Brian LaGuardia - Composer/Conductor/Arranger

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Moments of Transition

by Brian

I cannot even describe how thrilling it was to be able to write, copy, rehearse and conduct my own piece with good players under me. I have had the odd chance to conduct before, but this was something totally different. I felt so much more comfortable up there than I ever have before, and I believe it is because I already knew the music so intimately by the time I was finished writing it that it was basically the equivalent of studying it for months on end. And conducting really seems to be about knowledge and the comfort and confidence that follows (at least for me).

I’d like to go into a bit of detail regarding the piece. The inspiration was primarily derived from this particular quote that I stumbled upon when my father’s death was still somewhat fresh in my mind:

There is a greater darkness than the one we fight; it is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way. The war we fight is not against powers and principalities; it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender.

The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.

And so you will notice that the piece starts off rather aimless, even unsettling. And then gradually, through some turmoil and labor, we emerge serene and content in the knowledge that this pain and struggle has transformed us for the better. It has shaped our identity into something new, unique and still ever-changing. I am living this transformation as we speak…as we all are. Growth is an undeniably painful experience at times. And I just found it so profound that I drew inspiration from it. Even the primary motif, which eventually evolves into these happy, tonal forms:

Final Development 2_corrected

Final Development 1

Starts out as this:

initial_motif

Astute researchers will be able to figure out how this motif is musically linked to the quote above. 😛 But one thing you notice immediately is that it really doesn’t have a tonal center. That usually gives the listener a sense of unease, which is exactly what I was going for in the opening minutes of the piece. You’re not really supposed to know where it’s going. That is the feeling I wanted to capture, the “soul that has lost its way.” Combine that with a somewhat modified nod to the descending chromatic triplet motif representing hell in several symphonies, such as Liszt’s Dante Symphony:

hell_dante

And Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony:

hell_resurrection

…and you have (hopefully) a pretty eerie little section. Then, suddenly, the brass comes in with a violent stab, and the strings roll in with full-on Mahlerian pain.

Mahlerian Pain

It slowly dies away, until we’re left with a single, solitary double bass note that builds into a fury. This fury tries and fails to build itself into a fully-formed musical idea, but only manages to morph into a few short-lived variations of the original motif before begrudgingly dying away with Strauss-like ripples in the strings. This signifies the anger and struggle that comes from realizing you are lost and trying to correct everything all at once…and of course failing. And by Strauss-like ripples, I mean it’s pretty much a direct quote from the final moments of Don Juan, which famously ends with the hero being utterly defeated:

poco a poco piu lento

Then we have a true English Horn solo. With a few brief exceptions, every other player is dead silent. This is the point at which we spend some time completely alone, simply introspecting and disallowing any external influences to distract us from our journey within. Things are calmer, start to make a little more sense. This brings us to the most serene, placid piece of music I’ve ever written.

Moment of Serentiy

There is peace and contentment found in making sure your course is correct, but also realizing that you don’t have to strain yourself by following it single-minded. Life is also about taking time to experience the little things that you never, theoretically, have time for. This calm section ultimately builds into a contented, springy little 6/8 section meant to represent those stretches in life where you feel that everything is locking into place…where you have everything balanced exceedingly well. You know, the honeymoon period before life smacks you down a little and throws something else onto your plate. It swells into a triumphant climax that finally brings us to the warm and satisfying conclusion.

I am very pleased with how this piece turned out, but perhaps the thing that I’m most proud of is that it took me significantly less time to create than my first piece, which was only four minutes long and for solo piano. And I am also proud of the fact that when I was facing a nearing deadline and my muse was screaming “make this ending thicker in the orchestration and more impressive!”, I managed to put it in its place and say “no, I have a deadline, and a simple ending is good enough.” Turns out, it was actually a more fitting end to what I had already written anyway, and more importantly it allowed me to finish in time to get parts out to the players and have a score for rehearsal. Valuable lesson learned the easy way, for once: reaching for the stars is a great thing to do, but there is a time and place for it, and it’s not mere hours before your piece is due.

The other thing I learned is the limitation of the pedal harp. Amusingly, this is something that I did not know in spite of my experience in ensembles. I was frantically reading through my orchestration book and only arrived at the pedal harp section after I had written the first four-ish minutes of Moments (in which the Harp plays a rather large role). To my dismay, I learned that this lovely passage:

Crazy Harp Part2

was rather difficult to play and I feared it impossible. It is, after all, a very strange chord progression. However, my fears were soon allayed by the amazing harpist Don Hilsberg. He re-worked some of the accidentals and gave me a lesson or two on the harp to help me in my future writings. Big thanks to that guy!

1270324_10151844574679002_1679495124_o

There he is on the right!

