A Work in Progress: Craig Stuart Garfinkle

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

Emmy-nominated composer, and award-winning producer, Craig Stuart Garfinkle, has established his name in the highly competitive worlds of American TV, film and video games. His music has appeared in popular shows such as NBC's The Office, Fringe, Lost, The Sopranos, and America's Got Talent, to name but a few. Notable film trailer credits include J. Abrams' Star Trek, Sin City, the last three Harry Potter films, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Over the Hedge, Spider-man III, The Chronicles of Narnia, and A Quantum of Solace. In addition to World of WarCraft, Garfinkle's music is featured in many X-Box/PS2 games. He composed the original music for Baldur's Gate, the Dark Alliance II, and his song, 'A Nuclear Blast' is the main menu theme for the game, Fallout, A Brotherhood of Steel.

Garfinkle was part of the composition team at Blizzard Entertainment for their World of WarCraft expansion (Warlords of Draenor). The score has recently received the 'Hollywood Music in Media Award' for Video Game Score. When not composing, directing, producing and editing, Garfinkle enjoys his role as Film Music Professor on the UCLA Certificate in Film Scoring.

We chat with Garfinkle at his home in Los Angeles, to discuss his classical roots, his work in film and TV, and his upcoming project with his conductor wife, Eímear Noone.

What were the musical sounds of your childhood?

The sounds of my childhood were wildly eclectic. My parents tell me that they always had classical music playing in the house when I was a baby, and I do remember having many moments of déjà vu later in life, when I knew I had heard a piece before but could not place where. I suspect some of these earliest exposures stuck in my subconscious.

I started playing guitar when I was around 7 years old, and by the time I was 14 I was a fanatic for Jazz. I played in many the rock band back then, and pretending to be Carlos Santana was the highlight of any performance. I also joined the New Trier High School big band. For the rest of my education, big band music became an obsession. I absolutely love the genre and the power of sitting in front of a massive brass section during an out chorus! My first attempts at writing for large ensembles came in the form of big band charts!

As an aside, I could only watch the first 15 minutes of Whiplash. The film hit way too close to home. Someday I'll check out the writer and see if we shared a few big band directors.

Most importantly, however, I have always felt a connection to orchestral music, and listened to it constantly as a child...but passively. Then I started playing bass in the high school orchestra at 15, and passive listening was no longer possible. Short of conducting, I found playing the bass in the orchestra to be the best location to really study how all the parts of the orchestra fit together. No orchestral piece ever sounded the same again for me.

Can you remember your first composition?

Yes! One day I discovered how a Bb chord alternating to C/Bb chord had this magical effect, and I started composing a tune. I think I was 7 or 8. I had no idea that I had 'discovered' the Lydian scale, I just knew that these chords sounded cool. I may have loved it a bit too much. I have a distinct memory of my mother yelling to me from across the house: "Do you have to keep playing that same chord over and over again?"

Where did you learn your craft?

At first I was self-taught. From my earliest memory, I would just bang away at the piano, trying to figure out how it worked. My parents, seeing that I had an affinity for music, insisted that I get formal training. I was all but 8.

I rebelled against my first piano teacher — I think I was just bored with the workbooks, and would rather just work out my own ideas. I still regret that I never leaned how to play piano properly as there are countless times that I wish I had that skill. I can play the instrument reasonably well enough to compose, but I get so frustrated when my fingers can't keep up with my brain.

Guitar, however, always stuck. I had a great guitar teacher in Dave Dorsett when I was in high school, and then as a college student I was fortunate to get to study with the legendary guitarist, Frank Gambale, for a year. Frank really helped my playing, but also introduced me to an entire theory of Jazz and harmony that influences my writing in every genre to this day.

I had great high school and college band and orchestra directors, and these are the ones that really set me up with the skills to succeed. I joked about the movie Whiplash before, but in high school, Roger Mills was just about that strict...but, unlike the movie, Roger's heart was always in making sure we reached our potential. He wasn't simply a sadist...I think.

I went to the Indiana University School of music and studied in the Jazz program for two years. The teachers at the time, David Baker and Dominic Spera, broke all sorts of rules to let me take the advanced jazz and jazz orchestration classes as a freshman. After two years, David basically kicked me out of the program saying: "I know you want to write for films — you can't do that here in Indiana, you have to go to Los Angeles."

