Musical Identity on Television

Identity 1. a. The quality or condition of being the same in substance, composition, nature, properties, or in particular qualities under consideration; absolute or essential sameness; oneness.
-Oxford English Dictionary

  Much music on television is derided for lacking much musical substance, and in large part, the critics are not wrong.  The problem is endemic of the entire format: where a two hour film has months, maybe even a year, in which they go through the entire pre-production, filming, post production process, television does the same thing in maybe a month (with a week for each process), if that.  Not to mention, most of the three stages are going on at the same time.  So where in film, music is often left until the end, and the composer has maybe a few weeks to write, and then they hit the scoring stage, the television composer has but a matter of days usually.  Though one must also bear in mind that usually TV scores have much less music than your average film.

  Out of this, there are two main points I would like to bring out.  On a television series, within a given season, music can be and is reused from previous episodes, and also on many shows, the score is synthazied or computer generated.  Think of your standard procedural show (Your CSI or Bones) or even the action-epic 24, and you can get a sense of what I’m talking about.  But also now think if the music sticks in your head, or adds much except for ratcheting up tension as the show nears a commercial break.  If anything, with CSI, the main musical hook for the three versions is what song by The Who is used for the main titles. 

  This is not to put down the efforts of the composers of those shows, I’m sure they are providing exactly what the show runners want.  It adds to the dramatic tension, helps to hook people going into the commercial break to hopefully make sure they don’t “touch that remote.”  But at the same time, you could interchange a lot of the cues between CSI shows and not many would notice.

  But what I would like to spend time on here are two current TV scores that I feel are just as much a part of the show’s identity as the actors and the story.  As mentioned in the previous post, the scores for Lost and Battlestar Galactica (in my opinion the top two shows on the air currently) are stand outs amongst the current crop.  The reason for this is that they give the show a musical identity such that a person will know the show just by hearing the music.

  First, Bear McCreary’s score Battlestar Galactica.  The big picture aesthetic is that he has thrown just about every kind of instrument into an orchestra that creates a sound that is both alien and familiar at the same time.  He uses non-Western instrument such as Taiko drums from Japan, Gamelan from Indonesia, and the duduk (an Armenian instrument that is over 1500 years old).  Together, these instrument are used alongside traditional Western strings, and even guitars and electric bass.  Granted, not all are used at the same time.  In musical terms, he draws heavily on Middle Eastern and Indian styles along with rock idioms and traditional Western Art music.  He blends all these styles together into a score that creates the aural tapestry upon which the space opera of BSG is woven.  This diversity extends into the vocal songs written for the score that are sung in languages such as Italian, Sanskrit, and Latin.

  As I assert, this creates an effect of making a score that is familiar to us (in that everything is taken from an Earth culture), but the way it is remixed creates a new sound that, one could infer, is native to the 12 Colonies that make up the native culture in BSG

  The music itself is made up of a complex of character and concept themes that are used much like a traditional Hollywood score (think Star Wars or Lord of the Rings) and are deployed in varying arrangements in the traditional manner.  The fact of having so many themes in and of itself makes the show an exception among TV programs.

  Unique orchestras and use of themes are something that link the BSG score of McCreary to that of Lost by Michael Giacchino.  In the first season of the show, Giacchino actually used pieces of the airplane wreckage that was purchased for the show’s set in the score, but by the second season (when the wreckage had all slid into the ocean) that element was largely dropped.  He uses mainly traditional Western instruments, though with a large battery of percussion, but the score itself is anything but traditional Hollywood sound. 

  Take such cues as the first season’s “Life and Death.”  It is very sparingly scored, with solo piano and solo cello dominating, though at times supported by quiet strings.  The theme itself has come to be used in the show for many moments of death (which there is a lot of).  Many cues, though, border on the atonal, with the well known (and at times overused) dramatic trombone and string cluster that many times is used to underlie a dramatic cliffhanger that will lead to commercial or close the show (on the Season 4 DVD release, in a special feature on the music, they make fun of it).

  But, again, the orchestral sound marks it as Lost.  Giacchino’s writing and scoring is unique to the show and sounds like nothing else on television.  Some of the best cues (like “Life and Death”) underlie many of the show’s best moments, and it is a testament to the music that the producers feel comfortable many times letting the music speak for the show in some of the best musical montage sequences on TV (musical montage, especially with a pop song, has become almost a cliche thanks to The O.C.).

  The big picture idea, to get back to the definition at the head, is that the scores are just as much a part of the identity of the show.  It is part of the same substance that makes the show what it is.  This is, of course, in contrast to many scores that do not add much, if anything, to the substance of the show, McCreary and Giacchino add something critical that is an essential quality to the mixture.  Their scores indeed help to raise the quality of the program to the high levels of acclaim they both enjoy today.

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