I hope you were able to attend the performance and see it live. But if not, here is the full recording! Parts and score are available upon request. 🙂

Composition vs Plagiarism

by Brian

I hear a lot of talk about people who think John Williams is a “thief.” And it’s true…when you get into the academic side of music, you find a lot of common links between his works and that of the great composers that came before him. But really, how is that theft? Composition has always been about refining, alluding and combining elements from previously developed ideas. Every composer uses contextually relevant building blocks to create the whole. Observe the very definition of composition:

  • Merriam-webster #1: the act or process of composing; specifically : arrangement into specific proportion or relation and especially into artistic form
  • Dictionary.com #1: the act of putting together or making up by combining parts or ingredients
  • “The Emerging Film Composer”: To put things in a particular arrangement; to organize elements in a particular way.

Notice how there is generally no mention of how “original” a piece of music has to be, or what percentage of the base thematic material has to be completely new and unused throughout the entirety of music history. Because setting such a definition would be nigh impossible (not to mention having to conform to it…it would take a research team to cover all your bases). There are only twelve damn notes, and only so many permutations exist. There’s so much music out there that you couldn’t possibly even listen to it all in a lifetime. You can either inadvertently plagiarize (or perhaps, subconsciously plagiarize), or you can do it on purpose with the intent to carry over the context of THAT piece into your own. Composers do both of these all the time. Bellis calls the muse a “recycler.”

The Muse

Aaron Copland, a remarkably accomplished composer for both the concert hall and visual media, had this to say on the subject:

I don’t compose…I assemble materials.

It took me a while to get over the fact that no matter what I write, someone somewhere wrote something that is at least pretty similar. However, it is no question that plagiarism is a very real phenomenon. You can’t simply steal a piece and claim it as your own, nor can you steal a whole melody as the main idea for your own work. So where do we draw the line? Many say that Williams steps over the line on numerous occasions. I disagree, and I’ll go over some of the examples people cite (of course, all are welcome to post examples of their own in the comments section. I’d be happy to address those!). So without further ado, a vindication of all these Williams aspersions from Academia!

E.T. is arguably John’s finest score, so I’ll defend this one ’round perdition’s flames. But here you go, judge for yourself:

Dumky Trio

ET Flying Theme

Certainly the first portion of the phrase is identical. So what? That covers the first two bars of the eight that constitute the main ET flying theme, and that’s only a fraction of the cue’s thematic makeup. Williams took two bars and developed it into something new. That’s what composer’s do: they develop ideas. That’s where the originality comes in.

I’ll bring up one of my own that I discovered early on from Star Wars. Recall the scene in which C3PO and R2D2 are wandering the Dune Sea, searching for any sign of life. There are some striking similarities to the second part of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Le Sacrifice, Introduction

Dune Sea

Still not the same! True, they are extremely similar…so much so that it must have been used as inspiration or perhaps even a temp track. But they aren’t quite the same notes, nor does it linger on that particular orchestration for too long. There’s even an original motif sprinkled about in the similar portion of Williams’ cue. It was, just like the previous example, a jumping-off point.

You see, the greats have always stolen music in order to find their own voice. Music history is littered with thousands of examples of this. Beethoven himself borrowed from Mozart:

Mozart 40th – Allegro Asai

Beethoven 5th (Scherzo, Allegro)

And in turn, Brahms borrowed from Beethoven!

Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata

Brahms Symphony No 4

Incidentally, when Brahms was confronted with the similarities some of his works had to that of Beethoven’s, his response was famously…

Any ass can see that.

As such we find numerous asses on the internet pointing out how these composers are “hacks” and “unoriginal” because their ideas didn’t spontaneously appear in a vacuum. You can’t get something from nothing. And you can’t get really good without having a firm foundation in what has already been done. Stravinsky, himself praised as a pioneer in music, had this to say on the subject:

Good composers borrow. Great composers steal.

That was originally a quote from T.S. Elliot regarding plays, so there’s added irony to Igor “stealing” the phrase and adapting it to fit music rather than literature.

So we’ve established that crying plagiarism is generally not deserved. But that’s not to say that you can’t get pretty close to the line. James Horner, for example, has come closer to plagiarism than Williams ever has. I can’t believe how people rip into John Williams, perhaps the best composer of our time, and say nothing of this guy. Here he borrows from Shostakovich without changing the orchestration, chord progression or even key!

Shostakovich Symphony No. 5

Patriot Games

Clear and Present Danger

And here, he borrows a motif note-for-note form Mahler and uses it not as ornamentation in his score, but as thematic material.

