Brian LaGuardia - Composer/Conductor/Arranger

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Memoirs of a Geisha

by Brian

There is a very short list of composers who manage to make each of their soundtracks masterpieces. John Williams is most definitely on that list. I decided to pick this movie up for a couple of reasons. The most prominent reason? I learned recently that this was one of the few movies that John Williams actually requested to score. I had to check it out not just for the music, but for the dramatic content. Of course, the movie excels at both.

I have rarely heard Williams use so many Japanese and Chinese instruments in a score. He usually sticks to the western orchestra, because he does that really well. But here, the western orchestra blends with a lot of ethnic sounds, and the result is superb. A perfect example of this is the rooftop scene, in which the main character Sayuri attempts to escape from the Hanamachi. The Sakuhachi provides the perfect solo instrument for building tension here.

Rooftop Escape

So he certainly has ethnic atmosphere. But what of his typically thematic writing? Well, it’s in here, too. Sayuri’s Theme is the leitmotif, the core musical statement. My favorite iteration is when the motage begins when she is training to become a Geisha. Violas richly carry the melody while a Nagado Daiko provides a soft yet driving pulse that mirrors her resolve to master this craft.

Sayuri’s Theme

The other significant theme here is the one for “the Chairman,” the main character’s love interest. It perfectly captures the almost fairy-tale like tone (in her mind) of their first meeting that sparks her whole character arc. As she said, it is rare to find even kindness in her world, and he showed not only kindness but a genuine interest in her well being.

Chairman’s Waltz

One of my other favorite moments in the score was when Sayuri and her new friend are running to their first day of school, late for class. Williams manages such a youthful energy and innocence. I also love how it’s a duet at one point between the Cello and the Erhu, since we’re following two characters on the screen. Little touches like that really make me happy.

Going to School

This certainly isn’t typical Williams fare, and that’s what I like about it. Many criticize him for being too derivative. I don’t, and in this case I applaud him for trying to stretch his wings. No artist, no matter how accomplished, is above that and will always benefit from the experience. True, some think this isn’t an authentic Japanese sound…and it’s not. It’s a blend of Japanese and Western influence. But who cares? The result is an excellent score to a great movie. And in fact, these kinds of blends are precisely what composition is all about. Sometimes the most interesting stuff emerges when genres are thrust together.

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.

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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.

Journey

by Brian

Words cannot adequately describe my experience with Journey. This is easily one of the best video games I have ever played, due in no small part to the score. This is a shining example of the heights interactive entertainment is capable of, and how the score of a video game can transcend that of most major motion pictures. This is true art, and those of you who believe that video games cannot be such should do yourself a favor and rent this title over some weekend.

Before I get to the score, I must describe the nature of the game itself. Most games, like most movies and dramatic works, have a Dramatis Personae – clearly defined characters with motivation. This game is quite abstract as far as the identity of your character. You aren’t really anyone in particular. You are simply a little red guy in a cloak with a scarf, and that’s the point. However, you do have a motivation: your goal is to make it to the summit of a distant mountain peak. This is demonstrated without a single line of dialog, just like the rest of the game. If brevity is the soul of wit, this is the sharpest story I’ve ever seen.

title_sequence

But the amazing thing about this game is that the plot, characters and even your goal is rather abstract. Yes, it is a physical location within the game world that you are trying to reach, but what does it MEAN to get to the peak? Why is it important? To me, this is what all great art does: it allows you to assign your own meaning. As the title suggests, it is simply a Journey. We embark on them all the time in our lives, whether that goal is to graduate college or get that dream job, or even something more inward-focused. The entire game is an extended metaphor for how we live our lives, and how we assign meaning to things.

Now that alone should be enough to entice you to play the game. But that’s not even mentioning the unbelievable musical score that accompanies the imagery. It is penned by Austin Wintory, a name I’ll be following closely from now on. The entire score is based upon one of the most inspired leitmotifs I’ve heard.

Journey Leitmotif

This is a representation of the Journey, as this is in some variation present in most all of the tracks. Most games, movies and TV shows devise themes for characters in the story. But seeing as how there really are none in this game, it makes sense to only have one truly constant musical idea that shifts and evolves, just as your own perspective does on journeys you experience.