David also told me that as a guitarist, there was this new school in Hollywood, the Guitar Institute, that had the best teachers in the world — Joe Pass, Joe Diorio, and Robben Ford (and a newly-hired Frank Gambale). Indiana University had no such teachers at the time, and David very graciously, and selflessly, told me to go.

After my year at the Guitar Institute, my parents insisted I finish my degree. UCLA was the next step, and I am a proud UCLA alumnus with degrees in composition and classical guitar. The best part of being at UCLA, as a composer wanting to work in media, was being able to take classes in the UCLA film and TV department. I ate up all of the screenwriting, directing, and film production courses that I could handle.

How did you become involved in writing scores for video games?

Dumb luck, good friends, hard work, and being in the right place at the right time. The only way to make sure you are in the right place at the right time, is to be everywhere, all the time. Frankly, I was a pest who would score every UCLA or USC thesis film that would have me. I produced and sent out countless demos (not spec demos, but my own music), at a time when producing demos cost thousands of dollars. I also made sure I was the kind of friend that one could depend upon. I found good people, and treated them as best I could.

Then...somehow...the planets aligned, and right out of college one of these friends, Lisa, introduced me to a director named Flint Dille. He needed some music written for a trailer to a proposed TV series, and Lisa convinced Flint to give me a shot at the task. The series never materialized, but Flint soon started working for TSR Inc., (the makers of the Dungeons and Dragons Games), directing what would eventually evolve into the role-playing games we know today. I scored over a dozen of these games for Flint and TSR over the next few years — each with an hour of music. It was a trial by fire. I loved every minute of it, and by the time we finished the projects, I almost knew what I was doing.

In what way does the process of composing for film and TV differ to that of games?

I love the art of writing music for films — in its purist tradition, as practiced by Jerry Goldsmith, David Raksin, and John Williams. When one is truly composing to picture, the music for a film is paced by the image. By definition, certain musical statements need to happen at a specific place in time relative to the movie. I love putting that temporal puzzle together. It's a thrilling process, but also restrictive.

Game music (unless you are writing for a cinematic, one of the expository movies) usually has no such restrictions. I find the music freer to evolve and develop at its own rate. I think that's one of the reasons why game music works better without the images. It follows its own cadence.

What thrills you the most about your chosen career?

Writing for the orchestra, and then collaborating with genius musicians to perform music I have written. It's like a drug to me...the gift the musicians bring to the music — I love it!

I also enjoy the thrill of collaboration with brilliant writers directors and producers. It challenges me to be my best self when I know everyone around me is so brilliant.

What's your perception of 'classical music', and how do you see your contribution to this expansive genre as a composer?

I am going to get a lot of flack from what I am about to say!

When I was in college, 'classical music' was trying desperately to break away from all the things I love about music — namely melody and harmony. Composers were supposed to break away from these and develop new ideas. I was taught atonality and tone rows. If I used a V-I cadence in a piece, I'd get a strange look from the teacher.

I did not feel at home in that academic world, and frankly, I blame this push against tradition by academia in part for driving audiences away from the concert hall in droves. No-one wanted to hear what the contemporary composers were writing...not even me. That's not to say I don't love contemporary music — even atonal music! I love writing in that style, and when done well, it's awesome!

My honest opinion, at the risk of being skewered for saying so, is that many of the 'contemporary' composers were using these 'contemporary' techniques to cover up for the fact that they were just writing bad music.

Honestly, I am a fan of all great music, no matter the genre. I love Stravinsky, Eminem, The Beatles, Debussy, AC DC and Bartók! I'll blast Copland at levels louder than Metallica. I wrote an orchestral tone poem based on AC DC's 'Back in Black'. To my ear, when the music moves me, takes me on a journey, gives me that perfect balance between novelty and familiarity, tension and release, anger and beauty — that's what makes music great. Genre doesn't matter.

I don't expect my music to be embraced by academia or fit into the traditional classical world, but I simply hope it touches people, and that the musicians enjoy performing it.

How would you describe your particular style of composing?

I love dancing on the outside of the box! Let me explain:

When I am composing, I am completely aware that my music reflects my knowledge of Jazz, my love of hard rock, my passion for Latin and odd rhythms, and my need for there to be soul in the beat. I can't help but be that way. I also love writing complex music that challenges the listener. That said, if it's my job to guide the listener through a musical journey, I am not doing my job well if I lose the audience at the first turn of phrase by being too complex. You don¹t want your audience to feel like they just walked into an advanced physics class and are expected to laugh at a joke about quarks.

