Jeff Beal is the urbane and masterful composer, multi-instrumentalist, and recording artist behind a prestigious array of films and hit television series including House of Cards, Monk, Shock and Awe, The Long Road Home, Rome, Gypsy, Carnivale, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power, Blackfish, Generation Wealth, Ugly Betty, and The Price of Everything. With rich expertise in manifesting beauty through dramatic tension and musical mystery, Jeff's luxuriant scores have garnered five Emmy wins. For the fifth consecutive year, he is nominated in the Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music category for his work on Showtime's The Putin Interviews. In addition to his flourishing career in film music, Jeff has been commissioned to create masterworks for elite symphony orchestras including St. Louis, Rochester, Pacific, Frankfurt, Munich, and Detroit. In our inspiring discussion, Jeff reveals the nuances of his creative exchange with director, Oliver Stone to create a triumphant score for The Putin Interviews and the evolution of his opulent sound world for House of Cards.
You are originally from the San Francisco Bay Area and studied both big band and orchestral music during your teenage years. How did your environment influence your musical tastes? How did you begin building the foundation of your career?
There was always music around the house when I was growing up. A lot of singing and piano. There weren’t a lot of professionals in the family aside from my grandmother. She gave me my first Miles Davis recordings. Sketches of Spain and Kind of Blue were literally the first two LPs I ever had. That was a pretty amazing introduction to music. There was this idea that music is somehow part of the daily fabric of your life. Whether it was going to church and singing hymn tunes, or practicing, it all contributed to a life in music and an experience of music that’s not just academic or theoretical; it’s personal.
I started playing trumpet from middle school on and joined the jazz band. I had always toyed around on the piano as a little kid, but it was really the discovery of the process of improvisation that changed everything. It was my gateway drug into everything musical. I loved the idea of spontaneous creativity and listening. I still do. Most of my early years in music revolved around the trumpet, jazz on one level and I also studied classical trumpet. By the time I went to college, I had decided to become a classical trumpet major at the Eastman School of Music. I remember playing trumpet in the Oakland Youth Symphony very well. We were playing Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Sitting in the middle of an orchestra is probably one of the most thrilling places to be. Being in the center and hearing that piece at that age blew my mind. It’s a ballet, it’s a story, but it’s very much like film music in the sense that it’s a narrative thing and has all that color.
I was talking to somebody the other day about Northern California and growing up in the 70’s. It’s a really amazing part of the country, an amazing part of the world. It always has been, but especially at that time, there was this energy in the air. I was born in ’63, and the influence of the ’60’s was still reverberating through. You had Tower of Power. You had Keystone Korner in San Francisco. You had Latin music, which is still part of a lot of American cities' culture. I was born into an incredibly eclectic world, and it flowed so well into film music. I’m not a big believer in the categorization of style and protecting boundaries. I always feel like music is a language and the free flow of ideas across genres is something that makes music interesting. As a film composer, that’s something we often draw from, which is so much fun. I found a home, creatively, in this world, where I could freely move through high art and low art.
Folk music is also really important to me. I think there is a strong connection between aural traditions and performance tradition music, how they play into our collective memory, and how music sort of hits us and affects us. Music has a really meaningful place in the culture. We live in a post-religious society. In the West and in the greater modern world, religion has somehow taken a backseat in our daily lives. We’ve also lost that connection to some of the most important traditions that come along with it like collective music making and singing as a group.
These days, I’m writing a lot of choral music, and there’s something so sacred about it. I never realized just how important that was to me as a kid. I think that’s why I’ve become more involved in concerts again. I did a lot of it when I was younger, and I missed that experience of everybody in a room, enjoying music and performing for people. That energy that gets transferred is so powerful and mystical. I think it can be a spiritual practice in its own right.
As you were saying, you went on to Eastman School of Music with a focus in composition. Who were the teachers that expanded your horizons? What lessons did you learn that are still relevant to your present composing work?
