Washington-raised musician and composer Bear McCreary can pinpoint the moment his life changed.
“When I was 16 years old, I had a chance meeting in Bellingham, Washington, of all places on planet Earth, with the legendary composer Elmer Bernstein,” McCreary told The Seattle Times. “My life was never the same after that.”
A prolific career has amplified the artist’s work beyond Washington, around the globe and beyond, to Middle-earth: McCreary scores the hotly anticipated “Lord of the Rings” prequel “The Rings of Power,” streaming now on Amazon’s Prime Video.
It all started with that fateful meeting.
Born in Florida, McCreary moved to Bellingham as a child and had an “archetypical” Pacific Northwest upbringing, going “swimming, hiking, boating and camping out at Lummi Island,” he said.
His true passions were watching movies and listening to their music.
“I had a very unique musical upbringing,” said McCreary, who revered composers like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Nino Rota as rock stars. He felt that way about Bernstein, who composed and arranged the score for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Great Escape,” “Ghostbusters” and many more films.
By 16, McCreary was playing in bands and writing his own music.
“As I emerged into my profession, I realized I had a really unique skill set,” McCreary said. “I am equally comfortable conducting an orchestra or talking to a group of academics as I am on stage playing with a rock band. Having my feet in both worlds has benefited me greatly.”
McCreary has struck a chord scoring video games (“God of War,” which earned a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Games award), films (like the blockbuster epic “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”) and TV (including the long-running, zombie-walking hit “The Walking Dead”).
Named Student of the Month by his local Rotary Club chapter as a teen, McCreary got to speak at a luncheon about his dreams of studying film music. It proved to be a fateful occasion. The director of the local boating association told McCreary he had a friend in the film music business and offered an intro.
It turned out to be Bernstein.
“Elmer was surprised to find out I had no formal training,” after hearing a cassette tape of McCreary’s work, the composer said. “He wrote me a letter of recommendation to go to USC Thornton School of Music, where he was also teaching at the time. That brought me to Los Angeles, and the rest is history.”
After completing his studies at the University of Southern California in 2002, McCreary worked on the re-imagining of “Battlestar Galactica,” training under the primary composer of the series, Richard Gibbs.
Since then, McCreary has composed music for “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Black Mirror,” “Call of Duty: Vanguard” and many more films, games and shows, including the brand-new Starz series “The Serpent Queen.”
“The Rings of Power,” McCreary’s latest project, is the biggest of his career.
In helping create the most expensive television series ever made, McCreary had to step into the shoes of legendary composer Howard Shore, who won three Academy Awards for his work on the original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
“I think I’ve been preparing to be involved in ‘Lord of the Rings’ musically since I was 10 years old,” McCreary said. “I’ve always loved how Tolkien wrote songs into the source material. You can read the rhythm in his verse. The intrinsic musical qualities are baked into ‘Lord of the Rings.’ ”
McCreary’s main intention with “The Rings Of Power” was to create “music that’s worthy of the story and the show itself,” but that is also linked to the original films.
“I wanted to create a sense of continuity with what Howard Shore crafted for the Peter Jackson films,” McCreary said. “I didn’t want it to sound identical. Because the story takes place thousand of years earlier. But I wanted it to feel like it starts in one place, evolves over time, and gradually gives way to something that sounds very close to what Howard Shore did.”
While working on the show, McCreary spoke at length to Shore, who wrote the “majestic main title” for “The Rings of Power.”
“He was very supportive and very generous with his time,” McCreary said. “It was really just an honor to be able to chat with him a few times and hear about his experiences.”
McCreary hopes to work on future seasons of “The Rings of Power,” but said “I’m so proud of what I did on the first season” regardless.
Wherever the future leads, McCreary will be making music. The art comes before the career arc.
“When I started being creative, it was purely for artistic play. I wrote music just because it was fun,” McCreary said. “Oddly, that lack of ambition means my love and enthusiasm for music is genuine. I write music every day, whether I get paid to do it or not. That comes from growing up in the beautiful small town of Bellingham, Washington.”
“It had a profound impact on my creative life. It can’t be overstated,” the artist continued. “I spent so much time developing my artistic voice in this safe environment. Everyone supported me. I had the perfect upbringing in the perfect place, surrounded by all the perfect people.”