27th March 2018, I claimed Tuesdays as a day I would celebrate pieces of music that resonate deeply within my heart for one reason or another. These Tuesdays would be Christened #TuneTuesday, with the goal of not only showing my appreciation and love for music but to encourage conversation and debate amongst anyone who followed me on social media. The name of the hashtag comes from my love of alliterative titles, which is evident by at least one cue from a project I’ve worked on. ‘Scorching Scrimmage’ from Hartacon Tactics, ‘Recover & Regain’ from Two Point Hospital and ‘Cainite Congregation’ from the Lore By Night Podcast are three such examples.
The final #TuneTuesday of 2019 coincidentally falls on the last day of 2019, which got me thinking a lot about the last ten years of my life. In the Summer of 2009, I would decide to study and be examed on music, something that I had previously wanted to remain ‘a nice hobby’. Shameful I know, but I knew not the radical impact it would have on my life. Since the first music lesson someday in September 2009, I found my purpose in life, which is to partake a career in music. A year later, I decided I would compose. I didn’t know at the time how I would make a living doing this, but I was determined to do it somehow. It took ten years of hard work, patience and dedication, but I finally made it. I am a professional composer and I find it incredibly exciting to be a part of the gaming industry, learning and developing compositional techniques and trade secrets within the gaming industry.
Certain pieces of music, both in and out of video games, had a huge impact on my compositional sound throughout the last ten years and I wish to do a special #TuneTuesday post dedicated to those pieces of music and the geniuses that wrote them, some I am honoured to call my colleges. They won’t be in any particular order unless I state otherwise. I have spoken about some of these pieces before, so I am probably going to be revisiting old ground here but I’m sure you won’t mind...
One little disclaimer before I fully dive into this thread, one that I wish I didn’t have to make but will mention anyway. One of my defining musical influences during my mid-teens was the cue ‘The Street of Whiterun’ from Skyrim. I will not discuss this soundtrack, the cue or its composer for obvious reasons that have soured my previous love for the game and its soundtrack.
1. Nascence (Austin Wintory)
I might as well do the most difficult part of this blog-esque post first, as it will probably be here where I will go blind through my own tears as I regurgitate one’s memories concerning this game and these cues. That, and I’m sure some of you are fed up of me entering fanboying Austin Wintory yet again.
It was during the later part of my GCSEs, early A-Levels (2011-2012), I decided that I wanted to be a composer and I was fairly certain that I wanted to compose for video games. I never really have been a huge film or TV fan, and I have always idolised video games. That was what I wanted to do. The biggest doubt I had over this was not the struggle that all freelance artists fall into at some point or another (which I was unaware of at sweet sixteen), but whether my more ‘serious’ classical/romantic style would fit into the mould of video game music. I don’t say this with any level of elitism/arrogance. Many orchestral game scores up until the 2010s had a very typical ‘Epic Game Sound’ that would simply loop around until certain trigger points within the game’s engine were met. This is neither good nor bad on its own.
I love a good melody and sweeping romantic/impressionistic harmony but did not know how these colours would fit into a game without getting in the way. Alongside this doubt of ‘am I doing the right thing with my life?’, I was beginning to suffer badly from depression and my self-esteem and courage were beginning to nosedive at an alarming rate for a variety of reasons I shan't go into.
Wanting to develop my sound further, I took to YouTube and searched ‘Best Video Game Scores’ which led me to a WatchMojo video going through their top 10 Video Game Composers. He was number four on their list because his music for Journey was the first video game ost to be nominated for a GRAMMY. I knew I had to give this game a go and see what the fuss was about.
The first thing you hear when you hover on the game icon on the PS3/4 icon is the cue 'Nascence' and I truly overwhelmed with emotion and, at the time, though it was one of the most beautiful pieces of music I had heard, and it wasn't even 2mins long! You never hear this cue in its entirety in the game, only short fragments.
Journey and the entirety of its soundtrack is inspiring, both on a musical and technical level as the cues are cleverly implemented within the game engine. After playing Journey and wiping away many an emotional tear, I knew that I wanted to do what Austin did. Not to copy his sound or make another Journey, but I heard music with rich colours and unique textures that came and went depending on where and what I was doing on the map. It is a sound that could only exist in that game.
That was what I wanted to do. I wanted to contribute sounds to whatever world I was helping to build so that music wasn’t just an afterthought to be slapped on at the last minute. All of Austin’s scores have this quality. None of his scores sounds like another one and I am a huge fan of such diversity. With diversity comes greater appreciation and understanding. With appreciation and understanding of the wilder world, comes a greater knowledge and respect for those around you.
I don't have many male heroes in my life, but Austin Wintory is definitely one of them. The music of Austin Wintory will always have a special place in my heart because of discovering him on a Top 10 video (soz). I am ever so grateful to have been blessed by so many wonderful soundtracks composed by him since and many wonderful games that he has worked on. I wouldn’t have had the courage to write music for Two Point Hospital whilst juggling with a dissertation. In short, thank you for the music.
2. The Show Must Go On (Queen)
My final year of studying my GCSEs (2011-2012) proved to be an important time, for that was when I decided to become a composer, as previously mentioned. Despite this, one was destined to perform an ensemble piece. In less pompous, academic terms, I had to form a band.
