Percy Jackson and the Olympians

When my longtime friend and frequent collaborator Jonathan Steinberg called me to say he was working with author Rick Riordan to develop Riordan’s legendary Percy Jackson novels into a series for Disney+, I knew immediately the show would be visionary. I had worked closely with Jon in the past, including on the symphonically muscular Human Target and the jangling, heavy metal sea shanties of Black Sails, so I knew he would expect the score on his new series to be a confident voice in the storytelling. Working closely with my team of composers at Sparks & Shadows, we combined our creative forces and set out to craft a sweeping, lyrical, thematically driven score to support this epic tale.

In our earliest creative meetings, Jon, Rick Riordan, producer Dan Shotz, and Brian Claeys, a talented young composer who works for me at Sparks & Shadows, and I spent several hours discussing the tone for the show. We had to narrow down what we wanted the score to achieve, and the musical languages we would employ to do so. The music of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Basil Poledouris and other orchestral masters of film music came up in our preliminary discussions. We agreed there is something inherently timeless about fantasy scores such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Poltergeist, Willow, or Conan the Barbarian – a quality we hoped our music could help bring to Percy Jackson. We wanted to build this score on a foundation of strong character themes, stated in a classic, orchestral sound.

We were grateful and inspired to have the resources to record a world-class orchestral score for this series. We prepared to record with some of the world’s best orchestral musicians, at legendary stages in Los Angeles. We set sessions primarily at Evergreen studios in Los Angeles, and the storied Fox Newman Scoring Stage, where classic scores such as Back to the Future, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and The Sound of Music were recorded.

However, my ensemble at S&S and I also hoped the score would feel contemporary, and not like a mere impersonation of an older, classic era. We wanted to integrate modern music production techniques. While I began sketching themes, we also looked for exciting soloists, percussionists, voices, and synthesizers that could help ground the symphonic score in a contemporary language.

During this early creative period in the project, my primary task was to develop the musical themes. I focused my efforts on crafting an extended “End Credit Suite,” in the style of my childhood orchestral heroes. John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, in particular, frequently ended their films with a custom suite of themes (always my favorite track on their soundtrack albums). While a lengthy five-minute credits sequence is unheard of in most television, Percy Jackson presented a unique opportunity. By merging the “Main on Ends” title sequence, with a preview of the next episode and the end credits, I suddenly had a substantial canvas upon which to paint!

I wanted my end credit suite to offer clear statements of the three themes for the three primary protagonists: Percy, Annabeth, and Grover. My suite would conclude each episode with a rousing rendition of the Percy theme, moving into a lush and mature version of the Annabeth theme, and a playfully comedic spin on the Grover theme, before returning to the heroic refrains of Percy’s theme for the final fanfare. Percy Jackson gave me an opportunity to write the kind of cinematic theme suite I grew up on, and I was hopeful it would resonate with fans around the world. At the very least, I knew that I, for one, loved listening to it!

Eagle-eyed fans might notice that this series’ “Music by Sparks & Shadows” credit is relatively new. After carving my own path into the media scoring business and building a loyal team of additional music writers along the way, I am proud to nurture the next generation of successful screen composers. I have enthusiastically supported Sparks & Shadows, a collective formed of my most talented protégés, to branch out into their own projects. In addition to Percy Jackson and the Olympians, I am proud to see Sparks & Shadows awarded well-earned credits on many major projects, including Halo, Paramount+’s series adaptation of the iconic game series, Kevin Smith’s Masters of the Universe: Revolution, as well as the second season of Apple+’s Foundation, the Blumhouse and Lionsgate feature film Imaginary, and Sony’s beloved videogame experience God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla, among others.

(photo credit: Paul Bushnell)

I had a blast writing musical themes for Percy Jackson, as well as producing and influencing the score, and writing cues myself. For further details about this exciting score, I would like to introduce a guest blogger, Brian Claeys, from Sparks & Shadows. Brian brought his experience and passion for Percy Jackson to every note he and our other talented writers crafted, and he has a unique perspective on the inner workings of our creative process. Thank you to all the Percy Jackson fans around the world for embracing our show!

