“Defiance” is a science fiction epic that sprawls across two mediums: an MMO video game from Trion Worlds that debuted earlier this month (see my previous blog entry), and a series on SyFy that premiered last night. Both the game and the series take place in the same fictional universe: a future Earth that has been invaded and terraformed by a group of alien races collectively known as the Votan. By writing and supervising music for both the game and the series, I was honored to be among the core group of creative individuals involved intimately in both mediums.
I was initially tasked with all the normal duties required of a composer. I wrote adaptive music for the video game, and dramatic background score for the series. I had to ensure that each version had its own unique characteristics, suited to its needs, but also that musical threads united the franchise. Heavy synths and ethnic soloists played a key role in defining the sound of “Defiance,” but the cinematic quality came from working with a string orchestra. Tonight’s video blog is a fly-on-the-wall look at my sessions for the first two episodes:
In addition to typical composer duties, however, I was asked to contribute a wealth of source music (music that is actually heard by characters within the story – for example, a song on the radio). I was asked to help bring the alien cultures to life by developing a distinct musical heritage for each. I fashioned Votan instrumentation and lyrics into a variety of popular songs and ceremonial pieces. I wrote pieces for street musicians that float through open-air marketplaces. I produced alien classical music, jingles, jazz, rock-anthems and torch songs.
Scoring a project like “Defiance” is a rare situation for a composer. So rare, in fact, that I think no composer has ever been in it before!
In tonight’s blog entry, I will introduce you to the primary themes that permeate the game as well as the series, and discuss a handful of the unique songs I produced for the first episode.
The Themes of “Defiance”
Warning: A Few Minor Spoilers Ahead…
The series begins with an atmospheric prologue depicting the arrival of the first Votan ships. The score is ambient at first, but gradually, orchestral strings sneak in with the Defiance Main Ostinato:
This ostinato oscillates gently between C major, C# minor and A major. The ethereal string orchestra floats above the massive heavy synthesizers that enter as the young boy first looks up at the strange alien vessels floating above him.
These dub step inspired synthesizers are a major component of my score for the “Defiance” video game, appropriate because the game emphasizes intense action. For the “Defiance” series, I kept the heavy synths more in the background and featured the orchestra and soloists more, because the series focuses more on character and mood.
The story jumps ahead and we hear our first statement of the Main Theme, sung in an ethereal wordless vocal by Raya Yarbrough:
To hear this theme in action, check out the Main Title track from the “Defiance” video game:
This melody, in combination of the main ostinato, ultimately represents the entire “Defiance” franchise, across both the video game and series mediums. Writing this melody was tricky, however, because the game and the series serve different purposes and have different tones.
The melody itself is purely emotional, capturing an elegant mystery and atmosphere. I used varying arrangements to produce versions of it appropriate to the game or series. Here, as we pan across the bizarre new Earth landscape and hear Irisa’s voice-over, the theme is calming and meditative.
If you’ve played the video game, or listened to the first track from the video game album, you know there is a second melody that is featured prominently alongside this one. Let’s call this one the Nolan Hero Theme:
In the main title for the game, I used this uplifting melody as an inspiring crescendo into the huge Main Ostinato. For the series, I found that it has a cinematic, triumphant quality that perfectly captures Nolan’s character.
In the first episode, you can hear the Nolan Hero Theme when Nolan returns to help the citizens of Defiance defend against the incoming Volge army. It can be heard a second time at the episode’s conclusion, as he looks at the badge in his hand, standing beneath the arch. This moment, in particualr, is a nearly-direct quotation of the theme from the game, and should resonate strongly with gamers who’ve heard it for the past few weeks.
Nolan, and his adopted Irathient daughter Irisa are the series’ two main protagonists. I most frequently use the Main Theme and Main Ostinato to signify their relationship. So, expect to hear more emotional variations of it in the series than the action-oriented versions in the video game cues.
In the first act, Nolan and Irisa encounter a band of rogue Irathients known as Spirit Riders. Here, I introduce the Spirit Rider Theme:
Their theme is a combination of plucked strings such as guitars and clavinets and ethnic percussion, especially dumbek. I used this instrumentation in the video game score as well, generally representing rogue groups. Listen to tracks such as “Ninety-Niners” and “Raiders” and you will hear a deliberate tonal similarity.
Once Nolan and Irisa make it to the town of Defiance, they meet a variety of new characters, and of course, that means we get a host of new themes.
One of the most fascinating characters in “Defiance” is Datak Tarr. He is a local crime lord and his family is steeped in Castithan traditions. In my conversations with showrunner Kevin Murphy about Datak, we frequently discussed “The Godfather.” I’ve always admired how Nino Rota’s score for that film echoes the small village in Sicily that Vito Corleone came from, even though we never see it until the sequel. I wanted to try a similar approach with Datak and his deep Castithan roots.
Where Rota was able to fall back on Italian folk music, I was free to simply invent Castithan musical styles entirely on my own. And like Rota’s “Godfather” score, I am consistent in always using the theme, or one of its variations, when events on screen concern the criminal family.
In the pilot, my best chance to get this theme to sink in was during the scene where Datak and Stahma bathe together. This cue begins with gentle open fifths in layered ethnic guitars. The guitars have a ceremonial quality, which helps highlight that these baths are steeped in protocol and ritual. The odd meter, in this case 7/4, will be a trait that also carries over into Castithan popular music.
A combination of duduk and alto flute sneak in with the Castithan Theme:
This is one of the most bizarre themes I’ve ever composed. Not only is the meter unusual, but the melody feels completely detached from the guitars’ ostinato in C. The tune feels like it should be in Eb or even D, but somehow it still feels right, sitting above the C drone in the ethnic strings.
Datak’s rival in the town is the leader of the miners, Rafe McCawley. In a nod to “Romeo and Juliet,” Rafe’s daughter falls in love with Datak’s son. So, I knew I would need a McCawley Theme to set against the Castithan Theme.
Though its heard only briefly during the pilot, during the scenes when McCawley is out for revenge for the death of his son, the McCawley Theme will play an increasingly important role in future episodes.
There is a funny origin to the McCawley Theme. I’m not going to reveal it just yet, though. I’m curious to see if any of you can figure it out.
Another important character is Amanda Rosewater, the newly elected mayor of Defiance. Before the epic battle with the Volge, she delivers a speech that unifies the town and ultimately inspires Nolan to return and help them. The melody that underscores this inspirational moment is the Amanda Theme:
Her theme returns in the following scene when she says goodbye to Nolan as he packs up his roller. There’s an undeniable chemistry between these two characters. This won’t be the last time you hear this theme in a scene between them.
The bombastic battle at the episode’s climax is against a savage alien race known as The Volge. This entire sequence is underscored with music that is closely related to the Volge music from the Defiance game.
As the menacing army approaches from the horizon, the score introduces a march-like pulsing synthesizer riff that I will call the Volge Pulse. As the soldiers get close enough to discern their hideous features, I add in the Volge Theme:
The primary instrument playing this melody is a mercilessly loud woodwind instrument from the Middle East called a zurna. This thing sounds like an air raid siren from Hell. Woodwind specialist Chris Bleth said it best when he told me once “you don’t want to play this near someone you like.” With that sentiment in mind, I had him use it to play the Volge Theme.
In my orchestration, I doubled the melody with various instruments, including Paul Cartwright’s electric fiddle, Steve Bartek’s electric guitar and even the orchestral strings. However, at the final mix, it was clear that the zurna alone had more than enough high frequency energy to cut through the wall of heavy synths and pounding percussion. It’s the perfect instrument to cut through chaos.
The Volge Battle sequence is my favorite cue from the pilot, in fact, because it does more than introduce a new theme. Here, I finally had the chance to reincorporate themes we’ve already heard and develop them. During the long prep for the battle, I expand upon the Main Ostinato and Main Theme, letting them build energy during Nolan’s rousing speech to the troops. He gets more than his share of heroic fanfares during the battle as well. But, the most exciting moment comes at the end when Irisa charges into battle with the Spirit Riders behind her. Here, I arranged a pulse-pounding variation of the Spirit Riders Theme, complete with blistering dumbeks, acoustic guitar and other ethnic touches.
After the battle (spoiler alert — they win), I got to write the big, cinematic fanfare version of the Main Theme that I’d been itching to do from day one. Nolan and Irisa make peace and embrace as a solo violin plays a luscious reharmonized variation of the Main Theme. It is this moment that cemented the Main Theme to Nolan and Irisa’s relationship for me.
