Brian LaGuardia - Composer/Conductor/Arranger

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The Score

by Brian

I’m not sure how this program escaped my notice for so long. I was introduced to it by my aunt living in Colorado Springs. This is an amazing little radio program chalk-full of not just movie scores, but also musical and historical commentary to go along with it. That commentary never gets in the way, either. It’s just enough to elevate the experience with additional knowledge, and then it backs away and lets the music speak for itself. There’s some pretty great variety, too. Everything from Film Noir to Comedy to Thriller.

Check it out sometime! It beats the hell out of a Movie Score channel on Pandora. It’s a weekly broadcast, but there’s an archive that goes all the way back to July of 2010.

http://www.thescore.org/

The Wisdom of Elmer Bernstein

by Brian

I follow Bear McCreary’s work religiously. This is because he is one of those composers who is poised to become one of the greats next to John Williams and his former mentor, Elmer Bernstein. I’ll be reviewing some of his amazing work in the near future, but today I wanted to share with you an amazing post he in turn shared with his blog audience: his experiences and notes on his famous instructor. This was a rare treat indeed, and I’ll be holding onto it. I have the link to the post on the bottom, but first here are some of my favorites:

“Never fear your talented competitors. Fear the charlatans.”

I have already discovered the truth in these words. A little ways back, I became intimidated by the talent and success of another composer I was working with, but soon realized that this was not only silly but also counterproductive. They should instead serve as another tap for your creative flow, maybe even a boost to your motivation. Perhaps I will feel threatened again in the future, but if I do, I will use this as a mantra.

“If you get a chance to do the job, even if it’s going to be a mess, do it.”

Good advice, and not something I’m prone to doing. My usual instinct is not to move forward until I think things are as close to ideal as possible. Something I’ll have to work on.

“You can’t change the system. You have to deal with it the way it is.”

I suspect my youthful naivete will get in the way of this at times. Nonetheless, it’s something I will bear in mind.

“Respect the film. You don’t have to like it.”

Absolutely. I had been thinking about this for a while…what if you come across a film you don’t like, but you have to take it anyways? Well, you become a better person for servicing it the way it needs despite your personal feelings. I also like how this quote provides a counterbalance:

“Focus on who you are, what you’re willing to do or not do. Don’t prostitute yourself.”

Great stuff! Bear is always a font of useful and fascinating information. Keep up with his blog if you have the time!

http://www.bearmccreary.com/#blog/other/elmer-bernstein-wisdom/

On The Track, Part III

by Brian

The epic conclusion of my multi-part discussion of the enormous book “On The Track.” Here are the earlier parts for convenience:

Part I

Part II

 V

RECORDING

This section was very interesting. It even offers some pearls from masters at mixing, such as Dennis Sands:

With the orchestra less is more, always, with recording. To me, if you can capture the room, diffuse the amount of mics and adjust the dynamic in the room acoustically it’s the best mix possible. If it sounds good in the room you should be able to make it sound good on tape. Guys coming out of the record world, their experience base is to mic everything.

An interesting perspective, and certainly one that makes sense. An authentic sound is something to strive for.

There’s a discussion about conducting on the scoring stage, and how generally a composer must choose that or being in the sound booth (each having its own set of advantages). It’d be no contest for me. I’d want to be on the podium, because it would allow me to be in control of the performance while simultaneously being able to hear the mix from the headphones. This, to me, is the best of both worlds. Why would I want to hire someone to come in and conduct my own music? Though here’s the other perspective from James Newton Howard:

I let [the conductor] be the bad guy. That’s just such an exhausting job. It’s a job I don’t enjoy. I’m extremely well prepared…we get together and go through every score: check the clicks, check the tempos, take the clicks out, warning clicks, we’re going to do this here, so by the time he gets there everything’s completely marked and ready to go. So generally speaking by the time I get to the scoring stage I’ve already won. It’s already kind of a done deal.

While I can understand this perspective, I cannot share it. If I am ever to score a film, television show or video game, I would want to make it as musical and non-technically-grounded as I possibly can. John Williams, for example, doesn’t even use clicks much of the time! Most of his cues are free time with a few hits marked with 4-second streamers. This, to me, is the ideal. But each composer has his own way of doing things. Whatever works for them is right for them.

The bit on click leakage was amusing, and I’m no stranger to it. A few years ago, I created my own little score for a small project that never made it off the ground. I had no studio to work with, so I recorded all of the parts myself. I was able to do this by creating a click track for myself, putting it on my iPod and listening to it as I performed for my Zoom H2. And that’s when I discovered the phenomenon of click leakage. I ended up having to re-do an excellent take simply because you could hear the click track in the final recording.  I suppose it surprised me that it was a threat in a professional scoring stage, but then again those rooms are designed to be acoustically vibrant.

