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The third season of "House Of Cards" will be released on Netflix tomorrow. The drama of dirty Washington politics is propelled by a score composed by Jeff Beal. But Tim Greiving reports that Beal's way of working and the challenges he faces are not what you would expect from a veteran film and TV composer.
TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: Jeff Beal's resume includes the television series "Carnivale" and "Monk," and such documentaries as "Blackfish." Before a single frame of "House Of Cards" had been shot, director David Fincher hired Beal and together they came up with the show's musical tone and style.
JEFF BEAL: Just yesterday as I was writing, I was thinking, like, man, you know, every once in a while in your career you have a palette as a composer, that feels like you've got just so much freedom.
GREIVING: "House Of Cards" stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as Congressman Frank Underwood and his wife, Claire, crawling through the political sewers of Washington and destroying anyone blocking their path.[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: We refer to Frank Underwood as a congressman. The character was a congressman at the start of the series and has since become president.]
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")
ROBIN WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood) But he's a dangerous man, isn't he, Raymond?
KEVIN SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood) We can be dangerous, too, when we need to be.
GREIVING: Jeff Beal ushers viewers into this clandestine, manipulative and sometimes violent world at the outset of each episode with his now-familiar main theme.
(SOUNDBITE OF "HOUSE OF CARDS" THEME SONG)
JEFF BEAL: The bass line in the main title stays in A minor all the way through, but the melody actually goes to A major a couple times. And the tension that creates, that dissonance, even though it's, quote, unquote, "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.
(SOUNDBITE OF "HOUSE OF CARDS" THEME SONG)
BEAU WILLIMON: Jeff just has a really great ear for when music should be in the show and the best way for it to amplify a dramatic moment.
GREIVING: Beau Willimon the show's head writer and executive producer and says Beal's contribution is immeasurable.
WILLIMON: I still think that he must have little elves that crawl out of the woodwork and help him because it's a titanic amount of work that he's taking on.
GREIVING: For three seasons now, Beal has composed music for each of the hour-long episodes without the help of any assistance or orchestrators. He also plays all of the trumpet, piano and guitar parts himself and records a 17-piece string ensemble in the living room of his house in Agoura Hills, Calif.
JEFF BEAL: I don't want to tell you what happens in this plot because it's a big spoiler, but somebody's having a moment. OK - 84.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREIVING: At this point in the process, Beal has already created a mockup version of the score on his computer and laid down his own trumpet and piano tracks. He wheels out a little mixing console, and, standing in front of the musicians, conducts while watching playback on a screen and recording the performances at the same time.
JOAN BEAL: That's Jeff. That's his personality.
GREIVING: Joan Beal has been married to Jeff for 25 years. They met as college students at the Eastman School of Music. She was a singer. He was a trumpet player in the jazz program.
JOAN BEAL: He always has repaired his own car, taking care of his own taxes, and I think that was the way he was raised. So he considers the mixing and all of the work to be part of the final product.
GREIVING: And he's made it a family affair. That's his son Henry playing bass in the main title and in many episodes. Joan provides eerie operatic vocals throughout season two.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JEFF BEAL: Yeah, we're the Von Trapps. You know, my wife's a wonderful opera singer and my son is a budding jazz bassist, so it's actually very fun to work with them.
GREIVING: His son Henry records the bass tracks in his dorm room at the University of North Texas. He says it's not always fun working with your father.
HENRY BEAL: It's sort of a funny dynamic. Like, I'll have moments where it's like, oh, Dad, come on. And he'll have moments where it's like, Henry, come on, let's do this. But mostly, it's very - it's kind of professional.
GREIVING: Jeff Beal's homemade, do-it-yourself approach is all the more impressive when you learn that he has multiple sclerosis.
JOAN BEAL: That was a complete shock for someone as active and physically fit as Jeff, and his diagnosis was not good. It was - it was really dismal. I took it personally. I could not let this beautiful brain be destroyed by this disease.
GREIVING: Her husband would get foggy, tire easily and experience tingling throughout one side of his body. They decided on an unconventional treatment to keep his jugular veins open. He also began an organic diet, regular exercise and daily meditation.
JOAN BEAL: All of these things are called alternative treatments and kind of made fun of, but in - I guess, it's almost eight years since he's been diagnosed, he's had no progression and a reversal of brain atrophy. So now his brain on MRI looks normal, which is unheard of.
GREIVING: Jeff Beal has managed to stave off MS while at the same time meeting the brutal demands of his "House Of Cards" deadlines, as well as scoring the final season of "The Newsroom," multiple documentary films and composing concert commissions.
JEFF BEAL: You have sort of imposed on you this sense of the preciousness of time and energy that I think in a way there's an upside to that in the sense that I think it helps you focus your energy and your spirit on what's important. I mean, the less I've sort of focused on the disease and the more I focus on just being a person and doing my thing, the better off I probably am.
GREIVING: After all, Beal says, doing what he loves as a musician exercises the muscle most at risk - his brain. For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving in Los Angeles.
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