-Bear McCreary
March, 2024

SCORING PERCY JACKSON

by Brian Claeys

I was eight years old when Rick Riordan released the first installment of his novel series Percy Jackson and the Olympians in 2005. I still remember seeing The Lightning Thief for the first time in my local library, setting it aside to check out, but later deciding to put it back because the Medusa illustration on the cover was way too scary! A few weeks later, I gave the book a chance, despite my fear, and found that once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. So, years later, when Bear McCreary called me with the news that Sparks & Shadows would be scoring the new Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, he may not have known my history with the books, but my immediate excitement made it obvious I was a lifelong fan.

One of the greatest things about working for Bear over the past five years has been seeing him take on adaptations of media, stories and characters from his childhood, and then seeing him use that passion to craft the perfect score. Whether it was Lord of the Rings or Masters of the Universe, Bear has proven he knows how to treat these beloved sagas with the care and respect they deserve, while also building on the magic that made him a fan in the first place. Throughout the entire process of scoring Percy Jackson, Bear’s experience with nostalgic projects became something that I, and every composer on our team, learned from and put into the music.

From the get-go, Jon Steinberg and Dan Shotz made clear that they were looking for the score to evoke feelings of wonder, excitement, and gravitas in the same way the books have for the past twenty years. To get started, we collaborated with Bear to develop musical themes.

THE PERCY THEME

Bear always recommends beginning composition for a series score with the first episode. However Percy Jackson presented an unusual challenge: the tone of the first episode was quite different than the rest, and indeed, does not introduce most of our major characters. Thankfully we had cuts of multiple episodes to work with. So, with the first two episodes in hand, we dove in. The musical development was a lengthy process. We spent more than three months on the first episode alone! However, this creative exploration laid the groundwork for the entire score to follow.

We tried Bear’s first idea for the Percy Theme that worked beautifully over intimate scenes of Percy and his mother in the Montauk cabin, but it fell short of the grand heroism needed in moments like the Minotaur showdown. We realized we needed a theme with the kind of duality that Percy himself represents – he is a powerful demigod, as well as a caring, empathetic human being.

While we developed the score for the first episode, we gradually expanded our focus to include the second. Now, we collectively began looking at that episode’s bigger moments, such as the introduction to Camp Half-Blood. For the climactic moment when Percy is finally claimed by his father, Poseidon, we drafted a version that is very close to what audiences ultimately would hear in this epic scene. The melody’s big intervals provided a sense of god-like ascension, but the warm chord changes underneath offered an emotional connection.

We went back and tested this same triumphant theme in the intimate scenes with Percy and his mother in the first episode, and incredibly, it felt right there too! We all knew the Percy Jackson Theme was born! (It still gives me goosebumps to hear this iconic French horn melody in emotional scenes throughout the season.)

Thorughout the season, Percy’s heroic theme also evolved into an emotional variant, specific to his relationship with his mother, with a unique harmonic progression. In the seventh episode, when Poseidon is first revealed in a heartfelt flashback sequence, this alternative harmonic progression provides a deep longing and empathy, and yet, crucially, the melody is missing, underlining the scene’s subtext:  two parents struggling helplessly to provide for their child. 

The heroic and emotional variations of the melody, along with Bear’s signature adventurous, repeating string motor, all appear in the show’s first ten minutes. 

While Percy’s Theme is the most important of the score, there are many others that weave together to create the musical tapestry.

MUSIC FOR ALLIES

Grover is introduced as a comedic relief character, but he is, of course, much more than that. Still, his role as a supporting player made his theme creation a more straightforward process. His first interval, that of a tri-tone, makes his melody an instantly recognizable.

His theme is often heard on a lilting flute, a subtle reference to mythological satyrs and their iconic pan flute. Indeed, we snuck some moments of pan flute into the score that are meant to tee up musical arcs for this character in future seasons!

