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Talking with ‘House of Cards’ Emmy-winning composer Jeff Beal

By Jennifer Walden

As the saying goes, “the third time’s the charm,” and that was certainly true for Emmy-winning composer Jeff Beal. With two previous nominations for his score of Netflix’s House of Cards under his belt, this time Beal took home the statue for “Outstanding Music Composition for a Series.” The winning episode was “Chapter 32” (Season 3, Episode 6), in which President Frank Underwood and First Lady Claire visit Russian President Petrov to hash out a deal to release imprisoned American activist Michael Corrigan, who was arrested for advocating for LGBT rights in Russia.

Chapter 32 is a good example of how Beal has been able to grow his score alongside the show for the past three seasons. While his music still feels like it’s coming from the same musical world, the sonic palette has grown as the geography of the show has become wider. “Frank becomes president, and we go to Russia and there is a whole storyline about the Middle East,” explains Beal. “Each season we’ve had a lot of new themes that come in and help bring music into the storytelling and into those areas that we are exploring.”

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The Sound of Geography
Throughout the Russian scenes, Beal used a more Eastern European sense of melody and harmony, drawing inspiration from his favorite Russian composers, such as Igor Stravinsky, and Dmitri Shostakovich. “I always loved the way Russian composers wrote for orchestra. There’s a certain expressiveness to the way they write,” he says. When President Frank and First Lady Claire arrive at Moscow’s Red Square, Beal’s score is “almost this Shostakovich kind of march,” he explains. And for Russian president Petrov — whom Beal describes as a fictionalized version of Putin — he created several variations on Petrov’s theme using piano and strings.

But, Beal feels the real soul of the score was the scenes involving Michael Corrigan and Claire. “There is a wonderful scene where he talks to Claire about his relationship with his partner and he turns the tables on Claire about her relationship with Frank,” he explains. “Michael also talks about the hunger strike — that he failed to continue — and the Russian man who lasted to death’s door.” For those scenes, Beal wrote a simple duet for cello and viola. “It’s a very mournful tune and in that a little kernel of the theme eventually became the courage theme that we hear at the end of the show… when Michael makes the ultimate sacrifice and takes his own life rather than read the disparaging statement that is a condition of him being freed.”

Beal finds it’s always interesting to score the aftermath of an event. There is enough information on screen that he doesn’t need to nudge the audience toward one particular emotion. For example, during the tense news conference that follows Michael’s suicide, Claire speaks to reporters about what happened in the cell. Instead of reading the appropriate response that would maintain the relationship with Russia, Claire has a moment of courage and stands up for Michael and his cause. “I’m often interested in scenes where there are multiple layers going on, multiple emotional layers and story layers happening at the same time. I think music can help contain the complexities of those types of moments and bring it all together,” he says.

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All-Encompassing Workflow
From the first note to the final track, Beal always has his hands on his music. He writes it, orchestrates it, conducts it, records it and mixes it. “A lot of my workflow goes back to personality. I’m a classic introvert,” he admits. Coming from a music performance background, as a jazz trumpet player and pianist, Beal loves the music-making part of the job. “For me, music-making is a very proprietary and personal journey. It’s always been this way.”

In Beal’s approach, the compositional act doesn’t stop at music making; it involves orchestrating and conducting, because that ultimately affects the sound of the score. Beal likes being able to fine-tune every last little detail before it goes out the door. “It’s really hard to say that composing stops when we go into recording and even mixing. Those steps in the workflow allow me to have my hand on the creation, the creative aspects, to make sure I’m really getting across what I want to get across with the music,” he explains.

Jeff Beal mixing

Jeff Beal at his mixing board.

Beal loves conducting because it gives him a connection to the music. He can guide the musicians’ performances with visual cues. For example, for Chapter 32, Beal notes there is a style of string playing that is unlike what they usually do for the show. “It’s much more romantic, with a big sound and a big vibrato,” he explains. “I remember when we were doing those cues for the solo cello and the viola with the orchestra coming in over them, I was gesticulating with my right hand over to the cello, giving him the big gestures that said, ‘Don’t hold back.’ That was helpful to do because usually we’re a little cooler and more reserved — it’s a more contemporary type of playing that we typically do on the show.”

Beal’s workflow also cuts down on inefficiency. By keeping every aspect of creating, recording and mixing the score in his studio — large enough to accommodate a 26-member string section — he’s not losing time on moving his session to another studio, or wasting time on setting up a different recording space to his tastes. “I have it all set up and ready to go. It’s miked just the way I like, and I’ve tuned the room.”

Early on in his career, Beal’s workflow was a factor of economics, but that process has helped to shape a sound that’s unique to Beal. “It’s now a factor of style and the way I like to produce my scores. I like to think that my scores don’t sound like everybody else’s. Producing in my own way has helped me get to that place.”

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