Progressions - Giancarlo Vulcano '97
“Being a musician in New York and not being broke is very hard.”
An ominous start to the profile of a guitar player. But this is no hard luck tale. Instead, Giancarlo Vulcano ’97 has flourished in New York since leaving Sarah Lawrence, following an upward trajectory that began with him toiling at physical labor in a church cum performance space, and today finds him an integral part of the team around Howard Shore, one of Hollywood’s busiest and most celebrated film composers.
Vulcano also spends one night a week helping prepare music for Saturday Night Live, and handles lead guitar for a Latin-themed pop band that plays “a lot.” He has no free time. But, he says, “I’m lucky. I’ve always wanted to be a musician, and today I work on music all day.”
Vulcano’s workday begins and ends on a bus—the two-hour trip between Brooklyn and upstate Tuxedo, N.Y., where Shore composes. In recent years Shore has created the soundtracks for such films as The Silence of the Lambs, The Aviator, Gangs of New York and the Lord of the Rings trilogy; he’s scoring this year’s King Kong. Vulcano’s duties include assisting Shore with new music, archiving older compositions and helping with scholastic arrangements of his work.
“When he’s writing for a film, we’re in war mode,” Vulcano says. “My job is making sure all he has to do is write music.” It’s up to Vulcano and his colleagues, for example, to let Shore know if a director has cut or added footage, and how the change affects that portion of the score.
“I get to see the picture before any music has been added. It’s really interesting to imagine where music should go, and where a scene would be better without anything.”
At the end of the day, Vulcano uses a computer to copy and proof Shore’s handwritten music—knowing that mistakes can dent budgets and deform deadlines.
“Anything can happen when you’re working with a computer program, it’s late at night and you haven’t gotten enough sleep. When 80 musicians rehearse it in the studio the next day and there’s nothing wrong, it’s like you’ve dodged a bullet.”
Raised in Manhattan, Vulcano attended an all-boys school. “I visited Sarah Lawrence and my brain blew up. The vibe was so different.”
Mason Gentzler, Asian studies faculty member, and the late music teacher Catherine “Kitty” Rowe were among the faculty who became models, Vulcano says, for how he pursues his own goals.
“It was the first time in my life that I saw people who were that good at something. These people knew a lot, worked very hard, were just so nice. They were totally inspiring.”
Rowe “taught us how to hear intervals, to know what you hear so you can write it down, to sing it correctly. She was the best musician I’ve ever met in my life, and the sweetest, most loving person.”
Vulcano has played guitar for “a million years.” His latest project, Las Rubias del Norte, specializes in Cuban and South American music. “We play a little Mozart, too.”
“My influences are not guitar players,” he says. “I’m a Stravinsky nut; I love Charles Mingus.”
Vulcano’s career progression began in a Brooklyn music store shortly after graduation. He bought a CD of music recorded at St. Ann’s Church. When he stepped outside, St. Ann’s was across the street. Feeling the nudge of Fate, he went over and asked for a job. For the next few years Vulcano swept floors, sold CDs at concerts, and lugged equipment and laid cable like a roadie—while working at night toward his master’s in composition at Queens College.
“Some people my age are not willing to start near the bottom. I think that’s unfortunate. You want that sense that things could be a lot worse.”
At a performance one night he met Lenny Pickett, saxophone player for the venerable house band at Saturday Night Live. Shortly thereafter Vulcano landed a job on the show, preparing music for skits and commercial breaks. Then Chance called him out of line again: At the NBC 75th anniversary broadcast in 2002 he was introduced to the composer of the SNL theme songs—Howard Shore.
“It’s been step by step since 1997,” Vulcano says. “The most exciting thing is being trusted by great musicians to work on their projects. It’s a testament to what I learned at Sarah Lawrence, and other schools.”
He uses his time on the bus to Tuxedo and back to compose on a laptop. “I’d love to score my own movie, put out a CD of my own music. But I’m not in a rush. I’m glad I started at the level of carrying equipment and laying cable. I’ve seen so many different facets of a life in music.”