One of the most striking things about House of Cards is its cinematic touch: the high production value and filmic gloss that gilds everything from the obvious (movie stars playing the leads) to the more subtle—like the score. Episode after episode, I’ve been continually floored by Jeff Beal’s elegant, sophisticated, and richly produced music. So when I walked into his lovely (but far from pretentious) Agoura Hills home last October, I was stunned to discover just what a small, literally do-it-yourself production his contribution to the show is.
Like many film and TV composers these days, Beal works from home. But his studio is just a small front office, not some fancy, tech-rigged wing off the house. And unlike most composers, Beal has no assistants, orchestrators, or copyists. Zero. He writes, performs, and does synth/sample mockups all by himself. On House of Cards, his solo performances include all the stunning piano, trumpet, and even guitar parts. (He also obviously lays down all the electronics and samples—its own kind of performance.)
When it’s time to sweeten the score with live orchestral oomph, he calls up 17 friends from a pool of talented L.A. session players. This little chamber ensemble drives out to his house, which sits quietly in a horse-friendly neighborhood at a palpable remove from the Hollywood industrial complex. After milling around in the kitchen, drinking Beal’s coffee and munching on carrots and homemade hummus, the musicians casually assemble in the parlor where Beal has set up chairs, mics, and headphones. He wheels out a little mobile engineering rig and, with an easygoing air, monitors video playback of the episode he’s scoring, aurally monitors the performance through his headphones, and tweaks the mix as he conducts and records the live performance, simultaneously, all by himself.
He’ll also ultimately mix and email the finished hybrid of samples and live music to the editors and producers on this multimillion-dollar production by himself. And those haunting operatic vocals peppered throughout season 2? That’s Beal’s wife, Joan. (She’s a classically trained singer who has performed with the San Francisco Opera and on numerous film score recordings.) The groovy electric bass that opens the indelible main title (and all of the upright bass throughout the series)? That’s Beal’s 20-year-old son, Henry. Beal records his family members in the house, just as he does his own parts and his string ensemble (except now that Henry’s away at college in North Texas, he’s recording his parts from a dorm room).
This homespun, garage-band approach to scoring one of the most high-end, high-profile series on “television” is insane, both in the sheer volume of work and skill it requires from Beal, and in the bafflingly high-end finished product that accompanies the show. The score for House of Cards is some of the classiest, most cinematic music ever written for the small screen, and Beal’s first-rate production masterfully sells his sophisticated composition.
I was riveted by the music and dumbfounded by its making, and with Beal’s gracious permission I went out to observe him in action and interview him (and Joan and Henry) about his process and work ethic. I also interviewed House of Cards creator / head writer / executive producer Beau Willimon about Beal’s invaluable contribution to the show. I used some of this material for a recent NPR story, but barely scratched the surface. So over the next few posts, let’s peel apart Jeff Beal’s incredible one-man-band approach to composing some of the finest music ever written for television.