An Interview with Dennis McCarthy by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.9/No.35/1990
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
Dennis McCarthy’s professional music career began in the late 1960’s as a keyboardist and arranger for Glen Campbell’s TV show. After four years on the popular variety show. McCarthy began doing orchestrations for Alex North on the film WISE BLOOD, and scored a small and ‘unnamed film in England before finding a niche in Hollywood television scoring. He scored the second half of the mini-series, V: THE FINAL BATTLE, writing an hour of music (scored for 60-plus musicians) in only nine days. McCarthy went on to score V: THE SERIES as well as episodes of MCGYVER, DYNASTY and the new POLICE STORY and TWILIGHT ZONE shows before being selected as one of the two main composers for the new STAR TREK series. Interviewed in 1988 at the start of TREK’s second season. McCarthy described in detail his musical approach to scoring the series.
How did you get involved with STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION?
There were a couple of things that occurred. I had started doing MCGYVER over at Paramount, and did a few other Paramount-related projects. When this show came along some people recommended me to the STAR TREK producers, Bob Justman and Rick Berman, and they apparently knew of my work on V and TWILIGHT ZONE and so everything came together very nicely on that. It’s a great show to be working on.
Now you scored the show’s pilot episode. What kind of music were they looking for initially?
We spotted quite a bit of music. The episode had quite a bit of music In It, and the main request was to keep it lush and romantic and try to sound like a hundred guys out of the thirty-six or thirty-eight that we used. I did a lot of orchestral things and using synthesizers to beef It up, and try to make It sound like more instruments, and like the a more romantic movie, instead of – being pure science fiction. Now, as the show has progressed, we’ve been getting a lot more experimental with the music, and doing a lot of orchestral effects, a lot more synthesizers. The synthesizers are actually having more importance in the score than they did on the original series. My score to “The Conspiracy”, for example, really had the orchestra as a giant sound effects machine, with melodies occasionally shrieking out of it and then going back to lurk in the underground.
There’s been a lot of different things. On “The Big Goodbye,” the 1940’s show we did that won the Peabody Award, we actually went back and forth trying to decide — Bob Justman, Rick Berman and myself — whether we should play some of the music as a Period piece, and at the last minute, after I’d already written some of the cues in a 40’s style, we decided not to, and to let the visuals speak for themselves, and score the situations the way we would for any other episode. I still did some things like, In one reflective moment In the show when they’re finally away from danger, I took the song “You Came From Nowhere” and did a real nice string melody with clarinet, sax and flute lines over it, so we did touch on the 40s there in just that one moment, a little upright bass and acoustic piano.
How would you describe your overall approach to scoring the series?
Boy that’s a great question! What I try to do, it’s like when I was doing the TWILIGHT ZONE, each show has Its own character, each episode, so what I do, generally we’ll spot It, and there’s plenty of time to write on STAR TREK, it’s not like some shows where you spot on Friday, score on Monday. There’s a lot of time, so you can watch the show a few times, without writing a note, just thinking about what’s going to best fit into the show. I watch all the shows when they air, so I can see, and I go to dubbing quite often to see how the music is dovetailing into It, and then, for instance, on “The Conspiracy”, I took a look at the show, and from another show that had some of these sort of supernatural elements In it I figured that I had better keep away from the orchestral sound and from anything too melodic and really just play the emotions and the horror of what’s going on during the episode, so each show just requires you to sit down for a couple of days and think about it, tackle It the best you can to help it out.
Do you take each episode individually or do you more go for an overall series type effect?
I take them individually. I like to use the Courage theme simply because an old STAR TREK fan and it has a warm place in my heart. But once I get past just letting the audience know that we’re back into the show, now the commercials are over, each show is totally different. On “Hide and Q,” where Ryker was endowed with this tremendous power and there were some very sad scenes where a child died, and I played those straight out of the 1890’s, just very traditionally orchestral and very quiet and very tonal, and but then for the rest of the show, it was pretty dissonant.
