Brian LaGuardia - Composer, Orchestrator, Arranger

Brian

A Time Forever Before

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This past summer, I had the rare privilege of working on an incredible short film about a hotel for weary time travelers. This was my first (and hopefully not last!) collaboration with the talented Christopher Miller, who crafted a charming, strange and utterly mesmerizing little fantasy film. These sorts of films are rare on such a small budget, and it came off beautifully! It is also probably the most fun I’ve had scoring any project, because I got to get not just thematic, but also a little weird.

One of the first ones I developed was based on the song Chris wrote to be sung as source music by our main character as he waits for his love to wake. The lyrics were of course phenomenal, but I actually ended up constructing the melody from the actor’s performance after the fact, who wasn’t actually a trained singer! It started with a soft accompaniment for that performance, then I decided “well, this would serve perfectly as the love theme throughout the score.” Just look at the lyrics he wrote!

When you wake we will go far away

To a place that we’ve never been

A house we will build on the top of a hill

Overlooking the forest and rivers.

Somewhere in time, somewhere away from this place

Where nothing ever changes.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

After I helped the melody along a little, I started using it in the incidental score as the love theme, which turned out even better than I expected it would. The best use of it was at the end, when the conflict is resolved and the lovers are reunited.

Zeb and Eala

It ended up with a LOTR vibe that really jived well with the style. And even better, I got to bring back my talented mother to record the song officially for the end credits! This ended up being particularly special for both Christopher and myself, as he lost his own mom not too far back and dedicated the film to her. Since my own covered the song he wrote in her honor, this whole project felt intensely personal. Moments like these are why I write music in the first place.

A Place We’ve Never Been

Another theme I’m particularly proud of is the Time theme. This doesn’t really represent any one character, but rather the mystical aether that various characters (mostly Zebulon) reach out to. It first appears with the arrival of a time traveller, Isonah, establishing what a wondrous place this hotel is.

A Traveller Arrives

Every time the Time theme is stated, it is done with very exotic instruments: Yayli Tanbur, some synth and at the forefront: an Erhu. This was recorded live, usually by the talented Michael Fitzmaurice (my old Erhu teacher) and sometimes by me! I absolutely fell in love with the sound of this instrument ever since I first heard it in Bear’s Battlestar Galactica soundtrack. There, it represented Kara Thrace’s “Destiny” theme. It also made an appearance in the 2009 Star Trek reboot for Spock’s theme. In both cases, the instrument lends itself well to an exotic and spiritual sound, which fit the idea of navigating time with old sextants and crystal balls perfectly.

There are a couple of minor themes in here as well. King Clement’s theme starts out as a brief and very processed Trumpet fanfare that then morphs into a low, harsh and relentless synth bass melody, usually accompanied by low male choir.

King Clement

There were also a couple of opportunities to go completely nuts. The best one was when the evil Clement, Zebulon’s father, mercilessly tortures Zeb just to see if he does, in fact, have powers that will make him rich. The Erhu returns, but it is all over the place, scrambling to find some semblance of control and peace that will not be found due to Clement and his sadistic minstrel, Yovar.

The Test

And finally, the cue I took the biggest risk on: Onion’s Theme. Onion is not just Zebulon’s friend and mentor, he’s also boisterous and jolly. He holds nothing back and has such a zest for life that I couldn’t help but bring the strings, Dulcimer and even a Horn in to make sure the score had just as much energy as he did. To my utter and relieved surprise, the director liked it!

Onion

I sincerely hope I get a chance to work with Christopher Miller again. When it is so easy to recycle to the point of being generic, Chris has already found his voice and is creating unique and wonderful projects. But either way, his future is bright! I’m just glad I was a part of it.

The album is now available on the “Albums” page, as well as my Bandcamp. It also features some concept art from Christopher’s wonderfully talented wife, Bethany Miller. Have a look!

And now, onto the next adventure! Till next time.

