While Vancouver-based film, television and video game composer Adam Lastiwka is heavily influenced by contemporary electronic music, his compositions inevitably include a wide range of acoustic and electric instruments as well.
As for the appeal of digital sources, he says, “It’s utilizing technology in a way to create new, exciting sounds that people have never heard before, and a way of approaching music that’s not totally conventional… But I really enjoy and appreciate world music, and on my projects I’ve always made it a point to play as many instruments as I can. I have a room in my house with, probably, 40 different instruments from around the world. I play them to get ideas.”
Some of those instruments are rare, or even unique: Among them, a lutekulele (a lute/ukulele hybrid), various Togaman GuitarViols (boasting a range that takes in everything from Cello to Viol), and a ten-string South American charango made from the body of an armadillo that still has – naturally – the fur and ears on it.
“You sit down, look at a project and, if you’re really listening to everything, it tells you what to do.”
“Stringed instruments come easily to me,” he says, citing the similarities between instruments from different cultures. “I don’t think I’ve come close to mastering any of them, but I can pick one up and think, ‘What are we working on today? Can something be inspired or derived from this?’”
The more sources he can draw on, the better he’s able to serve his clients and create a unique product with signature sounds and textures.
Like many a screen composer, Lastiwka didn’t start there.
“I got into music pretty late,” he says. “It wasn’t until I was about 16.” Immediately, however, he made up for lost time; signing a three-record deal with an indie label, completing his debut record at age 17, and releasing it the next year.
For many people, being a solo artist, or being in a band, is what lights a fire under them to go after a career in music, but for Lastiwka the spark was scoring and soundtracks. “So instead of… trying to be a rock star, I started focusing on making music for licensing projects.” Consequently, Lastiwka’s first album was intended as a showcase for his compositions.
Roughly 10 years ago, after releasing three records, Lastiwka moved from his hometown of Lethbridge, Alberta to Vancouver. “I thought I could be a film composer just like that,” he says, laughing. But it wasn’t quite as seamless a transition as he envisioned, and Lastiwka soon found himself working “practical jobs” – and more or less quitting film composition for a time.
“It was the cusp of home recording,” Lastiwka says. “You had digital studio technology, but it was the first time you could record on your computer utilizing affordable technology. So what was great was, while I was simultaneously failing as a film and TV composer, I was working for music stores, setting up their digital recording departments, and got to see what was new, how to use it and what was coming down the pipe.”
Roughly a year after moving to B.C., after struggling and almost giving up, a track from Lastiwka’s first record was tapped for use in Ridley Scott’s movie Body of Lies. “At the time I was barely making rent, but that gave me a glimmer of hope that I could do this for a living,” says Lastiwka, “and that sustained me for a long time.”
He soon landed a gig assisting film composer Shawn Pierce (The Dead Zone, Recreating Eden) and, for several years, honed his chops and made numerous contacts in the industry. Since then, Lastiwka has contributed music to more than 500 episodes of TV series, multiple documentaries, as well as feature films and video games, including Batman Arkham City, various Discovery channel and CBC documentaries, reality shows, and features such as the aforementioned Body of Lies and Foreverland.
One of his most recent projects is providing music for Travelers, a sci-fi offering from Netflix and Showcase, on which he worked with Stargate producer/creator, Brad Wright. “What’s really exciting about Travelers is, because it’s this time travel concept, it allowed me to bring in and use all these unconventional instruments,” says Lastiwka.
Initially, he says, Travelers allowed him to draw from a very wide-open palette, sonically; but as the show progressed, he “weaned it down.”
Scoring for film versus television presents different challenges, says Lastiwka. “You sit down, look at a project and, if you’re really listening to everything, it tells you what to do,” he says. “With TV, it can span years, so you get closer to refining exactly what’s needed. It’s a very instinctive thing; first episodes are always a nightmare, but by the time you reach the end everything is very well established.”
Every production requires a different approach. “In the process, you’re watching and taking things apart technically and you develop an instinct and approach, but you need to play to the audience,” says Lastiwka. “When I’m working with a director or producer, I want to find a way to communicate with them, to find out how they communicate their emotional ideas, and how [best] to capture that.”