It was an amazing education. I would say that I gained a lot of experience in writing for all types of instruments. When you compose a part, whether it's for a string orchestra, a woodwind player, or a harp, or a singer, or a guitar player, you can put some notes on the page, and a great player will play them. That will happen. That's step one. Step two is knowing the range of the instrument. I was around so much music writing and had the opportunity to write for some musicians, so I really got to know the character of various instruments and learned what the instrument does best. There’s usually a sweet spot in the range or in the case of an instrument with a wide range like a cello; you can pick which range you want to be in because of the timbre that the instruments are going to be in.
I was really immersed in the whole idea of being around music-making. To this day, it’s still so important to me. That time in my life was about performing and composing at the same time and really understanding how the circle between the performer and the composer works. I also felt like I gained a deep appreciation for excellence. I don’t want to sound elitist, but there are only a few times in your life when you don’t have to pay the rent, when you don’t have to get a job, and you can focus on, “What is excellence?”. Somebody said, “Going to music school is like asking your parents for a couple hundred thousand dollars to become really great at the bassoon.” From your parents' point of view, they’re like, “And what are you going to do with that?”. There’s an inherent impracticality in studying as an artist, but the idea that you can immerse yourself in art and discover all these areas of excellence inspires me to this day.
The interesting thing about education is that I still feel like a student. I’m always trying to learn something, and that’s really important as an artist. The period of study begins at some point, but if you’re doing it well, it never ends. You’re always trying to experiment and uncover something new. I’m still trying to do that. When I break down any piece of music, it’s not that simple. Music is not purely vertical or horizontal in my brain; it’s a combination of the two. It’s this counterpoint of lines that move around inside the harmony and define it. I think this goes back to some of my first loves in music. When listening to renaissance music, you can hear early polyphony before they had defined a real classical style of melody and harmony. To me, that’s some of the most interesting music. Film music benefits greatly from this because it often needs a strong melody.
Congratulations on your Outstanding Main Title Theme Music Emmy nomination for The Putin Interviews. This is your eighteenth Emmy nomination and your fifth consecutive year of being up for an award in this category. What would you say are the essential components of writing memorable, striking themes?
Man. I go back to the voice. You should be able to sing a good melody. It should be something that's hummable. I always try to have that element in there. It’s interesting because if you look at House of Cards, for example, that's not as much of a hummable main title. It's more about the bass line, and then the French horn melody. There is a melody in it, but it evolves over a slower period of time.
I would also say that the color of the sound is important and the way you give the listener a picture. A main title sequence is almost like an overture to the whole world that they’re going to be in. It’s a wonderful chance to give the audience an idea of the sound world of the show. For Rome, it was the ancient instruments. For House of Cards, it became the electric bass, trumpet, and drums. I won my first Emmy in this category for my theme song for Monk. It’s a Django Reinhardt style jazz tune, and the color of the instrumentation was so personal and important.
You also need drama. It’s almost like poetry. A good poem is not defined by its length. You never say, "Well, that's a really great poem, but man, it's 300-pages long." A great poem could be one page or even four lines. That concept is really fascinating to me. It’s also can be compared to cooking. How do you take all the ingredients of a sauce and reduce them to their bare essentials, so the flavor becomes so intense and irresistible at the end? How you get to the result is always a mystery to me. It’s always a new discovery.
Often, the trickiest thing about the writing process is that you can’t overthink it. Some of my best ideas have come rather quickly. For The Putin Interviews, this theme was actually a second version I’d done for Oliver, and I’m proud of the nomination because it was a rewrite. It’s something I had to do pretty quickly. I thought his direction was great and it was clear what he wanted. For Putin, we knew we were going into a pretty dark political experience. He didn’t want that to be too obvious to the audience from the get-go. He wanted it to be exciting and invite the listener in, like “Come along with us for this ride.” So, that’s why we went for a march tune of sorts. You can almost picture one of those big parades of tanks going down Red Square when you hear it. It’s certainly got some of the drama and has an intensity. It’s not necessarily nice. It’s militaristic, but it’s also not trying to tell you how to feel about Putin. It was more about presenting the idea that he would have some interesting things to say.
I’m not saying I’m a fan of Putin, but I think one of the most interesting things about the film Oliver made is not only what it tells us about Putin, but what it tells us about ourselves and the time we’re living in. Whenever you someone speak about you from their side of the pond, you learn something. As Americans, we have a very egocentric view of the whole world, and we tend to think of ourselves as the cultural elite. There is a danger in that. Sometimes, we forget what it looks like from the other side. I think this film helps to take the preconceptions away. There are some amazing parallels depicted between Russia and American, exploring the whole idea of fascism. Even though we’re post-Cold-War, we see that these ghosts of superpowers still haunt us.
