Brian LaGuardia - Composer, Orchestrator, Arranger

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Star Trek 50th Anniversary Suite

One of the things that has been on my bucket list since I was a small child was hearing a proper suite from Star Trek: The Motion Picture live in concert. Yes, the slow, boring one from 1979. And sure, it is a pretty slow-burn movie…but that glacial pacing is what allowed Jerry Goldsmith to construct a truly epic, powerful score. As I think I’ve stated before on this blog, this is one of my favorite film scores of all time, and it was one of the few Trek scores that was nominated for an Academy Award. And I got my wish last month. I arranged 22 minutes of music from this masterpiece.

Written for an orchestra of Mahlerian proportions, the session at 20th Century Fox called for ten keyboard players (2 grand pianos, a full acoustic organ and SEVEN synth players), six horns, four trumpets and trombones, two tubas, timpani plus SIX percussionists…in all, over 100 musicians. In addition, Goldsmith turned to works like Vaughan Williams’ Arctic Symphony for harmonic ideas, giving the phrase “glacial pacing” a whole new meaning. The result: a score with unimaginable power, mystery and majesty. Needless to say, I had a lot of reducing to do, and a lot of orchestration challenges ahead of me.

Once I had the legal clearance to arrange, not only did I set to work deciding which excerpts to include (as run time was a factor, as was the technical ability of the orchestra, which was just shy of professional level and only had three weeks to pull a very difficult program together), I also started digging into the making of the film and found some fascinating tidbits! For those who were unable to attend, I thought I’d compile a list of excerpts from the performance (this is all the Arapahoe Philharmonic playing my arrangement, not the album!), as well as some background on the orchestration, making of the film and even what each soundbyte depicts during the film.



The whole arrangement starts off not as you would expect. Rather than the “Star Trek” horn call everyone has known since the original show from the 60’s, I started with the “Leaving Drydock” cue from The Motion Picture. This is mainly because it is a fantastic slow buildup to the main theme, building anticipation for the imminent launch of the Enterprise. Only the contrabassoon, bass trombone and very low piano provide a dramatic bass sustain while cellos, basses and bassoons introduce us to the first musical idea from TMP and then trade back and forth between the violins and Oboes: the Starfleet Ostinato.

The primary role of this ostinato is not just to provide backing for the eventual appearance of the main theme, but also to illustrate Starfleet Officers scurrying about, making sure systems run at optimum efficiency. It is meant to represent the people of the Enterprise, rather than the ship itself. That honor is generally reserved for the main theme.

Finally, the first hint of the main theme shows itself in the horns, while the timpani thunders on with the Starfleet Ostinato in what was I’m sure a very fun solo. Then, after one more dip in dynamic, Kirk gives the order to launch the Enterprise. The full theme shows itself in all its glory as the magnificent starship leaves drydock behind!

After a grand sendoff with the main Jerry Goldsmith Star Trek theme, with the Starfleet Ostinato providing counterpoint, we glide into one of the lovelier variations of the theme, depicting Kirk’s first glimpse of the refitted Enterprise…a sort of hushed awe with the melody carried now only by the sweet cellos in their high register, violins and violas providing harmony with fingered tremolo and flutes and clarinets providing the barest gusts of accent here and there. It’s also worth noting that this is one of the scenes that Jerry had to entirely re-score because the FILMMAKERS thought it needed a theme! Can you imagine a director nowadays turning to a composer and saying “eh, it needs a theme!”?

I even threw in the challenging mixed-meter variation of the main theme, which also chronicles Kirk and Scotty’s starship-gazing scene. To my delight, the orchestra stepped up to the plate and kept up with the challenging section – not to mention our principle clarinet who pulled off a very difficult solo in a very high register!

