Superhero adventures have been an essential part of my creative life for as long as I can remember. I grew up consuming Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Justice League, The Tick, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men and Watchmen. Some of the earliest music I ever wrote was inspired by the brassy fanfares of John Williams’ Superman and Danny Elfman’s Batman Themes.
I always suspected I had my own superhero score buried in my imagination somewhere, ready to dig out when necessary. That opportunity finally arrived when I was brought on board NBC’s newest drama, “The Cape.”
I first met with creator / executive producer Tom Wheeler and writer / producer John Wirth last summer, to discuss what the music for this series could sound like. I knew little about the concept; I only knew it was a superhero show. But, that fact alone prepared me with a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” I felt would make for great superhero television scoring. In a way, I was already writing the score in the back of my mind, before I even watched the pilot.Superheroes in the media today often come draped in shades of irony. Certain archetypes of the superhero genre seem suddenly off-limits (capes, costumes, powers, etc). When I spoke with Wheeler and Wirth in our first meeting, I realized they weren’t afraid of bringing these elements to a network TV series; they were ready to embrace them. Here was a series with masked villains, circus freaks, mystical powers, and a central story of redemption, revenge and the bond of fatherhood. These concepts flow naturally into musical inspiration.
(session photos: Andrew Craig)
Sensing Wheeler and Wirth’s love of classical superhero storytelling, I suggested a similarly classical approach: “The Cape” required a lyrical, live orchestral score loaded up on character themes. They agreed, thus paving the way for me dig up that long-dormant superhero theme buried in the recesses of my imagination.
*** Writing Themes ***
Many of the television projects I’ve undertaken are scored using character themes. Once melodies or rhythms are associated with certain characters, the task of writing music for a given scene becomes easier, because you know right away what the thematic “seed” of the music will be. The problem with writing a thematic score, however… is that you have to write themes.
With “Battlestar Galactica” or “Human Target,” I started with a limited set of themes and gradually expanded as new characters rose to prominence. However, when I set out to score “The Cape,” I realized I needed a bigger arsenal of unique themes right from the beginning. The pilot is full of interesting characters, most of whom required multiple thematic variations for their various personalities.
Generating thematic material is the time-consuming and exhausting part of the compositional process. I can write a bombastic action cue in a few hours if I have the themes established, but coming up with the first eleven notes of The Cape Theme took me seven days!
The challenge when you’re coming up with themes is to ensure they have potential for long-term development. They need to be interesting enough to sustain your (and you audience’s) interest for an entire season or longer. You also need to make sure the theme is fertile enough to generate countless variations.
I had a very tight production schedule on the pilot of “The Cape.” And still, I spent more than half of my time simply writing themes. In fact, the vast majority of that theme-writing time was spent solely on the main title theme. But, it would be the melody the entire score would depend on, so I had to invest the time to make sure it was right.
*** Pilot: Becoming the Cape ***
SPOILERS AHEAD: The three primary character themes of “The Cape” are all present in the teaser of the pilot, which is underscored by one long cue (the entire series features nearly wall-to-wall score!). The story begins in young Trip Faraday’s bedroom, where his father has fallen asleep with him. As the camera pans across them, a solo French horn plays a simple statement of The Cape Theme. Even though the score opens very simply, the horn foreshadows the epic sounds to come. And though our hero has not yet become The Cape, I wanted the very first sound our audience experiences to be a seed of his heroic theme.
We pan to Vince Faraday as his wife Dana peeks in the room. Here, pastoral strings and a solo harp offer our first example of The Family Theme:
This theme is incredibly important to the series. Vince will undergo a remarkable journey and encounter colorful characters, but the essential story of the series is his quest to reconnect with his family. For this reason, it was vital that the audience understand how much his family means to him. This theme, which will come back in many variations, plays an important role in establishing that familial bond.
The Family Theme is most often heard played on a grand piano. In the past, I’ve avoided using a lot of piano in my scores because it’s such a familiar sound. (Many of us grew up with pianos in the house, and we’ve all heard it used to death in film and TV scores.) However, I found that on “The Cape,” that familiarity was an asset.
The characters and their corresponding themes are so colorful in this series, so exotic and occasionally bizarre, that a familiar classical sound would help ground the family relationship in reality. It is precisely because simple piano melodies are familiar to us that the theme works so effectively against the backdrop of the other crazy sounds in this epic score. Besides, if it worked for Elmer Bernstein in “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” it would probably work for me too. 🙂
As if my job weren’t big enough as it was, I chose to play the piano on this score as well. I rarely have the opportunity to play a 9-foot Steinway in a room like the Eastwood Scoring Stage! So, anytime you hear a piano in this score, you know it’s me playing it.
