Category Archives: Interview

Talking with Dara Taylor about ‘The Invitation’ (2022)

Earlier this month I was blessed with the opportunity to speak with composer Dara Taylor about her work on The Invitation, a horror film that puts a modern twist on the vampire story. Taylor studied composition at Cornell independently with Zachary Wadsworth and Steven Stucky. In 2009, she graduated cum laude with a Bachelor’s in Music and Psychology. Taylor then received a Masters of Music from New York University in 2011 where she studied Film Music Composition with Mark Suozzo.

I hope you enjoy our interview!

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How did you get connected with the film?

I heard about this film, and I sent in a reel and then I had a really great meeting with Jessica Thompson, the director. And I was able to read the script. It seemed like so much fun to work on the film and with the whole team. So that’s how that happened.

When you read the script, what did you think of the story? Because it’s a bit of a twist on a vampire story, isn’t it?

I think it was a fresh take with the twist that you didn’t necessarily see coming from the script standpoint. So, yeah, it was a really fun ride to read through.

As you were putting together the music, then, knowing that this was a vampire story, were you influenced by any previous vampire stories or films?

I tried not to look too hard into it, because we wanted to start fresh with the visuals and seeing the graphic nature of it, I know we wanted to try and find a way to speak to that Gothic nature but finding ways to modernize it.

How did you go about modernizing it.

Part of it was processing parts of the orchestra and then also adding these really processed and reversed vocals on top that are at the forefront of the score. And also adding just strange elements from found sounds or synthetics and those sorts of things to make it feel a little less traditional.

So speaking of unusual sounds, is there a theremin in the mix somewhere? I was listening to the score earlier and I swear I hear a theremin.

There is no theremin. Actually, there are some other synthetic sounds, there are a lot of vocals and processed vocals that make that sound strange. It depends on which scene or which track you mean, but there are things that are just whistles that by the end of it had this high screaming nature.

That is so awesome because it didn’t feel like vocals.

Yeah, it depends on where it is. It might be a combination of vocals and strings. but yeah, [it’s about] trying to find things that give you that eerie feeling without necessarily going straight to what might be in a traditional horror film.

What people have all known about this music is how it combines the modern sound and the romantic and gothic style. Was that always the general idea going into this? Or did that come about over time?

Um, no, I think it was always the purpose. It’s the purpose in the script, as well as trying to find smooth transitions from romance to horror to the Gothic feel. So it was definitely a thing that we planned on at the beginning and worked to find that balance of a modern gothic romance, or score.

So, are there are other themes then for each of the characters?

Yeah, so there are some themes: Evie has a theme that starts off with a soft acoustic guitar and grows more strident and bold as she does. There’s a theme for Walt, which also acts as a theme for the manor in general. And their mission for having her there.

Then there are a few other motifs. There’s this screaming reverse vocal thing with a lot of distortion in it, which are three vocalists that we recorded here in Los Angeles, and they represent the three brides. So [it’s] this beckoning siren call to Evie, but then there’s also a taunting theme that’s related to that as they toy with her as she’s going through the manor.

Is there any one theme that you would say is the most important or are they all equally important?

I think they all have their importance. But we probably hear the Carfax manor theme the most often and it’s full form. I think the other ones are often interwoven in, but sometimes they’re a little more variations of the theme. Just because they develop the most. Because Evie is the one developing the most during this.

So, I’ve been wanting to ask this, there’s jump scare moments in this movie, right? How does one go about writing music for those. I’ve always been curious how that’s done.

It’s seeing what works best for each moment and whether that’s leading up to the jump scare. A lot of times it’s being pretty violent. And then having both the music and the end of the scare come in, either at the same time, or having the music a half a fraction of a second after the scare, just because light and sound hit you at different times. So it’s jarring for both visuals and sound.

So when you do it, do you watch the film play out and just mark the spot?

Yeah, and sometimes there’s a little trial and error there. Moving it around a few frames at a time to see, okay, it feels like it’s giving it away a little bit here. Let’s try a few frames later. Or oh, now it feels too late. So there’s still a bit of a little trial and error in that regard.

So you said mentioned there’s a whole mix of instruments in this film, synthetic and whatnot. What specifically was used, because you said you modulated the orchestra.

There’s a lot of vocals, a lot of either found sounds or things that are reminiscent of found sounds. There are a lot of bells visually, like the service bells. It’s finding ways to have ethereal ringing bell sounds that make you think of bells to echo back having some sounds that are almost croaky. Because the vampires, they climb on the walls and the ceilings lizard-like. There are instances where we have things that sound like scraping tile, and which speaks to Evie and her love of ceramics. Yeah, so just a bunch of elements that are put together.

Could you define what found sounds are?

So [found sounds] are sounds you’d hear in nature. Or, for example, the sound of you scraping your fingernail, or a tile, or something like that, something that feels very organic and using that for more of a musical purpose.

So not traditional instruments stuff.

Yeah, exactly.

It almost sounds like what foley artists use?

Yeah, so it’s using some of those things, but using them musically, and using the rhythm of something or using the salient note that you might hear from that, and using that in a musical way.

How did working on The Invitation compare with other projects you’ve worked on?

I feel very fortunate to have a lot of variety lately in projects. I mean, [it was] definitely a very different tone than some of the more recent animation or comedy work [I’ve done]. But I love the freedom of finding strange sounds and having that sandbox to play around in. But something that’s very similar between, say, comedy and horror is how important timing is. And choosing moments that should have no music or when music should come in after the scare or after the joke. So that lead up to it. So like fine tuning those timings for the purpose of storytelling, it’s similar between a lot of genres.

You talk about timing, is there any one specific moment where the timing was absolutely crucial?

Actually, the moment when they reveal where the bride is, I suppose that would be it. But there’s not really a big reveal musically. I think we wanted to more feel the dread. But yeah, there are moments, other than the obvious jump scare moments, in terms of tone, and choosing when to change the tone from eerie and unsettling to dark. Like there’s a theme in the beginning where she was watching all these housekeepers being given their assignments and one thing that Jessica Thompson the director and I discussed where we should be eerie and unsettling, because she doesn’t know what’s going on. And then once she leaves the scene, then we can go back into the darker Gothic nature of everything that’s happening, but not to tip our hand too soon and really stay with [Evie] and her discovery.

So musically, you’re dropping hints to the audience, but not to Evie, as it were.

Yeah, yeah. In a way.

That’s cool. Where in the filming process, were they when you came in to do things?

So I was brought on right before they started shooting. And that’s when I started working on a suite of thematic ideas, just throwing everything at the table to see what was working and what wasn’t working. And that was a thing that Jessica [Thompson] specifically requested during production to be able to percolate these thoughts as early as possible.

So the director wanted you in there as early as possible, even before they’d shot anything.

Yeah. So we can all get on the same page.

I’d have to imagine that was very helpful for the process to have so much collaboration.

Yeah, it was great. And working with Jessica [Thompson] was a really phenomenal experience.

Did she give you a lot of feedback then?

Yeah, and it really gave me the license to just think outside of the box. And think of strange instruments and make it a little weird and unsettling.

Since you came in so early, how much time did you have for the actual scoring process?

I guess, from the time where we spotted so they finished, they finished a director’s cut. And we walked through where the music should come in and out and what the tone of that music should be. To the final delivering for the final mix, I’d say there’s probably two and a half months or so. But before then there was a couple of months where it was just working and thinking of ideas and all of that while they were in their editing process.

So I’m curious that as you were working these themes together, what theme, what part ended up coming first?

I started with Evie and Walt’s themes and the melodic structure of those, but then made some slight changes to the instrumentation and how they developed once I was able to see the picture.

Cool. So Evie and Walt are at the center of the whole thing.

Yeah, and then everything else came from from watching it. And the visuals really give you so much.

So now that the movie is out and people can go see it is there any musical detail you’re hoping the audience notices as they’re watching?

In the very beginning theme there’s a scene where one of the previous brides sees the grand piano and the piano wires. And she has to find a specific use for that. And when we see that I play around a lot with the prepared piano, which is like a piano, but things are done to the keys and to the inside to make strange sounds. That’s when I first introduced this instrumentation. And then, and in other instances of like escape and fighting back, I bring back these kinds of prepared piano sounds to harken back to that moment.

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I hope you enjoyed my interview with Dara Taylor about The Invitation. I want to thank Dara for taking the time to speak with me about this film.

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

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Bringing the Show to Life: Talking with Ian Eisendrath about ‘Come From Away’

I recently had the chance to talk with Ian Eisendrath about his work as music supervisor for Come From Away. Eisendrath worked on both the Broadway show and oversaw the filmed production that is now on AppleTV+. Come From Away, for those not familiar, recounts the real-life story of when hundreds of passengers were stranded in Newfoundland for a period of time in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. It’s a powerful story of people coming together in a time of need and I recommend checking the show out if you get the chance.

I hope you enjoy this interview!

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Just to start with, can you explain what a music supervisor does?

It’s challenging to describe, and everyone will have their own definition. I have found that the role and responsibilities shift from project to project.   I have also spent the last year and a half working as an executive music producer, collaborating with some very talented music supervisors).  At the end of the day, we take responsibility for managing and bringing together all of the musical elements, from development through post. We support, manage, collaborate, and participate in the realization of the filmmaker, songwriter, studio, producer vision for how music exists and functions specifically and overall in the world of the film or show.  

It’s a bit more detailed than just being the composer for something.