So, if I want to bring my audience to the outer limits of harmony and complexity in music, I try to do it in a way where music evolves in a logical, familiar, yet continually novel path — starting from what might be more accessible and evolving to what is on the outside of the box.

A comparison would be this: In my ideal, my music is like a tremendously complex screwball comedy. Every action and turn of phrase makes sense to the audience based on what we know of the characters in the show, but by the climax of the movie, the situation is so outlandish and ridiculous your convulsing and crying with laughter.

Yes, my music follows the rules of Borat.

Do you find the art of writing lyrics difficult, and what is your process?

In my youth, I never considered myself a lyricist. As a jazz musician, I wasn't even aware that many of the songs we jammed to had lyrics. Then, just out of college, I started producing the music of Jack Segal. Jack was one of the great lyricists of the golden age of songwriting and his timeless standards include 'When Sunny Gets Blue', 'When Joanna Loved Me', 'Here's to the Losers', 'Scarlet Ribbons', and more. He's been covered by Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Tony Bennett, Sinéad O'Connor, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole...everybody.

Jack held regular song writing workshops and I often attended — not as a student, but as a fellow educator addressing the production of the songs. Eventually, those countless hours of exposure to Jack Segal, his music and his teaching, they sunk into my subconscious. I internalized his rules for lyrics and his approach to songwriting.

Then in the mid 1990s, I was brought on to write some musical identities for Hasbro — little songs as themes for their products. The lyricist I usually worked with wasn't available so I attempted to write the lyrics myself. What surprised me the most was how much I enjoyed the process, and my clients at Hasbro were pleased. From then on, I added 'lyricist' to my list of skills.

My current favorite lyricist and songwriting partner is my wife, Eímear Noone. I still like writing lyrics myself, but Eimear has such a killer wit, such an expansive knowledge of literature and language. I just love the way she writes.

Who do you count among your influences?

I've already mentioned my great teachers and friends. Being married to Eímear also challenges me to be 'a better me' all the time, because she's just so damn smart and talented! (I know, that sounds way too saccharine to be true coming from a husband, but it is true.) My 15- year-old daughter, Madison, is such a brilliant force; she keeps me on top of what's current.

Music-wise: In addition to my teachers, my number one influence is Stravinsky...without question. This would be followed closely by Lenard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Bartók, and my mentor, David Raksin. The impressionist composers such as Ravel and Debussy would be next. Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Cole Porter would also be at the top of my list...and the Sherman Brothers! Their songs are transcendent! Of course, there are also the four lads from Liverpool...at 12 I was already playing in a Beatles tribute band.

In my early 20s, my roommate was the brilliant Latin jazz pianist, Freddie Ravel. At the time, Freddie was the music director for Sergio Mendez, and he has since played that role for the likes of Earth Wind and Fire, Al Jarreau, and Carlos Santana. The first time I sat in with Freddie's band, I couldn't figure out where beat 1 was — the band's knowledge of rhythm was so far beyond anything I knew...it was like I had never played music before! Both he and the musicians introduced to me by Freddie changed my perception of rhythm completely.

Finally, I must acknowledge the film composers I love — from the classic scores of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and Elmer Bernstein, to my contemporaries, Bruce Broughton, Thomas Newman, Alan Silvestri and Chris Young. These have all influenced me.

Your music has appeared in an array of popular TV shows, tell us a little about the selection process?

No two opportunities have ever happened the same way. Each time I have landed a good gig, it's been a long and drawn out process, fraught with the twists and turns of an Agatha Christie novel. In an environment where so many composers are chasing projects, I've kind of stepped off that grindstone. I'm fortunate that I have a host of clients that call me knowing I'll deliver.

Also, I don't pitch on spec anymore, although I am asked all the time. I could be writing 24 hours a day if I wrote on spec. If I am going to write on spec, it will be for my own projects — like one of the musicals I want to launch; or for my own CD. I won't write a spec demo for a car commercial (OK, now I've just killed any opportunity to write for another car commercial!).

