Brian LaGuardia - Composer/Conductor/Arranger

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Game of Themes

by Brian

We are fortunate enough to exist in the era of rebirth for television scoring. Where before there was no soundtrack (or, in the case of some shows, un-thematic minimalism), we now have sweeping thematic scores that complement fine dramas. And these scores don’t have to be complex, either. Case in point: Game of Thrones, the epic Fantasy on HBO that just began airing its third season. Note that if you have not seen this show, read at your own risk as there are some spoilers up to the end of season 2. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!

Of course, everyone knows the main theme, overlaying the title sequence:

It’s a fun little sequence. I also find it brilliant that the relentless ostinato presented here tends to show up when two or more story arcs or characters that began disparate start to become intertwined, or when we are at the doorstep of events that will have consequences reaching other story lines (since all of them are pretty much totally independent after the first few episodes of season 1). So to me, this is the “everything is tied together in the epic land of Westeros” theme, or literally the “game of thrones” theme, since that’s what all this convoluted plotting is about: taking the throne and keeping it. ‘Tis a phickle game, after all. 😛

Another “universal” theme I’ve noticed is the theme of the Crown (whoever happens to posses it at the time). It’s marked by two elements, actually, which usually coincide. One is the ostinato underneath:

The Crown Ostinato

And the other the main melody:

The Crown Theme

This shows up in some fun places, namely when Joffrey is promising to treat Sansa better and also when he orders all illegitimate sons of Robert Baratheon executed (in the second example, there is of course a darker, almost corrupted tone to the normally regal theme).

The Throne is Mine

On a related note, I dearly hope Joffrey get’s what’s coming to him. There is literally nothing redeeming about his character, unlike EVERYONE else (some of whom have had pretty gruesome deaths so far). I can’t wait to see justice served, George RR Martin style.

One of my favorite themes in the show is the Stark Family/House theme. It perfectly portrays the Starks and the brutal northern lands they have to contend with. There is a quiet strength about it.

The Starks

Of course, just because the family has a theme doesn’t mean that some of the members of House Stark don’t have their own. The honorable John Snow has one that reflects his honor and his struggle to maintain it in the face of adversity. It also shows us that a character theme doesn’t have to be complicated at all to be recognizable, effective and epic. It’s just an augmented triad!

John Snow

Initially, I thought this was the theme for the Night’s Watch…as it seemed to only show up when we were looking at the enormous wall the Crows watch over or when they are reciting their vows:

But that was soon proven wrong when it started accompanying John Snow wherever he happened to be, even when he seemingly switches sides to join the wildlings. Even if it is still the Night’s Watch theme (possible given that he could still be loyal to the Crows), it always seems to be playing whenever he’s in the scene.

Keeping with the subject of very simple yet effective themes, the recurring line (and words of choice for House Stark) “Winter is Coming” has its own theme, largely due to its foreboding tone and painfully obvious use as a way to foreshadow the return of the White Walkers:

Winter is Coming Theme

My other favorite theme is the theme for House Lannister. It is literally a drinking song Lannister men use as source music (meaning it’s within the show’s reality and not part of the score…actors are actually singing it). If you listen to the lyrics, you can plainly tell that it’s referring to Tywin and his utterly ruthless tactics.

Reins of Castamere

Here’s an example of it in use in the score itself, which is obviously meant to represent Tywin specifically:

Daenerys is an interesting character, which is no doubt why she’s the only one with two themes. She has gone from a frightened, submissive little girl to the Mother of Dragons, ruthless and imbued with righteous purpose. This theme represents those moments of transformation…when you know you are looking upon the Mother of Dragons and, IMO, the one who is going to take the throne in a big way at some point. This is the first example of it showing up, where she refuses to be treated like an animal:

I will look upon your face

And here, where she hatches the eggs of her Dragons and discovers her true identity, is the pinnacle example (also notice the main title ostinato making an appearance!):

Mother of Dragons

But of course, her character is nuanced. There are moments in which her youth and inexperience show through…moments where you still see the emotional, insecure side of her that she is required to hide from nearly everyone in order to maintain her leadership.

Vulnerable Side

Then there’s the Lord of Light theme. This one tricked me early on as well, because it seemed to be Stannis Baratheon’s Theme for a while. Obviously the two identities are somewhat intertwined, as Stannis is being touted as the conduit of that god. But nowadays it shows up with the Red Woman more often than Stannis, who is of course preaching the loudest about this god.

