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So say we all: composer Bear McCreary on the theme song and music of Battlestar Galactica

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May 16, 2018, 7:23 PM EDT (Updated)

This month, SYFY WIRE is interviewing some of the best composers in TV and film, to get insight on the theme songs and scores that stick in our head long after the credits roll.

Music for genre-related television can be just as powerful and ornate as anything heard in a film these days, with shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, Doctor Who, and more weaving in thematic material that becomes the perfect accompaniment to the stories being told. That wasn't always the case, and composer Bear McCreary deserves some of the credit for his musical work on the reboot of Battlestar Galactica.

McCreary is one of he most prolific composers in genre entertainment — aside from Battlestar, his work includes Black Sails, Defiance, Constantine, Outlander, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and The Walking Dead, the last three of which are still on the air. He's branched out into films, having recently composed scores for Colossal and The Cloverfield Paradox. He also wrote music for Kratos' walk on the Norse side in the most recent God of War video game.

Battlestar Galactica gave him his start, however, when he worked on the miniseries under the show's first composer, RIchard Gibbs. When Gibbs departed the show after that introduction, Bear McCreary stepped up and made television music history.

SYFY WIRE talked with McCreary about all things related to Battlestar Galactica as well as Outlander. In part one of our interview, he delves into the vast array of themes and motifs contained within his Battlestar legacy.

SYFY WIRE: How did the main title track for Battlestar get written?

Bear McCreary: That arrangement was done by Richard Gibbs as I recall. There's actually a deeper story than that…it goes back further then any composer being hired on Battlestar Galactica at all. It was an idea that came from Edward James Olmos. It's a well-known tense of the Gayatri mantra, a Hindu chant. It was a thing that Eddie played on set when they were shooting, just to get people in the mood for something, it was more deep and more meaningful. Eddie loved this piece and so it was actually his idea that it be the main title.

It was really fitting — Richard Gibbs did an arrangement of it that became the main title, and I used it again in "Apocalypse" [from Battlestar Galactica: The Plan]. It was always kind of like the voice of the show. That spark of inspiration, that this ancient text be used in a science fiction television show, that goes to Eddie Olmos.

Your musical motifs and themes gave a great sense of musical continuity. Was that something that you had wanted to do, was it something you were asked to do, or was it both?

Actually I had specific instructions from the showrunners not to use any themes at all. This was in the early days, and everyone expected science fiction television to have a certain sound. The notion that Battlestar would not have an orchestral score was ground breaking and terrifying. When I say the producers said specifically they wanted no themes, what they were really saying is they did not want to hear big French horns soaring with somebody's theme when they walk into a room. I internalized that when I started writing.

I wrote the first episode and I wrote a bunch of cues: I wrote a Gamelon-inspired sound when Helo was down on the planet, a little melodic thing when Starbuck was doing something, a theme when Lee had to shoot down the Olympic Carrier. Then I got to do the second episode, and got to some of the these characters again, and I thought, do I need to reinvent this? If I use that little Gamelon theme again for Boomer and Helo am I going to get fired? They told me not to do this, but I did it anyway. I used the same theme for Starbuck, it just felt good. It was just a tiny little phrase; it wasn't a big soaring theme. It was a little granular-like atomic building block of music.

By the end of the season, I remember watching one of the episodes, I believe when Helo finds out the truth about Boomer. We were looking at that scene and one of the producers said to me, "It's not quite working. I really want us to feel the connection to all of their scenes that they've had together. Why don't you use that Boomer theme of yours?" I stopped and I looked at them and I thought, they're on to me, and I said, "Sure, let's use that theme. What a great idea." From that point forward I felt comfortable confessing to them that I had themes all over the place.

I had a theme for every character — multiple themes for certain characters because they were so deep. A character like Baltar or Starbuck ended up with two or three themes to capture the depth of their personality. Over the course of a season their arcs expanded, and I found the theme that I wrote to represent Kara being a badass hero, it really wasn't the right theme to explore her relationship with Lee, so she got a second theme. That wasn't the right theme to use when she was talking with Leoben, and he's implying this metaphysical layer of her story, which of course becomes massively important later on.

What was so great is when I got to the fourth season, all of these things started wrapping up. In one scene with Lee and Kara in Season 4, I remember quoting the Starbuck hero theme, the love theme, the Starbuck metaphysical theme, the Lee theme… like four or five pieces of music all wove together just behind them talking. Once I developed all of these themes, I could bring them back and just wanted. I know you didn't even ask me about this, but I wanted to mention one other thing.

Please do!

In the finale, I had dozens of scenes that had a lot of emotional attachment for me. There is a shot where we see the ship and the fleet for the last time. There is no dialogue — for a composer, this is it. This is the moment you are waiting for to have a full orchestra, which the show had blossomed into having a big orchestra by that point. I had a choir and french horns and trombones and strings, and I thought anything can go here. I can make it my Adama theme, the Starbuck theme, I can do anything I want. As a fan of the show, what is the theme I'm going want to hear? It was Stu Phillips' classic theme from the '70s, and I thought that's really it. I want to hear the heartbreaking, gorgeous version of Stu's music, doing that soaring top line. I'm getting chills even thinking about it.

I am too, not gonna lie.

For me, playing around with themes is what is makes writing music fun, and to this day I have never written as many themes for a thing as I did for Battlestar. Keeping them all juggling up in the air was a challenge, man, it was fun. I miss it.

Come back tomorrow for the second part of our interview with Bear McCreary, which covers how his work on Battlestar Galactica helped to inspire his work on Outlander.