Some of the most touching cues I wrote were small ensemble, piano-based cues. The burial scene in the pilot and the flashback to baby Trip in the second hour are especially touching, and great examples of my occasional ability to restrain myself musically. 🙂
This opening variation of the Family Theme is not played on piano, however. Instead, the strings pass the melody to a somber brass choir as we cut to Vince gearing up for his workday. The brass imply nobility and honor, helping us understand that he’s an honest cop in a potentially corrupt system.
Vince steps into the kitchen, as the newscast tells us the mysterious masked killer Chess is still on the loose. A subtle statement of the Chess Theme from the low winds underlines this brief, ominous moment.
Chess makes his big appearance later in the teaser, when he assassinates the chief of police. His shocking reveal is announced with a streaking gliss from the string section and then a pounding statement of the Chess Theme from the low brass:
Vince recognizes the danger and runs to the chief’s rescue. As the panic escalates in the crowd, the Chess Theme morphs into a chugging rhythmic pattern I call the Chess Ostinato:
This riff is a simple repetition of the notes in the Chess Theme, but played with equal rhythmic values. This simple compositional technique to transform a melody into a background pattern is one I use frequently on this score.
Vince is unable to get the chief out of the van before it explodes. As he recovers from the violent blast, a string ostinato crescendos, giving our first example of The Cape Ostinato:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10103.mp3|titles=The Cape Ostinato]
This string pattern forms the backbone of The Cape Theme, and really the entire score. It can sound fluid, like a cascading waterfall, or militaristic, simply by making subtle adjustments in articulation. The ostinato builds intensity until it bursts into The Cape Main Title:
With the main title, I strove to capture the tone and arc of the series. I wanted to communicate the grandeur of Vince’s mission, the mystery of the carnival freaks, the emotion of Vince’s family and the adrenaline of the action. But, above all, I wanted to write a main theme that kicks ass.
The first thing you hear in the title is Carnival of Crime instrumentation, which I will cover in detail later. After four bars, the horns and trumpets blast out the main melody, or “A Theme:”
The next four bars offer a taste of the “B Theme:”
In only thirty seconds, it was impossible to state the entire B Theme, but I felt it was essential to at least hint at it here so that I could bring it back in later scenes. In general, the B Theme represents the alien, exotic, mysterious and bizarre characters and settings in Vince’s adventure. For this reason, some carnival instrumentation returns here and it takes nearly a Viennese waltz feel.
At the end of the title, the A Theme returns for a triumphant final statement in the brass, pounding against a blistering string backdrop.
At this point in the episode, we’ve not only established the essential character relationships, but also heard the Family Theme, The Cape Ostinato, The Cape Theme, The Chess Ostinato and The Chess Theme. Not bad for only four minutes!
The next important thematic moment comes as Vince and Trip are reading their comic book together. This scene further establishes their relationship, but also makes clear how Vince gets the idea to be a superhero later on. So, I had creative license to make the moment a little bigger. First, the strings state a pastoral variation of the Family Theme:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10104.mp3|titles=Reading the Comic Book]
Vince turns the page, revealing a full two-page image of The Cape in action. Here, orchestra swells and the French horns give us a soaring Cape Theme:
Later that night, Vince gets a message from the mysterious blogger, Orwell, who reveals details of Chess’ smuggling operation and his plan to import a dangerous WMD into Palm City. The Cape Ostinato undulates in the background, because this is the first in a chain of events that will lead to his transformation into a superhero. Above the Cape Ostinato, the Chess Theme provides a sinister melody:
Compelled to follow up on the lead, Vince goes to the rail yard, where he is betrayed by his partner Marty and captured by Chess. While Vince is tied to a chair in a train car, Chess reveals himself as billionaire Peter Fleming and describes his plan to frame Vince. This truly classical villain reveal allowed me to really play up the Chess Theme, in all its twisted wickedness:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10106.mp3|titles=The Chess Theme]
The theme is played on its signature instrument, the contrabassoon. I first wrote for contrabassoon in the final episode of “Human Target” and immediately fell in love with its bizarre and otherworldly sound. It plays in the same register as a bass or piano, but the upper partials are completely unique. It’s not the “lowness” of the sound that makes it exciting; it’s the way the higher frequencies react to those low pitches. The contrabassoon is simply not a sound we hear very often, so it was fitting for the Chess character.