The emotional journey is perfectly matched by the score. It begins with a cleansing of the emotional palate, in the composer’s own words.

Palate Cleansing

We are given simple tasks that allow us to test the waters…the first steps are always the easiest to take. Then, we build momentum and find ourselves giddy with the rapidity of our progress. Interminable trudges on foot are replaced with downhill slides and grand leaps over structures that were once a chore. It seems nothing stands in our way!

road_of_trials

Road of Trials

We find other companions on similar journeys along the way, as well as enemies and wise elders to admonish us.

journey_confluence

Final Confluence

And finally, the true struggle is found. We find ourselves closer to our goal than ever, but the last leg of the journey proves to be the most difficult. Our character trudges through a cutting blizzard on the very slopes of its goal, steps becoming more laborious until finally, it collapses, prostrate. And that sets the stage for one of the most uplifting cues I think I’ve ever heard.

I think you’ll agree that there is something profound and universal about this game and its score. Do yourself a favor and play through it whenever you get the chance. It will only take you two hours at the most, and if you are anything like me it will affect you far more than most games that are 100x the length.

On The Track: Part I

by Brian

filmmusik-lyssna-karlin-wright

This book is so enormous that I will have to split this discussion into multiple posts. Do not, however, let that get in the way of your impulse to pick it up should you decide that film scoring is your dream job. This is probably the single greatest book on the subject I’ve come across due to its comprehensiveness, which is why it’s so large. It is a most solid foundation, and precisely what I was looking for.

It starts with a brilliant forward by John Williams, one of the greatest film composers who ever lived. He goes into how technology is changing the industry a bit (namely how easy it is for younger composers to neglect a broader base of experiences), includes a glowing recommendation of this book due to it’s inclusion of “so much painfully acquired knowledge,” and also adds a hopeful glace toward the future of the industry. He states,

In the past we’ve noticed that many of our best musical minds were not interested in film scoring. This was probably the result of the fact that these composers found too many restrictions and technical problems in the film medium, and for some, the practice was simply too “low brow.” I do, however, think that in the future we will see more and more “serious” young composers willing to devote some of their energies to film music. If this happens, and I think it will, the resultant music may have an effect, hopefully beneficial, on the development of the art and of music itself. Media music is here to stay. It is part of our musical future.

This is more true with each passing year. More young folks than ever are pursuing degrees not just in composition, but specifically film composition…so much so that the market is getting flooded with candidates. There is a definite distinction between scoring for picture and writing absolute music. But for some (including me), the melding of a good score and a good movie, episode or cut scene/level in a video game creates something unique and special that stimulates all of the senses. As he puts it:

I wish all students and readers of this book great joy and much success as they enter what is a universe of sight and sound that we are all just beginning to explore.

Now that I’m done salivating over the words of one of my childhood heroes, let’s dive into the meat of the book.

I

PRELIMINARIES

This section dealt mostly with familiarizing the reader with the various aspects of film production, as well as a general view of the industry. I found, to my delight, an example of a condensed score for a movie’s main title (resources that are quite difficult to come by for those not in the industry) who’s score I know and love: The Great Escape by Elmer Bernstein. This was only in the second chapter!

In fact the book is chalk full of actual written cues that I plan on studying more intensely later on.

There was also plenty of discussion on temp tracks, and how various composers deal with them. Some don’t want to hear them at all because it will alter the creative process for themselves, but most think of it as a useful tool to improve communication between the composer and the filmmakers. I know I would love to hear a temp track, because it does part of my work for me: it establishes what the music needs to do in that particular instance…or at least, provides a starting place for that discussion.

Another great thing I found early on was an example of a group of documents: spotting notes and cue summary sheets. Some of these get very detailed and as such make the composer’s job much easier. I was under the assumption that composers took notes themselves for spotting sessions (and I’m sure that is the case for low-budget films), but apparently that’s the music editors job.

