Tag Archives: composer interview

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.

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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!

See also:

Composer Interviews

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

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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!

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)

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Composer Interviews

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Around and Around We Go: Talking with Composer Tom Salta about Deathloop (2021)

Just recently I had the chance to speak with composer Tom Salta about his work on the hit video game Deathloop. Salta is an award-winning composer, who writes music for film and television as well as video games. Aside from Deathloop, his past work in video games includes work on Wolfenstein: Youngblood, the HALO games, and Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, just to name a few.

For Deathloop, Tom Salta had to create music for a world where the player controls Colt, an assassin tasked with killing a series of targets before a time loop activates at midnight, undoing any progress made. With that premise in mind, I was very excited to speak with Tom Salta about his work on this game.

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Deathloop!

How did you get started as a composer?

Now that’s a loaded question! [laughs] Back in 1990 when I started on my professional path, I never imagined getting into composing, no less composing for video games. I started in the music industry fully intent on becoming a famous record producer. My first shot in the big leagues was going on tour with Bobby Brown as keyboard tech and sound designer. After touring for several years, I spent the ‘90s working in the studio on almost every kind of music you could imagine for a variety of both up and coming and major artists. In 2001, there was a paradigm shift in the music industry and in the world. High speed internet became widely available and music piracy took over. No one was buying music anymore. Mainstream artists were becoming “manufactured” by huge labels and I felt creatively restricted in the area of pop music. All my dreams and aspirations of becoming a record producer started to crumble.

At the same time, the original Xbox was released and a game called ‘Halo’ redefined the first-person shooter. I was also an avid gamer since the ‘70s but it wasn’t until 2001 that the music in games started to resonate with me. And then one day, a day that I still vividly remember, I had an epiphany… “That’s it! Video game music! It combines the two things I love the most… music and games! But where do I start?”

It was a difficult transition… Imagine throwing away fifteen years of experience in music and starting over in a new industry entirely with absolutely no connections. Scary to say the least. After a lot of dead ends, I got the crazy idea that my best chance of being noticed was to go through music licensing channels, rather than trying to start as a composer. So, I created a new moniker for my artist persona, “Atlas Plug” (Atlas is Salta backwards) and created an entire album on my own of big beat electronica that would be perfectly suited for licensing in games, television and film. I connected with a publisher who represented the album and before I even finished, Microsoft heard it and wanted to license four songs in a new game called Rallisport Challenge 2. And that is where it really all started. That year, my debut album “2 Days or Die” took the industry by storm with every track being licensed in games, television, and film.

At the same time, I signed with an agent and began getting opportunities to pitch myself as a composer in games. My first original score was a PC adventure game called “Still Life”. Shortly after that, I established myself as a composer when I was hired to score major titles like Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter and Need For Speed Underground 2.


How did you get involved with Deathloop and what did you think about the game’s time loop premise?

I was approached to work on Deathloop by the audio director that I had just finished working with on Wolfenstein Cyberpilot. When I heard about the unusual time loop mechanism and even more unusual music style, I was definitely intrigued.

How involved were the game’s directors/producers in collaborating with you on the game’s soundtrack? Were you given a lot of direction or was a lot of it left up to you?

I would say it was a healthy combination of both. Initially I was provided with a very comprehensive 50-page brief that described everything about the game. The audio director was also very specific about the late ‘60s aesthetic he was going for, although he knew that we were entering into uncharted territory with some of it.

I’m a big fan of collaborations so we had many emails back and forth and I did lots of my own research and explorations into potential musical approaches. After several weeks of experimentation, the signature sound of the score began to emerge.

I’ve read that this game was inspired by the Swinging Sixties, how did that inspiration play into the game’s soundtrack? 

Deathloop has a wide array of inspirations, including, but not limited to, the swinging sixties. The music of one of the fictional targets (visionaries), Charlie Montague, was definitely inspired by the swinging sixties and in particular, the superhero cartoon music back then, especially the original Batman series that I used to watch after school as a kid. That was a lot of fun to create.


On a related note, with the 60’s pop art style engulfing the game world, how much of the music was Inspired by films like James Bond.

The late ‘60s James Bond music was definitely an ingredient in the overall recipe of the score’s style, especially in key areas where I had to bring out the ‘secret military base’ vibe. The sixties were a very colorful time and so I had a lot of fun channeling that period in a myriad of ways.


What type of instruments are used in this score, I wasn’t expecting a game called Deathloop to sound like this but I absolutely love it. Also, do I hear a theremin in the mix?