The Chess Theme modulates down by a half step, for example from Db minor to C minor, and then up by a tritone, from Db minor to G minor. The result is a slippery harmonic progression that’s hard to nail down to a single key. (I tend to associate chromatic passages with evil characters, because they suggest the villain is shifty, inaccessible and unreliable. Our heroic characters all have themes that are easy to hear the fundamental key, suggesting they’re steadfast and honest. The Old Boss and Chance Themes from “Human Target” also adhered to this rule.)
Chess gives Vince a running start before pursuing him with armed guards and military helicopters. This was the most challenging action scene in the entire pilot for me to score, because Vince is not yet The Cape or even a hero particularly. He’s simply a victim, trying to escape being killed. So, I avoided using The Cape theme at all. I wanted to imply chaos and panic, underlining the idea that he’s in over his head and doesn’t know what to do besides scramble for safety.
I accomplished this with an aggressive percussion groove and angular string phrases. The percussion groove was built from small percussion and concert toms providing a framework for solo timpani.
Despite my explorations into percussion in the past, timpani are actually instruments I’ve never particularly cared for. They simply weren’t appropriate for “BSG” or “Terminator,” which each had their own unique percussive soundscapes. However, I wanted timpani in “The Cape” so I could find a way to integrate their sound into my own music. And I’m glad I did, because they immediately recall a sense of grand orchestral tradition.
Our amazing timpanist is none other than M.B. Gordy, who played all the kick ass percussion on “Battlestar Galactica.”
Between pounding timpani phrases, the strings produce jagged, non-repetitive phrases. The fact that none of these ideas repeat creates remarkable suspense:[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10107.mp3|titles=Run!]
Halfway through this scene, it undergoes an interesting shift of perspective, one I needed to acknowledge in the music. We transition from being out in the rail yard with Vince to being in the Faraday kitchen. Trip and Dana watch the TV news first with disbelief and then with utter shock as Vince is cornered and, as far as they know, blown up right before their eyes.
The tension in the music is no longer based in adrenaline, but in emotion. The percussion groove moves to the background and the strings transition to a more lyrical, repetitive pattern.
Vince hides beneath a tanker moments before it explodes in a glorious fireball. Here, the score is about Dana and Trip witnessing this horrible event. As Dana gasps in horror, the orchestra swells with a tragic statement of the Family Theme:[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10108.mp3|titles=The Death of Vince Faraday]
Vince awakens in a strange environment, and to even stranger music. He finds he’s been rescued by the Carnival of Crime: a gang of professional bank robbers made up of fire-breathers, hypnotists and carnival freaks, led by the enigmatic Max Malini.
From day one, I knew the Carnival of Crime needed an entirely different sound, but what would it be? The clichés were obvious: a carnival is typically underscored with calliope and trumpets. However, I felt this approach should be avoided. Yes, the carnival is funny and charming, but they’re also exotic, bizarre and threatening. The legacy of Max’s cape is one of intrigue and danger. He’s more “Houdini” than “Ringling Brothers.” The Carnival of Crime music needed to reflect that.
“The Cape” is scored, in essence, with two orchestras. One is the symphonic kind we’re all used to. And the other was an ensemble of unusual instruments assembled specifically for the cues involving the Carnival. These instruments are taken from gypsy music and other Eastern European non-classical traditions.
I’ve always liked the concept of instrumentation in the score representing the cultures or characters on screen. I’ve explored this idea throughout “BSG,” “Dark Void” and “The Walking Dead” and knew it would work here. These are the kinds of instruments I imagined the carnies playing on their own, almost as if we’re hearing source music not score. In later episodes, you will actually hear Carnival of Crime source music and it will sound… exactly like their score!
The wild instrumentation begins with a collection of small percussion: hand cymbals, hide tambourine, medicine drums and small bass drums. The featured melodic instruments are ones I’ve always wanted the excuse to write for: hurdy gurdy and hammered dulcimer. You’ll also frequently hear accordion, concertina, handclaps and other gypsy-inspired instrumentation.
The hurdy gurdy is a new instrument in my arsenal, one I had custom-built just for this series. A primitive variation on the violin, it fell out of prominent use in folk music over a hundred years ago. In fact, for well-known examples of hurdy gurdy in classical western literature, you have to look back as far as the Renaissance.