Next, I decided to add the Klingon Attack cue.¬† There is something irresistible about it, I think largely because it captures the race so well. It is bellicose and proud (because of the use of 5ths, making it sound like a royal call to battle), but also is orchestrated in a way that has restraint to it – like a predator waiting to strike. Note that all the woodwinds are playing in unison here – even the Bassoons, which is a register as high for them as the opening Rite of Spring solo! Also, the clicking you hear are not Castanets, as you might have guessed, but Angklungs – a percussion instrument from Indonesia. We couldn’t get our hands on any for the concert, so I had to provide the synth patch for that and play the part myself!

Now, the real challenge of this arrangement was figuring out how to replicate the Blaster Beam sound. For those of you who don’t know what this crazy instrument is, it’s essentially a 15+ foot lap steel guitar. When you bang on it and scrape things along in portamento style, it sounds very…scifi. Here’s one of the creators of the beam to expound and pound.

Pretty cool, right? But how the hell was I suppose to replicate that sound on the concert stage? I happened to be at a concert when I was very young where the Klingon Attack was being performed, and I remember that they got some Synth guy to make a sound, but it was weaksauce. It didn’t have the same impact. And the orchestration was written to basically give the Beam a solo with no accompaniment. So how was I to avoid that pitfall?

My solution was manyfold. First, I had the harp make this racket that you only get when you instruct the Harpist to push one of their pedals exactly between two half-steps, thus allowing the strings to rattle against the pins. It sounds kinda like this:

But in the big Blaster Beam spots, I added Timpani rolls with pedaling, as well as a healthy dose of Omnisphere Synths that were a good deal heftier than the ones I heard many years ago in that concert hall. Have a listen and judge for yourself.

Now the Beam, one of the many ways V’Ger is represented musically, was actually recorded separately from the orchestra…and it just so happens that there is a track with nothing but Beam effects on the 3-Disc special edition of the Motion Picture Soundtrack. So I borrowed a few seconds of it and played it back at the right moment, where it would have been too difficult to have acoustic instruments try and duplicate the effect. Following the Beam solo is just a cacophony of aleatory, depicting the energy bolts that V’Ger throws at ships to disintegrate them.

This seguays straight into one of the more clever (if I do say so myself) transitions of the suite: in the Klingon Attack cue, it ends on a dramatic tutti statement of the V’Ger chords. But later on, there is a similar dramatic statement of the V’Ger chords, only infused with hints of Ilia’s Theme, who at that point is absorbed by V’Ger and used as a vessel to communicate with the humans. It was even in the right key! So, what better way to transition into Ilia’s Theme?

Then of course comes Ilia’s Theme, arguably one of the best romantic movie themes ever written. Just take a listen. Jerry was second to none when it came to romance, which is why he loved scoring Star Trek so much: it’s a very romantic vision of the future. And before you claim sexism, this theme is not meant to represent a soft female object of desire, it’s actually a love theme for her and Commander Decker.

From here, I go straight into Spock Walk, one of the more exciting, terrifying and memorable cues from the film depicting Spock’s decision to climb into a thruster suit and leave the safety of the Enterprise. It’s very, very fast, and has some technically demanding things for the orchestra, but I couldn’t have been happier with how it turned out. And it also shows the genius of Goldsmith…the whole thing is just the V’Ger chord progression over and over – just two chords! That’s it! But it’s orchestrated in such a way that you don’t even realize it.’

Now, Jerry Goldsmith was very good at something else besides thematic writing, orchestration, playing to the picture, etc etc…experimenting with new sounds. There is a wide range of percussion in this score, and I already mentioned that six dedicated percussionists were needed on the Fox Stage. In this cue, we made use of things like…

Water Chimes

Waterphone (horror movie staple)

And there’s even a Slit Drum solo, lending a mystical quality to the imagery before Spock as he traverse’s V’Ger’s entire journey that it has catalogued and is now parading in front of the Vulcan.