This section also covers the power of not using music, and how the music is only there to service and elevate the film. I’m sure we’ve all noticed instances where the inclusion of any music, no matter how minimalist or restrained, would ruin the scene entirely. Some examples that spring to mind readily are several scenes from No Country for Old Men (which has almost no score at all):

Any music would have taken away from the ridiculous amount of tension in that scene. The music simply wasn’t required, because the silence was adding to that tension. The author describes it perfectly:

Curiously, certain dramatic situations, especially those with a strong sense of realism or emotion, can be weakened by the addition of music:  it can turn earnest drama into maudlin melodrama; it can take the searing edge off gritty, threatening realism and make the scene safely “theatrical” so we no longer see it as reality.

Another pleasant surprise I found early on was a list of film terminology. This can come in handy not just for reading spotting notes, but also for reading scripts.

Finally, there is the budget section. This book goes into great detail about musicians unions and how to plan and budget for those players and non-union players alike. It even has a step-by-step guide to calculating your orchestra cost before you ever write any music, based on “salary units” and the like. This union information and other fine details is what I was missing from the previous book, so that was quite handy.

II

CONCEPTUALIZING

I found this particular section even more valuable than the last. This is probably the most important part of the composition process. The more work that can be done conceptualizing the score, the better you will be able to avoid writer’s block because you already have a good idea of what kind of sound you want, what instrumentation, what modes/scales, styles and of course thematic elements (if applicable). This is actually the part of composition that I sometimes don’t spend enough time on myself, and let me tell you…it slows down the writing process quite a bit. Just as an outline is an essential step to writing a paper or a book, so too is conceptualizing an important and necessary step to building a cohesive, quality score.

There was a quote in here that I loved…

One of the unique features of film music is the blending of several stylistic musical styles or elements to create a composite, sometimes even fresh recipe of musical ingredients. The possible variations are limitless. A little hint of country music can flavor a score…there may not be a single commonly used musical label that accurately describes the composite musical idiom you have created.

So true! This is one of the things that fascinates me about film and television scores…they are so eclectic! I’ve seen as many as five or six radically different styles blended into the same score. That kind of synthesis is something that is rarely, if ever, heard in absolute or even program music.

There was a great discussion about how the thematic material and even the style usually emanates from the central character of the film, whatever or whoever that may be. Also that there is generally an “overview” musical theme, which captures the main emotional thrust of the film. This thrust can be simple or complex, and the score must seek to match that accordingly, be that with the appropriate style, inclusion of ethnic elements, texture, color, etc. And since this is usually quite a difficult task, it is not uncommon for composers to borrow certain elements from other composers – even film composers. And nobody should blame them in the slightest…not just because such a thing is not a crime, but also because film composers are constantly under ludicrous schedules.

Finally, there was a very nice section on mock-ups. It went into detail for several professionals and the myriad ways that a score goes from initial concept to fully orchestrated. Some start with the sequencer and go straight into building mock-ups, thus taking care of orchestration at the same time…others produce sketches and play them out at the piano (though that is becoming less and less common these days), others still create more sparse mock-ups and let others polish it up as part of the “orchestration” process.

The thing I found most helpful was the section on making your mock-ups convincingly real. There was unanimous advice to play your parts into the sequencer one at a time, rather than playing a chord for the whole section (I’d imagine this helps you be more accurate and efficient), as well as not being afraid to do things that a normal orchestra can’t do. Even though you’ll have to adjust for that later on during the orchestration phase – if you’re using a live orchestra). Because obviously, a lot of finessing has to be done to make a synthesizer sound real, and sometimes that means trying some strange stuff. Good tips for someone like me who is just starting out with a Sequencer.

This section also went into some detail about an interesting debate on how good you should make your mock-ups. Should they simply be a way to demonstrate a basic idea before you record, or should they be more like a finished product? I personally would choose either depending upon the project and the budget, and probably partially the sound sets I’m using and how certain elements of the mock-up turn out. If I can get a good sound out of a total mock-up, why not use that? On the other hand, if the trumpet part sounds terrible, I can get those recorded and added. On a third hand, if I’m scoring something that requires full orchestra, I’m likely not going to go all-out on the mock-up to try and make it 100% polished, because my ultimate goal is to record the ensemble.

And to top it off, more excellent sketches from Lord of the Rings, Glory, Road to Perdition, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and other phenomenal scores. I can’t wait to see what else is in this beast!