The instrument is like a violin except you turn a crank instead of using a bow, and press wooden keys to the string instead of using your fingertips. There are two drone strings whose pitch remains constant, and a melodic string. The drones beneath the melody give the instrument the sound of a small bagpipe rather than a string instrument. However, because it’s a string instrument, harmonics and bends in pitch are possible. For someone who grew up playing only keyboard instruments, where these techniques are impossible, this is a very exciting prospect!
I’ve always wanted to play one and found an outstanding craftsman named Leif Eriksson to build one for me. (Interested in getting one? Check out his site). I got my instrument about a week before I began composition on “The Cape,” so basically I was learning how to play it at the same time I was writing for it!
You actually heard a taste of the hurdy gurdy and hammered dulcimer in the opening bars of the main title, but the first time you really hear them in action is during Vince’s dream-like encounter with the carnies. Ethnic percussion beats a hypnotic backdrop while the hurdy gurdy wails out our first example of the Max Malini Theme:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10109.mp3|titles=The Max Malini Theme]
What sound like castanets are actually my fingers hitting the wooden keys while playing the hurdy gurdy. “Proper” technique (if there is such a thing) would likely call the player to avoid those sounds, but I found that it leant the track an aggressive energy that was very appealing.
The hurdy gurdy is a fabulous sound for Malini and his merry band. It sounds like an evil bagpipe! I love it. And this was just the first cue I wrote with it. As I got further into the episode, the hurdy gurdy writing would become more layered and complex.
(The hammered dulcimer, performed by Dan Greco)
Max Malini enters as a showman (announced with a big percussion hit and jazzy clarinet/ hurdy gurdy gliss). A lonely hammered dulcimer accompanies his walk across the stage.
The following dialog between Max and Vince quickly establishes the delicate balance between comedy and urgency this series will frequently draw upon. The hurdy gurdy, accordion, hammered dulcimer and ethnic percussion dance playfully beneath exotic, exaggerated string lines. The result is almost like source music, underscoring Max’s theatrical booming voice and Rollo’s comedic slaps to the face:[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10110.mp3|titles=Carnival Interrogation]
From here, we transition to the most delightful sequence in the entire pilot: the bank-robbery montage. In this sequence, we witness the Carnival of Crime in action, hitting pay dirt after every job courtesy of Vince’s security card. In writing this cue, I completely went off the deep end and wrote what is possibly the craziest music I’ve ever written!
Clearly, Max Malini views his robberies as performances. “Ladies and gentlemen…” he bellows with a smile. “This is a hold up!” In his mind, he’s working before an audience. I wanted the score to tell us what’s going on in his imagination, and completely ignore the potential dangers of bank robbery. So, the cue begins with a huge orchestral fanfare, announcing their arrival into the bank:[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10111.mp3|titles=Carnival Fanfare]
As they gleefully run into the bank, the score erupts into a dynamic, circus romp. Strings chug along to an Eastern European groove, French horns wail an exotic rip and ethnic percussion dances behind a rhythmic wall of audience clapping. (The handclaps are, of course, an artistic license. Clearly, none of the people being robbed on screen are applauding. But, in Max’s imagination… they are!) A playful hurdy gurdy solo line rises above the groove:
We cut to a pile of money being dumped on Max’s desk, as the carnies drink to their successes. Here, the orchestra introduces The Carnival of Crime Theme:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10113.mp3|titles=Carnival of Crime Theme]
This cue is infectiously fun, and I’ll never forget the thrill of recording it with the orchestra. They kept playing it a little too… well. It didn’t quite groove right, so I asked them to loosen it up and let it swing more. After a few takes, the orchestra of over seventy musicians finally evoked a quirky little gypsy band. I couldn’t help but dance a little while I was conducting.
Vince has found a new home with the Carnival of Crime. It isn’t long before he begins to explore his new surroundings and discovers an old cape. He picks it up and inspiration comes to him. As he snaps the cloth around him, his mind fills with images from Trip’s comic book.
(Bassist Mike Valerio)
The strings introduce an aggressive variation of the Cape Ostinato before the low brass offer a powerful statement of The Cape Theme:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10114.mp3|titles=Finding a Cape]
This moment marks the first time in the series (except for the main title) that we’ve heard the theme in full.