The gorgeous acoustic violin solos in the score to the game and the series are performed by Neli Nikolaeva, who also deserved a big shout out in my blog post about the “Defiance” game. Her distinctly evocative tone helps establish the sound of this franchise.
These themes are the core melodies for the franchise, but there are many new ones to come. As I mentioned earlier, however, scoring the drama was just the beginning. I also wrote, co-wrote or produced dozens of pieces of source music, each of which tells us something about the world of “Defiance.”
The Songs of “Defiance”
Each Votan race has brought its own musical traditions from its home world. The melodies and instrumentation needed to be as distinct as their languages and visual appearances.
The town of Defiance is a melting pot. This new, terraformed Earth is an alien world to everyone, including the humans. No one is native, and several generations of Votan have been born and raised on Earth, making them literally Earthlings. The producers and I wanted to represent this idea with the music by merging Votan music with our own. In the pilot, I firmly establish the sounds of Castithan and Irathient popular music, but in future episodes you will begin to hear this style merge with contemporary popular songs. You may even hear some exciting “Defiance”-centric covers of songs you know well.
The first song you hear is playing as Amanda and Mayor Nicky walk through the square, and continues throughout the following scene in the hospital. The song is “Outside Over There,” written by Brendan McCreary and performed by his band Young Beautiful In A Hurry. Jangly acoustic guitars and pounding junk percussion underline his strange and beautiful lyrics about being in a new land. Though you just get a taste of the track here, “Outside Over There” introduces us to the rustic, yet electronic sounds that will define much of the pop music in “Defiance.”
Later in the episode, when Nolan and Irisa first enter the NeedWant, you hear a brand new Young Beautiful in a Hurry single: “Oh, Future.” The driving synth lines and electric guitar riffs perfectly captured the feeling that the NeedWant is an exotic, potentially dangerous place. “Oh, Future” will be featured on the new Young Beautiful in a Hurry EP later this year. Keep this singer’s voice in your ears: Young Beautiful in a Hurry will play an important role in the soundtrack to several upcoming episodes.
(For those of you in the Los Angeles area, there is an exciting YBH concert coming up on May 11th that will be the world premiere screening of their new music video, which I also directed! It would be great to see some of you guys there! Click here for more details.)
After Amanda makes her speech in the beginning, we cut to the after party and catch a glimpse of a band performing live in the square, fronted by a beautiful Irathient vocalist. This song is an original I produced, and co-wrote with lyricist David J. Peterson, called “Besash.”
Because “Besash” needed to be lip-synced on set, it was actually the first piece of music I wrote for this entire franchise, and therefore had a heavy influence on the rest of the score for both the series and the video game. I wanted to capture the raw, homemade quality of the world. The production design depicts a city that has been pieced together from the remnants of other worlds. So, what would a band sound like that was formed in the aftermath of a terraformed Earth?
Tinny, distorted acoustic guitars provide the main backdrop, while strange alien instruments create heavy, ethereal, synthesizer tones, many of which would eventually end up in the score for the video game. Paul Cartwright contributed a twisted electric violin solo and Chris Bleth played a duduk solo through layers of digital manipulation.
The producers and I wanted a vocal effect that sounded distinctly alien. To achieve this, I combined the voices of Brendan McCreary and Raya Yarbrough into a single unison line. We took great pains to ensure that they doubled each other as precisely as possible, blending together and forming like a single voice. I wanted to subtly imply that Irathients may have a second set of vocal chords they can employ when it artistically suits them. (We didn’t always adhere to this rule, however. So, don’t send me angry emails when you catch Irathients singing in later episodes with a single voice! Apparently, they can sing either way. There. I just made that rule up right now.)
A song is defined as much by its lyrics as by its music. And where the Votan songs required distinct instrumentation and styles, they also clearly needed a distinct language. Luckily, linguist David J. Peterson was already onboard “Defiance,” crafting unique Castithan and Votan languages for the actors to speak. Over the course of the first season, you will hear a variety of source music that I composed in collaboration with David, including rock anthems, funeral chants, prayers and rap songs. He is an invaluable resource and adds a layer of authenticity to this franchise that fans will appreciate for years to come. As someone who puts a ton of detail into his work, I can say that David has completely stunned me with his precision and passion for his work.
