Interview: Jeff Beal, 'House of Cards' composer

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Kevin Spacey in a House of Cards promotional image Netflix

Jeff Beal is a giant of today's film composing world. Though he's not a household name, he's been a major contributor to the "new golden age of television"; he's been a prolific and valued movie composer as well.

Currently you'll find Beal working away on the third season of House of Cards, for which he's been the composer from the beginning. The second season of the show's music was just released as a two-disc set, the same as the first.

With the second season of House of Cards, how did you get started? How far back do you go with it? I'm assuming there was a pause between season one and season two for you.

There was, but very similar to what we did with season one, David Fincher gave me some ideas about where he thought the tone of the second season should go and actually sent me one little piece of music to listen to that was very helpful: a piece of film music by Angelo Badalamenti for The Comfort of Strangers, a Paul Schrader film. It's a really good score, and if you listen to the cue that [Fincher] sent me, it sounds very much like The Godfather in a way. It's a very operatic, very grand theme, so basically that was a little shorthand for him saying he felt like the second season was going to want to be even a little darker and a little more sweeping. You know Kevin Spacey's character is going for the brass ring in season two.

I was really taken aback actually with how distinctly different it sounds from the first season. They're obviously part of the same world, but you really reworked what you were doing for the second season, which I loved.

That was really fun for me. I've done some series where there isn't as much evolution in the characters and you stay in pretty much the same zone. In getting ready for the release of the season two soundtrack I pulled together my favorite cues, and I had another two-CD collection worth of things to release. That was really fun; it felt like I was able to expand the world even further because of where the story was going. Similarly I'm starting to sketch season three and that's going to be a similar evolution. So, it's quite fun for me. It's not what you always get to do with a series.

Can you speak at all to some of the initial changes you are seeing with the third season? I heard a podcast episode you did with Song Exploder where you talked quite eloquently about the pieces you brought into the main title sequence and how that changed from season one to season two. Is there going to be a new title sequence with the third season?

I don't think so. There might be little adjustments to the main title for season three, but I think the bigger change will be the underscore. Some of the elements in the underscore will be new material, which I'm always excited about. I don't want to give any spoilers storywise, but for people who have watched the first two seasons it's obvious that this main character, he and Robin Wright's character are going to be in a completely new place in season three in terms of their professional status. That is incredibly fun to explore — and actually, unlike previous seasons, I have actually seen what's called a story bible, which is basically all the storylines. It's like a synopsis of an opera plot so I pretty much know where we're going and that's really helpful.

[Composing for] House of Cards, each season, is much more like I'm composing for a really long movie as opposed to a serial because it's really scripted that way. There are these storylines that often play out over many episodes and sometimes the whole season so the new developments, new characters, new situations, they seem to want to have their own musical voice and their own sort of variety and that's the fun of doing something like this.

Everybody on the show is not content just to repeat whatever we've done before. It's always pushing it a little further and seeing what new areas we can explore. Beau, our head writer and creator, comes from the world of politics, some staffing and speech writing pretty early in his career. He has this great sense of the world of politics and the backstage of politics, which is really fascinating, but then also this stuff plays out in a very public way because we are dealing with political figures so there's the private world of the characters and the public ramifications of what they're doing.

Going through season two, how did you know when you needed to hold onto original themes and maybe evolve them and when you needed to craft entirely new pieces? Is it easy for you to recognize what actions need be taken?

Pretty much the rule was "we're doing new stuff." If we reach back to season one music, why are we doing it — and more specifically, what are we reaching back to? There were a couple key themes that we recorded. One of them was a theme for Frank's and Claire's characters, which we hear several times in the pilot. It's sort of this noir-ish, very dark, romantic, haunting theme; we brought that back a couple times just because that felt very much like their relationship and their history together. But a lot of the new situations really felt like they wanted new music. For example, Doug Stamper has a great story arc in series two: his relationship with Rachel, the call girl who's now in hiding. He's a great character, and his story arc just gets more and more tragic. That was a really fun aspect to go into.

Throughout season two were you aware — for example, with Stamper's character — where it was going, or did you find out with each new script?