Finally, Spock arrives at a representation of Ilia, with her new sensor. Accompanied by this revelation is a Brass Chorale announcing Ilia’s Theme. He senses some special meaning connected to the sensor and tries to mind-meld with it. But it proves to be far too much for his poor Vulcan brain to handle, and he is overwhelmed. Accompanying this is a cue fit for a horror film, with forceful quarter notes on mallet percussion, piano and WWs, scurrying, frantic strings and powerful horn rips. This marks the climax of the arrangement, which segues seamlessly into the moment that V’Ger ascends into a higher plane after melding with a human and leaves the Enterprise and Earth in peace after the threat of extinction. One of my favorite moments of relief in any film score.

Finally, we get into the march that everyone knows so well, but with one last little detour: the theme from First Contact. I had to include this as well because in spite of the brilliance of the Motion Picture soundtrack, Goldsmith’s most perfect encapsulation of the optimism for humanity is this theme.

Finally, after I have completely overblown my welcome, we arrive at a recap of the theme, this time with the Trombones in the lead!

And here is another portion of the arrangement where I got to flex my creative muscles a little. I didn’t like the ending that most of the Goldsmith marches had, so I created my own to close out this 22-minute monstrosity, inspired largely by Horner admittedly but nonetheless it came of brilliantly!

Now you have a better idea of why I love this score so much. It was frankly a miracle that it turned out so thematically cohesive, as Jerry was working on huge swaths of film that simply read “missing special FX shot” and had to use his imagination…and also was forced to re-write half the material at least once. He himself admitted it was the hardest go he had ever had on a film, but was worth it.

I was so thrilled with how this turned out that it gave me the confidence I needed to start creating my own works for full orchestra. It was essentially a second masters with a specific focus on orchestration. After all, there are few better teachers than Goldsmith…Stravinsky maybe, or Respighi. I am also forever grateful to the people of the Arapahoe Philharmonic for allowing me the change to arrange SO MUCH material for their pops concert!

In even better news, I have gotten interest from professional orchestras for some of this material, and I am working through Tresona music to make sure at least some of this will be available for purchase. Once it is, you will definitely be able to access it through this website!

Many more things both on the horizon and behind me…I just haven’t had a chance to write about it. Look for more posts soon! In the meantime, live long and prosper.

Summer Concerts at Avon

by Brian

I recently had the fantastic opportunity to participate in the Arapahoe Philharmonic’s summer concerts at Avon Pavilion and again at their new venue! There is nothing quite like writing a piece specifically for an orchestra that means a lot to you…especially when you also write solos for your mother, the concertmaster and hammered dulcimer soloist, and get to play your own percussion parts! I went a little nuts with those, having included around 25 separate percussion instruments. ūüėõ Jerry Goldsmith would be proud.

I also had the opportunity to briefly conduct this wonderful ensemble, and every chance I get to be in front of them is an experience I treasure. There is no better place to learn and grow than in front of consummate musicians!

The piece I wrote was an arrangement of Shenandoah. It went spectacularly, however I was so busy performing my duties that I neglected to set my little Zoom to record. I’ll be kicking myself for quite some time for that mistake. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to mock it up!

There are even more exciting things on the horizon! I can’t wait to share it all with you!

Boettcher Conducting Debut!

by Brian 0 Comments

This past Monday, I had the great honor and privilege of leading the Civic Youth Orchestra in a 15-minute concert at the big daddy of all performance venues in Denver: Boettcher Concert Hall! The very same place I watched the Colorado Symphony, a professional orchestra, Record the Banner Saga 2 and play countless seasonal concerts!

I can’t even begin to describe how much of a thrill it was, especially to see the excitement in the students’ eyes. Many of them have been playing for maybe a couple of years, and yet here they are, finding themselves on the same stage that professional musicians make a living on! And they all rose to the occasion and pushed past their stage fright. Witnessing¬†their growth over the course of only a few months has been especially rewarding. A couple of the soloists (brief, 4-bar solos in the arrangements) couldn’t even play the line when we started. They ended up knocking it out of the park in every way!