Mahler Symphony No 3

Nazi Theme from The Rocketeer

He even uses the very same themes and motifs between radically different pictures (as in, not the same franchise) as though he has built a rather small library of ideas pulled whenever he needs “action” or “romance.” Mind you, these are core musical ideas for the cue that recur throughout, not just these small samples:

Genesis Countdown – Kahn

The Flying Circuis – Rocketeer

***

Mask of Zorro

Wrath of Kahn

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Avatar

***

Going After Newt – Aliens

Genesis Countdown – Kahn

So, what do you think? Does this constitute plagiarism? There’s no denying that it gets much closer than anything Williams has done, but it’s also important to note that in some ways it’s not fair to judge any film composers because few of us have ever been on a ludicrous deadline to churn out music for for a film. Bellis writes:

There are not only no pundits in our profession, there is no call for pundits. To profess “punditry” however, is rampant.

Rampant, indeed. I’m not blind to the irony here. So I guess I’ll just reserve judgement on ol’ Mr. Horner until I end up getting the chance to do this myself. Then and only then will I have the authority and perspective to explore this issue more fully. In the meantime, tread lightly when you are tempted to toss the word “plagiarism” around. Before you speak, take some time to remember the words of the great Erich Leinsdorf…

Beethoven borrowed from both Bach and Mozart in a way that shows intimate acquaintance with their works. It would be absurd, of course, to regard these borrowings as plagiarism. This was merely a way to give a quotation from an admired work a new dimension of meaning in the context of one’s own composition. A great work does not exist in splendid isolation; it is the result of a composer’s development and of music’s continuing history.

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/

Top Ten Symphonies

by Brian

I have been browsing these top ten lists for the best symphonies ever composed, and I’m starting to get a little annoyed. Many of the symphonies picked are inferior works to even works from the same composer, and many of the phenomenal symphonies that should not be forgotten do not make an appearance anywhere. So what would any music nerd do in such a situation? Why, he would build a list of his own, of course!

These are in no particular order, by the way.

Aaron Copland, Symphony No. 3

I am completely baffled as to why this NEVER makes it on ANY top ten list. It is a towering masterpiece that I would almost name #1 if I were ranking these. You liked Fanfare for the Common Man? He makes it better here:

Fanfare

That’s from the last few minutes of the piece, and it never fails to tear me up. On top of that, there’s a gorgeous, dynamic first movement:

Molto Moderato

With a fun, bustling second movement:

Allegro Molto

And a contemplative third:

Andantino quasi allegretto

Johannes Brahms, Symphony No. 2

This was actually a very difficult decision because I absolutely adore all four of his symphonies. They all contain such amazing moments that if I could create an aggregate symphony with various movements from all four, it might well be too much awesome to handle. But I must judge each work as a whole, and this one takes the cake. Everything from the delicious, flowing lullaby in the first movement:

Lullaby

To the third movement that begins so pastoral and then suddenly:

Allegretto grazioso

To the epic conclusion:

Allegro con Spirito

This symphony perfectly encapsulates why the man was dubbed the second coming of Beethoven.

Camille Saint-Saëns, Symphony No. 3 (Organ Symphony)

Here’s another one that boggles the mind. Even without part II, it would deserve a place here. The variations on the main theme are superb. Even the exposition is epic:

Allegro Moderato

But of course, this piece also contains the best writing for organ outside of Respighi’s tone poems I’ve ever heard:

Maestoso

This symphony is riveting from beginning to end. How anyone can hear this piece and not auto-include it is beyond me.

Hector Berlioz, Symphony Fantastique

This symphony is precisely how it describes itself. It is one of the most evocative symphonies I know, with the greatest narrative ever. Who can resist the story of a man who falls in love, has an opium-enduced dream of killing his beloved and being given the guillotine only to find himself in hell where witches, demons and more give infernal chase? The sheer number of musical representations of grotesque dogs, snakes, laughing skeletons, demons and the like are enough to make this list by itself.

Barking Demon Dogs

Skeletons

But we also have the idée fixe, one of the earliest examples of a leitmotif. This lovely little melody represents the character’s beloved, be it a fleeting thought of her or her actual appearance. This served a dual purpose as well, because Berlioz wrote this symphony in the hopes of wooing his own fair maiden. Note the heartbeat-like pulses from the lower strings during its first use:

Reveries

Also don’t forget one of the most powerful uses of the Dies Irae:

Songe d’une nuit de sabbat

And one of my personal favorite movements ever, the March to the Scaffold. Note how the heavy percussion/brass hit depicts the slam of the guillotine, and the subsequent pizzicato from the strings represent the head bouncing into the basket. Ta-da! Glorious.

Marche au Supplice

Serge Rachmaninoff, Symphony No. 2

The quintessential romantic symphony, this should never be left out of any “greatest symphony” list. Each movement boasts unmatched romantic melodies,

Moderato, mvmt II

as well as strife and dance-like groves to balance things out.

poco a poco crescendo e agitato

In addition, the third movement has an achingly beautiful clarinet solo…probably the best one in music history.

