Hi Chance, 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?
Thanks Oliver. I started scoring videogames in 1996. Sierra Online was looking for a full-time composer and I applied for the position. The hiring producer and I clicked creatively and personally, and soon I was living in the mountains outside Yosemite National Park, working full-time for Sierra, composing the epic action adventure score for Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire. It was a dream come true.
The Quest for Glory V music was surprisingly innovative for its day. Tell us about some of the firsts associated with that score.
Quest for Glory V was one of the first American games to use a live orchestra. We designed one of the world’s first adaptive music systems using digital audio streams while everyone else was still using MIDI. The Quest for Glory V soundtrack album sold more than 50,000 units, which was remarkable at that time. And it was the Quest for Glory V score that first opened the dialog with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences about bringing game music into the Grammy Awards.
Let’s fast forward and talk about Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Videogame. When and how did you get involved in that project?
I found an obscure posting online that mentioned Peter Jackson, Michelle Ancel and Xavier Poix in the same article, and said there might be a King Kong videogame based on the upcoming film. I tracked Xavier Poix to Ubisoft in Montpellier, France and introduced myself. He was great, and eventually included me in a solicitation of several composers they wanted to demo for the game. I made several demos before I finally got it right. Five, I think. And then they hired me.
How much creative freedom were you given by the developers in order to find a unique and creative soundscape for the game? Were you influenced by James Newton Howard’s film score?
Tons of freedom. I drew inspiration from the game world Ubisoft was developing, from some great temp tracks Ubi’s music director Aurelien Baguerre put together for me, and from the classic Kong scores by Max Stiener and John Barry. You mentioned James Newton Howard (one of my all time favorites). But in fact, Howard Shore was originally supposed to create the score for the Peter Jackson film. However, Shore was fired from the project about half way through my contract. James Newton Howard didn’t come onboard until the game score was signed, sealed and delivered.
Your King Kong score is very dynamic in-game. Could you talk a bit about the process of writing an interactive score and implementing it in the game?
Sure. The music really was well implemented in the game. Better than any other score I hade done to that point, except maybe Quest for Glory V. There are two reasons for the outstanding music implementation in King Kong - Yoan Fanise (Ubi’s audio director) and Aurelien Baguerre. They really worked hard to make sure the music was responsive to all the changing game states. They had a well crafted music design and we all worked very hard to ensure that each scene had the right piece of music tailored to fit. We also poured a lot of energy into giving the score the highest possible production values, recording in Seattle with the Northwest Sinfonia and spending a full week on the music mix. That score really resonated with the public and the press, and remains one of the more popular and critically acclaimed scores I’ve done.
You’ve also worked on a number of The Lord of the Rings titles. One of your biggest contributions to the games is an overall thematic identity across multiple titles. Could you tell us about how that idea came up and how it eventually became reality?
I love the Tolkien mythology and literature. There is such a continuity across its vast world and host of characters. I wanted to attempt that same degree of continuity in the music, across the several Tolkien-based games Vivendi was developing. I created a Music Style Guide which defined a number of themes for each race, instrumental palettes and colors for each race, tonic keys and vocal ranges for each race, etc. Super interested readers can dig into a detailed exposition of the whole process on Gamasutra:
The score to The Lord of the Rings Online is among your most famous works to date. How did you first start out writing the music?
I read the books. I studied the books. I underlined every passage that had anything to do with music, songs, sound, singing etc. I stuck Post-It notes everywhere. I wanted my music to ring of truth to Tolkien fans, to resonate with their experience with the books. Then I started writing music. Badly at first, I have to admit. My first version of The Road Goes Ever On is absolutely dreadful, as is my attempt at putting music to A Elbereth Gilthoniel. Only a handful of people have ever heard those early blunders. I’ve paid them all handsome sums to keep quiet…
How daunting is it for a composer to start working on such a huge game featuring a living and breathing world, a multitude of cultures and graphical settings as well as a rich history of characters and creatures?
Oh, on the contrary. It’s what we composers live for. The richness of Middle-earth is so vast and so deep, dripping with style and character, it offers an almost endless supply of inspiration.
Overall, how would you describe your score and what aspect of it are you most thrilled about?