The section on rehearsal protocol was cute. With my dad being an accomplished conductor, I was quite familiar with the ins and outs of rehearsal etiquette. Yeah, he used to get pretty blustery at times when people weren’t focusing, but he certainly knew that “musicians don’t respond well to being told that they’re out of tune or not together.” Respect for the musicians must be demonstrated.

Apparently, losing a score is a more common occurrence than I thought. The only example of this I had known about was 2001: A Space Odessy and Alex North’s score. But there were several examples cited in this section, which worries me a great deal. How a score can be so deep in production and then suddenly be thrown out is beyond me. I would hope that the director would have more input along the way so as to avoid this unfortunate turn of events altogether, or at least get there earlier in the process.

VI

ELECTRONIC AND CONTEMPORARY SCORING

There was a fascinating discussion on the role that electronics and synthesizers play in film music. Many greats such as Goldsmith and Elfman consider it just another section of the ensemble, while for low-budget pictures it’s more like an attempt at re-creating acoustic performances. Of course, even those composers who tend to have an emphasis on electronic music stress suprising things. Take Hans Zimmer:

There’s nothing that can replace the human soul in a score.

In other words, it really doesn’t matter the tools you use to get there, as long as there is some spark…some musicality to it. I’m sure you wouldn’t be able to argue that there isn’t any soul in Gladiator…

Sorrow

It was, of course, also very interesting to see how composers like Howard Shore work the concept of electronic sounds into their sketches. A popular technique is simply to write “+synths” over the staff of an acoustic instrument. At times, even that isn’t needed if there is a more effect-based sound to be utilized.

One of the other small, miscellaneous chapters deals with the use of “contemporary” music. Really, the most fascinating part of this was how many composers mentioned the collaborative nature of these instances. Newman states,

It’s fraternal. It’s friendly and kind, as opposed to ‘Here I am on the podium and I’ve got to do my thing and I’ve got to know when it should be a B-flat instead of an A.’ [snip] I like that I don’t know things and that we can come in together and experiment and get to frontiers of color and gesture that you never could sit in a room and conceive. That’s really inspiring to me.

This is ALWAYS the way I have preferred to approach even my own solitary composition technique, as odd as that sounds. Instead of sticking to rigid rules, I find it much more liberating to experiment. As such, I think I would welcome the same sort of mindset from collaborators.

And of course, there is a section on writing for television. It’s pretty much universally agreed that the deadlines for such an endeavor are onerous. Most of the insights provided by composers in this section seemed to revolve around being more efficient rather than more musical. Which is why I have such respect for composers who manage to churn out excellent soundtracks for television shows, like Bear McCreary:

Human Target

Of course, the great advantage of scoring for television is that despite the awful deadlines you find yourself trying to meet, you do have the opportunity to develop your musical ideas to a much, much greater extent than you would be able to in a movie. Character themes and the like tend to be developed and used as variations throughout the run.

VII

SONGS

Mostly dealing with single songs with lyrics that are either licensed from pre-existing albums or written specifically for the feature. However, there was also a section in here involving pre-recording and post-recording for musicals. A fascinating chapter, although it has little to do with where I have set my sights.

VIII

THE BUSINESS

Perhaps one of the most useful sections, it goes into some detail about everything from where to be to preparing targeted demos, demonstrating diversity, agents, back-end deals, music budgets, licencing companies, logistics and pretty much everything else that wasn’t covered in the other sections. While it didn’t go into quite as much detail and example as the previous sections, it is indeed a decent overview. There are other books that cover the business side of being a composer.

This was a fantastic read. The real strengths of this book are its scope and its specific examples of sketches paired with DVD times for audio/visual study. And of course, it’s chalk-full of great quotes and perspectives from fantastic composers. I’ll close with one of my favorites from David Shire..

With really great writers, you can take away cues and play them, and they hold up as music. There’s musical content as well as dramatic content.

This will forever be my goal should I ever find myself in the position of being a professional film composer, as it should be for anyone in the industry.

On The Track: Part II

by Brian

Thus continues my multi-part post about On The Track, the book I’m currently reading that covers every possible aspect of film composition. You can find part one here.

III

TIMINGS

A highly technical section, this one provided useful insight into how a composer can go about hitting the proper beats in his or her cues. Granted, a lot of the methods described are rather outdated, as Pro Tools and other commonplace DAWs will do all of this for you. But it’s always nice to know the basics.

I was surprised to learn just how much math goes into the process. Back in the olden days, there was literally a “sound track” on the film (hence the term we use today) that was physically spliced on. As such, you had to be exact about making sure you knew exactly what beat of what measure your climax was on if you were trying to sync it with a point in the picture. You also had to be proficient with a Click Book, which gives you a conversion between Maelzel’s Metronome (beats per minute) values and number of frames (down to 1/8 a frame) between beats/clicks. All I can say is that I am glad DAWs do this for me…not because I can’t do it manually, but because it allows more time to be creative and less time to be technical. Ultimately, it will serve the score better.

