Hi Danny, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started in the video game music business?
I started to hear about games from some friends of mine in San Francisco, who worked for a game company called SSI. This guy knew I had written music for film and television and he wanted to bring a cinematic element to games. So I said sure, why not? I liked the people that I got to work with, they were open-minded and extremely creative, so composing for games just began to evolve.
You’ve written music for a lot of Activision Star Trek titles. How did that collaboration start in the first place?
My agent Bob Rice initiated that relationship. When I was introduced to the crew at Activision, I realized we were a good fit because they were extremely ambitious about pushing the bounderies of traditional games, especially with the Star Trek series of games.
How much were you influenced by the Star Trek movie scores, if at all?
I grew up with Star Trek and I’m a huge fan of the films and the television series. Star Trek lends itself to an orchestral approach with its grandiose, sweeping visuals and strong sense of human drama. Of course many composers have written music for Star Trek and there has been an amazing artistic lineage over the years as spin offs and modern versions of the old series developed. As a composer, I enjoyed contributing to the tradition. In the case of writing music for these Star Trek games, the challenge was to create a grand sound without a live orchestra. I have an extensive collection of orchestral emulation samples which allows me to recreate the rich and diverse power of a full orchestra. I begin by sketching on a piano the rough architecture of the piece; where the themes will go, and the progression, then I orchestrate it and fill out the rest of the instruments. Star Trek is primarily orchestral, ranging from classic militaristic to Middle Eastern or more world sounding themes. In the case of the Borg worlds I get into sound design, aiming for cybernetic sounds and machine like passages.
The Star Trek games feature a great variety of genres. How did you approach each genre musically? Are there any Pelfrey trademarks that you use in every genre?
Star Trek played to my strengths because the action adventure elements of the show demand a classically trained sense of underscore as well as strong themes. I’m drawn to pieces that are deeply dramatic, heroic pieces and stories that make a powerful emotional statement about what we value as human beings and what we are willing to fight for. No matter what genre you are dealing with, it is these underlying qualities of the story that the music must illuminate. So if I were to have a trademark, I hope my music conveys a sense of heroism, of fighting the good fight against great odds, I hope that comes through in every moment of the game or the film, whether it’s an inner struggle with your fear or an outer struggle with a force such as the Borg.
Let’s talk about Sword of Heroes. Could you tell us more about the game and why you went for a very religious sound for the score?
There is a whole musical history behind Sword and Sorcery fantasy stories. With Sword of Heroes I wanted that transcendent, gothic, high religious style that speaks of a quest. The use of Carmina Burana in Excalibur is an example of this heroic tradition. There was a choral piece for the genre called O Magnum Mysterium which was my main influence in writing the Sword Of Heroes score. The piece has a soaring quality. We had a full choral group recorded in the studio and had a soprano fly in from New York in order to get an authentic sound.
You’ve also scored a great variety of movie and TV spots. How would you compare movie and game scoring?
My approach to scoring a cinematic is the same as scoring a film; you have to discern the characters, the storyline and the arc of the film. Sometimes you’re dealing with a written synopsis without actual images and you are depending on your imagination to conjure the right musical effect. The main difference is that in games, the story alters because of the actions of the player who can take the game in different directions. The music for games has to be created in a modular fashion, which is then reassembled in real time depending on what the player is doing. Films have a fixed structure and are not interactive in nature – at least not yet.
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?
Because of technology, games and films are getting closer everyday, so it isn’t surprising that the lines are blurring. As the composer on American Dreams, I worked with a lot of pop stars who were crossing over to perform on television. And on the film Joseph: King of Dreams, I worked with a songwriter who mainly wrote broadway shows. Television actors and film actors are moving back and forth between mediums. With games growing more cinematic every moment and with new technology such as the X-Box, it is inevitable that games will grow more complicated and producers will need the music to fulfil the same story-telling requirements as film.
Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?
With game consoles and other home internet hardware the internet and the television will be able to merge into a single entertainment center. A player might have a console connected to the internet. There is a huge leap in downloadable technology and wireless devices so that will effect the market too. Games will be downladed into phones and other wireless devices. You already see this trend strongly in Japan. Games will grow increasingly sophisticated, looking and acting more and more like films and the story-telling demands will be greater too. In many ways, music is the dialogue of games so the composing challenges will grow as the technology becomes more complex.
What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?
Once you master the technical aspects of composing, the biggest challenge is always the storytelling. The architecture of the music is dictated by the story. The real challenge is in determining what music will best express the kind of story you’re dealing with and the types of characters and their arcs and dramatic needs. The only thing different for games is that the music must be modular in order to have the desired effect. With games, the modules a player controls determines a specific action and the music has to flow with whatever sequence of events takes place. The music gets cut up in different ways. Audio slugs are triggered by the action, so I don’t score the action per-se. I have to be aware of complimentary keys relationships and sonic integrity, as well as tempos. This is unique from dramatic composition for film and TV, where the music is linear and dependent on the dramatic action onscreen.
What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player right now?
The great classical composers like Stravinsky, Wagner, Mendelssohn and Debussy as well as contemporary ones like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Randy Newman, Elliot Goldenthall, Gabriel Yared and Thomas Newman have all had a strong influence on my work.
What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?
My favorite project was the special episode of Felicity, Help for the Lovelorn, which was a homage to the classic television series, Twilight Zone. The episode was nominated for an Emmy Award.
What would be your dream project?
I thrive on challenges so I like to stay open to what my “dream project” would be… maybe a fantasy film or an adventure, maybe a subtle drama or a period piece.
What are you currently working on?
I just finished the 3rd season of American Dreams and the 6th season of Strong Medicine and I also write for the daytime drama Guiding Light. I’m considering another television project but at this point I’m keeping my options open. I also have a record company so I have projects I am working on there.
Do you play PC or console games yourself?
By the time I’m done composing a game, I know all the ins and outs and twists and turns, so I don’t tend to play the games I’ve composed. I’m more like the Wizard behind the curtain, manipulating your gaming experience. The next time you’re playing a gaming sequence with music I’ve created, I hope the music will move you. If I’ve done my job, the music will make the game experience deeper, richer and more complete.
Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t cover?
Your questions were very challenging…. You certainly did your homework!