The importance of Jeff Beal’s contribution to House of Cards can’t be understated. In any given episode you’ll notice that most of what’s generating a feeling of unease or conspiracy or urgency is actually the score. Without Beal’s music you would lose so much of the intensity, and critical layers of subtext or subversion.
“It’s the type of show where a lot of times you can’t show what’s really happening,” says Beal. “Because there are these agendas, there’s a subterfuge of stuff happening with people—whether it’s a manipulation or a power struggle or something like that—where a lot of times, because of the nature of the characters, we’re not always showing you that conflict.”
One of the quirks of the show is how Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood will break the fourth wall and speak into the camera about what’s going on in his head. But beyond these occasional asides, it’s often up to Beal to clue us in on the darkness or ulterior motives below the surface.
“What Jeff is able to do is amplify the mystery of a scene,” says Beau Willimon, the show’s creator, head writer, and executive producer. “He is able to open it up with the music, so that the viewer can still have their own subjective reaction to the drama, without feeling like they’re being cattle-prodded into a particular response. And where it is most interesting to me is in between the lines. A lot of the time, the most dramatic moments in House of Cards are when someone’s saying nothing. In those moments Jeff is able to tap into all the various layers that we’re seeing on the actor’s face, or on their body language. He gives voice to that, where words fail, or are not meant to exist.”
Beal established the tone and style of the score with David Fincher, who began developing House of Cards in 2011. Before a single frame was shot, the two sat and talked about the kinds of scores (Fincher specifically referenced Angelo Badalamenti’s The Comfort of Strangers) and role of music Fincher had in mind. Using nothing but Willimon’s early scripts, Beal went off and wrote themes for the show, one of which wound up being the main title.
“It’s really a Shakespearean sort of drama, you know, grafted onto a political tale of power,” says Beal. “There’s a larger-than-life arc to a lot of these people. They’re archetypes. So from the very beginning it was very obvious that if we thought of it in those ways, and in that metaphorical, symbolic space, it all of a sudden made sense.
“There’s a brutal sort of simplicity to the way the show is shot, which is almost minimalist in a way. David’s choice of color and color timing…the intended effect was almost to make it feel black and white. David really likes to stage a scene. He likes to lock down the camera and really compose a shot. And as a composer, it is sort of like this metaphorical blank slate. I’ve realized it’s almost like a Rorschach exercise, writing the music, because everything I’m seeing is so powerful and so strong—but by the same token, the music doesn’t feel like it needs to explain what you’re seeing, because what you’re seeing is there, and you have time to take it in. So there’s a way in which the music has this freedom to go to this other place that is a little more symbolic.”
The show’s now-iconic opening title is packed with symbolism. It sets the tone for each episode, wedded to a time-lapse stream of ominous visions of Washington D.C. A dense storm cloud of a chord rolls in, and electric bass begins churning a relentless minor third ostinato. Dark chords climb up to the melody (heralded by solo trumpet), which races down the piano with energy and precision.
“There was always this musical joke between major and minor,” explains Beal. “The bassline in the main title stays in A minor all the way through, but the melody actually goes to A major a couple times. The bassline never changes. And that was very intentional. The whole idea is that those two things can be happening at the same time, and the tension that creates, that dissonance, even though it’s ‘wrong,’ it’s a right wrong note, because it makes you feel a certain way. It’s like, Oh man, something’s weird, you know—something’s off.”
Beal peels off strands from the main title—variations on the arpeggiated piano melody, the minor third ostinato, the chromatically descending chord series—to form other themes and ideas throughout the series. This music is usually for the nefarious plotting of Frank Underwood.
“I remember Fincher told me a gila monster doesn’t think of itself as a ferocious creature,” says Beal. “It just is. And Frank is that kind of character. I mean, he is completely, on one level, just a complete animal of politics. He’s just the force of will, manifest in a human being. But I think the way Kevin has created him as an actor, there’s just this amazing dimensionality to him, and humanity…if I can use that word. Maybe that’s a stretch. What I’ve tried to do is respect the honesty of that character. That’s generally a rule that I find useful in my work. I don’t think you ever really get that far by mocking your characters, or sort of standing above and judging. It’s very important that there’s an honesty that comes from the work, and from the story, and from the motivation.”
“I think that’s probably the other reason, by the time I’m done writing 13 episodes, I’m in a pretty dark place,” he laughs. “Because it’s almost like a method actor. You have to get in that mindset, and really sort of empathize with whatever’s happening—as twisted as it seems.”
Beal’s music throughout the series is elegant and sophisticated, infusing the world of whitewashed congressional offices and black-tie gatherings with a noirish, jazzy, even sexy character. Beal’s wife, Joan, jokes that the series allows Beal to use what they call “PG-13 chords.”
“There’s a sophistication to House of Cards, which I love,” says Beal. “Maybe because of my jazz background, and just the way I think about music, I like the idea of music that has a certain sophistication to it. House of Cards, from the very beginning, just felt like it was always asking and begging for that sort of complexity. The idea that we could, when it was called for, be really chromatic or dense, harmonically, was and still is something I really enjoy doing. And part of the reason I love working with live musicians, and especially live strings, is that you can do some very complex sonority.”
“Elegant is a great way to put it,” says Willimon. “There are a million different ways you could take a story, and sometimes that amount of possibility can be crushing. What I always try to do with the writing is: do the most with the least. Pare it down to its essence. Be as efficient and elegant as possible with the storytelling. And I know Jeff does the same as a composer. He is not afraid of simplicity. He is not afraid of restraint. And that makes those moments where it really opens up, and where there’s lots of layers and lots of instruments and a lot of sophistication, it sets them in relief. They really stick out. Because he is able to employ simplicity and restraint elsewhere in the score. And I think that range is what gives his music so much power.”