In addition to devising the function of the languages, David also contributed text and lyrics, including writing the lyrics for “Besash:”
Let’s give up
Just take the gini weed and surrender to oblivion
To resist is to rein in an expanding void
If the world is going to bait us with palliatives
Let’s drop out…
The eye of our storm is the ultimate refuge
Let’s give up… Lest the power fail
Let’s give up… Lest the apocalypse be tonight
Let’s drop out… You can trust me…
To hide… Because it’s boiling over the edge
Fade… Let’s… Let’s give up
Hei kenyuzé gini s’esásh gyaluz’
Shidawenye nudri napaki shisi
Kwa damon shintha omrus’
Behís… Ibusǝ nyekisha nuneppe
Besásh… Kwǝgyí shaku thurla
Besásh… Kwǝgyí lunyigy’ gyamme
Behís… Lema ba shetu titu…
Shesenu… Gyi tushe ‘zazenyehe
Laká… Be… Besásh)
Later in the episode, we are taken to a Castithan nightclub. The song playing here is an original composition, for which I wrote both the music and lyrics, called “The Ritual of Perpetual Motion.”
There was a lot of information we needed this song to convey. First of all, I wanted to differentiate the sounds of Castithan youth from the ceremonial, ethnic and spooky sounds of the Castithan Theme associated tight Datak and his criminal enterprise. The sounds here are aggressive synthesizers, set against a wailing vocal performed by Raya Yarbrough.
There is also a moment when Alak Tarr corrects Christie McCawley, who instinctively dances quickly, instead of slowly like the Castithans. Executive producer Kevin Murphy told me that the original idea in the script was that Castithans always dance slowly, even when fast music is playing. Ultimately, when this scene was assembled, we realized that this idea was simply too obtuse to try to communicate without jamming in some awkward line of dialog to try to explain it.
I proposed a musical solution, suggesting a song that feels both fast and slow at the same time. I achieved this by combining a slower tempo with quickly subdivided high hats and synthesizers. You could hear this as a slow piece, but we can easily understand why Christie might jump in and interpret it as a fast piece. In a subtle way, the scene still suggests that Casithans have a different way of interpreting music, which is ultimately what Murphy was going for.
The tonal requirement for “The Ritual of Perpetual Motion” were also a tremendous challenge. The scene begins with a romantic dance between Alak and Christie, but turns into a physical altercation between Alak and Christie’s brother. I wanted to write a single song that would “score” the whole scene, but these are two entirely different moods.
In the end, I wrote verses that allowed beautiful harmonies to float above the driving synthesizers. The lyrics, sung in Castithan, are elegant and romantic. For example, the lyrics when they are dancing are:
Why do you believe we are different?
Why do you believe we are the same?
Why do you move to only one beat?
Locked in step, our hearts beat as one
(Nomya ksa gerono ya, sho me finji?
Nomya ksa rono ya, sho me finji?
Fivi wayo nggo, sho me yete?
Kapuvela, fanya ksa wovaya)
The chorus, however, ditches the pretty harmonies and shifts to an odd meter of 9/4. The meter gives the track an alien feel. People who are not musicians will likely not even be able to identify what, exactly, makes it sound ‘wrong.’ Seeing the Castithan teenagers dance to this also implies that they have an inherently different rhythmic sense than the humans. This idea is also reenforced by the odd meter in the Castithan Theme.
For the choruses, Raya uses the upper edges of her register and moves dramatically to a sound that almost sounds like a scream, as the lyrics change to:
Join the Ritual of Perpetual Motion
(Oninje yetaluno fozwe ike fyulu)
For this tune, I wrote lyrics in English first, and gave them to David Peterson to translate. “In those cases, it was kind of fun, because I tried as nearly as possible to fit the syllable count of the original, if not the meter,” Peterson recalled. “English is famous for its teeny tiny words that can pack a lot of meaning into a small number of syllables. Not so with something like Castithan! In addition to trying to be as economical as possible while translating, I also came up with a notation for Bear—i.e. a way of saying ‘it wouldn’t be terrible if this syllable got axed when this line is sung,’ and then, if more was needed, ‘it wouldn’t be an absolute and complete nightmare if you had to axe this syllable as well.’ Personally I thought it would be tougher for him to fit the longer translated lines in, but he does good work!”
“The Ritual of Perpetual Motion” gives us a glimpse into Castithan pop music, so I knew we need to hear a taste of Irathient pop as well. There’s a fun montage where Nolan shacks up with Kenya, and I knew this was my chance. Here, you can hear my original Irathient song: “Terraform My Heart.”