Here’s a short clip from the concert: Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5. Listen to what a full sound we got out of just a handful of kids and one or two sit-ins from the Arapahoe Philharmonic!

I find myself feeling increasingly lucky for all of these opportunities that have presented themselves to me. There are some exciting composition projects on the horizon as well…hopefully I’ll be able to write about those soon. In the meantime, keep striving for that dream! You might find yourself at a goalpost sooner than you expected.

I certainly did.

Top 10 Underrated Film Scores

by Brian 0 Comments

Recently, I stumbled upon this video:

While I absolutely agree with some of these, there are others that left me scratching my head…especially when it comes to a score seriously elevating an otherwise mediocre film – but even without that category, there are some scores that toil away in obscurity and/or somehow got snubbed at the Oscars. So once more taking it upon myself to do nerdy rankings, here’s my own personal list.

1: Hook, John Williams

Very glad this one made it into the video, but I’d put it at #1 for two reasons. One, even though it may not be anywhere near as popular as Star Wars or Superman, or as Oscar-winning as Jaws, it is very much his finest work. There are dozens of character themes here, all deftly woven together in a brilliant tapestry of orchestral brilliance. This is straight-up Wagnerian scoring, but without the long-windedness. Glorious. In fact, I’d rate this as my favorite film score period. More about this one¬†here.

Two? Well, forget about two. One is all you need.

2: Star Trek: The Motion Picture / Alien, Jerry Goldsmith

The Motion Picture is my second favorite film score of all time. Yes, I know it was nominated for Best Original Score and therefore may not be strictly as underrated as some of these, but¬†I include it only because it lost the Oscar to “A Little Romance.” This and the Chariots of Fire win are among the most unforgivable sins the Academy has committed in my book. In fact, Goldsmith was frequently undervalued next to John Williams when he was every bit the giant’s equal.

Every last moment of this sore is orchestration genius. Right from the beginning, we notice that the methodical, 2001-esque pacing doesn’t feel nearly as slow as it should, because the music is so damn¬†awesome. The bellicose Klingons are represented by menacing muted brass, alongside snappy Anklungs. As a counterpoint, the entity they are encountering, the cloud, also has a musical representation: the Blaster Beam.

Then there’s also one of the greatest adventure marches in cinematic history that, by Jerry’s own admission, was one of his biggest creative hurdles. Just take a look at how it elevates the launch of the Enterprise to one of the most riveting, exciting moments in Trek history:

There was also plenty of strange aleatoric effects and involved percussion that Jerry loved experimenting with, which lent itself perfectly to the alien feel of the entity.

Alien was in that same year, which didn’t even get nominated. You can chalk that up to the ridiculous shenanigans that went on in the music editing room explained here, but it nonetheless deserved a nod every bit as much as Motion Picture…it’s kind of incredible that he wrote two of his best scores in the same damn year.

3: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, James Newton Howard

I also agree with this one. I really don’t understand why this movie didn’t do so well. Disney took a risk, and I applaud big budget studios taking risks. Moreover, I thought it was largely a successful one. Perhaps a bit silly at times, it is nonetheless a rousing action adventure film with stunning animation, great voice casting and a first-rate score. Check out the main theme here at 2:26:

4: Rescuers Down Under / Silverado /Young Sherlock Holmes, Bruce Braughton

A lot of you probably know Bruce Braughton’s work even if you don’t know the name or the fellow. He is a respected and amazing composer, and I have had the privilege of briefly studying under him. He’s the most mild-mannered guy you’d ever want to meet.

Now, if he’s a respected composer, why is his stuff on the list? Because¬†only his score to Silverado was nominated, and lost to John Barry’s score to “Out of Africa.”¬†All three of these scores, I felt, were more dynamic, complex and ultimately fulfilling. Especially Silverado, which goes toe-to-toe with the likes of Magnificent Seven and How the West was Won and doesn’t blink.