Yes, I  often interact with almost every member of the filmmaking team, production team, and cast. I  get in the trenches with the songwriters, supporting development of the musical language, the musical structures, and overall vibe for how the story is being told through music. On the non-creative side, I often manage (and work closely with other members of the music team and studio) to schedule overall workflow for music development, music production, music rehearsal, on-set music recording, and the final stages of music production that take place during post.  Throughout prep – the period of time before rehearsal and principal photography begin – I interact closely with the director, providing support and feedback to ensure that music is headed in a direction that supports their vision. Wrangle and support the extensive noting/approval/revisions processes that take place between songwriters, directors, choreographers, producers, the studio, and members of the music team. I will often = produce or co-produce the demo sessions, hire and rehearse the demo singers and instrumentalists,  engage arrangers and orchestrators, oversee the creation of the scores that will be used for rehearsal and production, and really…just do what needs to be done to get the material ready for rehearsal and filming.   During rehearsal, I spend a lot of time coaching the actors on their vocal performances (connecting every musical choice to character, dramaturgy, and the acting values that the director and actors are discussing), work closely with the (very talented) vocal coaches brought on to support each specific actor (Eric Vetro, Liz Kaplan, Fiona McDougal), work closely with the songwriters, director and choreographer to ensure that they are getting what the need out of the music and vocal performances being developed, supporting the dance creation process – which often involves adding or shifting music to support what will be happening on camera, and working closely with the entire production team to plan how we’re going to record and playback music and vocals for each camera setup (what are we recording live?, when are we lip-synching to playback?, how do we get in and out of a each section of music?, what will the actors and filmmakers hear?)

During the shoot – principal photography – the entire music team is responsible for making sure that everything goes seamlessly from a musical perspective and that they are never waiting on music. I am also on hand to implement in-the-moment shifts and changes to the music, to coach and oversee  vocal performances. It is so crucial that the performance being captured on camera is both musically and dramatically sound because we will be living with that timing and performance forever!  

During post, I work closely with the music editorial department to support the director’s process throughout their picture cut, manage and oversee the recording and production of the final versions of each cue, and participate in the mixing process for the music in the film.  I am also sometimes lucky enough to conduct the orchestra, which is one of my favorite things in the world to do.

You worked on the Broadway version of Come From Away also right?

I was fortunate to be involved from the beginning and to work closely with David [Hein] and Irene [Sankoff], the writers – who are also the songwriters, the director, Chris Ashley, and the choreographer, Kelly Devine, on the creation and development of the Broadway production. I was engaged as the music supervisor, music director, and arranger, and in addition to my work as a music supervisor, I wrote the musical arrangements, conducted the band, and played keys and accordion. From a musical perspective, our goal was to use songs, themes, and motifs to create (what feels like) a 100-minute, through-composed documentary, something that felt unlike any other show currently playing on Broadway. [ I was so fortunate to be the Music Supervisor, Arranger, and Music Director for almost every phase of development, including readings, workshops, rewrites, out-of-town productions in La Jolla, Seattle, DC, and Toronto, and the original Broadway production.    After a successful opening on Broadway, we ended up opening four additional companies – Toronto, UK, Australia, and the North American tour, telling the story across the globe.   

When and how was it decided that you’re going to make a film version of this show?

The pandemic made this adaptation timely and necessary. There had been an ongoing discussion of adapting it for feature film, but with live theatre shut down, it became necessary. We were in a time when people were in dire need of stories that bring comfort and inspiration, and also in need of anything close to what feels like communal story-telling and music making. So – our producers and creative team decided to create a film version of the live theatrical production that gives people that experience of watching the show in the theater. 

So is the show that you created a single performance? Or were there multiple takes that were compiled together?

It was a combination of a single performance in front of a live audience – I believe it was the first audience that had been assembled in a Broadway theatre since Broadway shut down – and many shorter takes, from various angles and distances. 

So what changes, if any, did you have to make for the production to let it be filmed?

The material remained untouched, but we had to re-approach HOW we filmed and recorded the material.  This is what made my job as music supervisor most interesting on the film.  The show features live music – instrumental and vocal – that runs throughout 95% of the show, underneath intimate dialogue, solo vocals, and featured instrumentals. I really enjoyed working closely with our sound team (Gareth Owen, Sound Designer, Tod Maitland, Production Sound Mixer & Recordist and Russell Godwin, Sound Associate) and our music production team (Wendy Cavett, Scott Wasserman, Derik Lee, Chris Ranney, and many others) to figure out how to playback and record music in a way that would provide as much separation and flexibility for the editing process.

It’s sort of ironic, because, in order to create a film mix that gives the audience the impression of a live experience, we needed to get as clean and separate of an audio capture on the individual elements – solo vocals, group vocals, solo instruments, dialogue, foley/environment, etc… – as possible. We ultimately decided to fit every actor and musician with in-ear monitors, as you would on a film, so that we could keep the theatre as quiet as possible in order to capture live vocal and instrumental elements. We’d sometimes do a pass with the soloists singing out loud while the group vocals and instrumentals would be performed silently, and then we’d get isolated coverage on solo instruments, foley, shouts, etc…. Once we finished filming, all of the raw material that was re-assembled in the music and picture edit process (shoutout to August Eriksmoen, our Associate Music Producer who helped me balance this while working on a couple of other film projects), remixed the music and hopefully ended up with something that feels like a live theatre experience.

It sounds like it was a big job. How long did it take to like complete the adaptation from stage for film?

We found out about this, I think it was November of 2020. And then everyone started working non-stop, working on the changes that needed to be made to make it filmable, many, many discussions with the talented musicians and sound team members about how we were going to record and produce the music. [It also involved] working with the film team and working with general management on, how do we get everyone, an entire company, and film crew, quarantined, living in a hotel, COVID tested and COVID free so that we could all gather in a contained theatre with cast and  members not wearing masks. This was earlier in the pandemic, when we didn’t know how COVID worked, and the rules were constantly changing!  It was a massive undertaking, from many people across many facets of production – from creative to management, to talent, to catering, to transportation, to hotels…everyone had to think way outside the box. And, honestly, it was this beautiful synthesis of the film world coming together with theater world and figuring out how to bring together the people, cultures, and traditions of film and live theatre, because we all need each other to make this happen. Sort of like what the film is about…, all of these people from all over the world ending up together without any warning, during a moment of crisis, figuring out how to survive and make the best of a challenging time. So it feels like we were having our own Come From Away experience while we were filming and telling the story.

Yeah, I did have a more general music question too. I noticed that it said the traditional Newfoundland songs are included. How was it decided which ones to use?

David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the writers, and I immersed ourselves in the music. We fell in love with the music of Newfoundland, had playlists that last four to five days, and just listened and loved the music.  We brought on Bob Hallet (Newfoundlander musician, writer, producer of GREAT BIG SEA fame) to be our music consultant, August Eriksmoen (orchestrator/multi-instrumentalist with a massive background in folk music), and we hired several musicians from the Celtic/folk world to be part of our band from the first out of town production through the closing of our Broadway production.  These incredibly skilled and knowledgeable musicians – Ben Power, Caitlin Warbelow, Romano DiNillo – were great mentors to me throughout the process.  

Our goal was to honor and recreate the incredibly unique sound of that region.  Since the music in the film is almost entirely original music, with the exception of a couple references to pop songs, some traditional prayers, and two folk songs of Newfoundland, we spent a great deal creating and arranging themes and motifs that supported character and story, while also capturing the essence of the music of Newfoundland. In the end, we have a rhythm section (drums, keys, bass, and guitars) plus instruments that are part of the traditional and contemporary music scene in Newfoundland (fiddle, whistles, flutes, button accordion, octave mandolin, mandolin, bodhran, etc…)  I love that the ultimate sound is a mashup of traditional and contemporary, Celtic and pop…best of all worlds.  

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I’d like to thank Ian Eisendrath for taking the time to talk with me about his work on adapting Come From Away for the small screen. I hope you enjoyed this interview and have a great rest of the day!

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

Music for the Female Gaze: Talking with Composer Karl Frid about ‘Pleasure’

Just recently I had the opportunity to speak with composer Karl Frid about his work on the movie Pleasure. Karl Frid studied classical music at the Royal College of Music in London with trombone as his main instrument, before making a musical U-turn. He went to study Afro-Cuban music at the CNSEA in Havana, Cuba before finishing his studies in Afro-American music at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. Since then, he has worked as a full-time freelance musician, composer, arranger, and producer. His vast knowledge in music ranges from classical and jazz to Latin, hip-hop, and pop music.

Since 2011 Karl has been working closely with his brother, Pär Frid under the name Frid & Frid. They primarily write music for film and TV and have scored several features and TV series of different genres. In 2018 they were nominated in the Best Music category at the Swedish Film Institute “Guldbaggen” Awards for their score for the documentary Citizen Schein

Karl’s latest work for film is the feature Pleasure, by Ninja Thyberg, which was in the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival 2020 and later premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2021, where it received outstanding reviews with special mentions of the score. At the Gothenburg Film Festival, the film was awarded the FIPRESCA Award by the international critic’s jury. The score is a mixture of sacred choral opera and hip-hop. 

I hope you enjoy our conversation about the movie Pleasure!

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  • How did you get started as a film composer?

I’ve always had an interest in film and film music. During my last year of my studies at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, I took some extracurricular classes in many different fields and one of them was scoring for film and games. I found it very fun, creative, and exciting to be able to create tension and different emotions to picture. But it wasn’t until a few years later when I teamed up with my brother Pär and started Frid & Frid that I really got started with scoring for film. At first, we did some commissions for children’s television and ads, and then we got to do more extensive and challenging projects.

  • How did you get connected with working on this movie? What drew you to it once you saw it?

