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‘Battlestar Galactica’ music takes off

Composer makes his mark with sci-fi series

“Crescendo into bar 46. Much more dramatic — get to the forte in 45. Bar 34, subito piano on beat two.”

It may be musical gibberish to most of us. Fortunately, the 30 string players on this date can make sense of the direction from the man on the podium. He’s Bear McCreary, conducting cue 4m21 of episode 10 of this season’s “Battlestar Galactica” at Henson Recording Studios in Hollywood on a recent Monday afternoon.

“Galactica” offers some of the most innovative music on TV today. A glance at the score for 4m21 shows why: Chinese membrane flute, Indian bansuri flute, duduk (a soulful Armenian woodwind), erhu (Chinese violin), yialli tanbur (a Turkish lute), dumbek (Middle Eastern drum), Japanese taiko drums — plus four brass players, those 30 strings and a 12-voice choir.

Yet this is not some trendy “world music” potpourri throwing together unusual ethnic instruments just to make strange sounds. Faced not only with a tiny cable budget but a unique concept — survivors of a devastated civilization, fleeing their pursuers while searching for their long-lost human relatives on a legendary planet called Earth — McCreary decided to link the world of “Galactica” with our own world.

“This show needed to set itself apart from all other science-fiction operas, especially the old version of the show,” he says. “So traditional orchestral writing was out. The other idea was that there are all these hints that our histories are somehow connected, that we are related. So I wanted to use very ancient, earthly sounds.”

Hence the percussion, ranging from massive Japanese taiko drums to the Indian tabla; the use of the human voice, singing texts in Latin, Samoan, Armenian, Italian and Sinhalese (the Sri Lankan language); unusual strings, from electric violin to Japanese zhonghu; and ethnic wind-blown instruments from duduk to Celtic pipes.

“The percussion element is very aggressive, tribal and primitive. The drums add a sense of urgency and desperation,” explains the composer, “and the melodic instruments help tie in the history of their universe with ours.”

Four seasons and more than 70 episodes into the series, McCreary says he’s still excited about the job. “Musically, ‘Galactica’ pushes me. I am constantly being asked to develop and change. That is against the instincts of a lot of television music, which is to set up a sound and stick with it. I’m being asked to take risks and make daring musical decisions that, on another show, would get you fired.”

McCreary, 29, is a graduate of USC’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and TV program. Soon after graduation in 2002, he took a job assisting Richard Gibbs (“Big Momma’s House”), who scored the four-hour “Galactica” miniseries in 2003. When the series launched in 2004, Gibbs did two episodes and handed off the baton to McCreary.

“He’s an amazingly innovative talent,” says supervising producer David Weddle. “He understands when not to use music, which is just as important. He doesn’t score wall-to-wall. He also uses counterpoint to bring out an emotional undercurrent — it might be a rough, abrasive scene and he’ll find a poetic element that might not be readily apparent. That’s very smart. We all really trust him.”

In April, more than 1,000 “Galactica” fans attended two sold-out shows at L.A.’s Roxy on Sunset Boulevard, where a 15-piece band (mostly “Galactica” regulars) played excerpts from McCreary’s second- and third-season scores. Some fans flew in from as far as England and Australia.

James Callis (who plays Gaius Baltar on the series) hosted and seemed delighted to participate. “I’ve got a very strange character in the show, by twists and turns idiotic and then tragic,” he said backstage before the first show. “Bear’s music gives you a sense of tragic empathy. Without it, you wouldn’t feel for my character in the same way. We in the cast love the music. It’s never extraneous. It is integral, woven into the fabric of our show.”

A few weeks after the shows, McCreary was in Vancouver, on the set for the final episodes of “Galactica.” Sworn to secrecy about details, he allowed only that he was supervising a “musically intensive” sequence that involved the actors and his music being performed on-camera. “It’s the most daring use of music in a TV show that, maybe, has ever been tried. It’s going to redefine the role that a score can play.”

In addition to “Galactica,” McCreary composes the music for Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” (mostly electronic, with metallic sounds and oddly recorded string quartet) and Sci Fi’s “Eureka” (a wacky sound that McCreary describes as “bluegrass-zydeco-country meets ’80s new-wave and 8-bit videogames”). But “Galactica,” it appears, may be McCreary’s calling card for some time to come.

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