Brian LaGuardia - Composer/Conductor/Arranger

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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.

The Best of Both Worlds

by Brian

Just the other day I was lamenting how I had to choose between a Digital Audio Workstation (Cuebase, Digital Performer, Pro Tools, Ableton, etc) to mock up my pieces or to use Sibelius 7 and its mediocre sound set. I’m not knocking either one of those, as all music notation software comes with notoriously bad libraries, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with DAW’s either. But of course, this forces you to either “create a realistic playback” or “work with actual music staves.” And lo and behold, I found a guy who had the same dilemma and decided to write a template and corresponding soundset for Sibelius 7 to address these limitations.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that when the playback cursor stumbles upon certain markings in Sibelius, such as “pizz” for pizzicato or a dot above the note for staccato, the program actually loads up the appropriate sound for that instrument  That’s because behind the scenes, it interprets that symbol or text object as a unique sound ID (sound IDs are on the bottom):


But of course, this becomes cumbersome when you’re trying to get the engine to reflect the automatic articulations a player would use given a certain phrase. That’s the beauty of this system: not only does it replace soundID functionality (which is nice), but it also gives you the option to control the articulation of each note manually and then allows you to hide those instructions very easily, providing you with an unblemished score in the blink of an eye. The level of control here is impressive, and the results speak for themselves:

I actually have the Gold version of Symphonic Orchestra rather than Platinum, which means I am having to write some of the sound set myself. But it’s turning out to be a good thing, because now I know a lot more about MIDI and sample libraries.

At any rate, I’m a fan of this guy’s work. Check out his website if you happen to have Sibelius 7 and are looking to upgrade the sound set. Going with EastWest isn’t cheap, but it is certainly an improvement.

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.