Pär and I were approached pretty late in the process, about a month from the intended final cut. We had worked with the producers Erik Hemmendorf, Eliza Jones, and Markus Waltå before and they asked us for a meeting with Ninja and sent us a rough cut of the film without any temp music. I remember I was just knocked out by the strength of the film and the fresh and raw look into this special universe. It was so liberating with this obvious and genius take on the female gaze. At the time, Pär was tied up in another project, working on commission for a symphony orchestra, but I was so taken by the film that we decided that I would do the score by myself.

  • How did you come up with the idea to juxtapose sacred opera and hip-hop in the score for Pleasure, that’s not a genre pairing you usually encounter in a soundtrack. What’s the story behind this, I really like how it all turned out.

I had such a great collaboration with Ninja. It was a collective process of problematizing, analyzing, discussing and testing different angles and ideas. We had many long discussions about the patriarchal structures being displayed in the film, about female empowerment, and about our own preconceptions about the porn industry. The idea of mixing sacred choral opera with hip-hop beats came quite early in the process. We talked a lot about finding the inner voice of Bella, and about how she pictures herself, opposed to how the patriarchal society perceives her. This became the musical manifestation of the Harlot vs the Madonna. Heaven or hell. The hip-hop also represents the self-image of the female porn actresses as “bad ass,” with full control over themselves and their surroundings, and we found the clash between the hip-hop and the sacred opera very interesting.

The film has so many layers, and I was constantly reminded and enlightened by Ninja about all the different meanings and details. The film is also changing between many different storytelling techniques – social realism, dark comedy, and elevated scenes in slow motion almost seductive like a music video. We wanted to explore the sounds of the female body and the orgasm, and found this correlation between the fake orgasm and opera, as it’s not a ”normal” way of singing, rather a theatrical, constructed expression. There was also a reference to Hildegard von Bingen, a German nun in the 12th century who composed choral works for nuns. She was also pretty cool since she was pretty outspoken about female sexuality and actually is supposedly the first person to have written the first description of the female orgasm, with her text ”Causae et Curae.” She’s also been known to have had a positive and relaxed view of sex and often opposed to the church’s tendencies to demonize female sexuality.

  • On a related note, are there any themes in the music for specific characters? Or does the music not go in a thematic direction?

Yes, there are. The ”Confutatis” theme, along with “Voca Me Cum Benedictus,” and ”Oro Supplex” are all Bella’s themes – symbolizing her journey in the porn industry and manifesting her innocence and self-image. “Fata Viam Invenient,” is the theme of her antagonist Ava, and “Una Gioia Sempre Viva,” is written as the friendship theme of Bella & Joy, and also works as Joy’s theme.

  • Were you given any specific directions on what to include in the film’s soundtrack?

Not from the start. Ninja wanted an epic score and a unique and special sonic universe for the film. The music should be a statement and a character in itself. It was also very important that the score wasn’t generic or tried to push emotions or judgment on the characters. Music that shouldn’t always go with the emotions but rather be a juxtaposition on what we see on the screen.

  • Were there any musical ideas you tried for the score but ultimately abandoned because they weren’t working out?

Oh yes. The first sketches I made, featuring cello, all turned out too generic. Haha, so I had to restart and find a different angle. But that was great. I think it’s often better to try something out and realize that it doesn’t work, to help you find what does. If you don’t eliminate different options, you’ll have a much harder time finding what you’re looking for. 

  • Did the pandemic affect the recording of the score at all?

Yes, but not necessarily in a bad way. For one, it gave me more time to work on the score. It also limited my resources, which I often find, from a creative perspective, can be really inspiring and force you to explore and push the limitations rather than if you had all the choices in the world. Since so many concerts and events were cancelled during this period, it also meant that Caroline had a lot of time and could be at my disposal in a way that would have been unlikely under normal circumstances as she is often very busy. Which was great for me and the score. It created space for us to go into this creative bubble. Of course, at the same time things were really rough for so many of my fellow colleagues and musicians and times were really uncertain.

  • How much time did you have to work on the music?

At first, not that long, but because of the pandemic, with cancelled festivals etcetera, I got more time to work on the score. I would say that in total I was working on it for about four months.

  • Excluding the voices, is any type of traditional orchestra used in this soundtrack or is it all synthesized?

No, for this score there are no traditional orchestral instruments involved. I basically created the score around the voices of Caroline Gentele and Sofia Kappel. Then, I used those recordings as samples from which I built different voice synthesizers and drums. Apart from that, I basically worked with different 808 samples and drums as well as the Moog Grandmother synthesizer which I find myself returning to for every new project I’ve done since I bought it.

  • Do you have a favorite piece in the score?

I think my favorite piece is “Una Gioia Sempre Viva,” because of its warmth and meaning. But I also like the other pieces a lot. Then, of course, I LOVE the rap tracks I created together with Mapei and Ludvig Klint – “Una Gioia,” “Hard to the Core,” and ”Good Girl/Bad Girl.”

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I wanted to say thank you to Karl Frid for taking the time to speak with me about his work on Pleasure. I hope you enjoyed this interview, and have a great rest of the day!

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

Music for a Killer: Talking with Composer Pat Irwin about ‘Dexter: New Blood’

Just a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak with composer Pat Irwin about his work on Dexter: New Blood, a follow-up to the popular Dexter series that was released in 2021. Pat Irwin is an American musician and composer whose credits include Nurse Jackie, Bored to Death, and of course Dexter: New Blood just to name a few. He’s also composed the music for a number of cartoons including Pepper Ann and Rocko’s Modern Life.

I had a great time speaking with Pat Irwin about his work on Dexter: New Blood and I hope you enjoy the interview!

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Before you started working on this show, had you seen the original Dexter at all? Were you familiar with it?

Absolutely. Yeah, I was a fan.

So how did you get connected with Dexter New Blood?

Well, it came from a couple different directions. I primarily had worked with the showrunner Clyde Phillips, who had worked on [Nurse Jackie], and I had composed three seasons of Nurse Jackie. And he was the showrunner on that. But I’d also worked with the music supervisor, Michael Hill, whom I’ve known since I first arrived in New York. And I also had some experience working with Showtime. So it was a combination of all those things.

Were you inspired by the themes of the original Dexter series or were there any connections that go back and forth between them? Or is it wholly its own thing?

Oh, I was definitely inspired. First of all, the the original score is fantastic. It sounds great, it’s beautifully written. It’s beautifully played. And it’s an inspiration. It definitely was a presence and had an impact on what I did and what we wanted to do for for New Blood.

We knew we wanted to take [New Blood] in a completely different direction. We knew it was a new show. It was a new character. It wasn’t Dexter anymore. It was Jim Lindsey. It was 10 years later, in a completely different place, it wasn’t Miami anymore.

So when you say the original still had an impact, what did that look like?

Well, you know, first of all, there were fans who are really invested in this character. And it was important to acknowledge [that]. Well, aside from the fans, I needed to allude to that music harmonically.

But I wanted to use a different instrumentation, I wanted to put it in the place for Upstate New York, and I wanted it to be part of Dexter’s past. Without, you know, being explicit about it. I want it to be like a presence.

So, you mentioned instrumentation, so like, are just like, I’m assuming there was like a very different sound mix for the original compared to this one?

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, we wanted a more ambient sound. And so I pulled out a handful of synthesizers, some that I used on Pepper Ann by the way, and I went for a very cold sound. And I used a lot of textures. Like, instead of like guitar, playing a melody, I used guitar feedback. I wanted it to be a presence. And I would allude to the melody most of the time with piano, but very sparsely, it was very fragile.

I haven’t seen a whole lot of the original Dexter. So if New Blood has a cold sound, what what did the original have, that makes it so different?

It was more it, it pulls you in, in a really strong melodic way. And it left a huge imprint. It was terrifying. It was bone chilling, it was dark. And by the time we got to New Blood, I knew that the storytelling was going to basically go in one direction. I knew where I was going to go. So to a certain degree instead of pulling you in, we were pushing you away.

We were creating more of a distance. We wanted you to be invested in the storytelling. But we were on a long curve throughout the season, and telling you in so many words that you know it probably is not going to end well. This is not a good guy. He may be likable, he may be your favorite neighbor. He may be the guy you wave to on the street. And there’s some of that in New Blood. But we didn’t want you to get too invested in this character. And I think that might have been hard for a lot of fans.

It reminds me this was always meant to be a limited event.

Right. But I think that even even though it was meant to be a limited, there were a lot of fans who wished it to continue. I wish that we had continued.

I remember when the original Dexter ended, there were a lot of people upset at how it ended and a lot of people felt this [New Blood] was going to correct that.

Yes.

So you said you knew going in exactly where this was going to go? Does that mean you got some very specific directions on where the music needed to go?

Well, let me rephrase that. I didn’t know exactly where it was going to go. To be honest with you. I had gotten a couple of scripts, but not all of the scripts. It was in my heart, I’ll put it that way. And I was making a guess, to a certain degree. I mean, we talked about it. I wasn’t just going off by myself. I spoke with the writers and the producers, I spoke with Michael C. Hall. We all spoke together. Marcus, the director, Scott Reynolds, a writer and Clyde Phillips, a writer. And we all talked about the the way the music was going to be a part of the storytelling.

It must have become obvious that Dexter’s story was not going to have a good ending. So was that foreshadowed from the beginning? Or did that come about later?

Well, I, in a subtle way, tried to foreshadow that from the beginning.

Are there actual specific themes for characters like Dexter and the others? Are there actual themes? Or does the music not go that direction?