A little bit of both. I try to write in a pretty linear fashion, but it's funny because this whole idea of opera had come into the picture. I actually worked on a trailer track for the season two trailer, and Fincher had asked me to do an arrangement of the Sting song "Demolition Man," but do it for a string orchestra and what eventually became a choir singing the song, like a classical choir. So, in the process of doing that I wrote all the vocal parts, but I also had a high soprano doing some very big, operatic singing on top of it and it was really fun. Usually it's the type of gesture that you would not put in a film score because it really can come forward, but because there is a little bit of opera in season two — in fact, in the finale episode there's a wonderful scene where Frank and Claire go to the opera and hear a beautiful aria from Puccini's Madame Butterfly. So, a few times in the season I used the voice. My wife Joan is a wonderful opera singer so I called her in from the next room and said, "hey, sing on this for me." That was really fun.

I knew I wanted to use it a little bit, but I was trying to look for a place to bring it in. There's a wonderful scene in season two where Doug Stamper's character is in China and two concubines are presented to him as a gift and he refuses. It's sort of this very lonely and longing moment because he's thinking about the one he really cares about, which is Rachel. It's a very operatic scene; there's a picture on the wall, even, and it was totally Madame Butterfly to me. So, I think that was the first time in the season I really brought in the solo voices. They were sprinkled in a little bit, and then they came forefront at the end of chapter 26, which is the final episode of season two.

Another fun storyline: Jodie Foster directed a wonderful episode in season two that centers on Freddy, who has the barbecue place. There's a whole episode built around his character, and obviously that's another great example — he was never the center of any plots in season two, he was there as a wonderful part of Frank's world, but because we dealt with his character I developed some specific music for him in that episode. There's also the wonderful whole new storyline involving cyber-spying and all kinds of other stuff. So, sometimes I write for characters, but a lot of times I will write a theme that represents a storyline. A lot of times I will use that to center the audience as to where they are and to help them track the story through multiple episodes.

It seemed like you brought in a lot more electronic and synth sounds with this season. Is that accurate?

That's an interesting question. I honestly don't know. I haven't looked back through the score in that way. It could very well be. I would say it's probably about the same.

Is it more just the way you used them?

Could be the way I used them. There were some new sounds added to the palette in terms of the electronics. One of them I brought into the very first episode of season two as a certain character is played out in that first episode. There was some coldness to that and the sound of a train became very useful to me. There were some electronics that had a bit of a rhythmic pulse to them that I added to the palette, which were fun and I went back to those several times in the season.

There was also a cue at the very beginning of season two, which might be why it landed for you, that is very ambient, still, and simple. It's very minimalist. Long story short, about halfway through episode six or seven I got a call from Beau Willimon, the creator, and he said, "You know, this opening scene we've done for the first scene in season two is not working. I just want to have a wide shot, and it's dark, it's night, and there's two people in the distance running. And the camera doesn't move and it goes on for a long time and eventually they come towards camera and you realize it's Frank and Claire. They've been running, they stop and catch their breath and run on."

And that was it. Very simple image. You know, the idea of running is how we left the first season, the ending has Frank and Claire going out for a run, so pictorially if fits. So, [Willimon] shared with me some ideas about music. A lot of times, especially in modern filmmaking, commercial directing, or music videos, everything is moving fast. Everything is about a quick cut, oversaturation of stimulation, and he said, "I'm really interested in this idea of doing something really simple and by its simplicity being very strong." I love that idea; I think it's very powerful, and it plays into my thinking about music too. I think in a lot of ways as a culture we're all overloaded with too much information and sometimes something that is still and doesn't move a lot, that's static but also interesting, it's not just boring, it's not just a drone, but something that moves slow can be really fascinating and different than what we're used to seeing. It's funny — obviously if you watch an old movie you'll realize how slow everything is, things seems to move slower a lot of the time, cuts move slower.

That's one of the things I like about David Fincher's directing and his whole style. He is very much into that: he loves to lock down the camera, he loves to compose shots, he's not as much into the handheld verite style, he's more like a painter in that way because he's got such an amazing eye and all the directors [on the show] have interpreted that approach in their own way and it's very much the visual style of our show. It's more about savoring moments and of course when you've got such great actors giving such great performances it really makes it pop, but the idea isn't to make it feel slow, it's just to make it feel compelling.

The music for that opening scene was fun to use and I definitely built up this sort of ambient sound, these washes of sound that come at you in waves. Once I'd written that for the beginning of the season I brought it back for episode 26 — which is the end of season two — and I used it a couple more times as a way of connecting that metaphor of Frank and Claire running to [what happens with their characters] at the end of the season.

A lot of this season reminded me of eighties and nineties thriller movies that harkened back to the thrillers of the seventies, but not in a nostalgic way. Rather to inform as a way of composing with these new tools in electronic instrumentation.

