An Interview with Dennis McCarthy by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.82/2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and by Randall D. Larson
Dennis McCarthy has scored dozens of Star Trek episodes for every show since THE NEXT GENERATION. He provided the theme for DEEP SPACE NINE and scored the feature STAR TREK GENERATIONS. His music is also heard in dozens of TV-movies and several features, including McHALE’S NAVY (1997) and ALIEN FURY: COUNTDOWN TO INVASION. On ENTERPRISE, McCarthy shares episode composing duties with fellow Trek veteran Jay Chattaway as well as composers Paul Baillergeon, David Bell, and Velton Ray Bunch, although as composer of the pilot episode he was able to set the tone for the series, and also composed “Archer’s Theme,” which became the show’s End Title cue. We spoke with Dennis on May 17th, after he finished scoring ENTERPRISE’S first season finale, to discuss is efforts on the new STAR TREK show.
Coming onto ENTERPRISE, what did you find different about this show from the other STAR TREK series that you’ve worked on?
This show takes place before the Prime Directive [the rule forbidding Starfleet personnel from interfering with the normal development of alien life and culture] was established, so as a result, it’s a much more muscular show. This is the first time they’ve ever really been able to use the Warp and go out and really explore space; there’s a freshness to this show that we tried to follow in the music.
It’s almost a way of re-exploring the series from the start, looking at these characters and their exploratory mission in a fresh way…
Exactly. Not that the other series didn’t have that, but they were set in a time when their crews had already been out in space. On ENTERPRISE, you have the wonder of the first time anyone ever got into space and really saw what other species and other worlds were like – truly exploring new worlds for the first time. So we decided to make the music more percussive-oriented, because these guys are really heading out into the unknown. There’s more drive to the music, there’s more power being provided through the symphonic orchestral forces, and also we’re mixing in a lot of techno synthesizer/sampler technology and a lot of electronic percussion, which we shied away from in the previous three series.
Your musical approach to ENTERPRISE emphasizes electronics and percussion much more than, say, DEEP SPACE NINE or VOYAGER.
At the original meetings for the pilot, Rick Berman told me he ‘wanted something that is fresh and new and yet, when you hear it, you still know it is STAR TREK as we have created it in the last three series.’ So we’re still using the same size orchestra, but now the synthesizer players, instead of adding occasional alien voices or unusual effects, are actually becoming a separate entity within the orchestra. A lot of the drive and power is coming from the two synth players and the two percussionists. Also, George Doering, on the guitar, is a big component of the new sound. In the past he was sitting on his synthesizer simply rumbling along with the basses or the low-end, occasionally doing something unusual, and now he is providing some of the true strangeness from the guitar effects. I’m also using a little bit of mandolin, very little acoustic guitar, and quite a bit of rock guitar. It’s subtle, not big slamming chords, but I’m using a lot of the reverb and distortion and chorusing effects that only a guitar can give you. So we’re getting the power and the drive from the synth players, which are Jim Cox and Tom Rainier on percussion, Joe Porcaro does the acoustic percussion, and Ralph Humphrey is basically running a Triton box and doing all the heavy-duty synthesizer percussive effects while George is providing some truly unusual sounds using his guitar/quasi synth. That’s become almost a foundation for what the orchestra is doing. In the past I would never, ever have used guitar only or synths, guitar, and percussion only. Now, I’ll let 45 seconds or almost a minute of some sequences go by that are simply these five guys. Then, when the orchestra comes in, it adds those tremendous colors that only a true orchestra can give you, and all of a sudden, the sound expands. I love that – it’s a wonderful effect. That’s basically what’s happened to the sound.
I’m going to ask about the title song a bit later, but what can you tell me about your theme for the series, which is heard on the End Credits?
Actually it relates to the song. I knew pretty much from the start that it would be the Diane Warren song. It’s a beautiful song, I do like it, but the song did not translate well as an End Credit, because it’s written for a vocalist, not as an instrumental. So I told Rick I needed to have something thematic that I can tie my wagon to, in order to carry the glorious moments of first going to warp, and the great unknown, for battle sequences, and for moments of success. For a song that is written for a singer, specifically, and not as an instrumental, for heroic purposes, I was out in the cold. So I asked if it was okay if I wrote a theme, and he said, sure. And then I asked if it would offend anybody if I wrote it to the Main Title, because the way my brain is wired, I have a difficult time writing music unless I see a visual, which is why I’m not a songwriter and I never will be. And I saw those wonderful, fabulous graphics and the artwork and the footage that they used in the Main Title, and I came up with my theme in about 20 minutes. It’s called “Archer’s Theme” and it is timed directly to the Main Title. Rick heard it and now it’s become the End Credits to the show this season. Every now and then, if I have a really heroic moment in the show, I’ll use it. But keeping to the parameters that have always been defined in all the STAR TREKs, I don’t use the theme all the time. Rick wants the music to affect and move our viewers emotionally without hitting them over the head with a melody. So I use it very sparingly, I use it maybe once or twice every two shows, and then it’s usually just a fragment. But for the pilot, there were huge moments where I could use it – when they first take off in the Warp, and the ending.