Yes. It’s more ambient. For instance, with Deb, there’s some textures that I used, that would return for her presence. There’s a definite theme for when Harrison and Dexter interact. When Dexter pursues Harrison, at the bus stop in that first episode, that’s part of an arc. But when Harrison first appears, he’s more of a shadowy presence. We don’t know who he is. And the music is not a clean, clear theme, it’s more of a texture.

I did the same thing for Kurt. I used a Baroque cello and some pretty dark sounds that I would blend together to create this sort of brooding, fanatic theme. There are, I would say, thematic textures and chord structures, and some melodies, but I wouldn’t describe it as strongly thematic.

Because that would pull the audience too far in?

Well, in a way. I wanted to create tension, but I didn’t want it to be like, oh, here he is. And then, you know, like a light go off. It’s Kurt, the bad guy. You know, often, the writers would say, let the actors act. And I would really take that to heart and not step too hard, but create a simmering presence.

It’s always interesting hearing how different shows have different mixes, and some have themes and some work better without.

Right. And they really wanted to make this a go without the stronger themes. So it was like finding that balance. Yeah. Because, if that doesn’t make sense, it reminds people that, it’s a different guy, but this all happened to him. He’s the same person after all, and that’s part of the story. You know, he’s he’s a killer. He’s a bad guy. He’s a serial killer after all.

Isn’t the whole point of New Blood that he’s tried so hard to get away from that, but it ended up rearing its head anyway.

Yes, I think so.

So we’ve we’ve talked a bit about some of the instruments are used, like you’ve mentioned synthesizers, a cello, what all was used for the sound and instruments?

I used a couple [amplifiers] for the guitar feedback. I use this combination of old amplifiers, small amplifiers, not big amplifiers, but small amplifiers that I could turn up very loud. One was made by Supro, and another by Fender and I would have them face each other and put a guitar in the middle. Then I would just tune it to an open tuning and depending on the key of a cue, I would hit it and then go for some unpredictability. You never really know when or how the feedback is good to generate. That was a lot of fun.

And I would have that ready, because sometimes the deadlines are pretty intense. I used a Moog synthesizer, a Mini Moog. Then I used a new cymbal, you know, some new technology also, like a synthesizer program called Omnisphere. I used quite a bit of that.

Then I used some subtle percussion. I would use synthesizers, but I also had some pieces of metal that I would use and blend into the sound. So you can hear that. I tried to find a blend of some textures that I just thought were appropriate.

Was there anything you tried musically speaking that you ultimately abandoned? Because it wasn’t working for a scene?

Yeah. I mean, when I found out that I was going to get the job, I had made a catalog of every piece of music and every episode that I could refer to. I didn’t want there to be any questions. Sometimes they’ll draw a blank, but I knew what they had done. So I wanted to be able to recall the original, because in a way New Blood is like a coda [to Dexter]. I wanted to be able to refer to the original.

I tried using more guitar. And I tried, instead of strings, I tried using the guitar with a slide or a bottleneck. And I did a fair amount of work with that, this is before I saw any footage or gotten any scripts. I knew he was going to be in rural upstate New York. So I was going for more of a sound that I thought would reflect that place. But it didn’t work. So I abandoned all of it.

How much time did you have the score New Blood? Are we talking weeks, months?

No, I wished it was. I wish there was months. I had done a fair amount of that work and preparing in advance. And thankfully they were also shooting when I was recording my first ideas, and so they didn’t really have the time to focus on the score. So the deadlines got pretty tight. Sometimes I would do one and make a revision, and they would change the picture. So I would have a matter of days.

Oh, wow. So, so this all happened in a pretty short period of time.

Yes, but it was up and down. Like television production, it wasn’t a straight line. There wasn’t a clear production schedule, like Pepper Ann. There was COVID, they were chasing the weather, and we were working remotely. So it was a very different working process for me, for all of us.

Yeah, I was going to ask, so the pandemic did affect the recording process and the scoring process?

There were a couple of pretty big hurdles. If we had pursued having musicians all in the same room playing together, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.

And so that impacted part of how I proceeded. I could have pulled it off by recording separately and would have been able to do it that way. But that wouldn’t have been very efficient.

Was there still a group of musicians besides yourself? Or was it just you recording everything?

It was mostly me.

Did you have the picture to score to? Or did that come after the fact?

I started by compiling ideas that I would send to the editor and the writers and they would just listen and occasionally try them out. It was when I finally got the first rough cut that I could score directly to the picture

Was there a favorite piece of music? Like looking back at all of New Blood in the music? Is there a favorite piece you did? Or do you like it all equally?

I really enjoyed getting a piece of music that works for the creators and when I got the first themes for when Harrison and Dexter meet. I was so happy to be able to follow through on that sound, a very sort of fragile minimal sound. I also enjoyed the dark music for Kurt the bad guy.

One thing I did want to ask because I know there’s this whole aspect of how the serial killer part of Dexter is hidden. Did you make any kind of musical texture to reflect that part of himself?

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, even on the first first piece of music that you hear on the first episode, he’s sharpening knives in his cabin. And I use that sound throughout the series, the very sort of metallic dark sounds that that create this very sort of internal melody.

……………………………

I want to thank Pat Irwin for taking the time to speak with me about his work on Dexter: New Blood. I hope you enjoyed reading this interview and have a great weekend!

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Talking with Composer Jason Graves about ‘The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes’

I recently had the opportunity to speak with composer Jason Graves about his work on The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes, the third game in The Dark Pictures anthology (the previous entries are Little Hope and Man of Medan). His works include (but are far from limited to):  Dead SpaceAlpha ProtocolTomb RaiderThe Order: 1886Until DawnEvolveDungeon Siege and Far Cry Primal.

The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes was released in October 2021 and sees five characters having to make their way out of a subterranean Akkadian temple crawling with vampiric entities.

Enjoy our conversation about House of Ashes below!

As you composed the other games in The Dark Pictures Anthology, how does House of Ashes compare to its predecessors? What served as your inspiration as you created the music for House of Ashes? 

Each game in The Dark Pictures Anthology has its own stand-alone story and characters. House of Ashes takes place in a few different time periods in Iraq. I’m a big fan of the game and its music being as closely linked as possible, so the score for House of Ashes is very “desert-y,” for lack of a better word. I tried to keep things as simple as possible and strip everything back in terms of instrumentation for the different time periods. So things would feel a lot more pure and classic in the Mesopotamian time period and more filled out and complicated for the current 1990s.

I’m really curious about the Akkadian Temple the characters find themselves in. How did you create music to reflect the atmosphere of the temple ruins? How did you come up with the sound for that environment, in other words?

That was actually the base for the entire score – it’s where everything started and how I tied the entire score together. I literally began with the Prologue – the very first scene in the game. I had an idea to use these bending string sounds, like classical strings but moving around a lot more. I own a bunch of string instruments – violins, viola, a cello and a contrabass. So I tried some experiments recording myself playing all the string instruments multiple times, as if I were moving from seat to seat in a classical string section. Only I was playing every part so many different times it would take 20-25 takes of multiple “me’s” to complete a short phrase on all the instruments.

How much access did you have to early builds of the game as you created the music? I know other video game composers I’ve talked to have mentioned playing through early builds of the game and I was wondering if you did anything similar. Were you given any specific directions for what the game’s music needed to sound like?

I worked very closely with Supermassive Games Audio Director Barney Pratt throughout the entire process. We’ve been working together for more than 10 years now. There’s a lot of conversation that happens before anything is actually written and Barney shares everything that Supermassive works on, whether it’s just prototype animation, scripts, storyboards or initial ideas.

I don’t technically play through the game for The Dark Pictures – honestly it’s more because of all the different story and character branches that these games have. It would be a full time job just playing through them! I prefer to have gameplay captures that I loop in the background as I compose. It gives me the best of both worlds – I can hear how the music is working against a specific scene as I compose and also turn the gameplay off if I want to be more thematically focused and concentrate on just the music. 

What kinds of instruments are included in the mix for House of Ashes? Any notable or unusual instruments? Did the pandemic affect the recording process at all?

Most of the score is live and I performed all the instruments myself. There’s a lot of string-based writing in this score that simply couldn’t have been properly reproduced with MIDI. Barney and I floated options of recording professional musicians but honestly, a large part of this score was based around experiments I made while recording myself (x24) and trying different things.

The score definitely would have had a completely different sound if I were to approach “just another live string recording.” Part of that was a result of the pandemic – there simply weren’t musicians or recording studios available at the time. But I would like to think we would have opted for the same option we chose, regardless of the pandemic, just because it felt like that was the direction the score needed to go in.

How much time did you have to score the game? How did composing for House of Ashes compare to other projects you’ve worked on?

It was actually a fairly compressed schedule, for video games, at least. If memory serves, there were about 2 months to compose the entire score. But it was definitely one of the more challenging scores I’ve worked on, mostly because it was essentially three different scores in one, all broken up evenly into thirds.

As soon as I had finished the Prologue, which was the more ancient, Mesopotamia-era version, all with its own very specific instruments and sounds, it was time to write the music for the 1990’s-era Iraq, which was a completely different set of instruments and sounds. And as soon as that was completed, it was another completely different direction for the music (story/plot spoilers aside). The final third of the score needed to sound different and unique yet somehow related to the music that preceded it.

Usually I can “hit my stride” about halfway through the production of a score, when the unique combination of sounds and textures have solidified and I find my musical footing. Everything comes much easier then – all the creative hard work has been completed! But House of Ashes was a bit of a different beast. As soon as I started getting comfortable it was time to change everything up and rewrite the script. But, honestly, I think that kind of push is the very reason the score sounds the way it does. 