Vince takes his idea to Max: why not use the cape to become a vigilante? Malini resists at first, but ultimately decides to take Vince on as a pupil. Thus begins the training montage! The cue begins simply, leaving me plenty of room to crescendo over the coming sequence. A simple ostinato in the low strings and timpani drives beneath fluttering melodies and figures:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10115.mp3|titles=History of the Cape]
While Max explains the history of the cape, the hurdy gurdy plays his theme and the dulcimer dances playfully in the background. Moments later, the violins and violas offer quick breaths of the Cape Ostinato, reminding us of the transformation taking place.
Part of Vince’s training is learning physical combat, although it really just means getting his ass kicked by Rollo for a while. I scored these sequences with a groovy gypsy tarantella. The strings and accordion offer chugging “oom-pahs” behind a blisteringly fast hurdy gurdy line, punctuated by chaotic stabs from the piano and brass:
The most exotic orchestral moments in the entire episode happen during this montage, for the scenes when Vince is learning hypnosis. Parallel fully diminished chords are blurred by contrasting simultaneous rhythms in the orchestra (different people playing 8ths, triplets, 16ths, etc). I was inspired by the sci fi scores of Bernard Herrmann to add eerie contrabassoon, stopped French horns and chromatic vibraphone lines. The result is a gloriously ethereal sound:
At the end of the hypnosis sequence, Vince finally outsmarts his teacher and a hilarious exchange takes place. For this moment, I suddenly stripped away all the orchestral instruments and let the gypsy instrumentation momentarily take over. A dulcimer lick dances beneath the signature hurdy gurdy line that you first heard in the opening bars of the main title:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10118.mp3|titles=The Greatest Circus Act That Ever Lived]
From there, we transition to Vince demonstrating mastery of the cape and vanishing illusions. For this triumphant moment, I wrote a big, brassy fanfare statement of the Cape Theme riding above a charging Cape Ostinato.
*** Pilot: Vince’s Mission ***
By the end of the third act, Vince has now become a superhero, and all the primary character motivations have been established. I’ve also established the most important musical themes. Now, Vince’s real quest begins. He must take down Chess and clear his name.
He begins by tackling the head of Chess’ smuggling operation, Scales. Played to the hilt by Vinnie Jones, Scales is a bizarre mixture of Tony Manero from “Saturday Night Fever” and Killer Croc from “Batman.” His entrance is so stylish and over-the-top, I knew he needed an aggressive theme. As if I already didn’t have enough sounds in this show, between the full symphonic orchestra and gypsy instrumentation, I brought in a whole new genre for the Scales Theme:
Coming totally out of left field, his theme is a combination of electronica and heavy metal. However, it doesn’t simply play as a pop song. It evolves quickly into a genuine score cue, as orchestral strings slither beneath his dialog with his thugs. Then, it adapts into an action cue as he confronts the Cape.
After he escapes from Scales, Vince meets the mysterious blogger Orwell, played by Summer Glau. They find out that Max has been captured by Chess and taken to his ship. On the ship, Max has been shot and is being pursued by Scales. However, Rollo stops Scales in his tracks.
Scales literally towers over his new adversary, and yet Rollo appears fearless. So, I provided him a powerful carnie fanfare. The strings trill suspensefully as hurdy gurdys wail the same tune that accompanied Rollo sparring with Vince, a melody that functions as our Rollo Theme:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10120.mp3|titles=Rollo vs Scales]
Their battle is short. Rollo smacks him three times and knocks him out cold. Rather than playing any kind of tension, I simply let the orchestra accompany each impact with big flourishes. The approach is a tried and true technique in comedy scoring, particularly from the glory days of Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley animation scoring (check out this blog entry for more about them). If this scene didn’t make you laugh, then I have failed as a composer. 🙂
Meanwhile, Vince rescues Max from ARK troopers and watches helplessly as he lies dying. For his death speech, Max lays it on pretty thick and my score follows his lead. This is the kind of death music most characters would love in their final scene. The passage is easily among the most beautiful I wrote for the entire episode:
Vince lays down to die and the strings taper away. Then, after a beat of silence, he cracks an eye open. Turns out he wasn’t dying after all. The strings and harp offer a playful commentary as he tilts his head. Again, the score here is coming right out of the Stalling / Bradley playbook.
Elsewhere, Chess reveals to Marty he’s ready to set off the explosives in the ship. Underscoring this vital piece of information, the low strings and winds trade off phrases of the Chess Theme with the low brass.
