Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Six Cues from the Whedonverse

Six Cues from the Whedonverse

Six Cues from the Whedonverse

Historically, music is an active participant in the "Whedonesque" school of storytelling. As composer Christophe Beck has said, Joss Whedon is "very conscious of music and how it is used, and he's always trying to find new and different ways to implement it." Bear McCreary is the next composer to work with Whedon on the small screen. His penchant for melodies and strong thematic work makes him seem like a clear choice for a program that crosses Marvelverse with Whedonverse. With the imminent premiere of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., let's look at some noteworthy cues from Whedon's past.

"Close Your Eyes" — Christophe Beck, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

While there are several innovative musical moments in this program, this particular selection is special because of how it developed over the course of three years. This falling sixth leitmotif debuted in the second season of Joss Whedon's cult classic television program, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It is commonly known as the "Buffy-Angel love theme" and it's introduced in the episode "Surprise" when Angel silences a panicked Buffy with a kiss. As musicologist Janet K. Halfyard has observed, this tender, gentle theme enjoys this one scene as a true love theme before everything takes a turn for the worst.  "Close Your Eyes," its variations, and its harmonic partners appear in Seasons 2 through 4 of Buffy, and finally in Angel Season 1 episode "I Will Remember You," which features a major key variation of the theme.

"Hero" — Robert J. Kral, Angel (Hero)

In the beginning of Angel the series, the eponymous hero was guided into his investigations by a peculiar, half-demon man named Doyle who received psychic visions from "The Powers That Be." Although Doyle never made it out of the first season, his send-off was nothing short of spectacular. Robert J. Kral's soaring orchestral music, featuring the voice of Elin Carlson, underscores Doyle's sacrifice, which prevents a device from destroying anyone with human DNA. This trope of standing as a champion in the face of sure defeat continues through the series, and the music similarly plays with both the melancholy and heroic.

"River Tricks Early" — Greg Edmonson, Firefly (Objects in Space)

Poor River Tam. Taken from her family, getting her brain sliced and diced by the Alliance—now, she finds that even on a ship full of outsiders, she remains the fringe element. When Jubal Early, a ruthless hunter looking to collect River, boards and seizes Serenity, it is up to the mysterious waif to outwit him and save the crew. Before this cue begins, River's established, minor-key piano motif plays as she sadly tells Early that she's unwanted and has become a part of the ship. A deep, eerie woodwind and guitar play beneath Early as he stalks his prey; soon, River and Early's instruments intertwine, and a distant, childlike singing echoes, juxtaposing the psychotic profile River paints of the bounty hunter's early life; and, as Early realizes that she isn't on Serenity but has seized his ship, familiar fiddle slurs and chords mark her triumph—she is a scoundrel worthy of Serenity.

"Serenity" — David Newman, Serenity

I've been unfair to Serenity in the past. While Edmonson's Firefly score is very focused on the Western aspects of the series, it's easy to get lost in the other elements contributed by David Newman. For cues like "River Goes Wild" [], Newman's score evokes both River's damaged, triggered state of mind and the chaotic setting of the Alliance frontier. Simply enough, however, the heart of his score is found right in his Serenity theme, as the ship is introduced, flying over a dusty planet where she descends for a job. It begins with what could be described as an almost-romantic seafaring melody and flows into a bright, Western-influenced jig, which then crescendoes into a fanfare of brass... right before the ship begins to fall apart.

"Taking Down Rossum" — Rob Simonsen, Mychael Danna, Dollhouse (The Hollow Men)

The short-lived series Dollhouse doesn't have a released soundtrack, but Rob Simonsen has made a handful of tracks available. Their sound is grounded in the rapidly approaching cyber-dystopia brought on by Rossum's brain-wiping technology—it is gritty and electronic yet sophisticated. Throughout the series, "music box" arpeggios and piano capture the childlike innocence of "actives"—people who have had their minds wiped, leaving them in a blank state. "Taking Down Rossum" marries the high-pressure action of infiltrating the headquarters of the series "Big Bad" with the delicate Actives motif.

"Red Ledger" — Alan Silvestri, The Avengers

For The Avengers, Alan Silvestri was faced with the daunting task of scoring the story of a band of vastly different heroes—few of whom actually get along. While "Helicarrier" and "The Avengers" are certainly the most grandiose of the score's cues, I'm most drawn to "Red Ledger," which evokes work from Silvestri's prime. It begins with Natasha's theme, recalling back to when she "interrogates" Russian thugs at the start of the film. The music is hushed as Loki works to manipulate her, but just as we hear the two melodies play counterpoint to each other, Natasha is playing against Loki. After the Black Widow wins her bluff, Loki's manipulation continues—her counterpoint disappears and he weaves beneath the increasingly heated conversation of the Avengers.

So, will the past inform the future of music in the Whedonverse? Very likely. Alongside the superheroic music expected of a Marvel program, we can anticipate music that McCreary has described as "quirky and intimate" and very much in the vein of both Whedon and McCreary's earlier work. I believe we can expect orchestral melodies that will highlight Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s narrative, and thematic development that is tightly tied to the show's characters.

What do think we'll hear in a McCreary-Whedon pairing?

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