Many Hollywood transplants can recall a pivotal moment that captures the “only in Tinseltown” sparkle of their new home. For William Malpede, it happened in the late 1990s when he attended a premiere of Amistad, a film directed by Steven Spielberg, a life-long source of inspiration. “I had about 30 seconds with Mr. Spielberg, who talked about trends in film scoring,” Malpede recalled in a recent interview. The encounter was something of a turning point: “Meeting him gave me a feeling that I was on my way to the next chapter in my career.”
Malpede didn’t have stars in his eyes when he arrived at Elmhurst College in the mid-1980s to earn a music business degree. Ultimately, though, his experiences with Elmhurst’s music program helped launch a dynamic show-business career that has included playing piano for blockbuster Broadway musicals, and arranging or composing the music for more than a dozen TV shows and movies including Spiderman 3, Rango and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
In March 2011, Malpede returned to Elmhurst to share what he’s learned since graduating in 1988. He also received the first Entrepreneurship in Music Business Award, sponsored by the College and the Illinois-based Coleman Foundation. Malpede said he was honored not only by that recognition, but also by the chance to speak with Elmhurst students. He hopes his personal story might “be an inspiration that they can pursue a career in the entertainment business.” His involvement in Elmhurst College music groups led to professional opportunities: “I wanted to impress on the students the importance of their work in the music department—how this, right now, is the building block for their careers,” he said.
Malpede spoke to Elmhurst students in several classes, including the arranging class taught by jazz band director Doug Beach. “It made a huge impact on the kids,” Beach said. Successful musicians always make good guest speakers, he noted, but when that speaker is an Elmhurst alumnus, it has added impact on students.
In addition to describing the scoring process to students and sharing examples of his work, Malpede said he emphasized the importance of their time in school—not just for education, but also for the relationships they forge. “I told them, ‘A lot of these people might become the ones you work with,’” Malpede said. “It’s all about who you know. Everybody says that. But it’s the relationships you make with other people that are of primary importance.”
He also described to students the professional challenges he faces. “There’s a great deal of technical craft required,” he said. To have the most desirable, up-to-date sounds, composers must regularly update their equipment and keep learning how to use it.
After his talks, a handful of students approached Malpede and gave him CDs of their work. One student followed up diligently, and that made an impression. Malpede noted that it takes him a while to review others’ work, because he likes to provide thorough, helpful critiques. For the students who follow up, he’ll set aside a chunk of time to do that review—even if it takes him several weeks to work it into his schedule. “And when I send the critique, I’ll say, ‘Email me again.’ And if he does, I’ll talk to him some more.”
Growing up in La Grange, Malpede favored movies with memorable scores, such as The Ten Commandments, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. After he touched piano keys for the first time during a grade-school music class, music began to play a larger role in his life. “The sound that came out of the instrument when you pressed the keys—that was like magic to me,” he said. Although he didn’t take formal piano lessons until he was 12, Malpede started to play when he was nine. “My dad [who played for fun, but not professionally] showed me where the notes were on the piano, and what their names were, and I took it from there,” he said.
When it came time to choose a college, family and friends convinced Malpede to think of career opportunities beyond performing. That meant obtaining a business-related degree. “I decided to go to Elmhurst because it had a music business program, and there were just a few in the country at that time,” he said.
Malpede’s success came as no surprise to Beach, who taught Malpede at Elmhurst. “Here was this kid with all this talent, and you just knew right away he was going to have a life of music. Even with all that talent, there was never an ego.”
In addition to playing piano for Elmhurst’s jazz band and performing in concert choir, Malpede played piano for the jazz vocal group directed by Susan Moninger. He also teamed up with Moninger to write music that was published by California-based Neil A. Kjos Music Company. “He had that triple threat in the music business, as writer and player and singer,” Moninger said.
She remembers Malpede as a performer who connected easily with the audience. Even when Malpede wasn’t center stage, he couldn’t help but draw attention. That’s what happened at a choir competition, where Malpede accompanied Elmhurst’s jazz vocal group on the piano. One of the judges happened to be a prominent Broadway conductor, and he asked Moninger if Malpede’s likeability matched his musical ability. Her answer: “Absolutely … the kind of person you’d want to work with every day.”
Less than a year after that exchange, Malpede was working for that conductor in Detroit, substituting for the keyboard player in a touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock musical Starlight Express. “I wasn’t thinking about being a composer at that point. I was thinking about being a professional musician,” Malpede said. That gig led to a string of opportunities that kept Malpede touring regularly in the United States and Canada. For two years, he played piano for Cats, then Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, starring Donny Osmond, then the Andrew Lloyd Webber revue Music of the Night.
Meanwhile, his employers wanted to groom him to fill the conductor’s role. “But I really didn’t want to be a conductor,” Malpede said. Night after night, for more than seven years, he’d played other composers’ music. It was time to write his own. In 1997, he moved to Los Angeles, enrolled at the University of Southern California and earned a certificate in scoring for motion pictures and television. He earned one of his early film credits, Spiderman 3, working as an assistant for one of his USC professors, composer Christopher Young, who composed the score for the film.
Malpede is being noticed. He recently won an award—Best Original Score Award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival—for an independent movie he co-scored with Rick Garcia: Another Harvest Moon, starring Ernest Borgnine.
When he’s composing for a scene, Malpede said he likes to watch it at least three times before he considers ideas for the melody. Sometimes inspiration strikes at inconvenient times. On one occasion, Malpede had an idea for a composition while he was driving. He didn’t want to lose the idea—so he pulled over and used his phone to video himself singing the melody.
People tell Malpede his work sounds like fun, and it is, he said, but like anything worth doing well, it involves a lot of long hours and sweat. “It is great work,” he said. “But you have to really love the work.”