simmons exists only in Fitz’s head (Pop Quiz: who saw that coming? I know I didn’t. Be honest, and sound off below!), the score hopefully provides a sense of closure and grandeur by stating the Main Theme, aka The Coulson Theme, for the first time this season in its entirety.
I strove to imply harmonic predictability. I wanted the chord progressions to be so simple that viewers would feel like they know what chord is coming next. Naturally, we do not know what’s coming. Instead, Creel suddenly appears in the middle of the road and interrupts a perfectly beautiful trumpet solo just as it was coming to the last note of the Coulson Theme. The orchestra, rather than resolving to the elegant final chord like we were expecting, blasts into screeching atonality.
At that moment, the score immediately changes course into horror mode. The dissonant strings and ominous Whitehall Theme I had associated with Creel earlier in the episode come to the forefront as he takes the Obelisk and walks away, leaving Hunter terrified and trapped in the overturned car.
As season openers go, “Shadows” is terrific. I have learned to always be on the lookout for twists in this show, and I was still shocked on at least three occasions. The writers have made riveting choices with Ward, Fitz, Coulson, Skye and our other characters, and I have enjoyed following their arcs with new music. The season is heading into surprising places. In the coming weeks, listen for new themes, new variations and a familiar voice from last season.