Beal's Towering House of Cards
Jeff Beal scores the new hit Netflix miniseries.
By Justin Craig

When HBO’s hit series Rome ended (or fell, if you will), composer Jeff Beal was eager to return to another politically charged show. Six years and an exhaustive resume later, Beal joined David Fincher and Kevin Spacey in mining the underbelly of Beltway politics with House of Cards, a remake of the 1990 BBC miniseries, itself an adaptation from the novel by Michael Dobbs.

“And thus I clothe my naked villainy with odd old ends stolen out of holy writ,” Shakespeare’s Richard III orated, “And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” Therein lies Francis Underwood (Spacey), the dastardly manipulative and conniving Majority Whip for the House of Representatives, who, like the malevolent king, wears a public face of magnanimity but is truly a devil in disguise. When the President-elect passes over Frank as his choice for Secretary of State, the spurned Congressman joins his wife Claire (Robin Wright) in an elaborate scheme to turn the Washington D.C. chessboard in their favor to rise to the country’s highest office.

A highly intellectual beast and predator in a tailored suit, Underwood methodically picks off Washington’s top players one at a time. To arrive there he meticulously provides planned exposure and coverage to sprightly, doe-eyed young journalist Zoe (Kate Mara) in exchange for control of breaking media coverage. Another pawn on Underwood’s board is struggling substance abuser Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), a fellow Congressman from Pennsylvania.  

For Beal, shows like House of Cards and Rome are attractive because, compositionally, they play like a long movie. “When you tell a story that’s very linear, with these little battles and skirmishes, the music, as a device, wants to follow all those beats,” Beal said, from his home in Los Angeles. 

Beal is a composer’s composer, a musician who defies categorization, a notion that allows him to effortlessly move from one medium to another. He has composed classical commissions for many renowned orchestras, such as his Clarinet Concerto for the Chicago Symphony’s Larry Combs and Interchange for String Quartet and Orchestra, performed and recorded by the Turtle Island String Quartet. Also an accomplished jazz musician, Beal has composed a number of jazz recordings, some of them solo efforts with the maestro on trumpet.

But it was his score to the Ed Harris docu-drama Pollock that placed him as one to watch among the rising crop of Hollywood composers. His film work also includes another Harris film, the western Appaloosa, the William H. Macy drama Door to Door and the still-unreleased film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, starring Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain. Beal also has an impressive roster of television work, from HBO’s Carnivale, Rome and the short-lived Luck to ABC’s Ugly Betty and USA’s Monk. He has also scored almost two dozen documentaries, including the recent Sundance hit Blackfish, about the consequences of keeping killer whales in captivity. Magnolia Pictures will roll that out in theaters this summer.

Nearly half a decade ago, an ad agency brought Beal aboard a television commercial that would air during a coveted Super Bowl time slot. The director for the spot: David Fincher. Fincher, already aware of Beal’s music for Rome, struck up a friendship with the composer, so when a few years later Beal heard his old commercial director was looking for a composer for a new political series starring Kevin Spacey, he immediately threw his name into the ring. He sent Fincher a reel with some musical ideas and waited. Things came to a head when Fincher hired John Melfi, a producer Beal previously worked with on Rome. “John also pitched me,” Beal quips, “So [Fincher] was hearing it from all sides.”

Darkening the House: Director David Fincher.

Though a conventionally made dramatic series, House of Cards’ release was anything but. Netlfix purchased the distribution rights for the Media Rights Capital-produced series, and in an unprecedented move, released all 13 episodes at once. This game-changing approach affected Beal because traditionally a television composer is still scoring the latter half of a season while the first half has already been aired and seen by the public. That wasn’t so with House of Cards, which Beal says, “was weird not having it out there after working on it for so long.”

However, like a traditional series, Beal was still scoring while future episodes were being shot. “David directed the first two and I don’t think I really started writing until he had finished shooting those,” Beal said. “By the time he was finished with those episodes there were a few more ready to go. As soon I finished one episode, I would say to the guys, okay, start sending me the next one.”

MRC financed House of Cards before partnering with Netflix and by maintaining in-house control, they saw to it that the show was made with the utmost respect to creativity. Beal says one of the initial deals between MRC, Fincher and Spacey was that they would be allowed to make the best show possible without any interference. This, too, extended to the music. “We felt like we had free reign. Like it was a really big-budget independent movie, where there’s not a lot of layers of corporate producers overseeing you. You’re just making the best thing you can and hope it’s going to resonate with people.”

Beal started composing the series proper in June of 2012 and worked steadily until the close of the year, although he began sending Fincher some sketches as early as March, some of which evolved into the series’ primary themes. 

Though classically trained and used to having a picture in front of him when starting a project, Beal was inspired this time around by Fincher’s previous collaborators, Oscar-winning duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. For The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Reznor and Ross scored away from picture and Fincher inserted their compositions into the edit, sculpting the film and music together. 

Intrigued by that alternative, Beal began writing cues before Fincher shot the first episode. The first idea to capture was the main title sequence, which would feature ominous shots of Washington D.C. at twilight. During their discussions, Fincher played Beal the second half of Supertramp’s song “Crime of the Century” (jump to around 4:45 to hear the material in question). They were inspired by a vamp section which has strings and solo sax soaring on top of the rhythm section. “One of the things we got out of that was this combination of elements and genres meshing together, a more traditional sound and then a grittier, harder side to it,” Beal said. “That, to us, felt very much like the story. House of Cards is not like The West Wing. It’s not the idolized or aspirational version of what we wish our politicians were. It’s the complete ‘seeing the sausage made’ in Washington. All the stuff you don’t want to know about that goes on. Of course it’s an exaggeration of reality—I don’t know, maybe it isn’t.”

