A Song of Sneaks
If there’s a musical equivalent to black and white film, it’s 1960s era spy music. You know it when you hear it. It’s a sound that instantly brings to mind film grain, exotic locales, and impeccably tailored suits.
When David Nottingham asked me to write the music for CounterSpy, I jumped at the chance to reunite with him. I’d written music for him on Lucidity when we both worked at LucasArts and it remains one of my favorite creative experiences.
“All I need,” David told me in his typical understated style, “is a main theme that stands up as instantly iconic and memorable as the greatest spy themes of the ‘60s. That’s all.”
No small task.
But what is it that makes spy music sound so iconic? There’s a musical language that evolved in the 1960s from the works of composers like Lalo Schifrin, John Barry, and Henry Mancini. The first thing I did when starting the score for CounterSpy was to steep myself in the musical vocabulary of espionage.
In a way, it’s almost formulaic. Start with a jazzy guitar, bass, and drum rhythm section. Add some unusual melodic instruments, usually ethnic stringed instruments, alto flute, or an organ. Pepper with beatnik percussion like bongos. Then add a healthy heaping of half-steps, the smallest interval between notes in Western music.
Spy music is full of half-steps and it’s this constant movement to and from important melodic notes by way of adjacent half-steps that gives spy music its bluesy, cool feel. They’re the key to the hooky riffs of “Mission: Impossible”, “Peter Gunn”, “Get Smart” and the rest of the spy music oeuvre.
David was a big fan of the sound of a Hungarian instrument called a cimbalom, one featured in some of the spy-score sampled tracks of British trip hop band Portishead. Its exotic string sound fit perfectly with the vibe of the era.
With the formula in place and some processing to make it sound like the track was being played off of old analog tape, my first demo of a theme landed close to the mark.
The vibe was right, but the tempo was too slow and the melody wasn’t strong enough.
For my second pass, I refocused the same formula through a different lens.
There are a large number of spy scores with a quirky 60s sense of fun to them. “The Prisoner”, “The Avengers”, and “The Saint” all had a playful element to their swanky themes. With that in mind, I swapped cimbalom for harpsichord, swung the track with a bossa nova beat, and went nuts with the half-steps. Another thing you’ll notice in this second demo of a theme is the inclusion of what I’m calling jazz clock.
Dynamighty’s Mark Holmes had suggested playing off of the “counter” pun in CounterSpy by perhaps including a ticking time-bomb sound into the main theme. By chopping up four different clock and watch recordings into individual ticks and tocks, I was able to create a varied clock instrument that I could program to swing with the beat.
The clock worked well and the tempo was much better, but the fun feel wasn’t the right attitude for CounterSpy’s more serious tone. Working with feedback from the crew at Dynamighty along with Sony Music Supervisor Matt Levine, I set to work on another version of the main theme that eventually hit all of the right notes.
In the end, the cimbalom returned with a touch of alto flute. Half-steps reign supreme in every aspect of the melody. We recorded live brass, drums, and guitars to help the track life. I kept the jazz clock, but I bumped the tempo up to 148 beats per minute. Much quicker than a regular stopwatch, the result is a subconscious psychological impression that time is escaping from you faster than normal and something that should instill a small sense of panic.
The resulting theme for CounterSpy is an up-tempo track that hopefully leaves you humming the theme long after you stepped away from the game and gives CounterSpy a great signature sound to its slinky sneaking!
I hope you enjoyed this slice of music. I can’t wait for you to hear the rest of the soundtrack as featured in the game!
Composer, Dunderpate Music, LLC