PS: The Director was so appreciative that he sent me this wonderful Vynal copy of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Easily the best thank you gift I have ever recieved from a director. I look forward to many more collaborations with this awesome dude!

Twilight Murmurs

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It has been a spring of collaboration with my family! First my mother was a featured soloist on an art film I had the privilege of scoring, then this gem of a project for my cousin. I could get used to this!

More than a year before the premiere of this piece, my dear cousin Miranda approached me and asked me to write a concert work for a very unlikely combination of instruments: Horn (Miranda, left) and Marimba (Danny, her awesome boyfriend on the right) for her senior recital at the University of Denver. Normally, I like to have an image, scene or story in mind before I even start writing, but in this case I was so struck by the combination of instruments that I started there: what can these two instruments do well, and what would the DNA of such a duet sounds like? I mulled this question over for a few months while I handled other projects – that’s composer jargon for “I procrastinated,” by the way.

Finally, I decided that since they are both pretty mellow timbres (for the most part – horn can get pretty rowdy if it wants to) that it should mostly be kind of a mellow, flowing piece. There’s something about the marimba especially that is so calming that agitated ostinatos and frantic fever dreams of sixteenths just seemed wrong. So I wrote a flowing A section of the exposition and as I did so, the descriptor “Twilight” just sort of popped into my head, which I decided to make more descriptive and sexy with “Murmurs.”

Now that I had strayed into familiar territory – finding imagery to help inspire – it was smooth sailing. Given the title, it made sense that the piece slowly lose energy as it goes along, mirroring the setting of the sun or the activities of most of the humans on our planet as twilight turns into evening (except maybe composers – ha!).

I couldn’t have been more proud of these two players. I ended up writing a piece that was far more difficult than I ever intended; and worse, I delivered it a mere month before it was to be performed. Granted, it is only seven minutes, but there were two sections that are just murderously difficult for the players. The first one is a lyrical stopped melody I wrote in for the Horn. I wanted to go for a softer, more Miles-Davis-y quality in the B’ section, not realizing that horn players are very rarely asked to play stopped for extended periods of time, much less lyrically. But my cousin pulled it off with her badass self!

Murmurs 1

The other one was a solo for the Marimba. Yes, I know, I’m a percussionist. But I am very rarely a percussion soloist, and I almost never play four-mallet marimba. So I plugged away happily writing this solo with a bunch of open sixths, which of course sound phenomenal on the piano or sample library but are extremely difficult to play quickly and accurately on a Marimba. Fortunately, Danny is an incredible player, and I also made sure to tell him that my intent with that section was to have a lot of rubato anyway, so I told him to take his time. The result was stunning.

Murmurs 2

What musicality! There was almost no instruction from me…the players took my notation and made magic out of it!

Similarly, the final section of the piece came off brilliantly, ending with a single bowed Marimba tone that is handed off from a very quiet muted horn.

Murmurs 5

This was an extremely special moment in my life, not just because it was the first concert piece I ever wrote that was performed in an official music hall, but also because two incredible people very dear to me were the ones to bring it to life. I hope that if someone ends up performing this piece again, it is a similarly special experience for them.

The Cave

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I am privileged to have a couple of friends who always call me when they need a film score. One of them is Dream, a very talented young woman finishing up her education at USC. When she approached me to score a “really weird” art film, I jumped at the chance for several reasons. One, I hadn’t really done anything like it before, and working with a new genre or “flavor” is always interesting to me and is a tremendous opportunity for growth. But also, I saw it as an excuse to finally bring my insanely talented mother onto one of my projects!

My mother, Tracy T. LaGuardia, is a phenomenal classical violinist. She is concertmaster of the Arapahoe Philharmonic and one of the most in-demand gigging musicians in Denver. The reason for this isn’t just that she’s well trained in classical music. She can also fiddle with the best of ’em, improvise with a Jazz trio…her versatility is a sight to behold. This is precisely why I wanted her on this project, because strange aleatory so often demands versatile, creative players – especially in a solo situation!

