A Roundabout Review of Bear McCreary’s Black Sails Score

In elementary school I had an art teacher who would remind us every day that “negative space is just as important as positive space.” What she meant was that we didn’t have to cover every surface with stuff. The canvas in front of us could and should remain as blank as we wanted it to be. Only the ideas that really needed to be there should be. Blank space, open space was just as much of an artistic choice as positive space.

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With the release of his score for Black Sails (which aired on Starz earlier this year), Bear McCreary has officially become the king of “space.” I’m punning, of course, since he scored Battlestar Galactica and did, quite literally, become the man whose soundtrack moved us, made us feel claustrophobic, and pumped us up to battle Cylons. And then scored introspective independent sci-fi film Europa Report about a manned trip to one of the moons of Jupiter.

But in a non-punny sense, McCreary excels — in all of his scores, not just his latest — at leaving blank spaces in his music, beats of silence that make the articulated notes even more significant and moving.

This past semester I did an experiment with my writing classes. I played different clips of music and had them write about what the music made them feel.

europa-reportI played McCreary’s eerie, spacious, lonesome “Europa Report” and the students came up with exactly what McCreary intended. Without any context, they thought the sound made them feel lonely and contemplative. Exactly what the movie is about (and I do recommend you see it) and what McCreary said he wanted to achieve.

All of the things he learned with these scores comes clearly to the front in his score for a drama much closer to home. McCreary has said of Black Sails that he was very conscious of using period appropriate sounds and instruments and that he wanted the music to feel like musicians actually on a pirate ship.

My goal was to create music that sounds improvised by an exhausted crew aboard a ship navigating choppy waters. I wanted the audience to sense dirt beneath fingernails plucking jangly mandolin strings, to feel urgent strains of a hurdy gurdy crank, and to smell stale air wheezing out of old accordion bellows.

That means no big orchestras to fill up all the spaces and more freedom to change tempos and let the music breathe a bit.

In his first blog post about the show, from whence the above quote is taken, McCreary also shows his awareness of using thematic elements sparingly instead of stacking them up each time a character is on screen. So Captain Flint’s theme is not used EVERY TIME he’s on screen. McCreary leaves it as negative space that makes the appearance of the theme much more powerful when it does show up. (By the way, McCreary runs one of the most interesting blogs around. It’s highly entertaining and revealing about his process of creation and the choices he makes for the shows he scores. I recommend it for any music nerds or people who like a window into the creative process.)

After the rollicking theme tune (which accompanies the most kickass title sequence I may have ever set eyes upon) comes the track “Nassau Shores” with its fiddling and the rhythm (provided by bodhran, guitar, and bones) that trip over each other and still manage to leave spaces for breath in between. This is extremely vital playing, in the sense that you can feel the musicians behind it. It makes your heart pound and your feet tap. For me, that makes this score all the more interesting.

Da Vinci's DemonsWhat is also thrilling about this score is the incorporation of period-appropriate tunes. McCreary really excelled at this with his DaVinci’s Demons score last year — in which he used texts and words from Latin masses, as well as traditional instruments — and it works to even greater effect for Black Sails. This is especially true on “Wondrous Love,” a traditional tune that McCreary has worked into an achingly beautiful love theme. Have tissues handy when you listen, even if you haven’t seen the show. (And if you haven’t, what on earth are you waiting for? It’s great!) Here again is a track that benefits from space, from breaths and beats that hang in the air and allow the sparse, lonesome notes to vibrate into the very innermost places of the soul.

For a music nerd like me, it’s impossible to listen to this score as background music. Every cue is interesting. You want to listen for all the little hints of themes, to pick up on repetitions and find out how it changes. And McCreary’s scores are always great for playing “spot the theme” because he weaves in interesting bits all over the place.

Long story short: you can’t go wrong with a score from Bear McCreary. Black Sails has been on heavy repeat for me since it came out. You can’t help but feel like a badass with the bodhran and the bones ticking away and that hurdy gurdy jangling out a melody. I’ll blame my inevitable speeding tickets on the fact that I was being a pirate at the time.

There’s a ton more I can say about any one of McCreary’s scores, so instead I’ll just tell you that, if you’re a fan of great music that tells stories, go download anything by Bear McCreary and make your eardrums happy.

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