Suddenly, the Cape appears before him and the trumpets announce his arrival with a blasting statement of the first four notes of his theme:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10122.mp3|titles=The Cape Appears Before Chess]
At last, the time has come for the Cape to confront Chess. And at last, it’s finally time for some genuine superhero action music. Prior to this scene, Vince was either a regular cop or a student in training. This battle is the first time he’s actually in action as the Cape, and as such, the score is noticeably more orchestral.
Isolated trumpet and horn phrases punctuate an aggressive string ostinato, set against pounding concert toms and timpani. As they duel back and forth, statements of their two themes are at war within the score:
At the peak of the battle, things are looking pretty dire for the Cape. Chess hangs him over the side of the ship and taunts him, giving us the first glimpse of his deep psychosis. The camera placement, lighting and actor’s performance all tell us this guy is completely nuts!
I underlined this idea with an exotic orchestral texture. The low brass and winds state the Chess Theme, while the upper strings, piano, harp and percussion add a creepy, descending flourish, depicting his madness:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10124.mp3|titles=I Will Make Them Scream!]
But, the Cape isn’t down for long. He flips over Chess and rises defiantly to face him. Here, the brass offer a triumphant statement of The Cape Theme. To me, this type of scoring is what defines the superhero genre. The simple act of standing up before your enemy is enough to merit a huge orchestral fanfare.
This concept of accompanying small physical gestures with big musical phrases was taken to its glorious extreme in the following scene. The Cape visits his son, and speaks with him on the balcony. Trip has no idea he’s actually talking to his father, which adds a layer of tragedy to their reunion. Their conversation is first underscored with a gentle piano performance of the Family Theme:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10125.mp3|titles=Speaking with Trip]
As the Cape promises to bring justice to the Faraday name, a quiet Cape Ostinato begins to rise from the depths of the orchestra. When the Cape rises at the end of the scene, the music swells with the most epic statement of the Cape Theme in the entire episode. First the piano ascends as the orchestra crescendos, and then the brass blast in with the theme:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10126.mp3|titles=The Cape Rises]
There is an inherent darkness in the Cape Theme that I had to alter for this moment. Normally, the harmonies modulate to distantly related keys (for example, Dm to Fm to Db major to Eb major), thus giving the theme a sense of internal conflict. However, I wanted this particular moment to focus solely on the triumph and heroism. This simple of act of standing up before Trip symbolizes the birth of a superhero, and the score had to reflect that. So, I re-harmonized the melody, to eliminate the parallel minor chords. It’s a subtle shift of only a single chord, but it is enough to make this statement feel totally different than all the others in the show.
And the result is a powerful marriage of sound and images. This moment is my favorite scene in the show thus far, and high on the list of my favorite cues I’ve ever written.
*** Tarot ***
The first hour established our main character and the obstacles he must overcome. In the second hour, his task gets more difficult, as he must face a new threat. Peter Fleming seeks to assassinate Patrick Portman, the Secretary of Prisons who opposes his corporate take over of the justice system. To do this, he enlists Cain, a merciless assassin whose specialty is throwing poisoned-tipped knives.
We are introduced to the character through a montage showing him preparing his poisons. He clearly takes great care with the ingredients. We find out later he was actually trained as a gourmet French chef! Foreshadowing this, his theme borrows elements from popular French music. It begins with a harp and piano ostinato, that introduces the primary harmonic progression:
However, the fun part came in the added layers of French music. A drum kit with brushes adds a swing groove evocative of European jazz. And Cain’s primary instrument is an accordion, playing a bouncy Parisian-café-inspired tune:
While this instrumentation sounds like it would be comedic, I ran my accordion through so many distortion pedals, it took on an entirely new sound. It became “Evil Accordion.”
The result is a piece of music that sounds like… an evil French waltz. It was a difficult balancing act of musical styles. I wanted the Cain Theme to have a distinctly French feel, and to bring to mind a chef in a Parisian café. However, I also wanted to highlight how genuinely dangerous this guy is, so I couldn’t afford any comedy in the music. I found that if I kept the French elements subtle, I could probably get away with it. The Cain Theme courses through the entire episode, sneaking in whenever Cain makes an entrance, or the secret society “Tarot” is discussed.
The confrontation between Cape and Cain begins the night the Cape hacks into Fleming’s computer. The scene starts with a long tracking shot through Fleming’s condo. I featured a solo contrabassoon (Chess’ signature instrument) and colored it with tremolo string clusters, and swells from muted brass:
Even after doing all the big fanfares and action cues, it’s often simple moments like this where I have the most fun with unique orchestration and unusual instrumental effects.
