WASHINGTON — Symbolic shadows creep across D.C. government buildings.
An upside-down American flag paints an international distress signal in front of the U.S. Capitol.
And suddenly, the brooding baseline erupts into brass horns declaring the start of “House of Cards.”
“It was actually written before David Fincher shot a reel of film,” composer Jeff Beal told WTOP. “David said, ‘We need a call to arms,’ so there’s a certain dark heroic quality to it, but obviously we talked about the gritty, carnivorous nature of Frank Underwood … kind of visceral and predatory.”
Anyone who’s seen the hit Netflix series knows the music by heart, an Emmy-winning theme Beal will conduct live with the NSO for “House of Cards in Concert” Thursday at the Kennedy Center at 8 p.m.
“There’s no better place to premiere this concert [than] in the heart of Washington,” Beal said. “I feel like we’re breaking all of the fourth walls. … There’s nothing like hearing it played by a live symphony.”
While Beal conducts the orchestra, the Kennedy Center will play clips of the show on a giant screen.
But even if you’re not completely caught up on all four seasons, you don’t have to worry.
“I’m trying to avoid really big dramatic spoilers,” Beal assured.
The concert will be followed by a panel discussion moderated by Politico’s Joe Schatz, featuring “House of Cards” stars Michael Kelly (Chief of Staff Doug Stamper), Michel Gill (Former President Garrett Walker) and Jayne Atkinson (Secretary of State Cathy Durant). The talk will also include Beau Willimon, who created the show for the U.S., and Michael Dobbs, who created the UK original.
“Michael Dobbs has told me he’s gonna come from London, which I’m so thrilled [about],” Beal said. “He’s just a fascinating person to be a part of our panel because he created the original UK version, but also because he is still a member of the House of Lords! … So this show had its roots from the very beginnings in the world of politics — not only in the story, but also in the people who created it.”
These acclaimed filmmakers will provide behind-the-scenes tidbits about the show’s most famous elements, including the opening credits sequence set to various shots across the nation’s capital.
“One thing that’s so cool about the title sequence is that you have these beautiful, iconic shots of Washington, but you also have these incredibly prosaic images like the barrel on the river,” Beal said. “One of the cool things [Fincher] did visually at the end was, some of the daytime shots, he actually had people go through frame by frame and paint out all the people. … It feels even more ghostly.”
This, Beal insists, is the essence of filmmaking.
“This is what film does, we take something and make a statement about it by the way you photograph it and the music you put on it,” Beal said. “It was a template for what became the whole score for the show. Aside from the main title which everybody knows, I love composing the score for each episode.”
Beal has composed the music for all four seasons and is about to compose the score for Season 5. Through all the hard work and creative inspiration, he’s also stumbled upon some happy accidents.
“There’s a chord that plays when a train goes under a bridge in the main titles and for some people, that’s their favorite part,” Beal said. “It just cracks me up because I never planned it. The way the music lined up with the train was kind of an accident.”
But in composing, as in life, you make your own good luck. Shortly after his “House of Cards” theme had seeped into the public consciousness, Beal won a deserved Emmy for “Chapter 32” in Season 3.
“Another fun fourth-wall coincidence is that July 14 just happens to be the day that the Emmy nominations are announced, which is the day of our concert,” Beal said. “I’m hoping I’ll be able to congratulate some of the people who come to our concert with some Emmy love if that happens.”
Beal’s “House of Cards” Emmy was the fourth of his career after wins for FX’s “Monk,” Stephen King’s “Nightmares & Dreamscapes” and the TNT miniseries “The Company.” He’s also penned the themes to TV’s”The Newsroom” and the documentary “Blackfish,” both dealing with investigative themes.
“It’s hard to show conspiracy, but you can feel a conspiracy,” Beal said. “I know that David was influenced and pays homage to one of my favorite movies about Washington, ‘All the President’s Men,’ in terms of tone. There’s definitely that sort of brooding, operatic, almost film-noir quality.”
This neo-noir quality is also found in the work of Beal’s favorite composer, Jerry Goldsmith, whose “Chinatown” (1974) exposes Los Angeles corruption like “House of Cards” exposes D.C.
“He was so good but he was also really a jazz composer,” Beal said of Goldsmith. “You listen to scores like ‘Chinatown’ and ‘L.A. Confidential,’ he had this wonderful sense of sophistication in his music.”
Now, Beal’s own Emmy-winning music takes his own place in the annals of film and TV history. No other composer can claim to have written the music for the first ever streaming television show.
“If I woulda told you five years ago that the music I’m best known for … is a television show that isn’t even on broadcast, it’s on the internet, I would’ve told you you’re out of your mind!” Beal joked.
“Some are calling it Peak Television, which it might be, but it’s certainly a Golden Age of the small screen. When you look at the acting talent, writing talent, directing talent that has decided this is a really cool place to be, the opportunity for composers is enormous in this world. I feel really lucky.”
He’s not the only lucky one; we Washingtonians have be fortunate enough to hear his epic theme each time “House of Cards” hits Netflix — not to mention live on Thursday at the Kennedy Center.
“This idea of celebrating film music in the concert hall, I think it’s really an idea whose time has come,” Beal said. “This idea of bringing music from the screen into the concert hall is really exploding right now. … It makes symphony orchestra relevant to a modern-day audience. … It’s a wonderful trend.”
Concert runs 1 hour and 45 minutes. Part One: 45 minutes. Intermission: 15 minutes, Part Two: 45 minutes.
Tickets range $19 to $79. Listen to the full chat with “House of Cards” composer Jeff Beal below: