Hi Lennie, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. First of all, tell us about yourself. How did you get started in the video game music business?
Around the end of 1996, I had been working in Los Angeles as a composer and orchestrator for film/television/commercials, and had seen a post on a newsgroup that a Belgian game developer wanted a “ Hollywood film composer” to do the music for their game. I sent them an email saying something like, “I’m the man you’re looking for!” and after several emails back and forth (and sending them a CD of orchestral music I wrote for an atom bomb documentary), they liked what I could do and chose me to compose their game – Outcast.
You are most famous for your score to Outcast. How did you get involved in that project?
What I mentioned above is how it all started. After that, the developer (Appeal, s.a.) flew me out to Belgium and brought me to their offices in Jambes (a very cool 3 story building with a central spiral staircase which connected all the administrative, programming, and art departments together) to sign contracts and show me the progress of the game development, along with a flowchart of the music requirements, tons of artwork, and early footage of one of the levels.
How would you describe the score and what aspect of it are you most proud of?
The tonality was one of the central qualities of the score. In musical terms, I used a hexatonic or symmetrical scale with the notes C, D#, E, G, Ab, B. This tonality provided me with 6 common chords C, E, and Ab major or C, E, and Ab minor which I used as a sort of “home plate”. Any of these chords could be considered the tonic or point of rest, plus I could also stack them together in combination for a more complex harmony (polytonality). The most interesting quality of working with this tonality meant that as you moved freely from region to region within the game, you felt a sense of the overall musical tone being consistent throughout the game, while each region had its own unique ambience. Everything was connected by intention.
I have to say that being involved early in the development of this game gave me the opportunity to do some of my best work. It allowed me enough time to develop a strong music concept for the game and really explore it in depth without having a time pressure as happens with some games and more notably, film and television composing.
One of the aspects I’m most proud of is the collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania Classics Department on the Latin text for the choir, which was from Vergil’s “The Aeneid”. Joseph Farrell, the project director for the Vergil Project at the university, provided me with a wonderful translator, Dorothy Stewart. I spent a month doing research on the best text from this material for the choir to sing that related to such an adventure as Outcast (this was a specific request from the game developers which to this day I am eternally grateful) and Dorothy did the translations from the original Latin text, converted these into elision - the truncated singing form which the choir would then perform, and assisted me with the proper prununciation.
The whole score was performed by a real orchestra. How did that come to happen?
I had worked with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra on that atom bomb documentary I mentioned above - Trinity and Beyond: The Atom Bomb Movie, which airs on the history channel all the time. I had written about 12 minutes of additional music for that film. My friend William Stromberg was the principal composer for that film and, with composer John Morgan, had a long running relationship with the MSO doing the Marco Polo label series of classic movie score reconstructions. Also, the developers specifically asked for a European orchestra to perform the score, so it seemed like a perfect match for all of us involved.
Did you enjoy working with a real orchestra? How much does the overall composing process differ when using a live orchestra as opposed to a sampled score?
I love working with live players and the great energy they bring to a performance. There is a lot of preparation involved in doing a live recording session like this that’s in addition to providing a sampled score. After composing the music, it has to orchestrated (arranged and written down in a full score format), then copied (all the individual parts prepared for the players to read at the session), then performed and recorded in a studio big enough to handle 100 musicians like the Warner Soundstage here in Los Angeles or Mosfilm Studios in Moscow. On a big feature film for example a composer would compose about 90 minutes of music in 4-8 weeks and, with the help of about 8-10 orchestrators, 20 copyists, a musician contractor, an orchestra, a recording engineer, studio and support staff, would record all the music in about 7-10 days. It’s a large scale process that only a small number of composers can do well. I love it though, and am very comfortable with the pressures and time constraints involved, and I have an amazing team of people that I use regularly for these types of projects.
You’ve also worked on the strategy game War of the Ring? How much were you inspired by Howard Shore ’s The Lord of the Rings scores, if at all?
Howard did a great job on the films. Actually, for War of the Ring, I was inspired by composer Chance Thomas, who had composed themes to be used in all the VUG (Vivendi Universal Games) Tolkien projects. Part of the music design for the series was for me to use Chance’s themes for the different races (Men, Dwarves, Elves, Sauron) and work them in with my own individual themes of Hope and Despair, which to me are central aspects of the Lord of the Rings story. I love collaborating with other composers on projects like these. Each of us brings our own individuality while at the same time we are catalysts for each other. One composer develops a theme one way, and the other composer takes it in a new and unexpected direction, and so on.
