Sounds of space on 'Galactica'

"Battlestar Galactica's" daring score sets it apart from the sci-fi crowd.

Traditionally, the perils and pleasures of space travel have been accompanied by the bombast of sweeping strings and majestic blasts of trumpet. But in at least one corner of the science-fiction universe, space sounds very different.

The scores to Sci Fi Channel's reimagined "Battlestar Galactica" series consistently play against genre expectations and work as a key element in establishing the show's dark, complex tone. The string swells and brass fanfares of sci-works past have given way to an engagingly odd blend of old-world ethnic instruments, guitar textures and, perhaps most strikingly, pulsing percussion.

"I think I'm getting to break all the rules about what sci-fi music is supposed to be," show composer Bear McCreary says. "That was one of the concepts that (executive producers) David Eick and Ronald D. Moore had from the beginning, even before any composer was hired. They wanted to veer away from the traditional, orchestral science-fiction sound that most people are used to."

McCreary stepped into the "Battlestar" world by assisting Richard Gibbs on the 2003 Sci Fi Channel miniseries and has handled all composing duties on the full-fledged series, which debuted in January 2005. He creates an average of 30 minutes of music for each episode, relying on a group of key players to bring to life orchestrations that include such unusual instruments as the bansuri, Celtic pipes, duduk, dumbek, electric fiddle, tablas and taiko drums. McCreary's instrumentation choices are not random or simply eclectic.

"One of the concepts I use is that the characters are trying to find Earth, so there's some distant connection between them and our own ancestry," he says. "To me, that means that if I have to use 'earthly' instruments, they should be ancient instruments to connect that sound with the characters. It's a way of connecting their history to Earth's history."

McCreary's ability to "write against type" is evidence of lessons well-learned during years as a protege to the late master composer Elmer Bernstein. But even within the nontraditional musical palette he has established for "Battlestar," McCreary continues to push himself toward musical surprises. Last season, the score to one episode featured McCreary performing a Philip Glass piano work, and for another episode, McCreary worked with Stu Phillips -- composer on the late-1970s "Battlestar" series -- to craft a powerful hybrid of the original show's theme and the new show's instrumentation.

"For me to be able to experiment the way I've been allowed to is kind of unprecedented," McCreary says. "Every episode, we try new things, and I'm always being pushed into new areas that I wouldn't have even thought of for the show -- things I wouldn't have dared to suggest.

I don't think there are a lot of TV shows that encourage and reward that kind of diversity."

Heading into his third season on "Battlestar," McCreary finds that his only trouble is balancing his composer responsibilities with his fanlike enthusiasm.

"My favorite part of the work process is the spotting sessions because I get to see a new episode," he says. "Sometimes I have to try very hard to remind myself to think about the music because I'm so excited to see what's happening next in the show."