What can you tell me about the genesis of the song? I know it’s been rather controversial among fan circles, who expected the kind of theme we’ve come to expect from STAR TREK – grand, glorious, and symphonic, and all of a sudden we have this song from PATCH ADAMS resurfacing as the Main Title music for ENTERPRISE.
I like the song, but I don’t understand what the song represents to the show. I’ve felt a moment of inspiration on Alexander Courage’s horn fanfare, Jerry’s NEXT GENERATION and VOYAGER themes, even my DEEP SPACE NINE theme which I think have defined what STAR TREK’s supposed to be. Rick heard it in PATCH ADAMS and loved it, and decided to acquire it for the ENTERPRISE main title. If you get a chance, take the ENTERPRISE soundtrack CD and play “Archer’s Theme” against the visuals for the Main Title, and you’ll find out where the hits are.
What would you say were the biggest challenges of scoring this series, versus the other TREK series you’ve worked on?
To give it a sense of freshness, a sense of something we hadn’t heard before, and yet still, as Rick has asked, to maintain the spirit of the STAR TREK sound. And I kept thinking, “Orchestrally, what can I do?” Well, I can’t go much further than what we’re already doing. When we get to the mysterioso stuff and the suspense moments, there’s always a tendency to go with Penderecki and Ligeti and mid-20th Century classical writing style, which I love. Also a traditional kind of Holst and Richard Strauss and Wagner power for the battle sequences. We’ve always gone that way with a tremendous amount of French horns. The French horns are what I feel give us the STAR TREK sound, so I decided to retain them, and then I wondered “what else can I do with the orchestra that I haven’t already done?” And short of having them all just play the highest note they can and hold it, there’s not a whole lot that would give us any fresh ground here, so that’s when I came up with the idea that we are closer to our time, so why don’t we think more in terms of Eurotech, and that’s what I’ve done. There are places where I not only do that but the orchestra gets more into a minimalist approach than I ever did on the other series. There are moments where they’re just doing a constantly hypnotic, almost droning thing but with strange motion through it, and I let the synthesizers and the percussion actually catch the big moments. That’s what I’ve done in ENTERPRISE – which we would not have done nor would not have been highly appreciated on the other series because we thought of them in a purely orchestral form. It’s opened a lot of new doors, and it seems like on this show the weirder I get, the happier everybody is! We’re not only pushing the envelope, we’ve opened it up! We can pretty much do anything we want, so long as we stay true to the sort of French horn thematic ideas.
I guess you could kind of define your approach as one of “Euro-Trek” then?
That would be it exactly! Euro-Trek!
You’re still interchanging with the other composers that work on it?
Oh yes, there’s four other guys. Rick and Peter Lauritson come up with a schedule, and they may feel that certain composers are best suited for certain types of episodes, and that’s how they divide it up. Fortunately, I seemed to have gotten some of the larger episodes. The one I just did, the season finale where the Suliban are reintroduced, was 28 1/2 minutes of music, all big stuff, and all dark and brooding.
Now you’ve also done other stuff outside of STAR TREK, of course. You did ALIEN FURY a couple of years ago…
Oh yeah, ALIEN FURY was a lot of fun. John Beal really came in and pulled my fat out of the fire on that one. I have the equipment here at the house, but I’m used to writing with pencil and paper. I’m John Henry versus the Steam Hammer and I refuse to admit that the Steam Hammer has won, even though it has! John did a great job laying down the synth tracks, and then I brought in the orchestra and put it on top of what he had done on selected cues, so it really was a great combination.
Then I did PROJECT GREENLIGHT, which is that crazy show about that film contest, and that was really fun to do. I brought George, Tom, Jim, Ralph Humphrey, Kenny Wild on bass, and the five guys and myself did the shows, and just did rock and roll, funk, groove, you know, percussion, drum solos and all!