The Cape breaks in and searches through Fleming’s files, but it’s not long before he finds himself stabbed with Cain’s poisoned tipped daggers. As Cain explains the devastating impact the poison will have on his body, the harps and distorted accordions bring back his theme.
In an act of desperation, the Cape leaps out the window and is rescued by Orwell. As they narrowly escape from Cain, a driving 6/8 action cue escalates the tension:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10129.mp3|titles=Escape from Cain]
Orwell takes him to Max, who cures him of the life-threatening poison. Vince has been beaten, but is still determined to pursue Fleming. Max tries to dissuade him, and even gives him train tickets to leave town. Vince refuses both the offer and the cape. He plans to move forward on his own. Here, the orchestra offers a powerful variation of the Cape Ostinato and Cape Theme:
The ascending bass line beneath the ostinato is a phrase commonly associated with the theme, appearing in many cues including the Main Title.
This scene reveals an essential part of Vince’s character. He won’t take the easy way out, if it violates his principals. Contrary to common sense, I used The Cape Theme for a scene where he gives the cape back, because the hero is the man underneath the costume.
Now on his own, Vince wanders the streets of Trolley Park and finds an unused building he can use as his lair. This montage is filmed and edited in a dreamy, trance-like style. The score, then, is appropriately calm and meditative, offering gentle melodic fragments over a droning bed of strings and woodwinds:
After he finds his lair, he goes out to stock up on supplies. Here, we hear finally get a longer statement of the Cape B Theme that I hinted at in the main title:
Unlike the Cape A Theme, this secondary melody has more character. It’s not heroic, but exotic and mysterious. I thought it was a nice counterpoint to the images. He’s gearing up a new base of operations for his war on crime; a rousing adventure score would have been appropriate. But, this music comments more on his loneliness and his pitiful state of having to live underground (figuratively and literally).
In many ways, The Cape B Theme is more interesting melodically and harmonically than the A Theme, but I have to save it for those few moments when it will work perfectly.
Meanwhile, Peter Fleming organizes his computer files. We get a glimpse at how complex his criminal network must be as he shuffles holographic icons around. During this dramatic single shot, a steady Chess Ostinato builds energy beneath contrapuntal statements of the Chess Theme:
With his lair complete, Vince now only needs one more element to complete his transformation to the Cape: a mask. An extended montage shows him training himself how to dodge knives, immunizing himself against Cain’s poisons, and finally sewing himself a mask. Like the previous sequence, I used the Cape Ostinato and A Theme for the beginning of the sequence. Once he begins sewing the mask, I finally introduce the complete B Theme, to create an unexpectedly melancholy mood:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10134.mp3|titles=The Cape B Theme]
The first draft of this scene involved a big fanfare when he first holds the mask in his hands. However, we decided that it was over-powering the emotion of the scene. Putting on the mask is about more than simply becoming The Cape; it is about temporarily giving up his life as Vince Faraday. Lyons’ performance here perfectly captures the sadness and emotional turmoil as he puts the mask on. So, I reduced the orchestration to a suspenseful string note and a solo flute playing the Cape Theme and it worked much more effectively.
Hot on Cain’s trail, The Cape tracks down his lab and charges in. The doors burst open in a fabulous slow-motion shot and he attacks the figure before him, who turns out to simply be a mannequin. Still, this dramatic entrance merited a big fanfare from the brass, followed by a unison ascending line from the string section:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10135.mp3|titles=The Cape Kicks Down the Door]
Meanwhile, at a fancy restaurant where the assassination is to take place, Cain leads Orwell into the kitchen to kill her. The French horns and trumpets announce the Cape with blistering triplets as he jumps between rooftops, on his way to save Orwell:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10136.mp3|titles=Orwell vs Cain]
As Cain closes in on Orwell, an energetic string ostinato is accompanied by the “ticking clock” effect of col legno violins and jagged swells from the brass. Finally, Orwell defends herself and the combat music kicks in, punctuating the impacts of their fight with brass triplets and snap pizzicato clusters from the strings. (“Snap Pizz” is a technique where a string player pulls the string back so far that it actually strikes the wood of the instrument, creating a very loud, percussive slapping sound in addition to the pitch of the string. The effect, when played by basses, can be so loud I’ve actually made violinists in the room scream in terror when they weren’t expecting it!)