The scores I’ve done for Lord of the Rings Online are high fantasy. The music is always thematic, even as it ranges from small acoustic ensemble pieces to full blown symphonic orchestral cues. I always thrill when other musicians take a piece I’ve written and make it their own. It brings an added sparkle, a bit of magic if you will. And a great mix. When everything comes together, such as in The Golden Wood from the Mines of Moria score, or Tom Bombadil’s Theme from the Shadows of Angmar score – it’s very rewarding for me.
One of your latest projects is Avatar: The Videogame. You mention on your website that you were able to meet the film composer James Horner and talk to him about his film score. Could you elaborate on that experience and how it influenced your game score?
I wanted to meet with Horner as early in the process as possible. Unfortunately it didn’t happen until about 65% of my score was already complete. But it did finally happen. Credit film producer Jon Landau, game producer Patrick Naud, and Ubi’s audio guys Steven Dumont and Simon Landry for cutting through all the red tape and getting it done.
James Horner welcomed me into his studio with a graciousness and humility that totally blew me away, as if meeting with James Horner at all didn’t blow me away enough already. We were able to preview about 45 minutes of the film accompanied by his score. I loved every minute of it. I took furious notes, paying attention to his instrumental palettes, his harmonic tendencies, tonal colors, melodic signatures, mixing approach, etc... When I returned to my own studio, I was able to incorporate much of what I had gleaned into the remaining score.
You’ve been composing music for games since the early days. How do you think composing for video games has changed since then?
It’s a bigger playground. And the stakes are higher. So are the rewards. Technology is widely available so we can plug and play things today that would have required a lead programmer back in the Quest for Glory days. It allows us to focus more on perfecting our music designs, creating powerfully evocative compositions, and hammering out the highest production values possible.
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?
Who wouldn’t want to be part of today’s game development? Today’s best games are so rich, so immersive, so compelling – and taking into account everything I said in answer to your last question - there’s no reason why they wouldn’t want to cross over into games. Heck, if I were Danny Elfman, I’d certainly want to be doing games today.
Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?
It’s anyone’s guess. Who knows what new technologies or brilliant theoretical evolutions will occur? I just hope I’m still in the thick of it.
What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?
Most difficult – Getting the gig in the first place. Most challenging – Finding the game’s voice; it’s unique combination of melodies, harmonic patterns and instrumental palettes. Most enjoyable – Hearing a music design really come together in the game in a way that elevates the entire experience. Like I say, while the player is playing the game, a great game score is playing the player.
What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player / on your mp3-player right now?
Like most people these days, my musical tastes are all over the map. I love the music of our great film composers, sometimes more than the classical masters who inspired them. I love the great game music being written and produced today. This year’s GANG nominees for Music of the Year are stunning, amazing, thrilling. I love Sting’s jazz albums, and 70’s rock bands like Kansas, Styx, Boston and Foreigner. I love Loreena McKennitt, Rascal Flatts, Al Jarreau and Sam Cardon. I’ll take great music wherever I can find it and in our day, you can find it everywhere.
In my CD player right now are Michael Giacchino’s Star Trek score, The Best of John Williams, Volumes 1 and 2, Kansas’ Greatest Hits, Non-Stop Music’s Film Trailer Sampler 2009 and a couple of my own scores I’m reviewing.
Currently in my iPod are Mychaal Danna’s Nativity Story, Rachmoninov’s Piano Concerto # 2 in C minor, James Newton Howard’s Waterworld, Mozart’s Flute Concerto #1 in G Major, Alan Silvestri’s Night at the Museum, and a bunch of HUGEsoundtracks.
What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?
Not sure I can call out a favourite, but a few definitely float to the top – Avatar, Lord of the Rings Online, King Kong, Quest for Glory V, The Chicago Spire Art Film, and The ChubbChubbs!, which won an Oscar.
What would be your dream project?
I want to score an MMO based on one of the big comic book, super-hero franchises. I’d like to score one of Sony’s console masterpieces, along the lines of Uncharted 2. I’d like to do the closing credits song for Peter Jackson’s upcoming Hobbit film. I’d like to score the Captain America movie, or Thor, The Thunder God. But there is a top secret project I’m working on right now that really is the music scoring opportunity of my dreams. Let’s talk again soon…
Do you play PC or console games yourself?
Yes. I love my PS3 and my DS, and my bass playing in Rock Band is legendary!
Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t cover?
Great music thrills my entire being. It’s been that way since I was a kid. I love great music. And so, for all of my amateur and professional life, I have been on a quest to create and deliver music that will do that for others. It’s been a grand adventure, and the road goes ever on and on.
Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.