I wanted to give a big thank you to Jason Graves for taking the time to speak with me about The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes. I hope you enjoyed the interview!

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Talking with Jeff Cardoni about Heels

I recently had the opportunity to speak with composer Jeff Cardoni about his work on the first season of Heels. Cardoni’s previous work includes (but is not limited to): CSI: Miami, Silicon Valley (TV series), The Defenders, The League, and Wilfred.

Please note this interview took place before Heels was officially renewed for a second season. I hope you enjoy our discussion about the show!

How did you get started as a composer in general?

Basically, same as everyone else. My parents forced me to play piano at a very young age. I didn’t know that I wanted to do it at that point. I played piano from six till I think 14. And then I switched instruments. But that’s how it all started.

So with Heels, how did you get connected to that show? And what did you think of its premise being about wrestling?

I heard from a mutual acquaintance and they said, “Are you trying to do Heels? Are you in the mix on that?” I’ve been saying forever that I wanted to do a sports drama. That’s my dream. That’s a project I’ve been looking for forever. So we had a mutual friend, the music supervisor. I texted the music supervisor and asked them about it, which got me a script and a chance to do a demo for it. So I indirectly searched it out.

So they liked the demo?

Yeah, I got lucky. I just read the script and wrote a piece of what I thought it would sound like in my head without seeing any video. But the piece I wrote got me the gig. And then it’s in the show. It’s the end of the last episode. So it made it through the whole process, which never ever happens. It’s never happened to me.

Did you know anything about professional wrestling before working on Heels?

Not enough to be an expert on it. You know, I knew a little bit. My brother used to be really into it when I was a kid and you know, with WrestleMania and all that stuff, but I didn’t watch it all the time or anything. No. So I kind of learned a lot in doing [the show].

For the show. Were you given any directions for how the show would sound? Did they have a specific sound in mind for Heels?

No, zero, it was the exact opposite. I wrote the demo, which ironically was called “Crystal Belongs in the Ring”, and I didn’t know that Crystal actually gets in the ring at the end of the last episode. So it turned out to be very fitting. That’s kind of what I in my head thought drama about wrestling would sound like because it’s in the south. And I just felt like guitar and piano and acoustic sounds are kind of Americana and, you know, relatable to everyone. So I thought it should be pretty grounded. I also did a solo album that came out right around this time. That was string quintet and electric guitar. I just wrote stuff that I wanted to do. It turns out that kind of became the sound of the show, guitar strings, piano, nothing, nothing very synthetic or electronic. I just thought it should be kind of, you know, as divided as the world is now with political things. And I think that sports is one of the things that can unite people, no matter what they believe. So I thought that this sound should be kind of relatable to everyone.

It definitely took me by surprise. Knowing it was about wrestling. I was I always think of more hard rock sounds for wrestling. So I heard this and I was like, oh, and then I click through a few more tracks. I’m like, Oh, this is different. And why also keep forgetting this is about a smaller promotion. And not necessarily the big, glitzy glammy the ones you see on TV

Right. I always felt like the music would be more about the family drama. That’s kind of what the score plays with. Moreover, we don’t really score any the wrestling until I think the fifth episode. I always felt that all the hard rock and all that big stuff will be covered in a song anyway, so I didn’t think the score needed to [do that]. And plus, I feel like it would just make it very one dimensional because, some people think of wrestling and you think of aggression, and I just felt like that’s already there. You don’t need to do that with music. So it’s trying to add another sound with a little more depth to it.

I’ll admit, that didn’t occur to me until partway through listening. I thought, “Oh, I’m thinking of the wrestling not the music in the wrestling show.”

Right. And there are some episodes we didn’t even see the ring. That’s what honestly was attractive to me more than the wrestling itself. It didn’t really matter what the sport was, you know, it could have been about hockey, it could have been about football. It doesn’t matter if you like football because you care about the characters. And I felt like that’s what this show had. A lot of really good characters.

And that’s what I mean, I guess that would be an easy trap to fall into is if you made it too much about the wrestling.

Right? I mean, honestly, I just got lucky because we had time. And I just kind of wrote what I thought in my head, watching the show about wrestling, and it just happened to work out. I mean, it could have gone horribly wrong. They could have gone the other way. And it could have been all about the aggression, in which case, I’d be looking for a job. But no, it worked. It felt very organic. It felt like a lot of times when you come on a project, late, there’s already this preconceived idea of what they want. They’ve been temping the music and trying things. So we had the benefit on this where I got to just write things. To my surprise, when I finally started seeing cuts to the picture, my music was in it and it was working. So that was just lucky. It’s one of those happy occurrences that doesn’t happen all the time.

So you were mentioning about “Crystal Belongs in the Ring.” I was reading in the the email they sent me for this interview, they said that that became like the base of the score itself.

Yeah, there’s just a couple of little motifs in that piece that pretty much became almost the whole score of the whole show. And every time there’d be some scenes with Crystal, I would just take the little piano theme and use that as kind of her theme. It really just set up this big match at the end, where she has to jump in the ring and actually wrestle. And it was just a really happy coincidence. You know, even when I named the cue “Crystal Belongs in the Ring.” I just based that from reading the first script when she had nothing to do with it. She was just a valet, and I didn’t know her arc was going to be so big and, and nobody told me that Crystal’s going in there. You know, it just kind of happened.

So just a really good happy accident.

Absolutely. You got it, you got to enjoy them when they happen.

Besides Crystal, are there any other character or idea-specific themes in the soundtrack that focus on specific people?

Yeah, I mean, there’s, there’s a theme for the family that’s in a lot of the cues. There’s not one specifically for Ace or Jack because they also have their own theme for the wrestling as well. So I kind of just tried to play a lot of the family drama with a more generic kind of theme for the family itself. Then there was a little tune for when they’re talking about their dad. A couple of those moments were for Ace, he saw his dad pass away in front of his eyes. So it’s haunted him for life.

Yeah. Um, I have an idea of what the answer will be but I need to ask anyway, did any music from real life professional wrestling companies influenced the sound at all?

No, not on my end.

I was just curious because I know that wrestlers have many themes and I didn’t know if they influenced that at all.

Well, I did not write the themes for when they walked in the ring. I know Ace’s song was written by the show-runner Michael Malleus. And I think Jack’s song was co written by the Director Pete Siegel’s son, Sean Siegel. So they probably emulated something or they’re influenced by something, but I’m sure the hard rock songs informed what they did there.

Okay. For some reason I thought all that would have been done by you too.

It depends. Sometimes the songs don’t fall on my plate. I did the theme song for the main title, but there were also a lot of musicians in the production. There were a lot of opportunities where they got to showcase some of their stuff. And Alexander came out with a new album as well. So I think he had some music in there, too. And then I did, I did do a lot of Stacie songs. A lot of the acoustic guitar songs that are on the soundtrack, I produced them for her.

About how long did it take to score each episode? Like how long was that process?

Well, this was all just long, not because it took long, but because the production got shut down, because Stephen [Amell] got injured. Last Christmas, I think they shut down for a month, he hurt his back because they were doing all the stunts for real. Between that and COVID, I think I started working on it in September, and I don’t think I got the first show until January or right before Christmas. So we had the luxury of time. It wasn’t a normal TV show where you look at the episode and you have a week and then you have to turn it around. It was more organic, which was nice. It’s kind of nice to have some time to really think about stuff. So as far as how long it took, I mean, it took an abnormally long amount of time, but not because w were holding it up just because that’s how it played out.

Since you had the time was it like was it scored all at once? Or was it still episode by episode?

It was episode by episode, but they were never finished at once. So I’d send some music for one, and then I started working on two. But really none of them were finished until the very end. By then it felt like we were making an eight hour movie. And something that I did in a later episode might have made it into an earlier episode, or we just had the time to experiment, and to try things. I dealt with the editors, and we’d be talking about episode and they’d say, we got a scene, we’re doing this, let me send you that. And I would do something and sometimes it will work. Sometimes it wouldn’t.

But we had a chance to try a lot of things before the show-runners and director and everyone got their hands on it. I can’t remember a show with fewer notes or changes than this. I mean, there were episodes, we’d get like one or two notes, and they were little small things. But there were very few “that’s not working for me. Let’s try something else there.” And I think that’s only because of having the time to do things, because I think when you have the time, then I’m looking at this scene and I’m trying to do something that that goes along with this scene, very little of the music had anything to do with picture cuts or anything like that or on on screen action. It was mostly more about what they’re feeling inside that time.

It sounds like it was like a relatively easy process because I’ve talked to several composers without having a ton of notes or otherwise constraints. And I haven’t heard of a show like this before where there wasn’t really any expectation laid down.

It was a dream, honestly. I mean, it really takes filmmakers that want you to bring something to the table. They’re not so precious, they’re open to being surprised, they’re open to see what you bring. Because there’s nothing worse than if you’re a composer for a show or a movie, and it’s got a bunch of other great scores temped in there and they say, “This is what we like”, then you’re already boxed in, you can’t really do anything. So I much prefer the other way where you can do anything. And sometimes you get it right. Sometimes you don’t. But at least when you finally get it, you got there from taking the journey together with the people, from being creative together instead of trying to do your version of what they liked before.

Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack that you liked the best.