Initially I was going to record a full string quartet doing all kinds of wacky things, essentially building up my own sample library. However, I quickly realized that not only was that woefully inefficient, it was also unnecessary and a gigantic pain for a low-budget situation. I also got to thinking: why would I want more? There are sample libraries for the truly large sounds, and this whole film is a study on loneliness, so a single, solitary fiddle was starting to seem more and more appealing.

As the liner notes to the album suggest, I don’t actually want to explain the film too much, but I would like to share some insight into the recording process. The two moments where the soloist goes absolutely bonkers are both sex scenes. These were temped with similarly strange and frantic tracks with a crazed accordionist, which immediately communicated to me the unsettling cognitive dissonance of what was going on, as well as the frantic, primal energy. I did not write a single thing down for her. All I said before we started was:

Go completely insane, like a Death Metal soloist or a Ligeti Violin Concerto. Lots of double-stop tritones, crazy portamento and psychosis.

Fortunately, she also threw in some fiddle influence as a result of her extensive experience improvising in that manner, and it turned out even better than I hoped. She got both sequences in one take! The beauty of what she did here is that it captures that unsettling and primal energy, but also throws in a couple of other elements that are equally appropriate: some fiddle influence, because nothing says hot sex like music that makes you want to go “yee-haw!’, and finally the sort of “Devil’s Instrument” vibe that you can only get from a violin.

This was a truly special experience for me. Being able to share my music is the whole reason why I create it, but to be abel to share the creative process itself with my own flesh and blood is so meaningful and heartwarming that I really don’t care if nobody listens to it. It’s enough that it happened, and I hope it happens again!

That being said, the Album is now available to stream on Bandcamp or the Albums page, or you can download it from Bandcamp for a modest fee. Have a listen!

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Suite

One of the things that has been on my bucket list since I was a small child was hearing a proper suite from Star Trek: The Motion Picture live in concert. Yes, the slow, boring one from 1979. And sure, it is a pretty slow-burn movie…but that glacial pacing is what allowed Jerry Goldsmith to construct a truly epic, powerful score. As I think I’ve stated before on this blog, this is one of my favorite film scores of all time, and it was one of the few Trek scores that was nominated for an Academy Award. And I got my wish last month. I arranged 22 minutes of music from this masterpiece.

Written for an orchestra of Mahlerian proportions, the session at 20th Century Fox called for ten keyboard players (2 grand pianos, a full acoustic organ and SEVEN synth players), six horns, four trumpets and trombones, two tubas, timpani plus SIX percussionists…in all, over 100 musicians. In addition, Goldsmith turned to works like Vaughan Williams’ Arctic Symphony for harmonic ideas, giving the phrase “glacial pacing” a whole new meaning. The result: a score with unimaginable power, mystery and majesty. Needless to say, I had a lot of reducing to do, and a lot of orchestration challenges ahead of me.

Once I had the legal clearance to arrange, not only did I set to work deciding which excerpts to include (as run time was a factor, as was the technical ability of the orchestra, which was just shy of professional level and only had three weeks to pull a very difficult program together), I also started digging into the making of the film and found some fascinating tidbits! For those who were unable to attend, I thought I’d compile a list of excerpts from the performance (this is all the Arapahoe Philharmonic playing my arrangement, not the album!), as well as some background on the orchestration, making of the film and even what each soundbyte depicts during the film.

Engage!

***

The whole arrangement starts off not as you would expect. Rather than the “Star Trek” horn call everyone has known since the original show from the 60’s, I started with the “Leaving Drydock” cue from The Motion Picture. This is mainly because it is a fantastic slow buildup to the main theme, building anticipation for the imminent launch of the Enterprise. Only the contrabassoon, bass trombone and very low piano provide a dramatic bass sustain while cellos, basses and bassoons introduce us to the first musical idea from TMP and then trade back and forth between the violins and Oboes: the Starfleet Ostinato.