One of the other joys in this project was to record with some of the great musicians here in Los Angeles . Thanks to VUG’s commitment to working with our local musician’s union, I was able to have Eric Rigler (Braveheart, Titanic) playing Uilleann pipes, Irish Low Whistles, and Pennywhistles, along with some of the amazing low brass players here like Alex Iles on Trombones, Phil Teele on Contrabass Trombone, and John Van Houten on Cimbasso (a beautifully nasty brass instrument that plays in the Tuba range).
One of your latest projects is Dragonshard. What can you tell us about that score?
It’s a hybrid score of sampled strings and percussion plus 6 live woodwinds and 8 brass. There are three races of characters in the game (Human/Dwarf Alliance, Lizardfolk, and the Umbragen) and three individual themes/treatments for each race. The Human/Dwarf Alliance music is very “Conan the Barbarian”, with a big brassy heroic theme; the Lizardfolk material is very primitive, with woodwinds and lots of wood and skin percussion; the Umbragen music is much more evil and includes more eerie synth elements along with the orchestra. I hope people enjoy it.
Are you pleased that your scores are being discussed / compared with film scores? For many years the direction for "crossing over" has been from game scores to movie scores (e.g., Giacchino), but more recently movie composers have gone the other way (e.g., Schifrin, Elfman & Shore). Any thoughts as to why this latter flow is happening?
I actually believe it’s been the other way around, where folks like Bruce Broughton (Silverado, Heart of Darkness – the 1 st live orchestra score for a videogame), Inon Zur, and I have come from film and television with a keen interest and passion towards doing creative work in the game industry, and now people like Michael Giacchino have been coming from games into doing outstanding work in television and film. I see more of this happening in the future as people who have been gamers all their lives are now producing and directing film and television.
For me, games are an exceptional challenge as a composer – to create adaptive music that changes with player choices while maintaining a sense of the music being one performance, and not a bunch of choppy pieces hiccupping to the changes in the game states. To be a game composer is to write rich and complex music in collaboration with game developers and programmers, and provide a unique entertainment experience where a player actively makes choices and feels immersed in the world the game creates. How much fun is that? Tons by my standards.
Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?
I believe not only will the level of audio production quality continue to be improved with bigger budget live orchestra projects (in the same manner as the film industry audio improved as it matured), but also recording artists will continue to offer their unique sonic vision to games. I also think that with continued technology growth we will be seeing even more adaptive music engines which (to me) is the biggest challenge for composers – designing music in seamless components that effortlessly move from one to the next while the gamer makes choices within the game play.
What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?
The task that is all of those three descriptions in one is coming up with the initial idea:
What will the music be?
What’s the central sonic approach?
How will I execute this approach?
Once I have a clear idea of what I want to do, that’s when I cut loose and start cranking on the score.
What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player right now?
Igor Stravinsky has always been my favourite in the orchestral world, especially his ballets like The Rite of Spring and The Firebird. Gil Evans jazz writing is amazing (I was just listening to his collaboration with Miles Davis on Sketches of Spain the other night). Most people know my orchestral writing but I actually started out playing Jazz and Rock bass and wrote a ton of Jazz through college (and still do on occasion).
What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?
Outcast was my first venture into the game universe so there’s an enormous amount of joy that comes from that nostalgia, along with everything that clicked and fell into place on that project. Every project though, has its beautiful moments and honestly, my favourite part has been the journey. Part of what it is to be a composer (or any artist for that matter) is that the process is the best aspect, not necessarily the end result. There was a lot of Outcast that I was very proud of, and also many moments where I felt I could be better. In Dragonshard there are quite a few pieces where I feel I did some nice work and I really like the way what I wrote works when the music engine transitions from ambient to battle music and back. There’s even a demo I did for a videogame where I thought it was some of my best writing to date and for whatever reason it wasn’t what they wanted and I wasn’t hired. None of that means as much to me as having a life in music where I get to create something new everyday. That’s the favourite project.
What would be your dream project?
I’m living it.
What are you currently working on?
I usually have two or three things happening at the same time. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of orchestrating for strings on pop and rock CDs, a few commercials, about an hour worth of material for a music library, helping a film composer buddy of mine with his next feature, and at the same time I’m all ready to do that next great videogame project.
Do you play PC or console games yourself?
I’m an avid gamer on both PC and console games. In the last year I’ve probably played about a dozen games including Halo2 (co-op mode on every difficulty level!), Half-Life 2, Far Cry, plus I have a couple of regular toons on the Star Wars Galaxies Intrepid server (look for Omar or Gnova) that I’ve been developing for two years now. Recently, I’ve been playing through Dragonshard and seeing how well the music implementation is working (pretty cool – always a great education to play the game hard afterwards and see how well the music works).
Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t cover?
I’d just like to acknowledge everyone who’s sent me emails all the way back to Outcast, and have enjoyed and been inspired by my work. It really means a lot to me that I’ve contributed in some way to your lives to make you go through all the effort of tracking me down and contacting me.
Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.