And hell, for that matter, why did Barry win for Out of Africa, but didn’t even get nominated for scores like Thunderball?

5: On Golden Pond, Dave Grusin / Dragonslayer, Alex North / The Wrath of Kahn, James Horner / Tron, Wendy Carlos

Why four¬†in one? Because all of these are¬†better than what actually won: Chariots of Fire. Maybe it’s personal taste, but even though I love Vangelis’ score to Blade Runner and in general have nothing against the synth-ey aesthetic (I LOVE Alan Silvestri’s synth score to Romancing the Stone!), I thought it was completely wrong for the feel of that movie and just wasn’t anywhere near his best work…certainly not oscar-worthy.

Let’s start with On Golden Pond – one of the most gorgeous film scores ever written…soft and intimate, it also manages to avoid the¬†repetitive minimalism that permeates Philip Glass scores like “The Hours.”

Then there’s Dragonslayer, written by another giant in the film score world, Alex North. This one’s a little avant-garde given his MO, but nonetheless effective.

Then there’s Wrath of Kahn, which didn’t even get nominated. That’s preposterous, because it’s easily Horner’s best work. He often repeats himself, and does so in this score, too. But what sets it apart from his others (and Chariots) are scenes like this, where the desperate tragedy of Spock’s death is contrasted with the sunrise of a new world…death in the shadow of new life. It has a desperate beauty and inevitability to it that’s just stunning. And the two themes here really are beautiful and some of his most original.

And even if you want to stay in synth territory, there was a score that was FAR better deserving than Chariots: Tron. Wendy Carlos managed to combine her trademark synth sound with really fantastic orchestral chops into a masterpiece:

This one is also a perfect microcosm of the evolution of film music in recent years: the new Tron WAS nominated for a score, but was nowhere near as good musically (it did well at building mood and staying out of the way, but was increadibly repetitive and uninteresting musically).

6: The Mission, Ennio Morricone

Ennio Morricone is another fellow¬†that got snubbed a lot at the Oscars until recently, with his score to Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” But honestly, there are a couple of his scores that were better than that one that didn’t earn a win, and this is one of them. Just listen to this gorgeous melody.

7: Anatomy of a Murder, Duke Ellington

This one didn’t even get nominated. I guess John Williams is the only one allowed to write an ass-kicking jazz score for a film and get a nod?

8: North by Northwest, Bernard Hermann

Really any Bernard Hermann score that isn’t Taxi driver is worthy of much more praise. He never even got nominated for his best work on the classic Alfred Hitchcock scores, my favorite being the demonic tango theme from North by Northwest:

Also be sure to check out the masterpieces of innovation and craft that are the OSTs to Vertigo and Psycho.

9: Back to the Future, Alan Silvestri

While this may now be a cult classic and on everyone’s top-ten list, it was never even nominated for an Oscar, and Silvestri himself, a towering figure in the A-List composer world, has never won. To me, his entire career is underrated as a result.

10: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Shirley Walker

Another name that all too often ends up overshadowed by others equally deserving, Walker consistently wrote stunning, world-class music for a ton of animated Batman adventures like this one.

11: Punch Drunk Love

Now, just to convince you that I’m not totally down on minimalism, I’ll throw in a bonus. There are plenty of scores that truly pull minimalism off well, even if they’re not necessarily fun to listen to by themselves. This is my favorite example. Not a melody in sight, but my god, it so flawlessly contributes to the constant sense of tension you feel as you endlessly hope the film’s protagonist, Barry Egan, doesn’t snap and end up doing something he regrets (with early scenes making it clear how vicious his fits of rage can be). The score just simmers along with this constant stress, only crescendoing in scenes like this. Warning: lots of cussing.

People always ask why I haven’t seen Waterboy or Little Nikki. I proudly reply “well, I love Punch Drunk Love.”

There you have it. What do you think of my list?