On a purely musical level, I was drawn to this because I love Russian music and it’s been a big part of what’s influenced me. Some of my favorite music from the European tradition is Igor Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Rimski-Korsakov. Those are some of my real heroes of orchestration and composition. So, the idea that I was able to draw from some of those sources and celebrate them was a fun aspect of The Putin Interviews. In a way, there’s something about the Russian sensibility that is very close to America. It’s very authoritative and confident. We’re talking about countries that basically inhabit a whole continent to themselves. We are the 800-pound gorillas. The music from these cultures takes on a macho bravado.
The Putin Interviews is a magisterial production which documents the intense and revealing exchanges between Vladimir Putin and Academy Award-winning director, Oliver Stone over the course of two years. Can you take us through your creative process of constructing the theme? To what end did you confer with Oliver Stone to define the musical identity of the show?
In this case, I wrote the theme towards the end, so the process was somewhat reverse engineered, which is often helpful to do. I’m a process person, so I have a hard time preconceived what the score is going to be until I do it. It’s more like, ”Okay, I’ll use this. I’ll use that. Let's pull that in there." There are things that exist in the score that probably aren't as prominent in the main title, but the main title certainly has a lot of the elements that are in the score. In fact, one of the fun things that came out of this was that the very end of the show, in the fourth hour, there's a scene where Oliver says goodbye, so he leaves the big palace and Putin's by himself. They had the Russian national anthem playing. You know, the big choir and orchestra piece sung by a big men's chorus.
I always felt that it would be cool if we had our own version of that ending song. To Oliver’s credit, he warned me when he was writing. He went, "Well, you know, Georges Delerue tried to replace Samuel Barber in Platoon several times, and I still kept the temp. You could try that, but I might not use it.” Long story short, once we decided we were going to go in this direction, I tried a version at the end of the movie that used a choir. Even if you listen to the soundtrack, there's a fuller, longer version of the Russian-hymn version of the same theme that we use at the end of the film. In this case, it was really useful because we found our bookends for the whole thing. You obviously hear it every hour. This theme plays four times, but then at the very end of the fourth hour, it is sort of the last thing you hear. We were able to take the theme that was created and also use it as a framing device for the whole show.
I love Oliver as a filmmaker. He's one of my bucket-list directors. One of the things I like best about him is that he is trippy and not content to do conventional Hollywood movies. Every time he does something, he spins it through his very fascinating brain. By hanging out with him and working on the project, I realized just how incredibly intense he is intellectually. The process was so fun. As we were working on the music, he had a notepad, and he was writing down stuff about the music. We were talking about the story, and he was writing things about editing. I was able to see this amazing, very fertile, truly fascinating brain. We really hit it off. Every collaboration is different, but my experience with Oliver was similar to how I felt working with David Fincher. We feel very much like kindred spirits in terms of our process, how we think about film, and what our aesthetic is. It's great to work with somebody that can push you in a different direction. In turn, you understand a different way to tell stories and get inside their head a little bit too.
House of Cards mirrors the larger than life, almost surreal character of American politics. How did you initially conceive the musical palette to draw from and how has it transformed over time? What motifs or instrumentation do associate with the character development of Claire Underwood?
We’ve just wrapped the sixth season. I love episodic television because it’s a chance to take a deep dive into a world musically. I’ve done several other series that have gone on for multiple seasons. I think the longest run I’ve done is still Monk, which went for eight seasons in total. That’s a good compare and contrast because, in the case of Monk, Tony Shalhoub's character starts the first episode with OCD. At the end of eight seasons, he's basically the same person. Part of the gag and the charm of that character is that he’s never going to get better or overcome his condition. That’s just Monk. So, it's this infinite variation of basically the same person over and over again.