The primary role of this ostinato is not just to provide backing for the eventual appearance of the main theme, but also to illustrate Starfleet Officers scurrying about, making sure systems run at optimum efficiency. It is meant to represent the people of the Enterprise, rather than the ship itself. That honor is generally reserved for the main theme.

Finally, the first hint of the main theme shows itself in the horns, while the timpani thunders on with the Starfleet Ostinato in what was I’m sure a very fun solo. Then, after one more dip in dynamic, Kirk gives the order to launch the Enterprise. The full theme shows itself in all its glory as the magnificent starship leaves drydock behind!

After a grand sendoff with the main Jerry Goldsmith Star Trek theme, with the Starfleet Ostinato providing counterpoint, we glide into one of the lovelier variations of the theme, depicting Kirk’s first glimpse of the refitted Enterprise…a sort of hushed awe with the melody carried now only by the sweet cellos in their high register, violins and violas providing harmony with fingered tremolo and flutes and clarinets providing the barest gusts of accent here and there. It’s also worth noting that this is one of the scenes that Jerry had to entirely re-score because the FILMMAKERS thought it needed a theme! Can you imagine a director nowadays turning to a composer and saying “eh, it needs a theme!”?

I even threw in the challenging mixed-meter variation of the main theme, which also chronicles Kirk and Scotty’s starship-gazing scene. To my delight, the orchestra stepped up to the plate and kept up with the challenging section – not to mention our principle clarinet who pulled off a very difficult solo in a very high register!

Next, I decided to add the Klingon Attack cue.  There is something irresistible about it, I think largely because it captures the race so well. It is bellicose and proud (because of the use of 5ths, making it sound like a royal call to battle), but also is orchestrated in a way that has restraint to it – like a predator waiting to strike. Note that all the woodwinds are playing in unison here – even the Bassoons, which is a register as high for them as the opening Rite of Spring solo! Also, the clicking you hear are not Castanets, as you might have guessed, but Angklungs – a percussion instrument from Indonesia. We couldn’t get our hands on any for the concert, so I had to provide the synth patch for that and play the part myself!

Now, the real challenge of this arrangement was figuring out how to replicate the Blaster Beam sound. For those of you who don’t know what this crazy instrument is, it’s essentially a 15+ foot lap steel guitar. When you bang on it and scrape things along in portamento style, it sounds very…scifi. Here’s one of the creators of the beam to expound and pound.

Pretty cool, right? But how the hell was I suppose to replicate that sound on the concert stage? I happened to be at a concert when I was very young where the Klingon Attack was being performed, and I remember that they got some Synth guy to make a sound, but it was weaksauce. It didn’t have the same impact. And the orchestration was written to basically give the Beam a solo with no accompaniment. So how was I to avoid that pitfall?

My solution was manyfold. First, I had the harp make this racket that you only get when you instruct the Harpist to push one of their pedals exactly between two half-steps, thus allowing the strings to rattle against the pins. It sounds kinda like this:

But in the big Blaster Beam spots, I added Timpani rolls with pedaling, as well as a healthy dose of Omnisphere Synths that were a good deal heftier than the ones I heard many years ago in that concert hall. Have a listen and judge for yourself.

Now the Beam, one of the many ways V’Ger is represented musically, was actually recorded separately from the orchestra…and it just so happens that there is a track with nothing but Beam effects on the 3-Disc special edition of the Motion Picture Soundtrack. So I borrowed a few seconds of it and played it back at the right moment, where it would have been too difficult to have acoustic instruments try and duplicate the effect. Following the Beam solo is just a cacophony of aleatory, depicting the energy bolts that V’Ger throws at ships to disintegrate them.

