Talking Film Music with Brian LaGuardia

Talking Film Music with Brian LaGuardia

By Jake Tharan, AP Journalism Intern and Student at Arapahoe Community College

Saturday, March 10th will see the music of films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Trek come to life in exhilarating fashion as “A Night at the Movies – Final Frontier”.  Our orchestral arranger Brian LaGuardia sat down for an in-depth and insightful interview ahead of this performance, detailing the complex process of arranging orchestral material, movies he has been involved with and what it’s like in the Hollywood film music industry.  Join us at Fisher Auditorium on the Englewood campus this Saturday to hear one of Brian’s arrangements of film soundtracks alongside popular selections from John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith.

Arapahoe Philharmonic: I understand that you studied film music orchestration in Los Angeles, was that at USC’s Thornton School of Music? What else did you study while in Los Angeles?

BL: Yeah, that was part of the SMPTV (Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television) Graduate program: orchestration classes with the great Bruce Braughton (Rescuers Down Under, Silverado, The Orville). He’s absolutely incredible…there’s really no one better. He’s a very active concert composer, too, and the sweetest guy in the world. But yes, if you want to get a stellar graduate-level education, you can’t do better than USC. You even get a 60-piece orchestral session at the end of it all, and all those people are the best sight readers in the world. My timpanist was Don Williams, John Williams’ brother.

The other stuff we studied ranged from music technology to a history of film music to classes on scoring video games. It covers a pretty wide range of useful things. But as with any degree, it is arguably less useful as actual experience on a project – though again, the experience of running recording sessions yourself is huge, and there are several throughout the year. You also get opportunities to get paired with both directors and game developers in USC, who are very talented. It’s not just the best school in the world for film scoring or music, but also for filmmaking in general.

This was also literally my only formal music education. My bachelor’s degree was in computer science, which comes in handy when you’re trying to fix a composer’s (or your own) rig at 2AM, three hours before a deadline. Everything else I learned as an ensemble musician and son of a conductor for a number of years, and on-the-job experience. That’s the great thing about this particular field, unlike most academic music positions: if you can do the job well and on time, and if people like you, they won’t give a tinker’s damn about your diploma. It’s all about who you know and how well you get things done.

AP: How many films have you worked on since your graduation?

Brain LaGuardia: If you include student films, a decent amount. If you don’t, I’ve only done a handful, and for those I was almost never more than a copyist. At any rate, I suspect you are looking for a list of recognizable projects, so here you go: Sausage Party, The Boss, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, Marvel’s Agent Carter, War With Grandpa (may not be out yet), The Banner Saga 2, Abzu, Galavant. Some of those are video games, some are TV shows, some are big-budget movies.

AP: What composers and musicians did you have the opportunity to work with while studying in Los Angeles?

BL: I had a lot of great professors who are very established in the industry, but I feel most fortunate to have worked with Austin Wintory. Not only is he posed to be the next John Williams (he really is that talented), he also is another one of those people who is just nice to the core. He will go out of his way, in spite of his back-breaking schedule, to make sure he answers your questions, he is very supportive of his fan base and employees…just an all-around awesome human being.

Another couple of composers I had the privilege of meeting were Alan Silvestri, James Newton Howard and Bear McCreary. I didn’t get to interact with them often, but I did get to ask them a few questions and pick their brains a bit. Even wrote a scene that Bear came in and judged.

The musicians are pretty incredible to work with, too. I already mentioned Don Williams, but I also got to meet a lot of the folks that have been working on films for years. I even met a tuba player that played in the Star Trek: The Motion Picture recording sessions under Jerry Goldsmith and Lionel Newman. They’re great people. One thing, though: unless you ask for feedback, they will generally not tell you how you could improve part-making or engraving. If that’s something you want to handle yourself (and you will at least in the beginning, if you decide to do this), make sure you go out of your way to ask for feedback. Keep in mind they’re considering you a potential employer and want to make you look good, even if it means picking up a lot of slack for you.

AP: What is the Hollywood film music industry like?

BL: The biggest thing about working in Hollywood is that the simplest job is still very difficult due to how little time you have to do it (and do it perfectly). It is long hours and constant stress – if not about the job, about the fact that you don’t have the next one lined up and your rent is due. If you’re not used to it, it can grind you to a pulp. Initially I found it totally energizing, but it is absolutely a lifestyle change that, long term, can have some serious effects on your mental health, and certainly did for me.

It also has its share of thrills you don’t really get anywhere else…really it’s just more of everything, good and bad. It can be incredibly overwhelming. I’d advise getting used to losing sleep, just to see how well you function without it. I regularly not only worked 80 hour weeks when I was an assistant, but also had to do with sometimes a single REM cycle a night (3-4 hours) at the studio, and you don’t get ANY sleep the night before a recording session, no matter how peripherally you are involved with it.

AP: Are you still active in working with Hollywood film projects?

BL: Much less than I used to be. It’s really a career you have to be in the thick of it in order to network properly. Yes, most of the work can be done remotely, but so many people want to do this job that, well…why not hire one of the fifty thousand people who are willing to meet you locally and talk rather than someone hundreds of miles away? I do get the occasional remote gig, but only from people that I initially met in person and worked for while living there. Basically, if you want to get anywhere in the scoring industry, you’re going to have to live in LA for at least a few years. And like I said, it’s a very different lifestyle. It’s also very crowded, and the traffic is maddening. Great Mexican food, though.

AP: You are the Assistant to the Music Director with the Arapahoe Philharmonic. Are you solely responsible for arranging the pieces at each performance?

BL: Yes, but the AP is not a dipstick for how most orchestras function. I arrange for them because I can, and because I am willing to donate my time to that cause (mostly because I grew up with this organization, but it’s also great practice for my orchestration chops).

Also, the AP doesn’t need arrangements for each concert. In fact, until recently, they really didn’t do pops concerts and just stuck to classical repertoire, which is a lot easier on the budget because most of that music is in the public domain.

AP: What does orchestral arrangement entail?  Is it similar to arranging any type of music or is it quite different?

BL: It depends on what you’re going for and what you’re working with, but in general orchestral composition and orchestration is about as difficult as you can get on the scale of musical endeavors, simply because of the sheer number of musicians involved, but also the enormous palate of possible colors, textures and combination of sounds – not to mention having to know exactly what each instrument can and cannot do, and how they sound in each of their various ranges. That’s the bulk of what you learn in orchestration classes, and that should be augmented by studying scores and following along in recordings or performances on your own.

But yeah! The orchestra can do just about anything, from spunky pop to epic to romantic to adrenaline-filled action, funk, rock, bohemian folk…the only limit is what your musicians are comfortable with. In general, orchestras are more used to a “classical” style, but a lot of classical music is based on folk tunes. Also, many musicians (usually brass) double in Jazz ensembles, making them a little more able to switch styles at the drop of a hat. Even so, it’s usually a good idea to ask people if they’re, for example, capable of improvising over a lead sheet or in general playing in styles drastically different than classical. More communication is always better, again unless you’re working with pros, in which case they are versatile or they don’t get gigs.

AP: How does film music differ from “regular” classical or orchestral music? 

BL: I could write an essay on this, but essentially it boils down to one very important thing: the music is meant to COMPLIMENT the screen, not hold 100% of the attention like in concert music. While folks like John Williams are stunningly adept at also making that music incredible to listen to on its own, that is last on the list of priorities and, depending on the project, perhaps exactly what the film does NOT need. You are a member of the filmmaking team. You’re a dramatist first and a composer second. In other words, it’s more like writing operas than it is writing a symphony.