Friday, June 26, 2015

Report Music Report

More than a year ago, I blogged about a low-budget sci-fi film called Europa Report. The movie was a bit of a disappointment, but one good thing did come of it: another interesting score by composer Bear McCreary.

Bear McCreary doesn't have a lot of movies on his resume, but he's one of the hardest working composers on television. If you're reading this, I can guarantee you've watched at least one of the shows he's worked on -- Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Eureka, Human Target, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Walking Dead, Outlander.... like I said, he's a busy guy. His score for Europa Report is a nice experiment in favoring some of his recurring techniques while excluding others.

On most McCreary scores, percussion takes the lead. He'll use instruments from anywhere around the world, but often favors big, booming taiko. On Europa Report, however, McCreary explores how bass can serve the role of percussion. Much of the soundtrack is dominated by a pulsing, synth bass sound that digs inside your head. Depending on the tempo, it can sound like a drilling machine, a heartbeat, or a distorted helicopter. The sound isn't constant on every song in the score, but it never goes away for long either. It's an inexorable force.

Often just above this relentless bass is a lyrical ostinato on the strings. It's vaguely reminiscent of some of the "opera house" material McCreary wrote for Battlestar Galactica, though it rarely feels as uplifting. The minor key makes it mournful, bleak, hopeless. The feeling is continued by the melody that often plays above it. The proper "theme" for Europa Report changes instruments on different tracks -- sometimes played on piano, sometimes flute, sometimes violin -- but it almost always seems dark.

What's interesting is how much mileage McCreary is able to get out of this basic palette. He plays a lot with where the sound seems to be coming from. Sometimes, individual instruments begin to play as though muffled behind some barrier. As a music cue develops, the instrument slowly comes out from behind its wall, gradually gaining strength and clarity. Other times, parts of the orchestra sound like they've been moved into a different space; the cue "Mausoleum," for example, features a quiet piano that sounds alone in a large, empty room -- perhaps exactly the place the title suggests.

When the score does depart a bit from these techniques, the effect is very noticeable. Sometimes, the rhythmic swirl of the strings collapses into something shrill, dissonant, insistent, and the music begins to sound like something written for a horror movie. But it's not the sort of horror movie that squeals at you when a cat suddenly jumps into view. Rather, it's the constant nervousness of searching a large house you know you aren't alone in. Very late in the score, the strings collapse further still, trembling and then melting as the story builds to a tense climax.

Occasionally, McCreary tinkers with the instrument selection. "Europa Report (for Solo Piano)" is exactly that, with the string ostinato transferred to the lower half of the piano. The result is something still quite melancholy, but somehow less ominous than other statements of the theme. On the cue "Water," McCreary brings in the vocalist he uses on many of his scores (his wife, Raya Yarbrough), and the tone changes again. The lone human voice seems to pull the strings up to a lighter tone, and when the film's theme emerges, it seems somehow more serene. In "Under the Ice," silence becomes as much a voice as the instruments, swallowing up sections of the sounds to create something mysterious.

The final cue before the end credits roll, "A World Other Than Our Own," contains the most subtle, and most clever, tweak. That bass sound that has pulsed throughout the score instead plays long, sustained notes. When the melody comes in, it too is supported by more harmonies than before. For once, the movie's theme is actually tinged with hopefulness.

Admittedly, in trying to do so much with relatively little, the album overall can get a bit repetitive in places. It's probably not a score to listen to from beginning to end, outside of the context of the movie. But I enjoy having its somber tone shuffle up in my music mix from time to time. I give the Europa Report soundtrack a B+.

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