On the heels of two new Emmy nominations for his music for “House of Cards,” Jeff Beal talks about composing for the hit Los Angeles-scored series
Beautifully underscoring the dramatic intrigue of Netflix series “House of Cards,” Jeff Beal’s darkly atmospheric score just garnered two more Emmy nominations. This marks the composer’s third Emmy nod for the show, and 13th altogether.
To date, Beal has won three times, including for the 2007 TNT miniseries “Nightmares & Dreamscapes” and USA Network’s detective series “Monk” in 2003, which were also scored here with our wonderful Los Angeles musicians.
Recorded at his home studio, music for “House of Cards” features more than a dozen of L.A.’s premiere string musicians. Beal spoke with Linda A. Rapka from his home studio about composing for the hit series.
Congratulations on your recent Emmy nominations for “House of Cards”! For both seasons, you’ve recorded in your home studio with Los Angeles musicians.
“They’re fantastic. I have a room in my studio where I do a lot of live recording. With the tight schedules and turnaround times these days being what they are, I love being able to call on the best players in the world and have them available at the drop of a hat. It’s a luxury to work with them. They know the kind of stuff I write, and over the years we have developed a shorthand with each other. It’s nice not having to over-explain to musicians your approach to making music; here a lot of that is sort of a given.”
Your background is in jazz, playing trumpet. How has that shaped your work as a composer?
“I think it’s a big part of what has made me who I am. A lot of my heroes — John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and in the concert world John Adams — have a background in jazz. Part of the reason for that, I think, is not only is it the quintessential American genre, but specifically for composers if you can master some form of improvisation, that skill set really translates really well to writing for film because it’s a very collaborative medium; you’re reacting to things. When I’m scoring, looking at a screen, it’s all about what else I’m working with. The performances, the writing, the direction, are all part of what we’re trying to create a synergy with. That’s really like playing jazz. They say jazz is 90% listening to everyone else before you even contribute. That’s one of the things I really love about film. It’s really collaborative.“
The style of “House of Cards,” especially with the streaming model of Netflix, gives it a very cinematic feel. Does it feel that way composing for the show?
“Yes, it really does. The success of this model has been really great. As a viewer I tend to like to watch things this way, in succession. It’s really opened up the whole world of music and storytelling. It’s definitely more of a cinematic approach. It’s really fun because it feels like we’re making a 13-hour movie every season, because it really is scripted and conceived that way. The thematic material has a long arc to play over, so it feels very operatic. It’s funny because when you think of something like Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle,’ a season of ‘House of Cards’ is in a way a new version of that in terms of an audience engaging in something that immersive. We tend to think of the modern world as having the ultimate short-attention span, but this new model proves to artists that there is an appetite for that type of immersive experience.”
People dedicate a lot of time to watching shows like “House of Cards,” and that really builds a strong emotional connection.
“‘House of Cards’ is a pretty dark show, so it’s really important in this type of storytelling, especially with anti-heroes, that the audience is emotionally involved with them. A live score that enhances that without manipulation is key.”
Do you watch the show?
“Absolutely. My wife and son watch it a lot, so I try to have them out of the room when I’m composing so they don’t see any surprises on the screen.”
Who’s your favorite character?
“There are so many good ones! I’ve had a lot of favorites, but the character that to me is always interesting is Doug Stamper, who plays Frank’s right-hand man. He’s so tragic, and I love that about him. He’s the guy who’s always suffering the consequences of Frank Underwood’s shenanigans; he’s the clean-up crew. My next favorite, aside from Frank of course, is probably Robin Wright’s character, his wife. She always fascinated me. But even more, her relationship with Frank is so strange. It’s one of the strangest marriages every portrayed on television. There’s this sort of noir-ish, Goldsmith/John Barry, sexy and sophisticated element to the way they are, the way they talk. To me that always reminded me of when I was younger and what I thought the movies were; they were very ‘adult.’ There’s something I really relate to and love about those characters.”
The music soundtrack from “House of Cards” Season 2 on CD was released in June.
“Yes, on Varèse Saraband. In putting that together we collected all the music we recorded for the second season, and I couldn’t believe it; a lot of music was created. Looking through the cues, we made more than six hours of music over the course of 13 episodes.”
I understand Season 3 is already in the works.
“Yeah, they’re filming right now. I’m going to start composing soon. I’ve already done some sketches.”
It’s wonderful that the series uses a live orchestra. There’s really no comparison when using live musicians as opposed to a completely synthesized score.
“There is a nice trend of live orchestras being used on TV again. I think the reason it’s continuing is because there really is nothing that can substitute for that. TV sound used to be just a little speaker, but most people are watching today on sophisticated home entertainment systems and want a more cinematic experience. So it’s great that we’re able to deliver that.”