Jazz And Washington’s Dark Side: The Sounds of “House Of Cards”
BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor
Picture rats running through a large puzzle maze. Imagine the bustle of activity as they frantically scurry, filled with disorientation and confusion, uncertainty and suspense. This imagery is what composer Jeff Beal summons to describe his score for the Netflix series “House of Cards.”
Beal’s interest in the project was solidified when he learned David Fincher would be directing. An avid fan of Fincher’s work, Beal had collaborated with the director on a commercial and was thrilled to expand upon that experience. The two men met to discuss Fincher’s vision for the project: he wanted to make a grittier version of Washington that hadn’t been seen on television before. The dark journey behind the capital’s shiny veneer would be led by a Machiavellian creature of power named Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey. Beal allowed his understanding of the tone and character to percolate until he received the script. After reviewing the shooting style he settled on an idea.
“I saw the character’s joy in manipulation and I thought his talking into the camera was a fun devise,” said Beal.”I wanted to add a sense of play and levity.”
Beal turned to his jazz roots to construct the score, a process he equates to Jackson Pollock’s painting style, where a white canvas steadily gets layered with very deliberate marks.
“Coming from jazz, you completely give in to the moment that’s born from the personalities around you. You get a feeling from the tone, then just follow the muse,” said Beal. “The best work is not over-thought. The process is rather obtuse.”
For the theme of “House of Cards,” Beal wanted the audience to get a sense of place and introduce a metaphor for the political structures filled with egos and personality. As a pulse plays over images of the icons of Washington, a cacophony of sounds and driving intensity defines the darkness that gives way to the city’s underbelly.
Beal experienced a great deal of freedom in creating the score. He didn’t receive any particular mandates or points of reference to follow from Fincher. He would bring selections and ideas to the director for his review to ensure the music was on the right path. Fincher responded positively to his choice not to saturate the score with a traditional orchestra, focusing on select groups of instruments anchored by the trumpet and piano.
“It was very freeing; this wasn’t a paint by the numbers template I was given to work with,” said Beal. “David has great taste and instincts. I took note of when he really liked something. I trusted his ears to bounce ideas.”
The choice to highlight the piano was made primarily to give the series a film noir sensibility. The piano can crate intensely deep and melancholy “dark night of the soul” music while easily transitioning to light, expressive and sonically pleasing passages. Fincher agreed it proved to be a good representation of Frank and it served as the anchor all other instruments would revolve around.
To score the series, Beal regarded the thirteen one-hour episodes as one long movie. While a few musical themes do get repurposed, Beal was careful to understand the importance each separate piece of music had to inform the viewer of plot and tone shifts.
“The structure is all woven from the same cloth,” said Beal. “While there are some through-lines, as the story evolves, the score evolves.”
No one involved in the production of “House of Cards” was certain of how the series would be consumed – whether the audience would watch one episode at a time or binge watch the series in one or two sittings. Regardless of their viewing style, fans have responded to both the story as well as the music. Many of the series musical selections are available for download and a huge fan-base for the ‘House of Cards” score has developed. Beal has read many of the comments posted by fans and is pleased the score has struck a chord.
“One of the first things David said was that the music was important to telling the story, that it’s an important character,” said Beal. “It’s wonderful to have this response to it. Not every score has a chance to resonate.”
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