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Battlestar Galactica | Bear McCreary Revisits the Music That Made Him

On the eve of Battlestar Galactica’s 20th anniversary, composer Bear McCreary recalls the stories behind key tracks on the show’s incredible score.

It’s staggering — frakking staggering, one might say — to realize that Ronald D. Moore’s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica will turn 20 years old next year. Treated with skepticism in its initial development, even right through to its pilot miniseries and initial episodes, the Sci-Fi Channel flagship slowly but surely grew a cult following with its incredible production design, staggering performances, and gritty, serialized storytelling. Not only that, it elevated the cheesy Star Wars knockoff series of its origins into a complex, ruminative opus that touched on issues both contemporary (post-9/11 paranoia, the War on Terror) and universal (the fuzzy borders between freedom and security). 

It’s a great show for a lot of reasons. But for me, the biggest reason? The drums. 

For the 2003 Battlestar Galactica miniseries, director Michael Rymer tapped Oingo Boingo bandmember Richard Gibbs to pen a rather unique score that eschewed traditional orchestral trappings of sci-fi scoring in favor of a minimalist, percussion-heavy affair that made heavy use of taiko drums and other world music instruments. But once Sci-Fi picked up the show for series, Gibbs was no longer available, so the task of scoring Galactica fell to his then-24-year-old assistant — recent UCLA grad Bear McCreary.

Score of the Worlds is a biweekly interview column from Clint Worthington, host of the movie music podcast Right on Cue.

He took Gibbs’ stripped-down brief and ran with it, slowly incorporating bigger and more ambitious musical swings. He introduced more world music elements and instruments, from the Hindu vocals of the title theme to instruments like the duduk (a woodwind instrument) and erhu (a Japanese stringed instrument nerds might also recognize from Spock’s theme in Michael Giacchino’s work on J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek). 

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Composer Bear McCreary sits in front of an old fashioned Hollywood makeup mirror.
Battlestar Galactica composer Bear McCreary. During the pandemic, McCreary set about releasing the live album So Say We All: Battlestar Galactica Live, from performances in the early 2010s following the show’s finale. | Courtesy of bearmccreary.com.

As the series progressed, that musical ambition grew to incorporate elements of rock and pop music, from the Zeppelin-inspired shredding of ‘Black Market’ to Season 3’s cover of ‘All Along the Watchtower’. The latter track is so powerful it broke through into the diegesis of the series — a signal to the Colonial Fleet from ages past, and a link to the planet Earth our cast of characters would spend the entire series searching for.

The score is one of the most well-regarded elements of the series, so beloved that McCreary and several of the artists who produced the score (including vocalist and future spouse Raya Yarbrough) performed numerous packed concerts in 2008 and 2009. Kara Thrace actor Katee Sackhoff even went on stage in one 2009 performance to perform the piano intro to ‘All Along the Watchtower’!

For McCreary (for whom Battlestar was his first solo scoring gig), it was an enormous challenge to continue Gibbs’ framework and help the show evolve to match its increased scope. At first, it was hard; he still had the restrictions that they wanted “no orchestra, no themes,” nothing that sounded like Star Trek, Star Wars, or even the original Battlestar.

But as the first season progressed and McCreary built on the world music framework Gibbs had set up for him, he kept pushing further and further, taking a mile where the studio gave an inch. “The only direction I got from Ron [Moore] on [some of my bolder directions] was, ‘make it Battlestar,’” he says. 

The rest, as they say, is history: McCreary’s work on the four seasons and several TV movies (and one-season spinoffs like Blood and Chrome) would quickly elevate him to one of the most unique and sought-after composers in television. Since Galactica, he scored for everything from The Walking Dead to Godzilla: King of the Monsters and now builds expansive genre scores for big-budget prestige series like Apple TV+’s Foundation and Prime Video’s expansive Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

We were lucky enough to sit down with McCreary to get his thoughts on some of the most iconic tracks from the first couple of seasons. Together, we chart through some of the most interesting stepping stones from Galactica’s early days, to the massive, concert-rock sweep it enjoyed in its final chapters.  

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Season 1: ‘Wander My Friends’

“The story behind this track is relatively simple — I was hitting this big emotional moment near the end of the season, and I was running out of colors. I had an electric violin, a percussionist, a duduk (Armenian woodwind) player, and some vocals in the first few episodes. It was very bare bones for a while. Then we get to this episode, which centers around the bond between the Adamas and a big celebration at the end of an asteroid battle. In hindsight, one of the few celebrations that weren’t bittersweet. 

“Scottish music means the world to me; I identify as Scottish-Irish and Armenian. And I wanted to bring bagpipes in, so I hunted down Eric Rigler, the bagpipe player from Braveheart (I asked him to sign my CD; this is the only time I ever brought a CD into a session.) He’d play bagpipes for me on Battlestar a lot, and on stage with us at House of Blues and other places, and he’d come with us to Outlander. But for this track, I thought I’d never get to write for bagpipes again — I’m gonna put it all in there.

“For the vocals, I’d written a poem inspired by the unexpected passing of a dear friend’s father. And I got a Gaelic singer named Lulu Solaire to translate it for me and sang it for me on the day. My brother sings for the live shows, which always turns into a big singalong at the end.”