[laughs] Yes, you certainly do. You can’t do ‘60s sci-fi and not use a theremin, right? [laughs] The approach I took for creating the palette for this score was imagining that I found a room of musical instruments that was locked up for fifty years. Then I would take those instruments and create a ‘60s inspired score through my own modern lens.

You’ll hear instruments such as Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Hammond B3, Farfisa, Clavinet, Mellotron, Electric Harpsichord, Marimba, Vibes, Orchestra, Guitars, Bass, Drums and lots of other sixties inspired ear candy.

I noticed that there is a separate track/theme for each of Colt’s targets and those themes sounded strikingly similar to me. What went into creating the music for each of the targets and did their themes have anything to do with how each needs to be approached in a specific order to ultimately beat the game?

Yes, they should sound similar as they are all based on the same composition. In fact, they were supposed to be even more similar than they are now.

The original idea was to have a single suite of music (Exploration, Fight and Escape) for all targets and then just introduce one or two different elements to identify the character. Eventually, some of the target tracks evolved to be more unique arrangements of the same music. But they are all structurally identical.

The differences between the arrangements for each visionary are based around the instruments used that would come to represent each of them. So, for example, Aleksis (the arrogant eccentric) featured some sophisticated jazz styles, Harriet (the ruthless, yet pious mystic) features a dark church bell and eerie gothic choirs, and your theremin makes an appearance for Wenjie Evans, the program founder who studied supernatural phenomena.


How much of a role does the time loop play in the music? For instance, Andrew Prahlow, the composer of Outer Wilds, another video game that features a time loop, mentioned that he crafted music that begins to speed up and become more insistent the closer the player got to the loop restarting. Does anything of that nature occur in the music of Deathloop?

Yes, but instead of the tempo changing, the music gets livelier. This parallels the activity of the island’s inhabitants since all the partying really gets going in the evening. Each of the four main areas of the island of Blackreef have their own musical suite. The Exploration phase of each of those suites has four different arrangements based on the four different time periods… midnight, morning, afternoon and evening.


How much time did you have to work on Deathloop? Were you brought in early in the process of game development or late?

I worked on the score for six months, starting in January 2020 and ending in June. I suppose it was somewhere in between but there was still over a year of development after I finished.


Do you have a favorite piece in the score?

I’d probably have to pick the main theme, “Welcome to Blackreef.” It was an interesting journey getting there though. The original theme idea proposed to me was to create a very mysterious theme, more in the spirit of the 1961 classic “Mysterious Island” and the “Lost” series. The audio director really liked the theme but about a month into the score, I began to feel that it didn’t quite match the vivacious personality of the game. So I secretly began working on a new theme. I wanted something catchier and, well… loopable. [laughs] Eventually I found the four chords and three notes I was looking for and spent a week putting the final touches on it. Once I had a finished version, I sent it over. Naturally, the audio director wasn’t quick to just replace what we had, but several weeks later he agreed that it worked better for the game and so, that became the new theme that most of the score is based on.

I hope you enjoyed reading this interview and I’d like to say thank you to Tom Salta for taking the time to speak with me about Deathloop.

See also:

Composer Interviews

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Loneliness, Hope, and Old Gods: Talking with Sergio Ronchetti About the Music of Eldest Souls (2021)

Last month I got the opportunity to speak with composer Sergio Ronchetti about his work on the recently released video game Eldest Souls. London-based, Spanish & Italian composer and sound designer Sergio Ronchetti boldly crafts scores dwelling within realms of dusky depth, mercurial mood, and aggressive execution, drawing upon his background in heavy metal and combining his lyrical tastes with more traditional, orchestral compositional techniques for a truly singular signature style.

Sergio’s debut score for the 2021 pixel-art, boss-rush, “Souls-like” video game Eldest Souls captures the lonely and desolate melancholy of the game world while also providing vigorous, combative battle music matching the intensity of the challenging gameplay and capturing the personality and essence of each iconic boss fight. He cites artists like Trivium, Machine Head, and Gojira as direct references to his Eldest Souls score – even if his instrumentations are far removed from theirs.

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Ronchetti’s work on Eldest Souls!

How did you get started as a composer?
I left high-school with the sole intention of joining a metal band and becoming a touring musician: which is what i did! I had been playing in bands ever since i was 15, using every spare minute at school to jam with friends in the music rooms. I guess during this time i picked up a lot of DAW production skills without knowing, which gave me a little head start when i decided to pursue media composing after about 4 years of touring. University was then the best place for me to learn exactly what kind of composer/musician i wanted to be, but I learned how to compose behind a computer around my degree. I took short course, extra classes and spoke to as many of my lecturers as possible to understand how to get my career started during my studies, not after. Combine this with saying yes to every opportunity that came my way and everything slowly built up from there.