Fans of the books know that the character of Annabeth, as well as her specific relationship with Percy, evolves over the course of the series. However, for most of season one, Annabeth is reserved, serious, and even cold toward Percy. With each episode, she opens up more, and by the end of the season, she has a deep bond with Percy. For Annabeth, Bear wrote a theme that begins understated and subtle, but expands into an eventual soaring, romantic, even heroic melody.

Annabeth’s theme does not appear in its full orchestral glory for the first season of Percy Jackson. However Bear nicely foreshadows what her music might sound like in subsequent seasons in his rousing End Credits Suite. We are all excited by the possibility of writing increasingly sweeping variations for her in the future.

With a trio of memorable themes for each of our three primary characters, we were ready to begin writing music for the vast array of gods, monsters, and distant realms that awaited.

GODS AND MONSTERS

Our core characters were represented by orchestral colors, so it made sense to all of us to use non-orchestral instruments to represent the other-worldly aspects of the series. Each stop on Percy’s journey across America, and eventually to other realms, required a new musical color.

Beginning in the second episode, Camp Half-Blood’s theme has a regal and ancient quality. Usually played on an Armenian woodwind instrument called the duduk, accompanied by an ensemble of snare drums and frame drums, the melody offers a wild and yet militaristic sound, fitting for a summer camp with weapons training!

When Percy returns to camp triumphant in the eighth episode, the theme reappears, but now in a more sentimental form, missing the militaristic percussion. Even though his time at camp was relatively brief, this wistful statement in the season finale helps the audience to understand he feels like he’s coming home.

The first four episodes see Percy encounter a number of monsters, from the Minotaur to the Chimera. Starting with the Fury attack at the Museum of Modern Art and the Minotaur chase in episode one, we planted the seeds of a monster theme that would be used for all of these horrific antagonists. We felt one theme would serve as a powerful reminder that all these diverse monsters were, in fact, servants of Hades, tasked with hunting down Percy and his friends.

With this monstrous theme tying the variations together, we used different instrumentation to give each their own unique signature. The minotaur was represented with low brass, Medusa with the duduk and a Turkish stringed instrument called the yialli tanbur, screeching orchestral harmonics for Echidna, and roaring horns and trumpets for the Chimera.

Throughout the original book series, Kronos is revealed to be the ultimate threat to Percy and his friends. Kronos makes only a few appearances in this season, and they are only ever in disorienting dream sequences. (Not until the final episode are his character and master plan revealed to Percy and the audience.) We planted musical thematic seeds throughout these various dream sequences, and in the climactic showdown with Luke in the season finale. We are excited to expand these into a Kronos theme that could rival Percy’s in future seasons.

In addition to the ostinato and harmonic progression, audiences hear a high screeching synth drone which uses sound design to replicate worn out string instruments, playing off Kronos’s broken and decrepit state.

The fifth episode provided a great opportunity to introduce a new sound to the score as the audience is introduced to Hephaestus and his abandoned theme park, Waterland. We initially experimented with using the obvious “Danny-Elfman-Style-Carnival-Music,” however we all realized that we were playing the textual visuals, at the expense of the subtextual story. We were sacrificing the story to say something that didn’t need to be said. Trying a different approach, we felt the god of metalworking and craftsmen should have a theme that reflects his reclusive, yet refined quality. We thought about a solo fiddle.

We brought in Bear’s longtime collaborator Paul Cartwright. Paul recorded beautifully haunting takes of our Hephaestus’ theme, as well as contributing frantic improvisation for Percy and Annabeth’s chaotic ride through the Tunnel of Love.

In that same episode, the audience is also introduced to another god, who becomes a major player in the plot, the god of war Ares. His theme is dominated by an incessant clicking of bows against orchestral strings, a technique called “col legno” (meaning literally “with the bow”).

This sound feels like a ticking time bomb, a perfect musical representation of the character’s agitated aggression. We were excited to tease his theme as early as the second episode, in Percy’s confrontation with Clarice, Ares’ daughter. We augmented Ares’ theme with massive percussion in the season finale’s epic showdown, resulting in one of my favorite cues of the season.