I wish production companies would figure out that asking a bunch of composers to pitch on spec doesn't really get them the best result. Here are some truths about that spec demo trap that too many composers and production companies fall into:

It's not enough to send out a brief with a few mere lines of explanation, and then expect a composer to write a new piece of music based on that brief. Without an extensive back-and-forth interplay between creatives, it's next to impossible to really nail the best music possible for a project. The composer wastes their time, because the best that they can do is to take a haphazard guess at what is really needed — they are set up to fail. The production company gets a stack of half-baked compositions that, by definition, have to be created in between the composer's other paid work. Any composer worth hiring will be juggling so much paid work that they don't have the time to give the demo the attention it needs, and often have an assistant write the music down.

Finished masters take real time, not spec demo time.

My advice is to pick a composer based on their past work. Make a commitment to their creativity, and make the music a real collaboration. I can guarantee the result will be better.

The recent iDIG music festival was a resounding success in Dublin — why did you decide to host the event in Ireland, and what is it like to collaborate with your composer/conductor wife Eímear?

Why Dublin? We could have held the festival anywhere, but there was never any other choice. Ireland is like a second home to me now...that's what happens when you marry a green-blooded Irish woman.

We also knew that in Ireland we could find like-minded individuals whose main focus was not on making more money, but on bringing attention to Irish game developers and Irish talent. The event itself was better because at the heart of it all lay a selfless act. I don't think we would have had that in London or New York.

As for working with Eímear...it is not all rainbows and skipping. She and I try to ascribe to a level of excellence, which is specifically designed to drive us crazy. It's unobtainable...but we try anyway. Add to that: Eímear's job is standing in front of an orchestra, telling everyone what to do, and making sure every note is in its proper place. She has the ears of a bat, and an artistic sensibility that always challenges one to excel. At the end of the day, the results of our collaborations are always better than that which I could have done on my own. She will say the same. We drive each other.

As a judge on the Emmy Awards panel, what criteria do you look for when assessing a particular composition?

Deep dark secret — being an Emmy judge is not about assessing the compositions, it's about being schooled in how brilliant my colleagues are. Yes, there is a lot of crap out there...but, then you hear scores that tear your heart out.

One of the great things about the Emmy process (as opposed to the Oscars) is that a panel of one’s peers judges the music. The process doesn't care about the show's popularity or level of success. Multiple panel members, rate, and hear every submitted piece, and through a numeric process, I don't quite understand, each piece gets a combined rating. If a piece is nominated or wins, I feel the music truly deserves it.

What are you most proud of?

OK...I've just been stumped! Everything I've ever done has been a work in progress — never finished, only abandoned. I really like the music I composed for Warlords of Draenor, and as an artistic expression, I love the crowd-sourced video Eímear and I created for her piece 'Malach'. I am proud of that, even though I see and hear every flaw in my work.

What are you working on at the moment?

My main focus is the Link to the Celts Kickstarter. We have a concert series that will launch in October in Orlando, in partnership with 'Video Games Live'. There is also the 2016 iDIG Music Festival, a stage show, and in the wings lies a costume drama TV series, a documentary, and a film that I want to direct.

Tell us about your involvement in the forthcoming project, Songs of Zelda: A Link to the Celts.

Eímear and I were not looking for, nor were we expecting to create, a new Zelda CD. Sometimes you just have no other choice. We had this idea that it would be great to have a traditional Irish Ensemble perform our favorite video game themes at the Dublin International Game Music Festival — what better way to put a uniquely Irish spin on the festival? We threw this idea out into the universe, but all our attempts to make it happen failed.

We were about to abandon the idea altogether...then, while we were waiting for Eímear to hold an interview with RTÉ, our friend and co-producer, Paddy Duffy, bumped into his friend, Odhrán O Casaide of the DIT Irish Traditional Music Ensemble. Paddy told him what we were thinking, and Odhrán said he would see what the ensemble thought.

Five weeks later, the DIT Ensemble was on the stage making pure magic — our emotions caught us completely off guard. By the end of the performance, RTÉ and I knew we just had to find a way to record the ensemble, so that we could share what we heard.

As of this interview, we still have $6,500 left to raise of the $30,000 Kickstarter budget. We are completely blown away by the support we have received to this point, and we do hope to make it! All we can promise is that those who get the signed and numbered finished CDs will have a little piece of music history to enjoy.

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