How did you get involved with Eldest Souls?
I met Jon and Francesco at a free workshop in London hosted by Intel. They were showcasing a super early version of the game whilst taking a gap year during their studies to work on it. Initially they just wanted music for a trailer they were putting out. I sent them a track i thought could work and to my amazement they loved it! Pretty clear from then on that I was a good fit for their project, which is important when collaborating. I don’t think I was anything special, especially back then, but both parties were in the perfect position in terms of experience and skills to work together.

Were you given any specific directions by the game’s creators when working on the score?
The stylistic decisions were made very early on. This meant that I had a direction right from the get go, in terms of style, placement in the game and the scope of the game. The best part as that Jon and Francesco created a very stress-free and flexible workflow, which gave us all the chance to fail and learn moving forward. Sometimes they had reference tracks that they really wanted to hear in the game, other times i just asked for 3-4 words describing the mood, setting and emotions they wanted out of each boss fight.

A related question: was there a lot of collaboration with the game’s director/creators on the score?
As an indie studio, there’s often a lot of crossover within our individual roles. With the music and more so the sound design, we worked very closely and generated as much feedback and testing as possible to get the ideal work out of me. Similarly, I’d always offer to help out at conventions and managing other areas like the socials and marketing, so it really was a collaborative effort from all of us. And I loved every minute of it! We’ve all grown an attachment to this project and we’re all the more happy to see it finally out there for people to enjoy.

I’ve heard Eldest Souls described as “Souls-like” which I assume means it’s similar to the Dark Souls series of games. Is the music for Eldest Souls similar in any way to Dark Souls or did you take a different approach with the music?
In terms of gameplay you could say so. We limited the music to the combat sequences in the game, which left ambience and sound design to govern the travelling in-between. Really this was to reinforce the narrative of the game which is my sole purpose as a game audio professional. I am constantly asking myself “what story am I telling here?” before designing any sounds or music. So when the music hits, you know it’s go time, and everything springs into action. When it’s over, you’re left with the residual consequences of your action adding to the already desolate environment. But in terms of musical sound I wouldn’t say my music is anywhere close to DS or Bloodborne. We felt that overtly gothic and dark style was perhaps a little overkill for the art-style and pace of Eldest Souls. But I love those soundtracks and getting familiar with them during development was super inspiring.

In general, how did you approach scoring Eldest Souls? Were you able to play through early builds of the game or at least observe early gameplay footage for inspiration?
It was very hands on. Again, all praise to the boys from Rome for allowing me to be as involved as I was. I could quite literally jump into the game, test and mix my audio live using Fmod. Then once i was fairly happy, i’d send it over to them for review. It saved a lot of time and effort in the long-run. Being able to experience the gameplay first-hand is invaluable. It’s like scoring a film and getting to play the main character as you do.

Given how important the game’s boss fights are, how did you specifically go about creating music for those moments? Since each “Old God” encounter is different, I can only assume that would affect the music for each fight. Was there any extra pressure to get the music “just right”?
Really, since this was the first project for all of us, there was no pressure at all! Haha. We just wanted to do the best we could, and learn from the process. That being said, some boss fights came together very quickly, others needed more revisions. It was all about focusing on anticipating player emotions and the mini-narratives within each fight: was it fast-paced? How intimidating was it? What are the boss’ unique characteristics? Questions like that. I also often asked Jon and Franco for just 3-4 words describing the scene, and went from there. Each boss had its own personality that needed matching and enhancing with my music.

Did you make specific musical themes for the main character and the Old Gods? Or other aspects of the game?
Eldest Souls had 2 messages which needed conveying: the brutal combat and the idea of loneliness and hope. The former was expressed by each fight being narrated by a unique boss theme to match the style and personality of each God and beast you encounter. The latter is portrayed via the Main Theme. This title track was my way of tying the whole soundtrack together. Since each boss fight was so different, re-working one theme throughout didn’t end up making much sense from a gameplay experience perspective. It also gave me a chance to write in a totally different genre with my post-minimalist interests coming through with the repeating live vocals and haunting solo cello recordings. It was a lot of fun writing that track and for that reason it holds a special interest to me.