Adagio

Ludvig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9

Just like Brahms, several runners-up made this a difficult choice. Though in spite of what I’m sure you thought, 5 was not among them. Yes, his development of a simple four-note motif is brilliant in that one, but so is his development of a simple rhythm in the first movement of the 7th that extends throughout the whole movement like a perpetual motion machine. Plus in that one, you have the wonderfully expressive Allegretto and a far more dynamic scherzo, and a thundering finish that puts the boring 5th’s to shame. But why is 9 better as well? How about the best scherzo ever written next to Chopin’s four masterpieces for solo piano?

Molto Vivace – Presto

And while 7, 6 and 3 were giving me trouble, in the end you can’t argue with an enormous choir shouting the Ode to Joy, nor with the first movement dripping with Beethoven’s own particular brand of passion.

Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso

So you essentially have the best of both worlds here (classic Beethoven and epic choral) in one package. Nice.

Ode to Joy

Dmitri Shostakovitch, Symphony No. 5

There really aren’t very many other symphonies that capture pure, righteous fury at injustice than this one. The whole thing mocks and rages against his own government at the time, and as such you have some of the angriest music imaginable here.

Anger

And some distraught soul-searching that even Mahler would have found difficult to best…

Anguish

And yet, it still has a grace, a class that doesn’t allow it to get bogged down. This guy was a genius, and this symphony is a perfect demonstration of that genius.

Beauty

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5

I saw a lot of his 6th and 4th on these ridiculous lists. The 4th didn’t surprise me…it’s a good symphony that is very popular with classical music lovers. 6 surprised me. There is indeed a glorious theme in the first movement and some beautiful parts, but as a whole this symphony outshines all of his others. Just listen to this inspired introduction:

Allegro Con Anima

And this gorgeous horn solo:

Andante Cantabile

And the triumphant return of the theme from the first movement in the last:

Andante Maestoso

This is easily the peak of the man’s work.

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”

I grappled a little while with 1 and 5 initially, but this one is the epitome of epic symphonies. It feels like a particularly amazing opera without the length, and has a better finish than most operas, too. Even from the very start, you can tell you’re in for one hell of a work.

Allegro Maestoso

This symphony also has such an amazing fourth movement with solo alto that I actually forget how much I tend to dislike wailing voices every time I hear it. Nothing short of sublime.

Urlicht

And see, a lot of people think Mahler is too busy and too bombastic. Nobody remembers moments like these, that have such quiet reverence that it moves you to tears:

Langsam Misterioso

Of course, it does get pretty bombastic, too.

Mit einem Male etwas wuchtiger

And of course, this piece contains possibly the best climax of a Symphony that there ever has been.

Pesante

So now you see that through sheer scale and emotional range, this needs to be on every top ten list.

Bella Bartok, Concerto for Orchestra

What’s that? This isn’t a symphony? I disagree. It’s got five movements and doesn’t actually feature one soloist over any other. That’s the whole joke: it’s so damn difficult to play that he called it a concerto for everyone instead of a symphony. There’s even some sonata-allegro form worked in here, as well as some allusions to other symphonies. At any rate, there’s an amazing brass round in the first movement:

Introduzione

A quirky, cute little second movement:

Giuoco delle coppie

And even a fun little parody built into the Intermezzo (4th) movement! See how he sticks his tongue out at Shostakovitch’s Leningrad Symphony?

Leningrad Symphony Theme

Intermezzo Interrotto

Priceless.

Honorable Mentions

Dvorak 7

Dvorak’s best work because of the first and third movements alone. Especially the third. I’d dance to that every day if I didn’t have anything better to do.

Sibelius 7

I adore his 7th because it isn’t quite in a symphonic form. It’s a little more organic, a little more cohesive than most of the other symphonies out there simply because it exists only in one movement and morphs into various sections. And some of these transformations are made that much more powerful as a result. It’s a very interesting symphony, and I’m sorry I didn’t have room for it.

Prokofiev 5

It was down to either this or Shostakovitch 5, and of course the latter won out owing to the fact that Shostakovitch’s work had a bit more range. It’s anger was angrier, it’s anguish was more powerful, and its beautiful moments more beautiful. This symphony has all the traits that the man himself had – a little rough around the edges, but most definitely compelling.

Beethoven 7

I’ve actually been studying this one lately and even got a chance to conduct it recently! But more than that (and the strengths described above), this thing has some killer french horn parts.

Beethoven 7 Horns

Why did I pick the 9th again?

Mahler 5

This one really gave Resurrection a run for its money, and it is undoubtedly more famous/iconic with its opening trumpet solo, and its stunning, complex adagietto, layered with so many shades of emotion.

Adagietto

Of course, a personal disclaimer here: I haven’t heard all symphonies by Stravinsky, Ives, Strauss, Hovhaness, Arnold or any of the other contemporaries. As such, I expect my list to change over time. But even in its current form, I think it does much better than most I’ve seen. What do you think?