I have a good one. There is a cue at the end of the third episode, it was called “Buckle In”, I think, and it’s just this long montage. It’s three and a half minutes long. It’s just a single guitar piece, but it really worked. Because they put it at the right spot. And it just felt like it kind of helped the emotion without being boring. I’m so sensitive, especially with music that’s emotional to not be too melodramatic. It’s definitely playing to the emotions, but I never felt like it was sappy or over the top or cheesy. So I felt like that was a pretty good indication of simplicity works the best. There’s mistakes all over the place. But I think the mistakes kind of added to the charm of it. And so that was a happy accident. And then the theme song just meant a lot to me, because that was a really fun adventure, because it wasn’t supposed to be us in the beginning. I wasn’t supposed to do it. And it’s cool how it came around.

So how did it happen that you did end up doing it?

Well, I think as they were getting into the show, the network wanted to have a big artist do the theme song, like a known song or something. So they were having a lot of artists submit things for it. But as it was going on, every time I see a cut, there would just be a big black thing. That’s a theme to come in the mixer. So I was like, “damn, I want it, I think it should be part of the score, because I think it would really help tie the show together.” So I wrote something, and I just started putting it in there. And they kept getting it back with my thing in there. And eventually, I don’t think they were necessarily finding what they wanted from a song. So then eventually, someone said, “What’s this that’s in there?” And it was mine. But they wanted a singer. They wanted vocals on it. So then music supervisor John Leahy reached out and he said, “Would you consider collaborating?” Absolutely. I was like, “Hell yeah, Sign me up.”

And so he hooked me up with Ben, and we kind of did it in a few days. Yeah, I mean, when I first heard his final vocal, I was just like, goosebumps everywhere, because he brought something I wasn’t expecting. And he was awesome. You know, he just really went deep and brought his own personality to it. That’s the great thing about collaborating is when you you think you know what it should be until someone else brings their point of view and just takes it somewhere way better. That’s why you have to keep an open mind and not be closed off from those accidents, and Ben surprised the hell out of me. Not, that it wasn’t gonna be great, but he just took like, the verse, what I thought was the verse turned out to be the chorus and the bridge, and he just, it was just awesome.

One last question. Were there any moments that were harder to score than others?

Man, I hate to say this, but no. Honestly, I can’t think of any. I mean, there were a couple scenes where I’m not a singer, but I put my vocals on some of the cues. There’s a cue called “Fireflies” where there’s vocals on it. And I was just doing that when I was messing around when I was doing my original batch of music for the picture and even that made it in the show and I was like, I can’t believe they’re gonna put my voice out there. You know, there’s tons of effects and it’s pretty ethereal. So even that work, you feel like, “let’s get a better singer” but it kind of it just felt like that. I brought me to the table on this, you know if you might hate it, but I felt like it was the best. The best version of what I would do naturally to anything I’ve gotten to work on. Yeah, you know, so for that it feels super. I’m super proud of it. And it feels pure. You know, if you don’t like it, you don’t like it, but it wasn’t me trying to be someone else.

It really does sound like the perfect storm of stuff that came together.

Yeah, it really was. And I didn’t meet these people in person. You know, it was all zooms until the very end until the premiere. I hadn’t met Michael Waldron. We talked on the phone and stuff, but I never met him in person. So this is surreal.

Is the show coming back for season two?

We don’t know yet. But it doesn’t get Netflix level viewers, you know, and this show, honestly, this show got the best Rotten Tomatoes of anything I’ve ever worked on. It’s like 99%. And I feel like if somehow you can get it in front of a bigger audience, it’s going to blow up. So I hope it gets a chance to do another season. But I don’t know. They haven’t canceled it. But I don’t know.

I mean, I mean, I can only assume if it does come back. I mean, I assume you’ll be back for anything that comes up with it.

If it’s up to me, absolutely. I hope so as well. I just hope we find out you know, because it’s like, I feel like we did it, we put it we left it all in the ring, you know, and everyone did like this didn’t feel like another show. This felt like an art project that everyone was doing. It just loved it so much, you know, and we had the time and it just felt like everything was a creative everything you could you can hope for. And I feel like it’d be a real shame if it didn’t get exposed to more people and get another shot. So I mean, I know there’s economics involved. And that’s, that’s above my paygrade. But we’ll see what happens.

Thank you so much to Jeff Cardoni for taking the time to speak with me about Heels. Have a great day everyone!

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Talking with Composer Shaun Chasin about ‘Way of the Turtle’

Late last year I was presented with the opportunity to speak with composer Shaun Chasin about his work on the expansion of the game Way of the Turtle, a charming platformer game that instantly stole my heart the moment I saw some of the gameplay. Shaun has written music for dozens of video games, as well as film and television works. Shaun studied at Berklee College of Music, where he majored in Film Scoring with a minor in Video Game Music. Upon graduating Berklee, he attended the University of Southern California’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television graduate program.

At the time of the interview, the music of the expansion was about to be released and we talked about his work on both the original game and the expansion.

I hope you enjoy this interview!

  • How did you originally get involved with Way of the Turtle and what kind of game would you describe it as?

I worked on a horror game in 2015 called Hector, that was with a super-small team with only five of us. The artist on Hector ended up working for Illusion Labs and he became the main artist for Way of the Turtle. So when it came time for them to talk about music he said “I have a guy!” and they brought me on.

  • Was there any gameplay for you to look at? Or did you compose solely based off still images?

There was pretty quickly gameplay to look at. I was playing a lot of [game] builds along the way. They made a PC build that I could play with and run around and see how things are working. This is because a lot of the time you really don’t know how long it will take to clear a level or area, so if you’re designing a loop it’s hard to know if it’s going to get really annoying. You have to think about “What if the players get stuck, is [the music] going to get annoying?” That’s why you have to get a feel for how long things will take. I like to go through as fast as possible and as slow as possible, to make sure it’s working either way.

The same thing happens with [musical] stingers in-game. Occasionally the gameplay will be interrupted for a scene, for example when you get a turtle shell upgrade, the camera pulls back and torches light up. And I wanted to have music timed to the torches lighting up and the camera movement. The only way to work that out and implement it correctly is to play through the game.

  • Did the game being a platform game affect have any influence on the music? As opposed to the music in an open-world game?

I like to think of it as having the qualities of both, it’s like a pseudo-3D game, so you have a lot opening up with the camera turning as you go down a ramp. There’s also some non-linear aspects like at the gopher hub where you can purchase things and talk to the gopher. But there is some of that [platforming aspect] in the game’s music.

For example, the “low health layer” is really inspired by older game music. It’s not necessarily inspired by platforming games, but more like the N64 version of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. [In that game] there’s a little *ding* that happens that I always found anxiety-inducing as a kid but in a really effective way. So, when you’re low-health in Way of the Turtle you get a similar *ding* sound that comes into the music but also works in rhythm and in time with the music. That wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have my mindset shifted towards older games.

  • You said in the press release that creating the music for Way of the Turtle was uniquely challenging, how so?

It was that unique combination. I’m used to writing for orchestra, that’s my bread and butter with most projects that I do. However, the fact that [the game] needed something extra, a straight traditional orchestral score would not have worked, is why I needed those extra instruments, like the kalimbas and other instruments like that. As soon as I started tinkering with a lot of smaller sounds, little things that made the orchestra feel quirky. This helped it become its own sound.

Once I got that sound together, the rest of the score wasn’t that challenging and I was able to exist in that musical world. It was the first couple things that had a lot of back and forth and I didn’t think I was going to get it. Eventually though, we got into a sound where I was “okay, this is what the game sounds like.” From then on we were able to blast off in a certain direction.

  • Were you getting a lot of direction throughout the process?

There was a lot of direction at the beginning [of the process], with a ton of feedback and revisions. Once we got locked into a sound, most everything got in on version 1, which is unusual for a project. I’m working on a show now where we’re on version 21, for example. And some of that would be from: “This is great, but we changed the edit so now it needs to be updated.” It’s really unusual to see a version 1 in a project, but it happens. I think it’s because we had such a back and forth at the beginning, there was an established vocabulary for the project. Once we all worked to get on the same page, I think that’s why things were able to get through so quickly.

  • What inspired the overall sound of Way of the Turtle? I wasn’t expecting something that sounded so epic and cute all at the same time. Was this inspired by anything specific?

When I did a demo for the game, my first shot at the music was a lot more “cute” and electronic with synthesizers. The developers were like “This is okay but it’s not what we’re thinking of.” They actually gave me a reference, then, from Finding Nemo and said that they wanted the game to sound like a big adventure.

Instead of a cute platformer [sound], they wanted a big Disney adventure sound, which led to the use of a full orchestra. For some of the sounds, I covered the turtles with kalimbas and marimbas, to create the quirkiness of the turtles moving around.

  • What kind of instruments are included for Way of the Turtle? I hear the general orchestral mix but there’s some unique sounds mixed in there too. How did you pick which instruments to include?

So one instrument I included was the kalimba, that’s a little hand percussion instrument. I added little touches with it because it’s such a delicate sound and if you put the microphone right up to it, it’s a very close and intimate sound. But if you mix it with the vastness of a traditional orchestra, they really complement each other, one pulls you out while the other one pulls you in. It creates an interesting balance that I hadn’t really done before.

In the expansion music, there isn’t much oboe, but in the original score that I did for the base game in 2019 there was a ton of oboe. I recorded this amazing oboist and he came over to record and the one part that I thought would be super difficult he just blazed through on his first take and it was absolutely perfect.

For the darker scenes we included a guitarviol, which is a mix between a cello and a guitar. It’s sized and tuned like a guitar, but it has cello strings and it’s played with a bow. This instrument was used a lot in the score for Game of Thrones. It sounds like a cello but it’s also a little bit ancient and harsher in an interesting and cinematic way.

  • How does the music for the expansion build on what you created for the original game?