What was your process for deciding which instruments to use in the game’s score?
Keeping with the Souls-like vibe, i took a touch of inspiration from the From Software games. I remember a few years back going to a video games exhibit at the V&A museum here in London. There was a fabulous insight into the Bloodborne music and even previews of the score they used during recordings! The likes of Cris Velasco and Yuka Kitamura decided to cut out any typically high frequency or bright instruments, like trumpets or high violin lines. All with the intention of keeping it as dark sounding as possible. Aside from that, I still take great inspiration from my days of writing and playing heavy metal music which is hugely reliant on rhythmic ideas. For that reason the percussion in my tracks is always front and foremost. Metal drummers like Mario Duplantier and Joey Jordison are huge inspirations to me, even when i’m writing for melodic instruments.

How much time did you have to score Eldest Souls?
The project was initially meant to be a 13 month stint. But through the process we picked up a lot of momentum from wishlists and conventions that we ended up scaling the scope of the game up as we went to about 3 years of development. For that reason I had the opportunity to go back and re-write some of the initial tracks that weren’t quite up to scratch by the end of it. You can improve a lot as a composer in the space of just a year, so after 3 I was at a totally different level. However, I’m not a fan of going back and constantly re-writing and improving work. I’d rather just finish a project and move on to the next. Being prolific is the only way to progress as an artist.

Are there any musical details in the game you hope players notice?
If there are, they are VERY well hidden haha. But for example, towards the end of the project I started to lean into my metal roots even more. I even exercised taking my favourite metal songs and re-arranging the rhythms and melodies. It might be most obvious in The Imperator, if there are any fans of Machine Head out there. Also the intro to that track was super fun to write too. I often like taking classical and romantic pieces of music and re-orchestrating and arranging them. It’s a great way to use existing material and create something totally new by the end of it. The final boss intro had to be epic, so I used epic material. In my opinion it doesn’t get much bigger and grander than Carl Orff’s, O Fortuna.

Do you have a favorite musical theme in the game?
I’m quite partial to ‘Ov Fire and Water’ which I think came out great. Equally ‘Main Theme’ and ‘Lunar Descending’ are still some of my favourites.

I want to say a big thank you to Sergio Ronchetti for taking the time to speak with me about his work on Eldest Souls.

See also:

Composer Interviews

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

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Remembering the Human Element in an Alien Invasion: Talking with Composer Frederik Wiedmann About ‘Occupation Rainfall’ (2021)

I recently had the chance to speak with composer Frederik Wiedmann about his work on the film Occupation Rainfall. Wiedmann has been inspired by film composition since he first heard John Barry’s score to Dances With Wolves at the age of 12. Wiedmann is the composer behind the hit Disney Junior show Miles from Tomorrowland, as well as the critically acclaimed Netflix animated fantasy series The Dragon Prince, which is from the writers of the popular series: Avatar: The Last Airbender. In 2016, he won a Daytime Emmy Award in the category of “Outstanding Original Song” alongside lyricist Mitch Watson, for the song “True Bromance” from Dreamworks Animation’s Madagascar spinoff All Hail King Julien

Recently, Wiedmann composed music for the thriller Hangman (directed by Johnny Martin, starring Al Pacino, Karl Urban, Brittany Snow), and two projects for Millennium Films, Acts of Vengeance (featuring Antonio Banderas, Paz Vega and Karl Urban), and Day of the Dead: Bloodline (starring Sophie Skelton and Jonahon Schaech). His credits also include Universal’s “Doom – Annihilation” as well as the epic civil war drama Field of Lost Shoes (directed by Sean McNamara), Paul Schrader’s feature Dying of the Light, The Damned, and Intruders

In Occupation Rainfall:

 This film takes place two years into an intergalactic invasion of earth. Survivors in Sydney, Australia, fight back in a desperate ground war. As casualties mount by the day, the resistance and their unexpected allies, uncover a plot that could see the war come to a decisive end. With the Alien invaders hell-bent on making earth their new home, the race is on to save mankind.

I hope you enjoy my conversation with Frederik Wiedmann about Operation Rainfall!

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me! My first question is, how did you get started as a composer?
Ever since I heard John Barry’s score for “Dances with Wolves” in 1990, I couldn’t stop fantasizing about becoming a composer myself. This slowly transformed into reality when my studies in Jazz helped me to become a proper composer. And once I completed my BA in FIlm scoring at Berklee College of Music  in 2004, I was ready to go to Hollywood and dive into the industry. After having worked for a handful of busy and established composers in LA, I started my own journey as a film composer, and have since been writing cues every single day. My first film was the Warner Brothers direct to video horror  film “Return to House on Haunted Hill”, which opened the doors to several more feature films of the same genre, as well as many other fantastic projects. 

How did you get involved with Occupation Rainfall?