This song is shamelessly fun and intentionally goofy. I imagined what would happen if a young Irathient singer found a bunch of Prince tunes and tried to capture that same spirit in his native tongue.
“Part of what makes Defiance so cool is that it showcases a true contact situation,” linguist David J. Peterson told me. “America had its own culture, and the alien races had their own cultures before they arrived on Earth, but when they get thrown together in Defiance, there’s quite a bit of mixing going on.”
I teamed up with Brendan McCreary, who co-wrote the lyrics with me and put a unique spin on the vocals. He definitely sounds like an alien who listens to Prince!
Half the song is in English and half is in Irathient. Though the lyrics in the verses are essentially typical love song detritus, the choruses are actually referencing the Votan’s escape from their home star system:
When the last ark falls from the sky
When the twin suns finally die
I’ll still be yours
(Sheimbigyiru arko nathenu kwaaza
Shememu izidaa thenuri kwaaza
Gyi ilaa ume aagdaa.)
I had long conversations with the series’ science advisor Kevin Grazier (who I collaborated with closely during the last episode of “Battlestar Galactica”) and wanted to apply some of his work to my song. So, even in a goofy little love song, the Irathients still make reference to their nomadic nature.
“It’s not as if this is native Irathient music: it’s what Irathients who are on Earth now find cool,” David Peterson said. “They bring a little bit of their musical history to it (and they bring their own language to it, as well, though with a couple English borrowings thrown in for flavor), and the product is something that isn’t quite Irathient, but isn’t quite human, either.”
The electric guitars in “Terraform My Heart” are performed by Steve Bartek. Steve has played guitar on virtually every score I’ve ever written. Most of the time, I’m pushing him to find ever weirder textures, to sound like anything in the world except a guitar. For this track, we went back to his 1980’s roots, when he was the lead guitarist in the cult band Oingo Boingo. I asked him to try a sound similar to their mid-80s albums. He dialed it in immediately and we were done with the entire song in the blink of an eye. It was a ton of fun.
All of these songs are exciting because they function on multiple levels. They fit the emotional needs of their scenes, but also tell us something about the cultures they came from. “It’s one thing to have aliens that look and act different from humans. It’s another thing for each of them to have their own languages,” said Peterson. “But, then to take it even further to develop their individual musical aesthetic sensibilities and to get to hear that in the show… This is how an interspecies contact drama should be done.”
In future episodes you will hear more originals and covers in various Votan styles. You will also hear some licensed ‘needle-drop’ tracks that I had no involvement in, including next week’s episode. Licensing in some pop music that people will recognize was important to the producers and I because it tells us something else about our world. Unlike a series like “Caprica,” which was totally disconnected from our world and required entirely original music, “Defiance” takes place in our future on this world, so some of our pop music recordings have survived. The inclusion of some needle-drops here and there will reenforce that idea.
You can also expect new character themes, variations of these character themes, an expansion in instrumentation and more musical crossovers from the MMO video game.
I will end this blog with a recollection of a cue I wrote for this first episode, easily one of the weirdest pieces of music I’ve ever composed. In this scene, Nolan agrees to help track the killer of McCawley’s son and then leads them through the woods, following clues and piecing together the events of the murder. The sequence starts out with only sound effects: the gentle breeze and chirping insects. As the revelations come quicker, the score enters and builds intensity.
Except, the score has already been playing! I collaborated with sound designer Daniel Colman, who gave me samples of his various “Defiance” insect chirps. I loaded the chirps into a sampler and played them like a percussion ensemble. Watch the scene again, and you’ll notice that the twittering bugs are not random rhythms, but in fact, building into a steady groove which is ultimately augmented by percussion and strings. Appropriately, I called this bizarre composition… “Concerto For Insects.”
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I am thrilled that “Defiance” has already resonated with so many of you. I’m working with my new label, Sparks & Shadows, to bring you all the “Defiance” music you want. First, I hope you all know that my score for the video game is already available now, on iTunes, Amazon and other digital retailers. A digital soundtrack for the TV series is in the works, including both the score and original songs. And we’re also working on a physical CD set to include music from both soundtracks. Please follow S&S on Twitter and Facebook, and stay tuned for more exciting announcements!