Season 1: ‘Passacaglia/Shape of Things to Come’

“I wrote these cues after I called my friend at the studio and said, ‘We have to have an orchestra for the Season 1 finale; it’s so obvious that the color needs to change.’ It was a clear violation of the directive I’d been given — no orchestra — but it was so evident at that point it was what the show needed. 

“But these cues became a part of the score’s fabric and were referenced later. They opened the door to lush strings, and that kind of minimalist, Philip Glass-inspired writing. If anything, you could describe my Galactica score as dipping its toes into minimalism, even though I don’t like minimalist music. I usually change constantly; I can’t sit still for four blocks. You see the ripple effect of those tracks throughout the scores for the show, like the ten-minute ‘Something Dark is Coming’, which feels very minimalist. 

“I’m grateful for those montages because they created the need for that minimalism in the score. For me, those pieces cracked the code on what Galactica should sound like, including ‘Wander my Friends.’ It’s like puzzle pieces coming together, and it clicks into place by the end of season one. I’ll use more elements later — more ethnic colors, a bigger orchestra — but the concept of minimalist orchestral writing on top of world music colors clicks into place here.”

Season 2: ‘Pegasus’

“That’s an interesting one; that was an idea driven by Michael Rymer, the director of that episode. He felt the introduction of Pegasus needed to introduce a new musical color. He was really at the forefront of driving those changes because we’re folding in ethnic and world music and cultural/tribal colors, then the orchestral colors; augmenting those or doing a big fanfare just didn’t feel right. But Michael stumbled onto the idea of this ambient, prog-rock color. I dug how dreamy and uplifting it was. 

“But with Battlestar, any scene that makes you feel good is probably setting you up for pain later, right? So I loved the idea that the Pegasus is here, we found another ship, it’s joyous. And the electric guitar was this unique color that made a splash toward that end. It’s a good feeling we can sour later.”

Season 2: ‘Roslin and Adama’

“Celtic colors were the starting point for a lot of the emotional music, much like the action music started with Japanese rhythms. With Adama, you had these two relationships — romantic (Roslin) and familial (Lee). So weirdly, it’s not a coincidence that he ended up with two very different themes that are both Celtic-influenced. I wrote this and ‘Wander my Friends’ within six months of each other, but both came from this desire to draw from an emotional color that still had cultural roots somewhere in the world. 

“But at a certain point, the more I use these world music colors, the more they conflict and don’t feel like distinctly cultural statements. Early on, I remember getting hate mail in the UK about the Celtic stuff because Edward James Olmos is obviously not Scottish. This one guy actually tracked down my email to write me about this. And I responded that Adama’s not Scottish, nor is he Mexican; he’s Caprican. There are no rules! (Just kidding, I didn’t write back.) 

“Then, of course, every time I push the envelope, fans get really angry. And then, a year later, it’s everybody’s favorite thing.

Season 2: ‘Prelude to War’

“That was another exciting one inspired by directorial choices by Michael Rymer. It’s the score for what I contend is the most exciting phone call ever put on film. The camera’s spinning around Adama and Cain faster and faster, leading up to the decision to go to battle, slamming into an epic cliffhanger. And people take it for granted now, but back then you had to wait months for a mid-season cliffhanger to resolve.

“‘Prelude to War’ combines that cue and the midseason premiere. I wrote them so that they could bleed into each other. That’s another cue that changed the show’s score, in that orchestral writing was okay. The urgent strings in that cue were real first, and it worked; once introduced, it’s fair.”

Season 2: ‘Black Market’

“‘Black Market’ was just me having fun. There’s no reason to put that kind of effort into a backing track, where the dramatic requirement is just Lee going into a black market within the fleet. But in the episode, there was a source recording inspired by a Middle Eastern street market, and we figured there could be this hard-hitting, numetal variation of the source music. So I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if there was one piece of music where this street market in Marrakech transitions into this hard-hitting metal track?

“I already had the guys from Oingo Boingo playing on the score — Steve Bartok on guitar, Johnny ‘Vatos’ Hernandez on drums, John Avila on bass, and they’d already played on ‘Pegasus’ and other cues. So I decided we should all have some fun. And of course, it ends up being this really great track from what I know is not everyone’s favorite episode. But it’s so funny that when I’m doing the live shows, there’s no question. What’s our final encore? Dude, it’s ‘Black Market.’ We gotta go out on ‘Black Market.’ People hated that episode, but I’m so glad it exists because I got a show-stopping banger track out of it.”

The Plan: ‘Apocalypse”

“‘Apocalypse’ was fun because it was in the middle of writing for The Plan that we were doing the live concerts for the last time around Southern California. So I threw in this track even people in the live shows didn’t know. So I could shape it during a live experience, which is more of a traditional rock band approach. And it went through even further iterations when I did Blood and Chrome a couple of years later and added a verse to the structure. To me, the Blood and Chrome version is the ultimate version, in more of a song form. The version on our live record is this cool, sketch-y, prototype version of the track. It’s also drawn from the Gayatri Mantra [a highly revered Hindu mantra celebrating the Vedic deity Savitr], which we used for the central title theme. That’s why it feels so connected to Battlestar; it’s a variation on that.”

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Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Writer for Consequence of Sound. He’s also the host of the podcasts More of a Comment, Really…, and Travolta/Cage (with cohost Nathan Rabin). You can find other bylines at Vulture, IndieWire, RogerEbert.com, StarTrek.com, The Takeout, and others. He lives in Chicago with his wife, his cat, and far too many Criterions.

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