IV

COMPOSITION

Aaaaah, here we get to the meat and potatoes of the book. Similar to the conceptualization chapter, this one was most helpful with the more abstract aspects of the job. I enjoyed the discussions of setting tone in the first cue, whose point of view to write to (character’s or audience’s), how “smart” the score should be (if the scene is about something not readily apparent, should the music highlight that or simply the action occurring?), the environment, the situation, character’s feelings…there are a multitude of ways to approach scoring any scene. There is also the question of whether you overplay or understate the drama. Most composers tend towards the latter, but several scores by accomplished people such as John Williams certainly have extremely dense, emotional scores that are beloved. I suppose it depends on what the film needs, as well as the personal taste of the composer and the director. It’s a delicate balance, because as Tomas Newman states,

…one of the things that concerns me and interest me about music for film is why is the music there in the first place? And if it is there, why is it saying something? And I guess the obvious reason is because sometimes a scene can be emotionally blank and therefore needs filling in. At the same time, there’s such nuance, particularly in modern movies, of an actor’s performance that I just never want to clobber that.

Of course, the power of music is such that it can de-emphasize or tone down elements that were over-done in production as well, though this is a much less common occurrence.

I also loved the bit on recurring silence that helps add to the drama. I’ve definitely noticed this in the score’s I’ve been studying lately, such as the remake of Battlestar Galactica. The cue “Refugees Return” is on the Season 3 soundtrack, and the corresponding scene is in Exodus Part II at 38:11 on the DVD set. Adama tells Colonel Tigh that he brought everyone home, to which the other replies, “not all of them.” It’s a truly bittersweet scene that is scored perfectly, focusing on Tigh’s guilt and providing an amazing contrast with the praise Adama receives from his crew immediately after those lines.

vlcsnap-2013-06-24-21h50m44s45

Refugees Return

There was also a nice discussion of film genres, period films and source music (or music the characters can actually hear).

The most useful section (for me at my current point in time, anyway) dealt with the process of composition itself. Here we have discussions about overcoming writer’s block (of particular interest to me), melodies, development of themes and motifs, non-diatonic techniques (clusters, twelve-tone rows, etc), use of ostinatos, tension and release, modes and orchestrations to suggest location and time period…virtually an analysis of the entire field with copious examples to complement it. Again, I marvel at the amount of sketches and even full scores that are available in this book. For those who do have the budget (or library) to support it, there are also time codes for each example correlating to the DVD release of the film. I don’t have even half of the examples listed in the book, but I will endeavor to change that as I will be studying this book well after the initial read.

I found the section on orchistration particularly fascinating. For example, I was surprised to learn that most of the scores produced for movies are concert pitch – no transpositions. This makes sense, I suppose, given he trend towards using sequencers rather than live performers. However, with quick and easy transposition features on the latest software, I don’t see why this even has to be an issue at all (although to be fair, this is more a copyist’s responsibility than anything).

Sibelius 7 has an easy button that allows you to switch between concert pitch score and transposed score.

I was encouraged to see that some of the snobbery regarding formal training vs self-study is disappearing. Surely it is difficult to argue with the success of the non-traditional composers. Hans Zimmer, for example, is the second highest grossing composer in the world and had a grand total of two week’s worth of formal piano lessons.

I also found a gem of a tip on how to get better at the craft of orchestration: take full scores and condense them into two staves for piano. I frequently download and study scores from the greats that are now in public domain, but as Jack Hayes states:

You can look at it and say, ‘oh yeah, that’s it,’ but you’ve really got to [write it out]. That way you really absorb it.

That has been my failing so far. It is an inefficient method indeed to try to learn simply by observation…as it is with most skills.

There was also an excellent section that basically lists all of the major pitfalls for orchestrators trying to translate a MIDI mock-up to an orchestral score. Little things like woodwind doubling (clarinet player also plays English Horn, needs time to switch), balance issues (solo flute against blaring horns works in MIDI, not so much acoustically) and the like.

There was also a cute little chapter at the end of this part, “Technical and Practical Considerations”. Cute because it covers all of the little things you didn’t expect to be covered…namely, keeping healthy when you basically have no time to do anything but compose when you’re on a project. Things like making sure your workstation is ergonomically adequate, that you’re properly hydrated, eating properly…that sort of thing. Also there were some tips that didn’t seem to fall in any of the other sections, such as making sure you orchestrate for a one-shot recording on stage vs layered sequencing (you don’t want to have that solo piano oboe line demolished by screaming brass if it’s all on stage), proofreading, and saving your music often.

As you can probably tell by now, I adore this book…but I’ll save my summary for the final part.