That's a great analogy. When you think about some of the guys who came of age in the seventies like Coppola, a lot of people like his big films, but one of my favorites is The Conversation — which is a really cool thriller, and it's got this intensity. Of course another film which I always thought about while working on our show: [our show] feels very much like the spirit of All the President's Men. That sort of grainy brown and green color palette. I had a lot of fun with that musically. Some of the ways I use music in the show is to use longer cues and connect them together. A lot of time music is the glue to hold one scene to another, it's a little transition and you're in and out of it. The music in House of Cards always seemed to belong when it was really playing a scene and being a part of it — sometimes being a part of several scenes in succession. It's a way of giving that mood, connecting all the things together with this sort of waking dream. I love those sorts of films that hypnotize you and bring you into a world where you get lost and you start to believe you're in this other space.

It speaks to a sensibility of watching and engaging with films that's not always presented nowadays. More so than not it's about distraction and there were certain sweet spots in time where you felt like films were being made for you to participate in them.

That's true — and to give people time to react. Give the listener space. One of the fun things I do with House of Cards is [that] inevitably each episode ends with a climactic scene of some sort, and I pretty much compose a new end title for every episode. I like that time in the black to musically let everything that's just happened reverberate and give that a little voice so whatever we learned in that episode, whatever feelings are gestating. You have the time to look back and enjoy that, the musical interpretation of that.

Do you ever use that time to not only close out what you have scene, but to anticipate what will happen in future episodes?

Yeah, there's a great example of that in season two where the episode ends with Stamper and Rachel. She ends up telling him about Jacob and who he was in the bible, I think. It's a great scene because it has this turn where you think they're going to sleep together, he refuses, and she starts telling this story. It has all this sadness and Stamper is a tragic character. Right after that scene I wrote the end title and then I wrote a new piece of music. I went back through the episodes and there wasn't really anything that reflected what just happened because what just happened actually foreshadowed Stamper's trip to China. I couldn't say I was smart enough to be thinking ahead to that scene, but I wrote a theme for that end title inspired by what I saw and then wrote a new theme, which turned out to be very useful because it was one of my favorite themes from season two and I used it quite a bit in that scene in China, and I brought it back a few times.

One of the fun places I brought it back: that scene in China cuts back to President Walker and his wife having an argument on their way to have dinner with Frank and Claire. It was wonderful to carry it through there because it unified this idea of relationships in trouble, in crisis.

It's interesting because in the show Frank and Claire are presented to the rest of the world as having all this internal strife and in reality they are more on the same page than they were in the first season. Then you have the President and his wife, who are the reverse.

Yeah. And that's very much the season. Frank and Claire are very much unified in their deviant agendas to undermine President Walker. They're masters of warfare.

It seems like you developed the second season to have this stability and this shell that is crumbling from within — and some of that is in the electronics I addressed earlier.

We've had a lot of fun using dissonance in the show. I did several things with various strings' voices that were very much like 20th century sonorities. As the season progressed it seemed appropriate to go into that dark world. As well, something I used more in the second season is the trumpet. It's in the first season, but mainly in the opening title because it's such an iconic Washington sound and for some reason it gave me something in season two that was quite useful — a twisted sort of grandeur that's sort of like what you're saying, the public versus the private dramas that are playing out.

Do you do much post-processing or do you try and keep them pretty organic?

A bit of both. The trumpet especially has quite a bit of stuff on it because I didn't want it to sound too much like a literal, in the room, solider playing "Taps" sort of thing. It's very processed and has a lot of reverb and delays on it, I put it through a fog and gave it this sort of weird spin. The first time I did it was for a short lived show by Michael Mann called Luck, about horse racing.

I didn't realize you worked on that show.

It was a cool show, and I did a few episodes. When I first met with Michael Mann he said, "I don't like any horns or wind instruments." Then I was working on my first episode for him and I kept looking at this character played by Dustin Hoffman who is sort of like the gangster guy in the show, and I kept saying to myself "he's going to need something." So, I tried a little bit of trumpet, what the heck let's just give this a go; we can always throw it out. So [Mann] called us in for a meeting and just loved the trumpet and said, "Yeah, this is the sound of our show now." What I did for the trumpet there was take the natural sound and really morph it and put it through some very twisted delays and stuff like that.

I use a lot of live strings on the show [House of Cards], but I have a very set size that I like for that — it's not too big — and I try to orchestrate it in a way that feels like it blends with the electronics, doesn't overtake them. It's actually a nice size. Sometimes I think an orchestra can get a bit too big for a show, but I use about seventeen strings, usually, for each episode. It's just a nice color with the rosin on the bow, the lines playing, and the counterpoint, but it's not so big that it sounds too grand and you kill the intimacy.