Lord of Light

The cool thing is that some of the relatively minor characters even have themes. Theon Greyjoy is a good example of this. His theme seems to indicate that he is slowly, ever so slowly growing into his own identity and becoming something greater after having rejoined his true house…which is why this might double as the House Greyjoy Theme at some point.

What is Dead may Never Die

I find the score of Game of Thrones compelling. It is a perfect example of how effective thematic writing can be, even if the themes themselves are sparsely orchestrated and simplistically constructed…though I must level a few criticisms against it. First, the main title ostinato shows up so often as to wear on the listener at times. Second, while the themes are decent enough, the composer doesn’t always take it upon himself to develop them. Sometimes it’s just another statement of the same theme with the same orchestration. I feel like either he should force himself to spread his creative wings a bit or more of the budget (which looks quite large judging from the effects) needs to be thrown his way. Either way, I hope you enjoy picking these out as you watch…as though the ludicrously extensive world-building wasn’t enough to keep track of.

The End is Nigh!

I know Easter was last week, but if you’re feeling up to a belated scavenger hunt, here’s a fun one you can try: see if the Dies Irae is in your favorite movie. Odds are it’s in there somewhere, because it is everywhere! It’s not quite as prolific as the Wilhelm Scream, but it crops up a lot. I’ll prove it to you in a minute.

But first, a fun little jaunt to Music History land. As my last post described, the Dies Irae depicts the last trumpet on the Day of Judgment, where the saved are delivered and the damned cast into eternal flame. Of course, the verse itself came before it was set to a plainchant melody, which was written in the thirteenth century. Even so, it is one of the oldest recorded melodies in European history and was eventually incorporated into the Roman Catholic Mass. Here it is, in all its glory.

chant

Plainchant

Of course, the Dies Irae text has been set to many things due to composers taking it upon themselves to write new music for the traditional Requiem Mass::

Verdi’s Dies Irae

Stravinsky’s Dies Irae

…but the above melody is the one that has found its way into common use as a quoted musical idea. Due to the descending nature of the line itself (and of course its conceptual origins), it has come to symbolize death, burial, doom and peril. And it’s not just in classical compositions, but also film and television scores, our modern-day avenue for the majority of professional composers.

Now that you have the musical idea firmly parked inside your brain, you’ll be able to find it in each one of these examples. I’ll start with the most obvious example, which is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Wendy Carlos basically just took the Dies Irae, plugged it into a synthesizer and turned it into the movie’s main title (it’s even a full statement of the entire theme, which is rare):

Of course, this probably doesn’t impress you. “Kubrick always relies heavily on music already written in his films!” you say. Well, then, it’s time to bring out the big guns. Here’s a compilation of all the instances I’ve caught just in my own DVD collection that clearly contain at least the first portion of the Dies Irae, either as a solitary statement or as a motif that becomes developed in an interesting way. Notice how each scene involves death or the idea of death in some way.

It even creeps into television shows. Here is Kate’s theme from LOST, and the Winter is Coming theme from HBO’s Game of Thrones. See if you can spot a familiar influence:

Kate’s Theme

Winter is Coming Theme

The classical composers of old threw it into their works all the time as well. In particular, Rachmaninoff was in love with it, as it’s in the majority of his orchestral pieces:

Symphonic Dances

Isle of the Dead

Variation 24

Symphony No. 2 – Allegro Molto

It was a common joke back then that Paganini was amazing at playing the violin because he sold his soul to the devil, so the inclusion into Variation is rather tongue-and-cheek. There is always a reason for it to be in there, even if it’s just “this piece is about death.” Case in point:

Dance Macabre

Of course, the most famous example in classical music, the Witches’ Sabbath from Symphony Fantastique, depicting the narrator of the program piece after he has been beheaded and has descended into hell:

Songe d’une nuit de sabbat

Mahler used it in one of my favorite pieces ever, his Resurrection Symphony. In this case, the composer actually uses the first four notes to develop a full-fledged theme that recurs throughout the final movement:

Wieder sehr breit

Mit einem Male etwas wuchtiger

And one of my other favorite composers, Ottorino Respighi, used it in his Brazilian Impressions to illustrate that coming face-to-face with poisonous snakes don’t exactly give him an overwhelming sense of safety:

Butantan

So there you have it! Now you can nerd out like me whenever that particular phraise pops out at you. Or, you could just enjoy music like a normal person. 😛

Elegy

by Brian

There has always been a healthy debate as to whether art should exist purely without explanation from the artist. My take is that it is the artist’s prerogative as to how much explicit meaning he or she is willing to build into the work, no matter what it actually meant for them or what they were inspired by. This piece, for example, contains no ambiguity. It communicates very specific things about myself and my father, to a degree that I don’t even know if it can be considered absolute music. In light of this, and of my new foray into the composition world, I would like to share with you the process of how I created Elegy, which I fittingly finished one year after his death.

It actually started before he died. I would spend hours and hours playing the piano at my parent’s house. Even after I moved out, I would make some time to doodle on that magnificent baby grand in the living room whenever I visited. And on one of those days, I was doing just that…not playing anything in particular, just goofing off. And then I stumbled upon a motif:

elegy_motif

I knew instantly that I had to develop this into a piece. But the other cool thing about that moment was that my father wandered into the room while I was experimenting with overlaying other arpeggiated triads with this idea (which eventually led me to the creation of the major seventh chord that is pretty much the foundation of the piece):

elegy_seventh

I remember telling him how excited I was about it and that I feel like I could take it somewhere interesting, especially because the chord seemed so emotionally ambiguous. But I really didn’t know what I had.

At any rate, I quickly recorded what I had assembled so far and moved on. A couple of weeks passed, and I find myself watching my father collapse on the stage mid-performance of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue…at once a horrifying and beautiful event. The shock and denial of that night lasted for quite a while – I can’t say how long exactly – and I had a difficult time allowing my grief to surface. There was, however, one way that would never fail (aside from listening to his recordings of Respighi), which will become relevant later on. What is important now is that I rarely even touched a keyboard for several weeks. But one day, when I was in the kind of pain that is just there to stay for the rest of the night no matter what you do, I sat down at my piano and played this motif again. I realized that it perfectly described my desire to reach out to him, to connect with him once more even though it wasn’t possible. And then I said to myself that this…this would be Dad’s song. It would be a tribute to this great man that I desperately wanted more time with. So I developed a melody out of that motif and gave the left hand the archetypal “tolling bells” sound with the above chord as the base. Then, a half-cadence with a fermata…

…which led to a contrapuntal “B” section with a different idea at its heart: the Dies Irae. The Dies Irae is actually a very old Gregorian Chant depicting the Day of Judgment, where the saved are delivered and the damned cast into eternal flame. This is one of the oldest recorded melodies in European history and was eventually incorporated into the Roman Catholic Mass. It has now become the biggest in-joke for musicologists and composers and is probably the most prolific single musical idea that can be found:

Dies_irae

Plainchant

It usually shows up to indicate doom, death, danger or other pleasant things. And it is everywhere – movies, tv shows, classical music, even pop music. What’s that? Will I do a post on the Dies Irae at some point? Why, here it is.

One of the things Dad and I did to bond was to see which one of us could catch the Dies Irae first when we were watching a movie or listening to a new piece of music. And of course, he would show me in whatever score he was working on at the time. It just came to symbolize (for me at least) the extraordinary passion he had for the study of music and music history, and it rubbed off on me. It was a gateway for me to start geeking out just like my old man about meaningful allusions and common themes between pieces. That combined with the original meaning of the chant made this a pretty perfect idea to incorporate into Elegy.

Now, this B section basically gets more and more thundering and furious. This sort of captures the temper he had, but also served to express my own anger at his death. The climax of this part is what I like to call the “Chopin” bar, because it’s heavily based on a bar from Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 that had a similar mood and also happened to be a piece I was working on extensively when I was using the piano at his house (so much so that he’d occasionally get tired of hearing it :p).

chopin_ballade_bar     Elegy_chopin_bar

From there, the tolling bells and the anger and the fury die down until we’re left with a beautiful variation of the A melody, this time in the parallel key of F Major. It was a struggle for a while to come up with an A’ section, until I realized that so far I had focused on the negative or at best bittersweet emotions surrounding his life and death. So within this sweet, tender variation I modeled the left hand part after Brian’s Tune, one of the few pieces he ever wrote:

Brian's Tune

Brian’s Tune

This turned out as beautiful as I had hoped. No fancy chords, no breakneck-tempos or psycho rips…just a simple melody imbued with the bond we had and all of the good memories that we shared. After the first statement, the voicing gets a little thicker while maintaining simplicity. Then, what is almost an additional variation on the original motif, there is a sizable buildup which I would call the climax of the whole piece. This was a perfect setup for the next section, which is actually based on a cue from a television show that was already a naturally descending musical idea.