However, Cain gains the upper hand and closes in for the kill while his evil accordion theme creeps menacingly out of the lower strings. At last, The Cape appears and confronts Cain in the kitchen. (Really, where else would you fight a French gourmet chef assassin?). A rousing orchestral statement of his theme accompanies his entrance:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10137.mp3|titles=Kitchen Fight Pt1]
Their combat is brief but brutal. The score here is the most active passage in the entire premiere. Blistering triplets in the strings are punctuated by fluttering woodwind lines and ripping brass stabs. Finally, as the Cape holds Cain down to the hot stove, a unison ascending line in the entire orchestra underscores his screams:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/CAPE10138.mp3|titles=Kitchen Fight Pt2]
Drawn by the sound of turmoil, Fleming runs into the kitchen and sees Cain defeated, as a solo harp offers a brief, final statement of the Cain Ostinato. Fleming looks to the center of the room and sees the Cape standing before him. In keeping with my rule for heroic entrances, I underscored this reveal with a powerful fanfare of the Cape Theme, followed by a melodic timpani solo of the same melody:
This sequence was ideal for a big fanfare, because there were no sound effects, no dialog and a substantial amount of time to really develop the musical phrase.
In the final act, Dana joins Trip up on the rooftop, where he’s waiting for his hero. A solo piano offers the family theme against their dialog, and then the strings sneak in with the Cape Ostinato as the camera pulls back. Finally, the premiere ends on the reveal of the Cape standing guard over Palm City, while the orchestra offers a rousing statement of his theme.
*** Dedication ***
If you’ve seen the video blog this week, you know how much I was influenced by Shirley Walker’s score for “Batman: The Animated Series,” and that I am dedicating my score to “The Cape” to her memory. She always wrote Batman a brass fanfare whenever he appeared practically anywhere. His entrances were so dramatic, whether he was sneaking in from the shadows or bursting in through a window, and she always used the same, iconic notes to announce him. Listen for similar fanfares playing “The Cape” theme every time Vince kicks down a door or bashes through a window, in tribute to Shirley.
(This hangs on the wall at the WB Scoring Stage where we record “The Cape”)
Of course, I look to her work for more than just fanfares. I was always inspired by her remarkable scores, which I believe are inarguably the best example of television scoring in history. The work that she and her team did was exceptional, and really seeped into my creative mind as I grew up. The musical quality never wavered, despite the years of churning out scores on a demanding television schedule. Her orchestration was constantly surprising, as she felt no strict adherence to traditional instrumentation. If she decided a character needed a drum kit and an accordion, she’d bring them in to the ensemble.
Her use of thematic development was also incredibly sophisticated. Practically every character on “Batman: TAS” had a unique theme, which always adapted when the character returned from a previous episode. Her themes ebbed and flowed, evolving as the characters changed. I thought of her frequently as I tried to apply the same technique to “Battlestar Galactica.”
I had the privilege of meeting Shirley once, though we only spoke for moment. In 2007, I was honored with an invitation from the Walker family to join her friends, family and colleagues at her memorial. Her family had seen a blog post I had written a few weeks earlier, simultaneously praising her music and blasting the Academy for leaving her off their “In Memoriam” montage (she was an accomplished film composer and the first woman to score a studio feature film in history). The event was held at the Warner Brothers Scoring Stage where she worked so frequently, and where I have since recorded many scores. I regret not being able to ever speak with her at length, but will always be grateful she left such an inspiring musical legacy.
*** More Superhero Music ***
(L-R: music co-producer / engineer Steve Kaplan, orchestrators Henri Wilkinson and Ed Trybek)
The premiere of “The Cape” was likely the most challenging series launch I’ve ever undertaken. The stylistic range of the score required many unique themes with distinct instruments. Nearly every minute of this two-hour showcase needed original score, recorded with one of the largest orchestras on television right now. And it all had to be written and produced in a matter of weeks. So, a special thanks is owed to my incredible music team, production team, musicians and producers. I also want to thank Kevin Porter, who is raising the bar on our weekly video blogs and also cut that Main Title promo video released online a couple days ago.
There’s a lot more great superhero music coming at you in future episodes, so I hope you will stick around and keep watching the show and following the blog. Next week, we’ll introduce a new villain theme, and soon we’ll go back and revisit some of the villains we met tonight. This is going to be an incredible musical journey, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with all of you.