Brian LaGuardia - Composer, Orchestrator, Arranger

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Best of Both Worlds, Part II

by Brian

A little ways back I mentioned the Elliot Wright EWQLSO Sibelius 7 sound set and how big a fan I was of how it managed to cross traditional music notation with the power of a sequencer. Turns out that I was the first one who ended up manually configuring for the Gold version (since it was developed for Symphonic Orchestra Platinum). He posted the PLAY instrument files on his website a couple of days ago. And as such, I thought I’d go into detail about why this was a good experience for me.

For someone who has been involved with music for a long time, I was shamefully ignorant when it came to music technology (for the most part, anyway). I had a vague idea of what MIDI was, but I didn’t really know how it worked or what it meant exactly other than “a computer’s ability to create music.” What it is, in fact, is a standard. Computer scientists love standards, because it’s the only thing that allows technology to communicate when you get right down to it. Ah, here’s my IT background coming into play :P.

Say you have two entities, A and B. Either one of these can be a computer, a piece of software (a program), or what have you. If you want to send meaningful information between the two, all you have to do is make sure both sides agree to a common format or standard. Otherwise, when A sends data to B, B will have no idea how to interpret it (or have the wrong idea of how to interpret it, which is even worse).

My work on getting the gold library to interface correctly with the sound set involved this concept directly, because the sound set itself is expecting certain things on certain MIDI channels in order to work properly. For those of you unfamiliar with the basics of MIDI, each MIDI connection has 16 channels. Each of these channels are generally used as either a single “patch” or a full-fledged “virtual instrument.”

  • Patch: A collection of recorded notes or “samples” of a given instrument, one for each possible note in its range mapped to the appropriate piano key.
  • Virtual Instrument: Same as above, only with additional functionality. Namely, there are two or more “key switches” found outside the effective range of the instrument, and pressing that key (or telling MIDI to do that) won’t play a sample. It will instead load a different patch of the same instrument with different articulation. Here’s an example:


The white keys are the playable notes, and the blue ones are the key switches. This happens to be a Clarinet Virtual Instrument, and since Clarinets can’t play a C1 or D#2, the key switches are below the playable range. Right now, I have the default sustain patch selected. But if I press C#1, it will load the staccato patch, and perhaps D1 will load a trill or a 5th slide up, which will then be heard if I press one of the white keys. This inclusion of different articulations within the same MIDI channel allows you to more accurately approximate what the instrument would sound like playing your phrase, because no player would play every note with the same articulation unless they’re holding a very long note in a harmonic capacity. Most players will play certain notes in a phrase more staccato than another, will do vibrato on one note but not another, etc. This is just a way to better approximate that variety and make it sound less artificial.

Now, the challenge with the EWQLSO multis was that these key switches had to be in specific places. Why? Because Mr. Wright designed the system so that no matter what instrument you were working with, the key switch staff note A will always mean staccato, A#, will always mean tremolo/flutter, etc., even if the actual position of the key switch wasn’t A or A#. So I had to make sure all of those mappings were right.

So, if you are of a mind to try out Elliot Wright’s Sibelius 7 system but you are like me and bought the Complete Composer Collection that came with Gold instead of the Platinum version of Symphonic Orchestra, fear not! My instrument multis are available for download at his homepage, free of charge after you buy his sound set.

The Emerging Film Composer

by Brian


This will be my first of several posts detailing my experience reading some of the most acclaimed books about the industry that I am endeavoring to break into. Although this isn’t nearly as informative or transformative as actual experience, I do feel that books like these contain more than words…they contain perspectives from those who have already made it.