Ever heard of the Twilight Zone with Rod Sterling? This became one of my favorite TV Shows of all time over the course of the last few years. And there was one day when I found dad in an existential crisis. He didn’t think he had contributed anything to the world. This was obviously complete nonsense, and rather than trying to convince him with words, I played him an episode from the third season, called “The Changing of the Guard.” It is the story of an old college professor (which my Dad was for a number of years before he was semi-retired) who is forced to retire. This sparks a similar crisis for the main character, Professor Fowler. He wanders off with a revolver and is about to commit suicide next to a statue on school grounds with this significant quote:

be ashamed to die

…when he hears the school bells go off. Confused as to why this would happen during winter break, he investigates and finds his way into his classroom…where he finds all of the students he taught over the years who died. They all come up to him, one-by-one, and tell him that the heroic deeds they accomplished for humanity that cost them their lives were because of him, because he left them something powerful that was at their elbow in that moment of truth. This was the thing I mentioned earlier that never failed to bring my grief and emotions to the surface. I still can’t watch the damn thing without tearing up something fierce. It was a miracle that I was able to listen to this particular cue enough times to capture the chord progression:

Obviously it wasn’t directly plagiarized…I adapted it to fit the meter and tweaked the progression a bit. But it was definitely heavily borrowed. Composition is just as much about paying tribute to the works that mean something to you, that you admire, as it is finding your own unique voice.

Finally, there is another searching, longing statement of the naked motif, and we’re back to the tolling 7th chords in the left hand. This time, however, the melody in the right hand is the Dies Irae, simply stated. To me, this section is the acceptance of the death, a call that takes me back into reality…as though the motif was another “I need you to help guide me” statement, and this section is the answer: “…but you are dead, and I will have to go on without you.” But even so, I couldn’t end the piece with an authentic cadence. It was too easy, too bright, too unrealistic. I wanted to also convey that in spite of how I’ve moved on, you never truly move on from a loss like this. For me, the desire to see him one last time, to share with him my accomplishments and nerdy remarks, will always be with me.

I personally can’t believe it took me a full year to write this piece. But at the same time, it was born in pain…in an existential crisis the likes of which I have never faced before. And of course, with a full time job and other part-time responsibilities on the plate, you don’t always have time to sit down and indulge your muse. Besides, I really couldn’t be more proud of the result. I used to think that I didn’t have the skill to compose when really I did…I just didn’t realize that good compositions come from inspiration…from life. And here is a celebration of life, as well as the acknowledgement of death. Elegy is available for download in the Compositions section of the website, with a recording of myself playing it soon to follow. Please, download and enjoy, especially if you knew him.

Statement of Purpose

by Brian

Approximately one year ago, my father died on the podium. He was an extremely talented conductor and musician, and I had spent many years playing under him in a community orchestra here in Denver, discussing music history with him and even taking conducting lessons from him. Until that moment came, I was still under the impression that software was truly my passion. Now I have come to realize that it was music all along. I was simply too afraid to recognize it because it isn’t exactly easy to make it a vocation.

It is for this reason that I have completely re-designed this blog, ripped out almost all of the old posts and have re-written this statement of purpose. No longer will I be writing about software specifically. Instead, this will be a place where I can showcase and express my thoughts about new compositions and recordings/mockups. My portfolio has also been re-designed, now containing performances and examples of my writing. This is still a work in progress of course. I will also write reviews, largely of video game, tv and movie soundtracks but also of any works or albums that I’m in love with at the time.

In the last statement of purpose, I gave an estimate of bi-weekly updates. I feel the more appropriate promise is to update when I have something to say.

Even if this remains an avocation, I feel that this is a new beginning for me…a new chapter in my life that is full of possibility and beautiful music. I am only sorry that my father can’t be here to see me realize that passion and continue to grow.