This seguays straight into one of the more clever (if I do say so myself) transitions of the suite: in the Klingon Attack cue, it ends on a dramatic tutti statement of the V’Ger chords. But later on, there is a similar dramatic statement of the V’Ger chords, only infused with hints of Ilia’s Theme, who at that point is absorbed by V’Ger and used as a vessel to communicate with the humans. It was even in the right key! So, what better way to transition into Ilia’s Theme?

Then of course comes Ilia’s Theme, arguably one of the best romantic movie themes ever written. Just take a listen. Jerry was second to none when it came to romance, which is why he loved scoring Star Trek so much: it’s a very romantic vision of the future. And before you claim sexism, this theme is not meant to represent a soft female object of desire, it’s actually a love theme for her and Commander Decker.

From here, I go straight into Spock Walk, one of the more exciting, terrifying and memorable cues from the film depicting Spock’s decision to climb into a thruster suit and leave the safety of the Enterprise. It’s very, very fast, and has some technically demanding things for the orchestra, but I couldn’t have been happier with how it turned out. And it also shows the genius of Goldsmith…the whole thing is just the V’Ger chord progression over and over – just two chords! That’s it! But it’s orchestrated in such a way that you don’t even realize it.’

Now, Jerry Goldsmith was very good at something else besides thematic writing, orchestration, playing to the picture, etc etc…experimenting with new sounds. There is a wide range of percussion in this score, and I already mentioned that six dedicated percussionists were needed on the Fox Stage. In this cue, we made use of things like…

Water Chimes

Waterphone (horror movie staple)

And there’s even a Slit Drum solo, lending a mystical quality to the imagery before Spock as he traverse’s V’Ger’s entire journey that it has catalogued and is now parading in front of the Vulcan.

Finally, Spock arrives at a representation of Ilia, with her new sensor. Accompanied by this revelation is a Brass Chorale announcing Ilia’s Theme. He senses some special meaning connected to the sensor and tries to mind-meld with it. But it proves to be far too much for his poor Vulcan brain to handle, and he is overwhelmed. Accompanying this is a cue fit for a horror film, with forceful quarter notes on mallet percussion, piano and WWs, scurrying, frantic strings and powerful horn rips. This marks the climax of the arrangement, which segues seamlessly into the moment that V’Ger ascends into a higher plane after melding with a human and leaves the Enterprise and Earth in peace after the threat of extinction. One of my favorite moments of relief in any film score.

Finally, we get into the march that everyone knows so well, but with one last little detour: the theme from First Contact. I had to include this as well because in spite of the brilliance of the Motion Picture soundtrack, Goldsmith’s most perfect encapsulation of the optimism for humanity is this theme.

Finally, after I have completely overblown my welcome, we arrive at a recap of the theme, this time with the Trombones in the lead!

And here is another portion of the arrangement where I got to flex my creative muscles a little. I didn’t like the ending that most of the Goldsmith marches had, so I created my own to close out this 22-minute monstrosity, inspired largely by Horner admittedly but nonetheless it came of brilliantly!

Now you have a better idea of why I love this score so much. It was frankly a miracle that it turned out so thematically cohesive, as Jerry was working on huge swaths of film that simply read “missing special FX shot” and had to use his imagination…and also was forced to re-write half the material at least once. He himself admitted it was the hardest go he had ever had on a film, but was worth it.

I was so thrilled with how this turned out that it gave me the confidence I needed to start creating my own works for full orchestra. It was essentially a second masters with a specific focus on orchestration. After all, there are few better teachers than Goldsmith…Stravinsky maybe, or Respighi. I am also forever grateful to the people of the Arapahoe Philharmonic for allowing me the change to arrange SO MUCH material for their pops concert!

In even better news, I have gotten interest from professional orchestras for some of this material, and I am working through Tresona music to make sure at least some of this will be available for purchase. Once it is, you will definitely be able to access it through this website!

Many more things both on the horizon and behind me…I just haven’t had a chance to write about it. Look for more posts soon! In the meantime, live long and prosper.