This is precisely what I found with this little gem of a book. It’s a mere 155 pages packed to the brim with advice, stories and details that you’ll be hard pressed to get from a university course. In fact, the very first useful pearl I picked up (after a small splash in the face in the form of a small “it’s a buyer’s market” argument) was the answer to a question that I have been ruminating on for some time: do you really need a college degree to do this professionally? The short answer is of course “no.” The author does not discourage the reader from obtaining a degree, either. He does, however, submit that simply having a degree means little to nothing in the business. What is important is that you actively participate in filling your own educational gaps and continue to grow and broaden your horizons as a musician. University settings often help you do this quite easily, but so can developing your own personal curriculum and following it as rigorously as a college program. And indeed, university education can have the drawback of stifling your creativity if you let it. Either way, this is an essential step, because as he puts it,

I can almost guarantee that the first important job you get will fall right into one of those [educational] gaps.

Another exceedingly handy section was “pricing your work.” Here’s another set of information I would not have attained if I was simply pursuing the craft of composition in a purely academic setting: there are some hard costs associated with music budgets, and you are the one who generally needs to decide how to spend it and weather or not it is enough. Of course, I don’t expect to be working for money for a couple of years yet…nonetheless, this transition will happen at some point, and it is important to spend some time establishing a desired salary and to be able to build a budget. That way you have something to start with when you negotiate that isn’t just “well, this is the national average” or “well, I think I deserve X dollars.” Instead, you can have a very intelligent discussion about what your hard costs are based on what they need, as well as needing fringe benefits such as retaining copyrights to your work in order to offset the hit you’re taking in your salary. It was also a cold, hard look at the living expenses you face when you move to LA, and how if you don’t  have the money to cover it, you need a job so as not to let your desperation damage the industry for everyone else (or your own reputation as a high-quality composer, because perception plays a huge role in a field that many know little about). Being a good businessman is an essential part of this career, just like it was in Beethoven’s time.

The great thing about this book is that it’s about people first and about process second. And that’s fantastic, because that’s certainly something that isn’t in a University Curriculum and it is probably about 90% of the equation to find work and to be successful as an entrepreneur. This is why we are seeing more and more people come forward and claim that you can get things done without a degree…because in a business, what matters most is a) can you get it done well, and b) are you the kind of person other professionals like to be around? Neither of these things necessarily follow after you graduate with a bachelors, masters or PhD, even though it generally offers easy opportunities to improve the former.

That’s not to say the book doesn’t cover process. In fact, there is a whole section devoted to the actual writing process, in which he describes perfectly the phenomenon that I myself have discovered recently:

The three anti-muses are Anxiety, Insecurity and Panic – three states of mind to which all creative people are, at one time or another, subject.

He goes further and explains that basically, the act of courting the muse is really finding ways to ward off those three demons. One of the best ways is finding a composer’s assistant…which, incidentally, is the best way to get your foot in the door in this industry. The job of a composer’s assistant is essentially to take care of as many of the small things as possible so that the composer has more time to think and create. And as someone who has experience composing, I can say that time is more valuable to me than anything else. I think it was Mahler who ended up getting so excited when a prominent figure died, because it meant he had a whole ten days free to simply compose. I certainly understand where that comes from. This is a long and non-linear process, and giving it more time always makes it better.

This small book was most definitely a gem. I doubt I’ll be able to find another that has so much important information and interesting stories that offer insight into the life of a film composer in such a concise and affordable package. But then, you never know. Which leads me to probably my favorite quote in the entire book:

When you realize that everything good comes out of left field, your job is to go to the ballpark every day.

Star Trek: Old vs New

by Brian

You nerve-pinched my mother again, didn’t you?

There’s no arguing about the success of the new Star Trek films. And indeed, I enjoy both the old and the new. But just for fun, let’s stack them up side-by-side and compare their scores. Which, when you examine the wealth of material, basically becomes Jerry Goldsmith & James Horner vs Michael Giacchino.

