Scoring and Thematic Styles of ‘Lost’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica’

-or- Wagner vs. Brahms Redux: McCreary vs. Giacchino

I’ve blogged alot on McCreary’s BSG score, and talked somewhat about Giacchino’s Lost, but I’d like to spend some time now and ruminate on the differences in their scoring styles on the respective shows.  I must stress that these are not indicative of their style as a whole, though some of the traits do carry over into their other work.  I’ll mention these similarities and differences where appropriate.

McCreary, as I’ve stated before, in BSG uses a large complex of character and concept themes to weave an aural tapestry to compliment the show.  Every major character, character groups, major concepts, and even some minor characters have had some sort of theme associated with them.  And when McCreary uses that theme, it is usually in a very recognizable form orchestration-wise.  There might be subtle variations here and there (larger ensemble, maybe a different instrument playing the theme), but the large idea, especially melodically, is very recognizable.

The one major exception to this is the ‘Passacaglia’ theme that I blogged about previously.  Here McCreary takes the basic harmonic structure and thematic content and through the course of four major cues, sends the material into different time signatures and key areas, and even blending it with a new theme depicting Starbuck and Apollo’s “frakked up” relationship in ‘Violence and Variations.’  To put more traditional musical terms on it, this is the only major occurrence of McCreary really “developing” his previous thematic ideas.

Giacchino, on the other hand, uses a much smaller complex of thematic ideas, by my reckoning between 5-10 major themes, and they are not really associated with any of the major characters.  One can make the argument that there is a “Kate Theme” and a “Jack Theme” and so on, but truly, most of the themes convey moods and ideas rather than a character specific thematic identity.

What Giacchino does, though, is that he develops his themes through the course of a cue, and the course of the series, creating various material to subtlety tweak the affect of the theme.  His themes, in general, are fairly simple and are such that allow for a wide variety of both melodic and (some) harmonic manipulation.

It is in this way, McCreary with his complex themes that change very little, and Giacchino with his simpler themes that allow for variations, that they are like a modern day Wagner and Brahms (McCreary and Giacchino respectively).  Consider Brahms’ Fourth Symphony (which I had to for many weeks in a Tonal Analysis class).  The opening theme is a series of falling thirds and ascending sixths (mostly) built over a harmonic progression (which escapes me right, but really isn’t relevant).

In the course of the first movement, Brahms reuses that opening theme seven or so times, varying it in some way each time.  The interval of a third is also the basic  unit from which the entire symphony is built.

Without the actual physical scores from Lost in hand, I can’t exactly tell you how things are constructed, but I can tell you what my ear tells me (sounds like a movement from Mahler’s Third Symphony, “What My Ear Tells Me,” okay, very obscure joke, look up the titles of the movements of Mahler 3).  Some of Giacchino’s most powerful cue are built from a simple piano harmonic progression from which a simple melody comes in, also on piano.  At this point, the chords are in a closed position on the piano, and the melody played close by, the entire range not taking up much more than two or three octaves.  From here, he usually brings in strings, first maybe a solo string then the section.  He also adds a few embellishments to the melody and expands the harmonic support’s range, eventually bringing in his entire ensemble.  Cues built like this are “Life and Death,” “Locke’d Out Again,” and “Parting Words,” which are all from the Season 1 soundtrack album and “There’s No Place Like Home” from the recently released Season 4 album.  But these are merely the most dramatic statements of their respective themes, there are many other examples of Giacchinousing variations of theme elsewhere.  Also, the basic themes presented in these three cues are used througout the series in different forms.  I also think that there is a basic connection between many of these themes.

What made me realize that this is how Giacchino builds his Lost score is that this is also how he builds the Star Trek score.  He uses a small number of themes (in Trek I believe it to be 3: the Federation/Human/Enterprise theme, the Vulcan Theme, and the Nero theme) from which he can build variations to suit the cue.  This is not to say that he builds all his scores in this manner.  I feel that Ratatouille, The Incredbiles, and Speed Racer are not truly in this style, but do show some hallmarks of it.  More Listening is needed.

So where Giacchino is Brahms with his developing variations (a term coined by Schoenberg and affixed to Brahms in Watler Frisch’s 1984 Brahms and the Principle of Developing Variation, but also describing the technique widely used by Beethoven and other Romantics), McCreary is Wagner, using a large collection of leitmotifs that,while changing in someways, don’t show a large amount of variation between presentations, but are equally impressive in their variety.

This is not to say that either composer sounds like Wagner and Brahms.  What has helped set these two scores apart is the distinct sound that each composer cultivates.  Giacchino has had from the outset a orchestra of roughly 37 strings, brass, and percussion, with a percussion section that is made up of spare airplane parts from the actual wreckage that was part of the season 1 set.  McCreary has had a much smaller ensemble, made up of a number of instruments from around the globe, including: duduk, erhu, taiko drums, string quartet (later expanded to a string orchestra for some episodes), and others.  But each has used those musicians at their disposal to create something not heard on much of modern television, a score that is an integral part of the overall aesthetic of the show.  A score that accentuates the grand, cinematic (dare I say epic in the case of BSG) aspirations of the many modern serial television programs.  And where a score like Sean Callery’s for 24, I feel, does little more than ratchet up the tension of Jack Bauer racing against the ticking clock, McCreary and Giacchino’s scores are just as much a character of their respective shows as are Admiral Adama, Jack Shephard, Kara Thrace, Kate Austen, the Galactica, or that damn mysterious island.

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