This happened through a rather unusual way for me. Generally I get work from either my agents, or previous collaborators, or by recommendation. In this case, I got an email through my website from the director Luke Sparke himself, inquiring about my availability. He said he’s heard a lot of my DC scores and has been appreciating them for a while now. So we started talking and he showed me some of the film’s incredible footage.  I signed on to this amazing and hugely ambitious project almost immediately and we were off to the races. I think in my excitement i scored all of reel 1 in just a matter of days, and the rest is history. 

I read that you and the director spotted about 117 minutes of music for this film, which is almost wall-to-wall music. How did you and the director decide on having a score that long, because that is a lot of music to write for one movie.
We both are a big fan of huge, adventurous blockbusters, and some movies we discussed as a musical concept were “Transformers”, “Independence Day”, and even older films like “The Rock” and even “Star Wars”. We both agreed that music can  become a driving force in this film, and almost another character, an element to guide us through this rather intense, and emotional story. It is a lot of music to write, no doubt, and I am sure this amount of music can be intimating for composers. But to be honest, it seems that I generally attracted music-heavy movies with a lot of score, and after having scored so many of these type of films, it sort of becomes second nature and simply a fun and exciting process for me. There are some moments of course where we decided to pull music out., but not that many. 

Was there a lot of collaboration on this score between you and the director on this
score?
Absolutely. Luke is incredibly knowledgeable in film music. He knows a lot about it and therefore could tell me exactly what he envisioned for his film. It almost felt like I’d known him for many years, since we had really great synergy and our ideas complemented each other really well. It is every composer’s dream to work for filmmakers that not only appreciate what you bring to the table, and give you the necessary creative  freedom to “do your thing”, but also know how to guide you and “direct” you in a way that is nothing but inspiring. 


What sets the music for Occupation Rainfall apart from earlier alien invasion films like Independence Day or Skyline to name a few examples?

Good question. I’ve seen all of them, and I am total sucker for this genre (anything with Aliens, sign me up!). What I liked in particular about Occupation: Rainfall was the human component in the story. The script had such wonderfully nuanced characters, that are constantly conflicted with their beliefs and values, and have to decide more than on one occasion how far they will go for the greater good. And this very human and personal dilemma plays a roll not only for our heroes, but also villains (the human ones). I think this is a very interesting topic to focus on in an alien invasion film, something that goes far beyond the Sci-fi and Action/Adventure element. So in terms of the music, I think this becomes very apparent, as there are lots of very emotional pieces, and even our “hero theme” is more about “human sacrifice” than an actual  “superhero”. 

How did working on Occupation Rainfall compare to working on earlier projects like The Dragon Prince, Doom: Annihilation, and the DC animated films, just to name a few examples?
Like I mentioned above, the amount of music was very similar (given the projects mentioned here are a lot shorter generally), all of them have a lot of complex orchestral music. The big difference from let’s say “The Dragon Prince”, which is a mostly “in the box’ score with the exceptions of soloists,  to “Occupation” was that we planned on recording a rather large live orchestra, and during the peak of a pandemic no less (Summer 2020). So besides writing a lot of music and getting it approved in time, I had to account for a lot of time for recordings in London and Macedonia, and for orchestration (done by my partner in crime Hyesu Wiedmann). So suddenly you have 3-4 weeks less for writing since you need a lot of time to get 2 hours + orchestrated and prepared for the individual players, and at least 1 week of recording, and mixing. So that changes things a little in the process, but if you know what you are going to do in advance, and you have people behind you that full support you, it becomes an easy process. 

How much time did you have to score this film?
I had close to 3 months from start to finish, which felt very comfortable. 

Did you create specific musical themes for different characters or ideas?
Yes. One of the first cues I wrote for this film was the hero theme I mentioned above. A theme mostly used for our protagonist heroes, that selflessly try to save humanity, while sacrificing quite a bit themselves. The female lead, Amelia, had a theme which introduces her screen presence, the aliens had a dark and ominous, almost leaning into horror, type theme, and we had a theme for “humanity”, which is also not quite uplifting so to speak, but a nice mix of darkness and optimism that gives the situation humankind finds itself in a nice and authentic color. 

Is there any musical detail that you hope stands out to viewers who watch this film?

I hope the audience will appreciate the thematic treatment throughout, the absolutely fantastic performances of my London Orchestra record at the famous AIR studios, the gorgeous string melodies performed by my orchestra in Macedonia, and the more unique instruments I layered in throughout, like the haunting Armenian Duduk, Japanese Shakuhachi, several layers of solo violins and cellos and dark female vocals, representing the rather scary alien queen.

I want to give a big thank you to Frederik Wiedmann for taking the time to talk with me about Occupation Rainfall and I hope you enjoyed the discussion!

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)

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