Interview: 'Defiance' Composer Bear McCreary Talks Soundtracks, Sci-Fi, And Musical Palindromes

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Many sci-fi fans became aware of composer Bear McCreary through his tribal, pulsing score for Syfy's "Battle Galactica." McCreary quickly made a name for himself on other genre fare like "Eureka," "The Walking Dead," "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," and the "Rest Stop" movies. McCreary is back in the science fictiony world with his music for both the TV series and video game, "Defiance" as well as the Starz show "Da Vinci's Demons." I spoke with McCreary over email about crafting the sound of sci-fi, his new record label, and creating a musical palindrome especially for Da Vinci! (yes, he really did that!)

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MTV Geek: How do you describe your take on the music of "Defiance"?

Bear McCreary: My take on "Defiance" is a genetic mutation of heavy, distorted synthesizers and orchestral/acoustic elements.

Geek: What was your inspiration?

McCreary: The game and the show take place in a future where Earth has been terraformed by an alien race. It's the same place, but it's also alien and different. That was my starting point. I wanted to take sounds and instruments that we've heard before and reconfigure them, distort them, redefine them. I'm not trying to make sounds that are completely alien. I'm trying to make sounds that are alien permutations of music that would be familiar to us.

Geek: How do you keep the music fresh on all the shows you work on? Particularly for "Defiance," which is narratively similar to "Battlestar."

McCreary: Working on science fiction, horror, and adventure series is fun because the music is needed to help build the world that the action takes place in. The score tells us something about the place, the setting, the backstory, the characters. It's doing more than simply commenting on the immediate action. So, I always take my inspiration from the characteristics that make a show unique, and use that to craft a score that is unique.

Geek: What's your working method like? Do you view the episode first, then craft music? Do you apply already crafted music to an episode?

McCreary: While it is true that I write brand new music for every scene in every new episode of a series, I'm always falling back on musical elements that I've developed to that point. The theme is the most essential component of a new series and I spend a lot of time developing it. The first step is to select instrumentation. I can't write a piece of music in a void, I have to know what instrument I'm writing it for. In the case of "Da Vinci's Demons," I knew I wanted to incorporate Renaissance instrumentation and musical styles with more contemporary orchestra, soloists, and synthesizers. So, that got me started. After instrumentation, the next thing I come up with is the actual melody. Once those elements are worked out, I apply them in different ways to each episode.

Geek: Tell me about creating the music for the "Defiance" game? How does it differ from TV and film?

McCreary: I developed my ideas for the game and the TV series at the same time, because I was hired on both projects in advance. However, the game was scored first, so ultimately, I developed the sound for the franchise while working on big action cues for the game. Then, I applied those in new ways to the series. I wanted the score to each to be familiar, so we can tell they take place in the same universe. But, at the same time, they had to be different enough to serve different purposes. The game is about mood, atmosphere, action and adrenaline. The series includes those elements, but obviously develops character arcs in a much more focused manner. Action cues are less important to the series. So, each medium allowed me to develop a unique side of the musical universe.

Geek: You've become the go-to guy for sci-fi and horror on TV, what do you attribute that to? Have you always been a fan of genre entertainment?

McCreary: Well, I don't know if I'm the "go-to" guy per se, but I've definitely been very fortunate to work on many fantastic projects in these genres. I've always adored science fiction, fantasy, and horror. These are the genres that I lived in when I was a kid and continue to today. It was the soundtracks to these films and series that inspired me to become a composer, so I'm tremendously honored to have the opportunity to give back to the genre in some small way now.

Geek: What is Sparks & Shadows?

McCreary: Sparks & Shadows is a new boutique record label that I founded to release my scores and original music. The primary goal of this label is simple: to bring fans the music they want, when they want it. We will fully utilize digital formats in an effort to make music available to audiences the instant they hear it on TV, in a game, or in a movie theater.

I value the soundtrack experience, because my love of soundtracks defined me more than virtually any other influence in my life. Sparks & Shadows was founded for every one of the thousands of fans who’ve ever reached out to me and asked if a piece of music was available to them. From now on, I want the answer to be a resounding “Yes!”

Geek: What's coming up for the label?

McCreary: After digitally releasing my score for the "Defiance" videogame and the "Da Vinci's Demons" Main Title as a single in April, we're currently working on a digital release of songs and score from the "Defiance" TV series, and a full album release of "Da Vinci's Demons." After that, we're working on special CD collector's editions of both "Defiance" and "Da Vinci's Demons." In the fall, we're releasing my score for a fantastic science fiction feature called "Europa Report," starring Sharlto Copley from "District 9." The film is amazing and I'm thrilled that fans will have access to the score. After that... who knows? We're just getting started.

Geek: Is it true that you created a musical palindrome for "DaVinci's Demons"?

McCreary: It's very true! Check out my first video blog for "Da Vinci's Demons" on my YouTube channel. I reverse the music and prove it.

Geek: How do you go about doing something like that?

McCreary: For "Da Vinci's Demons," I looked to the real-life Leonardo for inspiration. He famously wrote backwards and forwards, so I decided to the same thing with his theme! It was a nice idea at the time, but proved rather difficult to produce anything with emotional meaning. At the end of the day, an intellectual idea like that doesn't matter if it can't communicate effectively to the audience. I'd never been in a situation like that. When I changed the beginning of the theme, the end would also change. So, I had to think about both the backwards and forwards variations at the same time. It took a while to get used to. But, ultimately, I think the end result works beautifully. It's emotional, and fits Leonardo's character beautifully. Yet, at the same time, it feels like a palindrome. Subconsciously, our minds can probably tell there's something odd going on there, which makes us lean in a little more.

Geek: What's next?

McCreary: The next project coming out is "Europa Report." And I'm looking forward to returning to the "The Walking Dead" and "Da Vinci's Demons" which have both been renewed for new seasons. And beyond that... there are a few other exciting things on the horizon. I can't be more specific than that just yet.

"Defiance" airs on Monday's at 9 p.m. on Syfy.