Last week I wrapped up the score for episode "ten" of the web series CELL. It may be one of my two favorite episodes of the bunch so far. There are only three episodes left and I'm getting excited as I prepare to wrap up the series. I was thinking of the musical journey I've taken since episode "one" and thought I would document or catalog the stops I've encountered along the way.
CELL has been an extremely fun and rewarding project. It's hard to say this accurately but it's been a relatively "easy" project. When you're tasked with scoring a five to ten minute episode every week or two, it's a moderately comfortable schedule to slip into. The high quality of the show helps immensely. I find myself staying out of the way most of the time and just letting the great acting, cinematography, and writing do what it needs to do. It's definitely a "less-is-more" type of score and when your quarter-note tempo rests around the low to mid 50s you end up writing a whole lot of music in a relatively short period of time.
However, that's not to say this has been an easy show to score. In fact, what is most challenging about it is the degree of change the slightest variation of music inflicts upon it. I'm often finding myself making decisions on notes, chords, rhythms, and timings of musical ingredients that seem indistinguishable by the naked ear. A note landing at any particular point vastly alters the narrative if it occurs a half-second sooner or a half-second later. A four note chord vastly changes the weight of the scene when compared with a three note chord. A few metronome clicks slower or faster greatly affects the inevitability of the pacing. It's an extremely delicate and fragile balance which is disrupted by the most seemingly insignificant alterations in the music.
One of the very first things that I came up with that was definitively CELL was the main theme. It consists of five open-fifth chords starting on C and ending on C. The lack of the third scale degree gives it a "wall-like" or flat sound. I imagined it as the walls of the cell itself...tight, boxy, grey, and confining. It's used in some developmental form in practically every episode and the relationship of these notes fuels many of the relationships in other themes and textures throughout the score.
Here is the ubiquitous main theme for CELL as heard in its purest form :
click image to enlarge
Early in the series we were ambitious enough to try to score every episode with a string quartet. With the limited budget resources we had, I learned pretty quickly that this was just not going to be possible. So mid-way through the series (around episode "four") I had to create a new approach on the fly that tied in with where I was going musically already. Sometimes you are subject to happy accidents and this was certainly one of those occasions. Having the string quartet early in the series created this fuller more robust sense of confusion, panic, and uncertainty. As the series progressed without the strings it brought a narrative color that was much more appropriate to these middle episodes.
I've been using harp since the very beginning. The strings eventually surrendered to piano which is a far more intimate sound perfect for the middle episodes. I also kept the celesta in my back pocket. I knew I was going to use it but I would only use it at certain times during key moments as the story began to unfold. It became the instrument for Sarah's "previous life" or the instrument of reflection or nostalgia. It was the instrument of her past.
The Man didn't have a theme per se but utilized percussive textures to represent his character. It started with the string quartet doubled with percussion in episode "one" which eventually gave way to these giant drums. Usually it was just a heartbeat rhythm or simple sparse pulse. I felt his presence in the room made the characters in their cells feel their own pronounced heartbeat in their chest so I used these big drums to emphasize that for the audience.
Brian's theme is one of the most melodic figures in the entire series. It's not used very much and was utilized earlier in the series when the audience was experiencing the story mostly through his point of view. In the subsequent episodes as the narrative segues to include Sarah, I rely on Brian's theme less.
Here is Brian's theme as played on the cello in episode "two":
from "Not My Color" (episode "two")
click image to enlarge
One of the more surprising musical moments in the film comes with the introduction of Sarah's theme in episode "eight". After nearly forty-five minutes of narrative spread out over eight episodes, the first (and so far only) strain of hopeful and uplifting music enters. This is the introduction of Sarah's theme. It's not just a theme for her character alone but for her character's determination to move forward. While the celesta represents her reflection on the past, this theme which is played on piano, represents her spirited outlook toward the future.
from "My Name is Sarah" (episode "eight")
click image to enlarge
The steady quarter note pulse elicits a feeling of steadfastness and an unwillingness to give up. The lifting arc of the phrase itself evokes Sarah standing proud and firm with her head held up high. It also brandishes one of my favorite musical sounds (which you'll hear all the time in my music); the juxtaposition of major and minor tonalities. In this passage you'll see the tonic chord first resolving to a minor variation of the dominant in the antecedent phrase before eventually restoring the diatonic function of the major dominant in the consequent portion of the phrase. There's still a hint of uncertainty about Sarah's future, but there's no doubting her strength.
Since this was the very first time we have heard this theme and because it will play an important role later in the series, I wanted to give the audience more time listening to it so I suggested we play it through the closing credits instead of the usual material. I really love this moment.
I'm really proud of all the material I've written so far. I know it well. You can point to any note anywhere in the series and I can tell you exactly why I did it in that exact way. I don't often get the chance to know the scores I'm writing that intimately. There's usually not enough time. With CELL the schedule allows me to really place the music under a microscope and intellectually debate each decision before coming up with my ultimate conclusion. That doesn't necessarily always make each decision correct but at least I know why I'm making it which is a luxury that composers don't always get.
As the series draws to a close I'm looking forward to presenting and ultimately concluding each little musical morsel I've introduced. When I'm done I hope I can be as proud of these final episodes as I have been with the entire series so far.
Thanks Mark for this extremely rewarding, educational, and downright adventuresome opportunity!