Frank and Zoe’s “Deep Throat” relationship becomes more complicated as the season progresses. Beal sees Zoe as an underdeveloped version of Frank, a reporter who trades her sexuality for access to Frank’s secret inside-the-Beltway information. “With Frank and Zoe, it’s all about deception and manipulation. So their music tends to be much darker and complicated.”
Beal weaves Frank, Claire and Zoe together with a new theme introduced during the tenth episode when Claire confronts Zoe for the first time about her relationship with Frank. “It has a piano ostinato, but it’s much more tragic piece of music. It has all these moving lines. It has a motor to it, a rhythm. It connected Claire leaving, Frank going to see Zoe and then Frank freaking out because he doesn’t know where Claire is. It was a crucial scene because it’s where the relationships Frank has with these two women really start to come to a head.”
Piano and strings dominate the score, creating a brisk and chilly palette to complement Fincher’s dark tone. But it’s the electric bass that immediately grabs our attention at the start of the title sequence, and its predatory ostinato recurs throughout the remainder of the score acting like the show’s pulse. Beal recalls Fincher’s “nickname for it was the riptide, the idea of something coming under that you don’t see and then BOOM! You’re dragged undersea.”
Ostinato rhythms frequent the score, especially in the strings, providing a kinetic momentum complementing Spacey’s dynamic performance. Yet, Beal also used strings to convey a “sense of wit and irony,” which is evident during the president’s inauguration in the first episode. “We pull back and Frank is looking at us directly. I tried a sort of bouncy, march-like riff on the strings that Fincher really liked, and that became one of our important humorous motifs, hopefully giving the audience permission to laugh.”
Piano, though, was one of the first instruments Beal and Fincher discussed during the sketching period. Fincher, referring again to Supertramp’s “Crime of the Century,” in addition to the soaring strings, specifically pointed out the piano line. “Piano can be emotional and tender,” Beal says. “But it can also be very clinical. I like minimalism, so piano can sort of layer on itself in very cool ways. You can have these collages of lines, which I thought was a very good metaphor for the way Frank’s mind works.”
Since politics and religion are rarely inseparable, the allusions to faith and ritual weave in and out of the series. At one point specifically, Frank delivers a sermon to his constituents who are mourning the loss of a young girl who died as a consequence of a faulty policy. Later in the series, Frank, with a growing albatross due to one of his misdeeds, finds himself in an empty church. Beal accompanies the religious allusions with subtle use of choir and voices.
Beal is somewhat a rarity among today’s film composers in that he orchestrates his own scores, something, the composer says, he doesn’t often publicize. “For me it’s a no-brainer,” Beal muses. “As I’m writing, I’m orchestrating anyway. As I’m playing in my parts, I pretty much know how I want it to be played.” Granted, the size of the project also made self-orchestrating feasible. “If I or someone else was working on a much bigger film with a much bigger orchestra, where I didn’t have the time to do that sort of thing, it might be a different balance. One of the things this type of show, with this type of scale gives me and makes me happy, is I get to personalize the music. When I look at my heroes like the classical composers, what made their orchestral music special was their sense of putting it together. For me it’s hard to separate orchestration as not part of the compositional intent.” Perhaps another reason Beal orchestrates his own scores: he is a self-proclaimed introvert. “I wouldn’t know what to do if I had a bunch of people around me asking me what to do,” Beal laughs. “For me that creates more stress and more work.”
He takes it one step further: “I’m kind of a madman about producing my own music. I pretty much record my own scores and I mix all my scores. I often say that the timbre of the score is probably 50 percent of what it does against picture. That’s something that the more I learn and the more I do this, I always try to find new ways of playing with sound and using the palette.”
Beal was conscious of orchestrating around the dialogue, citing the string orchestra “living okay with dialogue.” Also, bass and electric bass were sonically useful—for the most part—because they were in a register that didn’t fight with the dialogue. Fincher, too, was conscious of the orchestrations. “David’s got great ears,” Beal says. “There was one actor in one of the episodes who interrogates Peter Russo. He’s trying to develop this dossier on him. He has this very low voice. I remember I sent the first version of the cue to David and he said, ‘That’s great, but it has a lot of bass against his voice.’ So I had to add some more mid-range stuff to it. It’s just vibing with the frequencies of their voices.”
House of Cards became a family affair during the recording. Jeff’s son Henry performed electric bass, creating the groovy, predatory ostinato synonymous with Frank. Though it varied throughout the season, the string orchestra was composed of roughly 17 players. Jeff, too, performed on the score, playing piano, trumpet and duduk.
Beal composed six-plus hours of music over 13 episodes, roughly 23 minutes per episode. With those hours behind him, he is looking forward to season two, and even though production doesn’t begin for another month or two, Beal is already at work creating sketches for Fincher and will begin composing the first episode in June. He says the director has already found inspiration from a new song, like he did with “Crime of the Century” for season one, and though the composer isn’t spilling any beans, dropped this tidbit: “It’s going even darker.”
You can follow Justin on Twitter: @Justin_M_Craig.