We also took care to tee up Hades’ musical theme before his eventual appearance. Listen for his theme played slyly on a slithering yialli tanbur line.

The melody returns in the seventh episode, culminating in a massive statement as Percy and Grover enter Hades’ dark palace. Even against the onslaught of massive brass, the tanbur is still front and center, providing a fitting tone for the lord of the dead.

The last theme we created for season one was for the leader of the gods himself, the god of the sky, Zeus played by legendary actor Lance Reddick who sadly died on March 17, 2023. All of us at Sparks & Shadows felt honored to write music for the last screen appearance of this renowned actor, to provide a worthy musical theme for his brief screen time.

The incorporation of low male choir singing a Gregorian-inspired melody built around moving fifths felt both regal and ancient. Zeus is the most powerful god, and the respect he commands from every character is encapsulated in this ominous vocal melody that feels as if it has been around since the beginning of time.

While this may seem like a lot of musical themes, especially for only eight episodes, we are all excited to know we are only scratching the surface of the music we could yet write for this saga.

(L-R: Alexandre Cote, Bear McCreary, Brian Claeys, Kelsey Woods, Dayna Ambrosio, Pierre-Andre Rigoll, Bailey Gordon)

IT TAKES A VILLAGE

We always felt committed to giving different characters and locations their own sound or theme. This is of course in the style of classic film composers, but also in line with Bear’s philosophy when scoring anything he tackles. We looked for inspiration at his unique musical themes for the score of Masters of the Universe: Revelation, another series with eight episodes of similar length.  We wanted the score to Percy Jackson to be just as effective at integrating and varying musical themes.

Working on this show consumed my life for more than a year, and I gave it everything. Reading The Lightning Thief almost twenty years ago inspired me in this work. When we finished recording the final episode of season one, I expected to be burnt out, but instead I surprisingly felt sad that this season was already at an end. I know every department working on this show was filled with people just like me, including Bear, and the other composers at Sparks & Shadows, people who really cared about this story and wanted to make something great.

When I watched each completed episode throughout December and January on Disney+, I felt like we had all achieved just that, something great. Percy Jackson and the Olympians fulfilled our hopes and hard work. This score emanated from a childhood love of a story that is still inspiring to this day. I speak for all of us when I say it was a dream and an honor to be a part of it.

To write music for this show with score credited to Sparks & Shadows was an amazing opportunity, not only for myself, but for the entire team of composers who each contributed invaluably throughout the season. I want to thank Alex Cote, Jesse Hartov, Bailey Gordon, Kelsey Woods, and Omer Ben-Zvi for their amazing compositions. This project simply would not have been possible without their collaborative work ethic and incredible writing.

I’d also like to especially thank Bear, firstly for allowing me to contribute to this blog, but more importantly for being such an amazing collaborator and leader throughout this project. His work composing the themes and his help guiding the sound of the score was vital, especially in the early stages of scoring. The trust that he – as well as Jon Steinberg and Dan Shotz – placed in me and the rest of the team was both humbling and inspiring. Our ability to work together towards our common goal of telling this story made the music truly special and I’m endlessly grateful for the opportunity.

It takes a village to get a score like this to the finish line, so I’d also like to thank Ryan Sanchez for his incredible mixing, Ben Sedano and Lawrence Anslow for their editing and engineering respectively, as well as Marisa Gunzenhauser, Hannah Lustine, Reed Trachy, Pierre-Andre Rigoll, Dayna Ambrosio and everyone else at Sparks & Shadows, our amazing orchestrators and copyists at Tutti Music Partners, Peter Rotter and the orchestra contracting team at Encompass Music, all the musicians who contributed their inspiring performances, and everyone from the post-production team at Disney+ and 20th Television.

See you all in the Sea of Monsters!

-Brian Claeys
March, 2024

Share

Search

Blog Archives

Projects