This expansion actually finishes the story of the base game. The original game ends with a “to be continued” and the first update ends with this big explosion sending purple goo all over the island. This update then, sees you re-exploring the island but it’s been overrun with this evil, magic goo.

The music for the expansion is all fully new stuff, although the challenge there was to make it sound cohesive. Like, it’s still somewhat familiar, but in the base game the music is much lighter. In this last update, you’re trying to clear off this evil goo, so the music I came up with is so much darker and more evil. There’s a lot more brass, more low elements, and a lot more big, deep percussion. We’re getting much lighter on things like the kalimbas. There’s still some moments of hope when you can hear them shine through but in general the direction was to go way darker.

  • What was the process like for scoring this expansion? I’m assuming there was new gameplay footage to look at to give you an idea of what was needed?

Sort of. There were two more “explorer” tracks they needed, both of which came with a corresponding “tension” layer and a corresponding “low health” layer. The “tension” layer is tied to the number of enemies on the screen. The more enemies on the screen, the louder it becomes. So you’ll hear more aggressive percussion, and as you then defeat enemies the music becomes more subdued. This makes the music ebb and flow as you’re fighting.

Then they sent me footage for all the different cut scenes. These included all the puzzle endings and the introduction of the boss. There’s also the music when the boss is defeated and the final cut scene when you can re-explore the island as a peaceful paradise that’s been cleared of all monsters.

  • How much time did you have to work on the expansion music?

A few weeks. I ended up taking a month off work and they came and were like “hey we need music for the expansion” which was perfect because it was music I knew I could nail. It was a perfect first project back because it was music I’d done before. And for the most part everything was approved very quickly after a little back and forth.

I hope you enjoyed this interview and I want to give a big thank you to Shaun Chasin for taking the time to speak with me about Way of the Turtle.

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

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A Strange New World: Speaking with Herdís Stefánsdóttir about Y: The Last Man

Last fall I was blessed with the opportunity to speak with composer Herdís Stefansdottir about her work on the original series Y: The Last Man, adapted from the acclaimed graphic novel series of the same name. This was actually my second time getting to speak with this composer and I was really excited to get some insight into her work on this series, which unfortunately as of January 2022 is still cancelled and has yet to find a new home somewhere else.

Herdís Stefánsdóttir is a composer of music for multimedia, a songwriter, and an electronic musician. Her compositional endeavors — installations in museums, dance, theatre, and a successful electronic music duet she is a part of – are establishing her as an expansive artist. Herdís Stefánsdóttir graduated with an M.A. degree in film scoring from New York University in 2017. Since graduation she has scored two feature films, an HBO series and a few short films.

Her scoring work includes Ry Russo – Young’s MGM/Warner Bros. feature film, The Sun Is Also A Star and the HBO series We’re Here (which I previously interviewed her about).

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Y: The Last Man!

Were you familiar with the story of Y: The Last Man before working on the series? 

Actually I was not, I had never heard of it before. I received an email that had details about [the story] and I was really intrigued by it. It sounded like a very interesting concept, how they decided to adapt [the story] to television and go to those philosophical questions like, how do you decide your identity in a world that has changed so much?

How closely did you collaborate with the producers while working on the music for Y: The Last Man? 

The producers were pretty cool, because they actually left me alone. They didn’t have any idea of what they wanted [the music] to be, they just said “What’s your idea?” When I started writing, there was a music supervisor and music editor working with me on the team. Before sharing [the music] with the producers and the show runner, I would ask them both “What do you think of it? Am I heading in the right direction?” And they both loved it. Having their experience helped a lot.

It doesn’t happen that often to find the musical identity [of the show] so early on, but it happened with this show that they loved [the music] from the beginning. So I was left alone and kept expanding and experimenting, doing something that I found exciting.

Did that make the process easier?

In this case I think it did. I felt really free and inspired and I enjoyed writing like that. Sometimes if you are glued to a temp track or an idea that they decide they really want, then you’re working in a more narrow frame, it can be quite challenging as a composer.

Was it always a given that the music for Y: The Last Man would be centered on the female voice or did that idea come about gradually?

It was my first small idea, like “What is the sound of this world?” When I had seen a rough cut of the first episode and gotten into the first volume of the graphic novel, I’d gotten a feel for the aesthetics they were going for, which involved a lot of realism. I didn’t it feel it was a very sci-fi or futuristic sound. It immediately spoke to me as being organic, in a human way. So my first tiny idea that I went with turned out to work really well with the picture.

Besides the female voice, what other instruments or sounds did you decide to include in the music for Y: The Last Man? How did you decide which instruments to include (or exclude)?

Well, this is during COVID so I was working alone in my studio. I have a stack of synthesizers and I’m an electronic musician apart from film scoring, so I used my own voice and whatever I could record in my own studio. I also got some friends to come over, including one who built a magnetic harp, an electro-acoustic instrument and there’s only three of them in the world. I thought it would be interesting to record that instrument to see what would happen. That ended up becoming the sound for one of the main themes of the show for the Amazons.

What was your general process for scoring Y: The Last Man, as in, which themes were created first and how was the music for the show built up?

I actually didn’t touch individual episodes. I wrote the entire score to script, and I went by inspiration and feeling. I think I wrote 85% of the score in the first couple of months and I’d only read the scripts. The music editor would actually edit [the music] to the episodes. The themes I was developing were longer and bigger than if I would have been writing to the picture. It was a really free experience of creating. I always knew what was happening in the production but I did not write to the picture.

Did the pandemic affect the recording and composing process at all?

I was lucky to be in Iceland, I think it’s one of the few places that allows recording. Well, strings are being recorded but not vocalists, because you’re breathing air, and it wasn’t allowed in a lot of places. I got lucky to be here and up north where there’s an Icelandic film composer called Atli Örvarsson, he founded a film orchestra that’s going well and it’s one of the few places where you can record during Covid. There’s also a beautiful professional choir up there that I recorded with and they became the foundation of the female voices in the score.

I like how there’s almost a tribal sound to the modulated vocal melodies in ‘Kimberly Campbell Cunningham’ and other tracks, was that done on purpose?

What I was doing was imagining the sound of the world and imagining a group of female voices talking to each other in the moment of the world collapsing. I heard this resonance of the female voice, kind of like talking and disharmony kind of clustering together. That became one of the fundamental sounds that I integrated into the themes and melodies [of the soundtrack].

Do you have any thoughts on the show, so far, not being picked up for a second season?

I’m pretty surprised, I think it deserved to finish the story. It was just starting and the fact that it got cancelled mid-first season…it’s not fun. There’s so much more to say.

I want to send a big thank you to Herdís Stefansdottir for taking the time to speak with me about Y: The Last Man!

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

The Adventure Continues: Talking with Composer Peter McConnell about Psychonauts 2 (2021)

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to speak with composer Peter McConnell about his work on the video game Psychonauts 2, which released earlier this year. In this game, the player controls Raz, a newly graduated Psychonaut with powerful psychic abilities, as he delves into the minds of others. Psychonauts 2 is set in a fictional, alternate world in which psychic powers exist thanks to the fictional element Psitanium – a substance brought to the planet by several meteors. The Psychonauts are an international espionage agency focused on psychic peacekeeping, scientific research of the human mind, and the development of psychic-based technologies.

Peter McConnell has composed award-winning scores for a diverse range of video games including Broken Age, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, the Sly Cooper series, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Psychonauts, Brutal Legend and Grim Fandango.

Peter studied music at Harvard with electronic composer Ivan Tcherepnin, graduating with High Honors. He has been nominated for over twenty-five Game Audio Network Guild Awards and won four, including Best Interactive Score and Best Soundtrack.

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Psychonauts 2!

How did you get started as a composer?

The short answer is that I came out to California from Boston a few years after college having made a plan with my friends Michael Land and Clint Bajakian to start a band. By the time I got out here the band kind of fell through, but Michael had gotten a job starting the audio department at LucasArts, and he needed help. But there was some history behind that. I had loved music before I could even talk, taken violin lessons as a youth, taught myself to play banjo and guitar, and in college had an epiphany in electronics class which resulted ending my studies in physics, leaving for a year and a half and returning to graduate in music. So it was less a matter of “getting started” as a composer, and more a matter of continuing a long journey.


Were you excited to return for Psychonauts 2 so many years after scoring the original Psychonauts game? 16 years is a pretty long time to go between installments, was it difficult to get back into the story after so long?

Absolutely. And honestly, it wasn’t really a matter of “going back” to the score, since in a sense I never really left the score to begin with. Those themes were always percolating around in my head. I probably spent a total of 15 minutes  listening to the original  Psychonauts tracks before getting started. The music was already there. I find that is generally true with me, although it was especially true of Psychonauts, since it was my first gig as an independent composer after leaving LucasArts in 2000.


Were you brought in to do the music early in the development process or late? And when you were brought in, was there a lot of collaboration/discussion with the game’s directors on where they wanted the sound/music of this game to go?

I was brought in fairly early. I was on the project for over 4 years, and I think they had done about 9 months of work on it when I started.


How much of the music for Psychonauts 2 is built off the score for the original Psychonauts? Or was it decided to go in a wholly different direction for this sequel?

I would say that the score for Psychonauts 2, like the game itself, is both a continuation and an expansion. As a composer I focus on melody, so the themes in the score are all-important. For this reason the characters that had been in Psychonauts 1 kept their original themes, but there were so many new characters! Each one got a new theme. Even the Main Title theme got a new “bridge” section, based on a significant new character in the game. And the music styles were expanded significantly. We could only afford a few live musicians in the original Psychnonauts, whereas in Psychonauts 2 we had The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, a live big band, a rhythm section from Nashville, and of course the rock and roll band featuring the voice of the amazing Jack Black. 