To what extent are you required or have you been asked to use the Courage or Goldsmith themes in your episode scores?
Actually, they’re very open about that, it’s pretty much my choice. I haven’t had an opportunity to work with the Goldsmith theme very much because I haven’t seemed to have had shows that needed that kind of a theme; it’s very triumphant, and that sense doesn’t happen that often in the shows that I do. I generally use the Courage theme as the theme for the ship, whenever you’re seeing an exterior shot of the Enterprise, I will generally hit the Courage theme. That’s just my own choice.
How do you feel the music for your episodes complement or contrast with those that Ron Jones scores?
I think we just instinctively do pretty much the same thing. When I see one of Ron’s shows, the only thing I notice is that I will tend to use the orchestra a little more and Ron leans towards the synthesizers a little more.
About how much music do you generally write, or have to write, per episode?
It’s running twenty-four, twenty-six minutes an episode, sometimes as small as eighteen or nineteen, but generally you try to keep it in the low- to mid-twenties.
You’ve said you tend to use orchestra more in your scores. How do the synthesizers figure in with your particular scoring?
I’ll use them for a couple of purposes. One Is to beef up the strings or the lower brass to make It try to sound like a larger orchestra, and the other Is to use them as a discreet section, the same as I would have used, say, an oboe or a flute or a clarinet to play a solo line back five or ten years ago, now I’ll use something out of one of the machines. I’ve got a whole pile of them here at the house, and some of them I can work and some of them fight me a lot! When I use electronics and synthesizers, I give the players an area of sound and let them do their own sequencing and see what sounds they have developed. I give the synth players freedom in their own sound selection.
About how long of a time do you have to do each episode?
Generally there’s ten days, so it’s quite a bit of time.
That’s something compared to the stories you usually hear about television with horrendous budgets and deadlines!
Right, and that’s another thing. We have to stay within limits, but there have been no problems at all in getting what we need to create the sound we want, and that really makes It easier to write, because you have more orchestral areas that you can go to. I use a guitar but I basically use it as a synthesizer, and one of the woodwinds is an electronic wood, and the percussionists are half-acoustic, half-electric, and I use two synth players with their full regalia. I’m using a lot of synthesizer but one of the differences between the way Ron does his and the way I do mine, which Is just personal taste, is that he will have one session will full orchestra and then break it down to a session with a smaller number of guys with basically just electronics, and what I will tend to do is keep the orchestra all the way through every cue so that when I have a cue that Is pure synthesizer, at some point I’ll reintroduce the orchestra just to give it a change of color.
I know one of the things they had with the original series was that composers would not score each episode; they’d score certain episodes and have their music used as library cues throughout the rest of it by the music editor. Do you find anything like that going on in the new series?
No, so far every episode has been scored individually. I started on the first season by doing the pilot episode, and then I’ve since done every other episode, so Ron and I just alternate. Matter of fact I do the odd numbered ones and he does the even numbered ones, so it’s easy to keep track of. For instance, with V I did every episode, so I became very old in a year!
Have you done any themes for characters or situations in STAR TREK episodes that you’ve re-used yourself?
Yeah, I have a theme, as a matter of fact it’s on the CD, the last cue on side 2 which is called “Main Title Alternate”, and it’s the theme that I use for Captain Picard. I felt a need for one, I tried to use the Goldsmith when I was first writing the pilot episode, but, I needed something straightforward that I could stretch out a lot…
A little softer, I guess.
How would you describe that theme yourself?
Very melodic, melodic and heroic would be the best.
Is there any exchanging of themes between you and Ron in your episodes?
Not really. Between the Goldsmith and the Courage, that’s plenty.
Any other comments on scoring STAR TREK and being involved in that?
Well, I wish that I could get more shows like it. It’s really great, and it’s a very pleasant show to work with because the atmosphere is, everybody involved with the production is having a great time, they’re all enjoying working on the show and it shows in the final product.