The first time I became acquainted with your music was for the show Carnivale. One of the things I love is [the elements] you mixed together and how you made it sound like they always belonged together — even though if you broke it apart the instruments don't seem like they should work so cohesively.

That's something I like to do a lot and it's very much in House of Cards. Sometimes you want everything to just blend nicely together, but I think part of the fun of doing music for House of Cards is to make things press up against each other and the tension that you get from something natural against something that sounds unnatural or not what you'd expect — like the electric bass or the more modern gestures along with the orchestral. That's certainly in the main title, of course.

I think a lot of drama is in the element of surprise, and I work very hard when I am writing to try to surprise myself in a good way. I try to experiment and play around with things — not be too judgmental when I'm working — so that hopefully I might come to something that's unusual and unique, but not what you've heard a thousand times before, because if you've heard it a thousand times before, by definition it will not be interesting. Some of the hardest things to write are some of the simplest pieces of music. Some of the piano things, two point counterpoint, sometimes those are the hardest to do because there is no place to hide. You've got to make sure every gesture has some intent behind it or some attitude to it that has a personality.

Do you often collaborate with the sound designers for the show?

Not specifically. I like sketching things before the shoot, but once I'm in the studio I'm always working. Some guys like to turn the dialogue off, but I pretty much never turn it off because I feel like that sound is so much a part of what I'm trying to create. I'm happy if music can live away from a show like I think the House of Cards music does, but the first intent is always to play along with that band. I often say, because I come with a jazz background, I feel like when you play jazz it's all about listening to everybody around you, reacting to that, and trying to contribute something that isn't just mimicking what you've just heard, but creating an interesting new layer. I spend a lot of time listening to actors' performances and the musical ways dialogue is performed. There is so much rhythm already in a film, visually and sonically; that's always part of what I am playing with.

It's one of the things I love about Fincher's work is that while many comment on his visuals, he knows so much about how music and sound works together, and what they can do when it's not presented in the image.

Absolutely. Film is not just a verbal medium. It's an audio-visual medium. A lot of the cues and interesting things that happen are the non-verbal information. I very much work with that and enjoy that. One of the nice things about our show is there's a certain way in which the pacing is not rushed. If you have a show that's really fast-paced in terms of how the dialogue flows, that can be fun, but it's a different type of challenge and a lot of times you don't have as much of a spot where you can enter and actually have something to say.

I like the fact that the filmmakers really trust to tell a story with visuals some of the time and not feel like they have to fill every moment up with dialog. Stamper is a great example of that. There's a lot of great scenes where he is just walking through a room and thinking. They're well performed and well shot, but there's nobody saying anything. That's a composer's gift, when you've got a scene like that where obviously music can be a part [of a story] and hopefully say something.

Did you introduce a harp this season?

We used it a little bit in season one. There were some themes revolving around Seth and Gavin. I sort of got into this harp part and there was a drum loop under it. I really love the band Radiohead, so they're my default place I think of a lot of times; they have a lot of interesting ways of mixing. I also really love Beck.

There is a great Beck album called Sea Change; Beck's father is a wonderful string arranger, and he did all the string arrangements on that album. I think it's "Paper Tiger," a wonderful song on that album, that has these sorts of strings that keep growing and climbing, but it's very slow and dark, it has this sort of vibe to it. I remember thinking about that and was inspired by it when I was crafting that little theme. It's not an exact, even an homage to that song, but the feeling of that music: like a contemporary band playing, but also this string orchestra just wailing on top of it.

To get back to your very first idea, it's funny what you're writing about because I am in the very early stages of working on some concert music again. I did a lot of it earlier on in my career, but I'm actually developing some new projects. One of them is sort of a House-of-Cards-themed orchestral evening.

It's too early to say who I'm working with, but I'm really hoping it will happen because I think it's important that as artists we bring whatever is out in the popular culture, that we think is good, regardless of where it comes from, back into the concert hall. One of the things I love about working in film is it never feels like there's this definition, this snobbery between high and low art, and I reject the whole notion of that separation.

I'm more about "is it great or not"? Does it have quality? I believe passionately about that, but I don't believe it has to be from a certain place or certain academic school to feel like it's real art. I think there is a lot of great music being created for other media right now, and that hopefully can find a home back in the concert world.

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.

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Kevin Spacey in a House of Cards promotional image Netflix