You’ve found great success both in videogames and film scoring work. What are the main ways in which the creative process has differed between the two? Do you find yourself using hugely different production workflows depending on the medium?
I always try to come up with new ways of working that will serve the project at hand, but also challenge me to stretch out a bit in a new direction. Sometimes, like when I got my first opportunity to write for orchestra, I didn’t really have a choice but to find a new creative process, because the parameters were so different than what I’d been used to. I put a lot of emphasis on reducing the feedback loop between my brain and my tools, and as a novice orchestrator I felt I had to go out and get a lot of different sample libraries, so I could best approximate the kinds of sounds we were likely to record. Part of being a commission-taking artist who seeks novelty is adaptability, and sometimes I’ve had to find ways to short-circuit my way to results that could still meet the standards of myself and others.
Often on game projects in particular, there are opportunities to explore non-traditional applications for sound, and I’ll always relish the opportunity to get my hands dirty with designing a procedural algorithm, writing non-linearly structured music, or thinking about audio on some axis that’s novel for me.
You received a lot of acclaim for your work on It Follows. What was the magic you found in scoring that film, and what was the process like to get there?
Having that opportunity to share my initial impressions of a new style (horror) was cathartic, as first experiences can be at times. I had some reference points going back to my early years in music — a band like Goblin, for instance. But I also leaned heavily on the director and editor, who had temped the film with a rich variety of new and old music, a majority of which I was unfamiliar with. I think where other projects have been long and taxing, the limitations of It Follows (both time and budget) forced me to find a path of least resistance, and that ended up playing to my strengths as a synthesist.
I watched your presentation on the music of Fez, for which you used MASSIVE quite extensively. Has that been a key tool for you on other projects as well?
Yep! Massive was one of the first synthesizers I felt really comfortable with … using it began to resemble something like painting, where I could dial-in and iterate on sounds really quickly. I primarily scored three of my most well known projects (FEZ, It Follows, and Hyper Light Drifter) with Massive, but I’ve tried to delve more into other tools since then … lately I’ve been getting heavily into sample manipulation with Kontakt and Battery, and exploring the wonderfully seedy underbelly of Reaktor ensembles.
Do you have any “go-to” instruments that you find yourself coming back to again and again, and if so, why do you think that is?
I actively try to resist the temptation to have “go to’s”, but certainly ones which allow a lot of flexibility tend to keep surfacing for me. One thing that has really pushed the longevity of Kontakt for me, besides the robustness of the third-party library community, are KSP scripts. I’ve built a few that make it really easy to dial in some variability on an otherwise flat sounding sound. One of my favorites randomly grabs neighboring samples and re-pitches them to the key you play to mix up the timbral qualities you get. Another maps voices across the stereo spectrum based on pitch, so that low pitches are in the center, and higher ones fanned out further and further as you get higher.
How do you decide on the instruments, acoustic, analog or digital, that you’re going to use on a given project? Is there usually a long auditioning process for you to figure out the right instruments?
It’s usually a combination of approaches. I do like to set aside time to audition, tweak, record and build sounds which I’ll usually collate into a library for easy access once I start writing. I like to just dive into the work, and discover and create sounds as I’m going – it forces me to move quickly and make decisions. There’s a feverish quality I find to writing music for instance, where I feel an internal pressure to keep moving so as to not lose whatever sense of inspiration it is I might have.
Has Under the Silver Lake been the biggest film project you’ve worked on? Seems like quite a bit of orchestral work…
Yes, this was my second feature and I hugely underestimated the scope of my work. I had expected a slightly longer timeline but in practice the length of music is double, has a lot of bespoke source music I had to create/arrange/produce, and the score is almost entirely live orchestra. Under the Silver Lake ended up taking me about ten-times as long as It Follows to finish, and even so I had a ton of help in navigating the orchestral space.
My project partner Kyle Newmaster is a fellow composer whom I relied on heavily for logistical support, as his experience working on orchestral projects far surpasses my own. I tried to take the it as far as I could using software, but the pieces needed to be notated, and some liberties needed to be taken to map them better to our ensemble size. We had a team of orchestrators really polishing the music for the live players, and many people fulfilling multiple roles; Kyle and our conductor both did orchestration, for instance. I’ve never collaborated with so many people on music for a project before, and it was a truly unique (and terribly challenging) experience!
You’ve created or been involved in a number of small, interactive music game-like creations. Have you ever tried to integrate these processes into your other film works?
Yes — probably the strongest example of that is the system we built for the game Mini Metro, which was a direct result of the game’s developers playing my generative music toy/snowflake licking simulation, January. We took some of the ideas from January, and mapped them to a pre-existing infrastructure full of interesting systems related to subway trains and commuting, and the result was a dynamic, data-driven soundtrack that purrs along and evolves with your progress. The system listens to everything from the number of lines, trains, and commuters, to their destinations, to the the time of day, day of the week, to the number of weeks played in simulation time…everything’s position in relationship to each other is also taken into account to create dynamic sequences that vary in pitch, timbre, dynamic, panning, and rhythm. I’m leaving out some other axes of reactivity, but you get the idea!
What’s been the most rewarding composing work you’ve been able to work on so far?
This is a difficult question to answer, but I generally look most fondly on my earliest musical experiences, early original albums like Atebite and the Warring Nations, or a soundtrack like FEZ which came together in a very organic manner. It was easier to strike out in new territory when everything was new territory. As the ambition to do new and more challenging things grows, the mountains naturally get harder to climb. Some of the work I’m most proud of has also been the most taxing. A soundtrack like Hyper Light Drifter comes to mind, which ultimately was a rewarding experience, but definitely took some time away from the project to come to that conclusion. I still need some more time away from Under the Silver Lake to form an honest assessment of my contribution to that project.
Where do you see your work moving in the future? What are you most excited about, personally — when it comes to music, technology, or narrative — and how would you ideally like to engage with those interests?
I’ve worked on games for 12 years, and now I’m working on my first fully 3D game. There is so much to play with when it comes to how sound propagates through a 3D space that would not have applied to many of the games I’ve worked on in the past. My excitement about the possibility space for this new territory has been hard to contain, and ideas are outpacing what is going to be feasible for this project. I’m sure a lot of it will spill over into additional projects … most likely VR at some point, which I would love to experiment with.
photo credits: Shane Lopes