From the very beginning, House of Cards was always much more of a linear story. It had this operatic, wonderful sense of evolution with characters coming and going, and power shifting over time. The first thing was the ascent to the throne that Kevin Spacey's character, Frank Underwood undergoes. He begins the story as an underling, as a Democratic whip, and a potential appointee. By the end of the second season, he’s sitting in the big chair in the Oval Office. That’s a huge arc. But then, of course, over the next three seasons, Claire Underwood's character asserts herself more and becomes more of an equal partner to Frank.
In season six, Claire is the lead of the season and obviously becomes the president. Over time, new themes have developed, new sounds have been introduced. I incorporated the use of new instruments to broaden out the world. Once Claire’s character became very important, the idea of the operatic soprano came about, which I love doing in a TV score because it’s just something you never hear unless they needle drop Puccini or something. The idea came from Fincher [David, executive producer of House of Cards] because we were talking about The Godfather and opera. It was like, "Oh, that's great. Frank Underwood has the electric bass, and the drums, and the trumpets." We knew we needed something equally badass for Claire. When you think of a powerful female sound, there’s nothing more awe-inspiring than a dramatic operatic soprano. That’s about as badass as it gets.
Without exposing any spoilers, do you have a musical bag of tricks in store for the final climactic episodes of the series?
Obviously, I can’t say much because you don’t want it to be spoiled, but I actually added one instrument to the palette for season six especially for Claire. Believe it or not, it’s actually a flute. This came out of left field because I wrote a flute concerto for this amazing flutist, which is actually coming out soon. We are releasing the concert version of my House of Cards music with the House of Cards Symphony from the performances I did at the Kennedy Center and many other concert halls.
Long story short, when I was in Minneapolis for the premiere of the flute concerto, I asked Sharon [Bezaly], the soloist who played the concerto, to play some stuff for Claire's character. It was really fun because I felt like, for season six, I already had a good palette established for her, but I wanted to give her character some other sounds. I don’t want to give away any plot points, but because we delve more into her character, I felt like the flute gave me more colors to use for her.
Which projects have allowed you the most creative freedom?
Wow, that's a loaded one. The answer to the most creative freedom I’ve had on a project is easy. Earlier in my career, it was probably the movie, Pollock. I love that film, and it was a great chance to create something that didn’t have a lot of preconceptions as to what it had to be. In terms of more modern things, House of Cards is an obvious choice because I think it was part of what led me back to wanting to write concert music. I feel like, in a selfish way, that music is what I consider to be my personal voice, a reflection of the things I like musically, and I just felt like I really found a home there. I also think that we always felt like we had a big, long, great leash to creatively create because House of Cards was sort of at the beginning of Netflix. It’s been really fun.
Before entering the field of film music, you were a highly prolific jazz artist. Which of your scores have allowed you to channel this skill set?
It was a long time ago, but I remember one of my favorite scores that really derived from that space was a Showtime movie called The Passion of Ayn Rand. It starred Helen Mirren, Eric Stoltz, and Peter Fonda. Great movie and the director had it all temped with Chet Baker and Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool. That was fun.
Right now, I’m doing a really cool documentary about Jay Sebring, who was a very famous hairdresser in Hollywood. He became the first guy ever to do men’s hair within a salon aesthetic and say, “This is art. This isn’t just a trip to the barber.” He’s got a fascinating story because he came up during the Golden Age of Hollywood and the time of the Rat Pack. It’s also tragic because he was, at one time, romantically involved with Sharon Tate. It was actually his house where the Manson killings took place, and he was a victim, which is absolutely horrible. Long story short, his nephew is making this wonderful documentary about him. There is a lot of jazz in the score, and it’s always great when the story enables me to do that.
It’s funny but I also feel like my definition of what jazz is has expanded so greatly. I love improvisation of all sorts, so film music consistently gives me the opportunity to incorporate it into the process. Every time I sit down and compose, I feel like that jazz voice in me has free reign because it’s a part of everything I’m doing. I also find that I’m a process person. It’s not often that a tune comes to me and then I have to go write it down. My system is always set up in a way where it’s always recording, or I can hit a key, and it will remember whatever I played. I often work in that way, just looking for the chance accidents to happen.