Let’s start with the obvious comparison: main themes. These are the glue that hold the entire thematic library together. Goldsmith’s theme started out non-existent – that is, the prevailing scifi scoring techniques at the time were to avoid thematic writing as much as possible. However, Star Wars came along with John Williams’ sweeping, groundbreaking score and changed all of that entirely. Star Trek: The Motion Picture, coming out a mere two years later, felt the enormous pressure put forth by the copious success of that film. So when Goldsmith assembled a hundred-piece orchestra and wrote out some great music, director Robert Wise said “no, it’s missing something…a theme.” And thus, Jerry constructed a theme (through much toil, from his words) and came up with one of the most classic musical fanfares of adventure and discovery known to modern cinema:

Goldsmith March

Pretty tough to beat, right? But here comes the challenger! In this corner, we have composer for Up and The Increadibles…movie scoring extraordinaire Michael Giacchino! The producers brought him in when they decided to reboot the franchise and as such, they wanted a new sound as well. Here is his new take on the continuing voyages of the Starship Enterprise:

Giacchino Fanfare

Here we have a great theme that is flashier and edgier. In other words, a perfect compliment to what the new Star Trek movies are. But does that make it better? Really, that’s a matter of opinion. Each style is fantastic in its own way. Personally, I’m a sucker for the old march…maybe because I grew up with it.

Next, let’s examine the lesser themes. Only one theme was written for the same character in both instances: Mr. Spock. James Horner’s theme was perfect for old Spock, capturing his advanced age and wisdom:

Horner’s Spock Theme

Here is Giacchino’s Spock theme, this time tapping into the pride of his Vulcan traditions by using the elegant Erhu:

Giacchino’s Spock Theme

Here the Italian composer knocks it out of the park. An no, it’s not just the instrumentation…it manages to capture that wisdom and stoicism while simultaneously illuminating Spock’s youth and the new beginnings he is facing. It also very easily doubles as horrifying pain brought on by the destruction of his home world.  There’s just a lot more character development here, and the music reflects that and still manages to be simple and effective. Bravo, sir.

To me, Giacchino and Goldsmith are tied in the “awesome action cues” department:

Ba’ku Villiage

Nero Death Experience

As well as knowing how to orchestrate VERY well:

The Enterprise (Motion Picture)

Hella Bar Talk

And also have fantastic Klingon themes:

Klingon Theme

(although I’m not 100% sure if Giacchino’s is an actual theme for the Klingons…but this motif was used in the only scene containing them and it’s pretty badass):

The Kronos Wartet (Into Darkness)

But the thing is, Goldsmith just had this amazing way of crafting a thematic score. Check out this interesting motif (I don’t know that it represents anything, but it shows up quite a lot in different capacities):

My Right Arm (Nemesis)

An Angry God (Final Frontier)

The Dish (First Contact)

So instead of borrowing stuff from other composers, or copying his own cues in both style and content (I have seen this happen), he just ends up re-using the same motifs with radically different variations even for incidental music.

But, at the same time, the bad guy got a fun little theme in the first reboot film, whereas I don’t think a villain in the old movies ever got one:

Nero’s Theme

Ah, but good old Goldsmith has Ilia’s Theme as part of his Oscar-nominated score for The Motion Picture:

Ilia’s Theme

It’s hard to beat a true master of the craft like Goldsmith, but Giacchino has come achingly close. I only hope he starts to come up with more character themes, given how character-centric these new movies are.

The Joys of Showing Up

by Brian

Why is it always a good idea to show up to a rehearsal, even if it’s on Mother’s Day? Because sometimes you get to play someone else’s part for a day. And that part could be as amazing as, say, this Timpani part:

Oh yeeeaaaaahhh!

Epic Mahler Timpani

Yes, you read that right. You hit with both mallets on every damn note. How impossibly epic is that?

I have always felt privileged to have been allowed to play in the Colorado Mahlerfest since 2012. The caliber of players that come together for this wonderful event is slightly intimidating. As such, it becomes a thrilling challenge to play up to them.

But this was truly incredible. I’ve been waiting as a percussionist to play this part for some time, even if it was just for rehearsal. I got my wish today, and it was grand. Few things get my heart beating quicker than an epic Timpani moment. I’m surprised my face wasn’t permanently contorted from the stupid grin I had on my face.

It’s the little things like this that make my week.