One of Fincher’s suggestions for the main title was a call to arms, or a militaristic feel. One of the elements Beal discovered in the main theme, especially within the orchestrations of low strings and French horns, was a dark heroism and gravitas. “That helped me find a core that really resonated with [Frank]. The thing about Frank Underwood is that he is an absolutely despicable human being, but the stakes are real. This is the leadership of the country, it’s not like trying to become CEO of a company. His music needed to have that sort of weight and importance.”

Beal initially made four sketches for Fincher based on four scripts by the series’ developer and writer, Beau Willimon. Three of those sketches eventually became major themes. One was a stripped-down sketch that had the seeds for the main title theme. Another sketch, casually called the “puppet master theme,” underscored Frank’s ability to meticulously undo and destroy his opponents. A final sketch was a more pensive and interior theme, which Beal unveils in the first episode during a two-minute sequence without any dialogue where Frank contemplates how he is going to build his political house of cards. Beal worked with Kirk Baxter, Fincher’s editor on the first two episodes, to find homes for these sketches and help create the foundation for all the music to come later.

Though Beal collaborated with a few of the directors throughout the season, like James Foley and Carl Franklin, Fincher was the creative point-person all through the 13 episodes, which Beal says that was great for him “because on any series it’s good to have a consistent relationship. Obviously, each director is going to have their own vision and their preferences.”

As the creative point-person, Fincher gave Beal a long creative leash, allowing the composer to spot the show to his liking. But Beal found much of his inspiration from Fincher’s indelible visual style. The director sets the mood in the first two episodes with his signature cold and sleek visuals, a grittiness reminiscent of classic 1970s thrillers, which the composer says, “had this cloud of dread hovering over the whole place. I was trying to do that, too, with the music, to put the audience in that twisted dream world.”

“Men rise from one ambition to another,” Machiavelli wrote, “first, they seek to secure themselves against attack, and then they attack others.” While Frank and company aren’t the most empathetic characters living in this fictional Machiavellian world, Beal worked to infuse some humanity into the show via the music. Instead of writing music that would allow the audience to empathize in any overt way with Frank, Claire, Zoe or Peter, Beal took a different approach by showing that the real human cost. During the second episode, Claire fires half of her staff at her nonprofit. Afraid her emotions will betray her, she asks her assistant to fire the staff. Once the staff has been cut, Claire turns and fires her assistant. Claire, in a rare moment, shows some empathy as she witnesses the consequences and Beal scores the moment with a tender anthem. 

That same theme returns a few scenes later, now under a montage with Frank methodically destroying an opponent’s chances of becoming Secretary of State, Claire’s assistant packing up her belongings, to finally landing on Frank, like Deep Throat, discreetly meeting Zoe to prime her on who will be the next choice to be Secretary of State.

Beal says when he “tried that theme over it, I was really fascinated because I felt like what that music did wasn’t so much trying to humanize Frank, it made me feel that the human cost was real. The toll he takes on people is something you want the audience to feel. It’s really a tricky thing because you don’t want to make him into a monster, either.” Coincidentally, an analogy Fincher mentioned to Beal during one of the spotting sessions stuck with him: “A gila monster doesn’t know that it’s this horrible, voracious creature. It just is.” 

Beal’s score is based around the four central characters: Frank, Claire, Zoe and Peter Russo. There was no shortage of material between Frank and Claire for Beal to find inspiration. “I think it’s one of the most fascinating relationships I’ve ever scored. It’s completely functional in one way, but then on another level it’s completely dysfunctional. It’s not what a traditional marriage is, though they do have these little rituals.”

Beal gave the power couple a “noirish sound with the piano. Slightly sophisticated.” Frank and Claire are like two sharks always on the move, chomping at the bit to get to that coveted top spot. Their matrimonial moments don’t mirror those of ordinary people; sharing a cigarette out their window on moonlit nights and plotting their rise is anything but simplistic. However, the two occasionally drop the facade and display genuine affection for one another.

Like an anthropologist observing this couple’s ritualistic behavior, Beal paints a musical tapestry that covers their Machiavellian scheming to their fleeting moments of affection. The noirish piano motif rolls and slinks over a groveling bass and slight electronic texture, creating an ebb and flow of tenderness and unease. “I like the idea of pushing things up against each other,” says Beal. “Like taking very sweet or melodic or very lyrical and then sort of putting something else up against it that’s like, ‘Something’s off here. Something’s wrong.’”

Peter and Christina (his Congressional aid) have the biggest arc throughout the season. While their relationship begins as a fling in the pilot, it evolves to a more bittersweet romance. Beal follows their evolution with piano growing into a full string orchestra as the season and their relationship progresses. Russo, a recovering alcoholic running for the governorship of Pennsylvania, is a classic fallen hero and Beal scores the character with a sense of troubled longing. To remind the audience of Russo’s fallibility, Beal creates a gesture of dissonance by using a minor third in the melody against a major chord in the harmony. “I did quite a bit of that in the string writing, whether they were minus ninths or plus ninths, wide spacings but very dissonant harmonies. Sometimes it sounds strange when you first play it, but when it’s played by real groups it can be really lyrical and beautiful but also very dark and twisted and sad.” Beal even introduces a duduk (which he learned to play while composing Rome) for Peter as he starts to descend down the rabbit hole.



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.