The other thing that’s very exciting for me, in terms of creative freedom, is that I’m doing a lot more concert commissions. I'm going to have a piece for the St. Louis Symphony this year; I'm writing a song cycle. I'm doing a symphonic work for the New West Symphony and several other pieces. So, these commissions are really fun for me because I don't have the constraint of a film in terms of timing and structure. I’m very proud of being a film composer, but we are often serving the greater whole. In a way, I am returning to my roots of being a performer and having a chance to develop my own narrative again. I’ve really missed it. It's fun just to let the music be the focus for an audience and enjoy that experience on a different level. I think it engages your brain in a completely different way.
Much of your work has magnified emotionally fraught landscapes, psychological games, bitter truths, and battles with adversity. How do you mentally prepare yourself to drop into these highly complex projects?
You know, I often say, "I don't think you choose your jobs. I think they choose you." So, for whatever reason, that tends to be where my musical voice naturally finds its home. I love the idea of music as storytelling. I love when music can be cathartic. When you have these emotionally and morally complex characters, that's really where the drama lies. I'm an admirer of spectacle movies, but it's never been where my career has gone, and I’m not surprised by that. I think my gift is understanding human drama and helping to score great acting, and great writing. That tends to be where I feel like I do my best work and I’m very grateful for it. I’m also glad to have had the chance to do some comedies. Not everyone’s dark, but when I look at all the shows I’ve done, even Monk and Ugly Betty were very much driven by the actors’ performances and real emotional journeys.
I’ve also done a lot of documentaries recently, and that wasn’t something I set out to do, but I keep getting called, so that tells me that people like what I do for them. It’s dangerous because they’re a ton of work. I just recorded one the other day, and it was probably 78 minutes of music. The thing that’s fascinating about them is that real life often contained material that is just as compelling and complicated as the best dramas. The best dramas try to imbue these stories with unpredictability and brokenness. Good drama doesn’t always tell you how to feel, and that’s important to me when I write for these characters. You never want to editorialize your subjects. You let them speak for themselves and try to set up your world. That’s often what I'm trying to do — channel the truth of a character no matter how imperfect, bad, or good they might be.
As you have had more and more success over the years, what have been the most significant differences in your approach to music and your life?
I think I'm much more relaxed about accidents and unexpected things happening. Through decades of living, I think life teaches you that you don't know what's going to happen, but that's okay. Some of the most interesting things are not planned or preconceived. I’m more open to the idea that life is an adventure. When I look back on some of the most amazing things that have evolved, they weren’t premeditated artistically. It’s been a process, but I think I’m much more comfortable with that now. I’ve always loved making music, I always enjoyed it, but I think, now, I enjoy it even more. I’m very proud of that because, at a certain point in your career, it can be dangerous to get comfortable and cash the check because you know how to do it. I never wanted for the creative process to become rote or mechanical.
From my perspective, there are many easier ways to have a career and make a living outside of being an artist, right? So, we have to have fun doing this. When I record, it’s got to be fun. Writing has to be fun. Over time, I’ve gotten better at finding, preserving, and fostering the joy of it, because if that’s not there, then there's no reason to put yourself through all that work. The art is worth it, but the idea that the process is one that's actually fulfilling in its own intrinsic way is part of what makes it so unique and rewarding. I think you can hear that in the music. You hear that freedom. There are no barriers to it. As an artist, how do you get all the noise out of the way, exterior and internal, and just create? That doesn’t mean that you're reflective, critical, and really striving for excellence every step of the way. That’s part of the process, but it’s this constant seeking of this space where you just say, "yes" for a while, and then you can step back and look at it. It's easy to be cynical about all of these things, but it's more interesting to me to actually believe and to try to manifest that.
Art is so important now because we’re living in an incredibly difficult time, politically, morally, financially, and otherwise. It can feel like a selfish world because we’ve elected a billionaire who’s self-involved, greedy, and completely egomaniacal. Two things about this climate are important for artists. One is that we address this in our art. I think these periods of oppressive politics are great for art because we tend to push back against that in a forceful way. I also think it's important to keep our center healthier than the external world if we can. You look at people in these repressive cultures, countries who have survived for decades, or sometimes millennia, under oppressive regimes… They find a way to remain sane. I think we’re all doing that in our own way right now.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Jeff Beal and The Krakower Group.