What was the general process for creating the sounds and and music for each level of the game?

Each level is about a particular character and each character had a theme. Early on we went through a phase of just focusing on themes in the simplest form: simple piano sketches that, once approved, could be orchestrated into full pieces.


Following up to the last question, what inspired the overall sound world of Psychonauts 2? What groups of instruments did you decide to go with?

The characters inspired the instrumentation. For example, Hollis has an issue with gambling and her level is all about that. So the classic big band sound of Sinatra’s recordings with Nelson Riddle’s band had to figure into that world. Similarly, the Psy King’s level was all about psychedelic music from the ‘60s. It was the same way for all the characters, and each one pretty much called to me with a sound.


How much time did you have to score Psychonauts 2?

The score was done over 4 years, but in a project this size you don’t typically work all the time straight through from beginning to end. It’s safe to say that the entire score probably represents a couple thousand hours of work.


Were any of the game levels more difficult to score than others? For example, did you come to a certain point in the game and feel stumped as to where it was going to go musically? If so, how did you get around it?

There are often moments I run into with individual pieces, but nothing really sticks out. I think it’s safe to say there weren’t any real instances of writer’s block, or being stumped. I find if I do run into a problem, the best thing to do is listen carefully. Sometimes over and over. What comes next usually reveals itself.


Do you have a favorite musical theme/musical moment in the game?

My favorite two are probably the Lady Luctopus Boss and the Psy King music. The Lady Luctopus allowed me to combine the Melbourne Symphony, drums and bass from Nashville, and my friend Andrew Burton’s amazing Hammond organ playing in one piece. And the Psy King music allowed me to have a band reunion with Michael Land and Clint Bajakian—going back to all of our roots—and to create a piece with Tim Schafer for Jack Black to sing.


Is there any musical detail you hope players notice as they work their way through the game?

That’s a great question. There are many details I hope people will notice. For example, a careful listener may note that part of the clarinet melody in the Questionable Area and the Aquato Family Caravan music both come from a tiny little melodic fragment in a dream Raz has about his family in the original Psychonauts.

I hope you enjoyed our conversation about Psychonauts 2 and I want to say thank you to Peter McConnell for taking the time to speak with me.

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

Exploring a New World in VR: Talking with Composer Jakob Eisenbach about Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon

Earlier this fall I had the chance to speak to composer Jakob Eisenbach about his work on the VR arcade experience Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon. In this exploration game, you and your team are teleported to an ancient Mayan temple where you must work to stop the awakening of evil during a ‘blood moon.’

I’ve been fascinated by VR for a long time, so it was really cool to get to talk with Jakob Eisenbach about his work on Tikal and I hope you enjoy our conversation about the game (and working in VR).

How did you get started as a composer?

It’s quite a funny story: I wished for a guitar on my 15th birthday because of falling in love with the sound of electric guitars, thanks to the game Guitar Hero 3.
Since I was somehow pretty quick at learning technique, practiced up to 12hours a day and advanced unusually fast, I got interested in more and more complex and high energy music. Then I joined a metal band, played lots of Dream Theater, Jason Becker and other very technical music, but became bored with only “complex and fast” eventually.

Since this really was the first time me being good at something, I decided to take my luck into my own hands and start a career in music. But to not be too crazy and only relying on guitar, I wanted to learn everything there is to learn about music.

And as crazy as it sounds, after starting to take piano and theory lessons for 4 years, I already managed to get accepted as one of four students at the Zurich University of Arts. Something which turned out to be my most lucky punch ever –
the year I joined the program “Composition for Film, Theater and Media”, was also the first year where all of the Universities Departments moved into a newly constructed building.

And there I was….studying my dream occupation while being surrounded by so many talented people, state of the art recording studios, concert halls, classical/jazz music students, while having yet the craziest advantage to come: Collaborative in-house programs with students from game design, film, theater, dance, conducting, recording, you name it.
Somehow our field of studies turned out to be at the intersection between a lot of those disciplines, so any project we did could be recorded live with real instruments since the very beginning – simply because the musicians were next door and we simply had free access to the infrastructure.
We literally recorded full-size orchestras for fun little school projects, because the most difficult thing was to only find enough musicians. The rest was already there and free.

Fast forward a few busy years, students graduate, some find jobs at different production companies or game studios and then you eventually get a call: “Hey Jakob, since you worked on my MA graduation game, my company and I have this new project….”
And suddenly I find myself inside this incredible VR startup “True VR Systems”.

How is composing for VR different from composing for, say, a regular video game or a film?

Basically, as with any kind of storytelling, you’re aiming to re-create human experiences. And there’s only limited ways of doing that. Film for example, is something that you’d call a “linear” story: You as the consumer can only go forward in time. The most interactive a movie gets, is you pausing it or adjusting the volume.

Then there’s games: some of them also have a linear tendency, like Journey.

Most games however tend to have more “non-linear” gameplay: open world games like Red Dead Redemption or World Of Warcraft, where you can spent as much time as you want, where you want, and even do things repeatedly.

Depending on how the story is told, the music has to connect to either the environment/mood or a linear sequence, like in cutscenes or timelines.

Actually, since the definition of music is anchored at the “perception of organized sound” it’s the job of me as the composer to create those organized chunks that a consumer may eventually perceive as music. They can consist of many different possible sections with lots of outcomes, transitions and different versions of the same story and mood.
Or you can create one singular timeline, that you have to experience in one in one sitting.

In the projects of TrueVR it’s the same: the only extension is that you could place the music in virtual spaces and environments. But no matter how much technical extension you add to a story, it still has to make sense in the consumer’s head.
Those VR projects are mostly non-linear but have a few linear timelines where the music has some straight moments (for example on the Lava River).

Fun thing to think about: The reality we experience every day can also be observed as some kind of linear story with moments and chunks of non-linear, repeatable timelines.


What inspired the sound of Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon?

The main inspiration lies in the idea that you are experiencing a “strange” world, but you are some kind of main character/hero that’s solving the ancient riddles and mysteries of this temple.

As the game itself aimed for the “wow effect” experience of huge dimensions, especially in the vertical, we decided this is achieved best with a real symphony orchestra.
The 24-piece choir really added the feeling of an ancient magic being at work.

To achieve the “strangeness” I was strongly inspired by Balinese Gamelan culture, since this has a strange character to most western ears, and I was familiar with their theory. Extended with Arabic and Asian instruments it became less specifically on one culture though, while retaining the character of something “different” and “tribal” next to the orchestra. Nobody really knows how Mayan music sounded after all. We only know of some self-made instruments like bamboo flutes and drums.


Why was it so important for the music for Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon to be recorded live? 

Two reasons. The first: This game should evoke the feeling of being impressed and stunned by perceiving the virtual world, but not the kind of “gimmicky impressive” you have in most trailer music.
The second reason: Since we established a kind of “real instrumentalists only” trend, coming from the amazing experience in my studies, I simply had the experience how to pull this off. Since we did small school projects with real orchestras and ensembles all the time already, I very strongly felt that this project, which became internationally available and feels like something exceptional in its way, especially deserved to have a real soul.

How did working on Tikal compare to the other VR projects you’d composed for? It sounds like this one was bigger than the ones that came before.

Tikal was planned by the studio as their flag ship project in their “explorer genre” from the very beginning. They wanted to have one very high-quality game, and Tikal was going to be that one. The other projects that have music of mine (like Patient Zero) are more focused on the interactivity and shooting zombies had a different approach from the studio. And they felt that for PvP and PvE shooters there’s other necessities than having a huge score. 

How much time did you have to score Tikal?

Not much time, then suddenly a lot of time, and then suddenly not much time again.

So, while designing the core gameplay with the visual artists and creative team, we really went hand in hand. I scored a 10-minute suite within a few days, then we split this into different sections that could work to what we transcribed in the storyboard.
During the level design, we tested a lot in the actual VR environment, like how you perceive the time for different locations etc.
But because the new licensed partners in Canada wanted to open their franchise with a new game, we had to go into beta very early. So from first draft until beta, I had around
3-4 weeks.

Then this got stuck, because the dev team and me (hired as sound designer) had to go to different projects, so the composer side of me was left in the dark for quite a while.

But then, more than a good year later we got back to this refurbished the game for the new 4K hardware and the arenas in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Which was when we felt this was the time to finally record the music – but then there was COVID.

So, lots of stop and go, then during the “European summer break of covid” we sneaked into a little timeslot where travelling and recording full orchestras in one room was allowed and finally managed to pull this off in Budapest.

Let’s just say the composing part of this project was the least difficult part by far, ha ha.


Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?

Yes! My favorite part is “An Ancient Awakening”.

And you really need to play the game in the arena to understand why.

I’ll try to transcribe it though: When this cue starts, you’re already in the game for a little while and managed to advance to an ancient grave chamber.

You solved the riddle in this level and then the wind machines of the VR arena start, the scent dispensers are activated and in the game, you see a lot of beautiful particles flying around in the environment that slowly materialize into an ancient Mayan ghost in front of you. This ghost is the first NPC character you meet in the experience and since you’re inside the VR environment, he really is about as tall as you and your teammates.

I also carefully sound designed his voice and sound effects. He carries I think 5-7 individual binaural SFX sources in his prefab, which blend in with the music.

When I tested the game, I always liked to stand pretty close to his animation.

Little fun fact: The ghosts’ animation is a motion capture of the lead developer Mischa Geiser himself. They recorded this full sequence while repeatedly playing my music mockup on speakers in the VR arena and performing the movements to the music.

I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Jakob Eisenbach about Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon.

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