All the other music students formed their own bands, leaving me and my friend P. by ourselves. With help from the guitar and bass teacher on bass and vocals and a Year 9 pupil named T, we had a band-I mean, ensemble.
Learning to play an instrument through sheet music is one of the most important skills I ever learnt as a musician, for one can physically see how piece unfolds and how it is structured and arranged. Studying Queen’s swansong is particularly fascinating because of such exotic harmonies and key changes (Bm-C#min for the verse and choruses and F major in the bridge because fuck any sense of normality!).
One type of harmony that is used throughout the piece is what is known as the suspended harmony, otherwise known as the sus chord, which is a form of suspension.
A basic chord is made up 3 notes, the root, (note 1 of scale) mediant (note 3) and dominant (note 5). The mediant can either be major or minor, which are semitone/half-step apart. If you use the 2nd note (the supertonic) or 4th note (the subdominant) you form a sus 2 or sus 4 chord. They are very simple chords but are effective at creating beautiful tension without throwing tonality out of the window. The one that got me the most is the Dsus4 chord to D major at the end of the bridge, creating an almost religious sense of home. I don’t think enough composers use suspensions. They are incredibly effective harmonic and melodic devices.
It was also with this song that I discovered I was both a perfectionist and procrastinator (both have been demolished now) because I spent a good hour dicking about with a keyboard to get the right synth string/pad tone to make it as similar to the original as possible. I learnt what ADSR meant that day. I think it is because of that assessment that I spend at least an hour acquiring the exact synth tone now.
3. Insane Family (Olivier Deriviere)
Similarly to Journey, the score to 2018s Vampyr is rather interactive and manages to capture the dark and gritty atmosphere of this intriguing game. Whilst not as technical as Journey (few games are), this particular cue can enhance different emotions depending on your actions in the game.
In Vampyr, you play as a Dr Jonathen Reid, who has returned to post-WW1 London to carry on doctoring and visit his ill mother, only to have been embraced and is now a (particularly strong) vampire. This is a game with a morality system. You can get to know the civilians and increase the value of their blood, which acts as this game's EXP. Doing so will make you stronger and life easier for you, but doing this makes the surrounding districts worse off and people start dying. You can get through the game without sucking any civilians dry, but the game becomes much more difficult as a result, and you may have to kill that guy trying to turn his life around. It is a brilliantly frustrating balancing act that is much more fun than I just described.
My issue with morality systems, in general, is that the game either forces to be either cunt or saint, with somewhere in the middle being all that boring. There is rarely any real consequences either until the end game. Vampyr is a tad different (cue context/spoilers): Towards the end of the game's first act, you have to locate some other vampire who has been killing people off willy-nilly, and you chase them to a graveyard. This vampire is your presumed dead sister, Mary Reid, who you accidentally turned into a vampire. She, of course, is not all too pleased to see you and has bought your mother along, who has become Mary's brainless puppet.
A cutscene plays, which can go in one of two ways. If you haven't killed any/few civilians, Jonathan is incredibly sympathetic, begging Mary not to kill their mother out of spite, assuring her that he can find a cure for vampirism, willing to save them both. She reluctantly listens and sends mother home. If you have been sucking off people left right and centre, Jonathan is incredibly angry and hostile with her. She is with him also, because she knows how merciless you have been. She kills your mother, angering Jonathan further. Regardless of your morality, you have to fight Mary, which is where today's cue enters.
Now whilst the cue during the cutscene (titled; 'The Funerals') is far more interactive, as you won't hear certain elements depending on your actions and the boss music is broken down into different segments, which come and go, depending on how low Mary's health is. It fairly simple and rather typical for video game music interactivity. 'Insane Family' is far more interesting to me for the following reasons. Other than being incredibly dramatic (which is amazing, considering it is just one cello some percussion, and thunder samples(?)) but depending on how you have played the game (shown in the previous cutscene), one can interpret the emotional delivery of this cue, on an emotional level differently.
If you have been a morally good vampire, this can be the anger coming from Mary, with the pitiful sorrow of Jonathan riding underneath, not wanting to end his sister. If you have been a morally bad vampire than this is just pure hatred for his Mary, wanting to eliminate his once-beloved sister who has clearly gone mad (from Jonathan's perspective).
Whilst the interactivity/implementation of music in video games is incredibly important to me, what has (and always will) exceed that is the need to imply certain emotional responses in the player. Games are no different from films in that regard. To create a cue that has two different responses depending on the outcome requires a huge amount of thought and understanding in composition, and love the music for Vampyr because there is simply nothing else like it. You may not like it's extensive dialogue trees and the inability to run for long periods of time without the game crashing, but I can guarantee you will feel that you are in a dark, gritty TV drama about vampires.
4. La Cathédrale Engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral) (Claude Debussy)
My school was an all-boys school, which also had its own sixth form, which was where I studied my A-Levels. One of the selling points for the school was its smaller classes, which meant that A-Level classes had no more than 5 pupils at a time. In the case of music, there was two. The other pupil left at the end of the first year, leaving me having one-on-one lessons with my music teacher, and I would love every music lesson that year.
It was during this second year of my A-Levels (2013-2014) that my teacher went full-throttle with the music theory, which I have always loved because I am incredibly weird. I still have the old exercise book written by Ann Rice that was helpful during one’s dissertation.
Anyway, a lot of the music theory taught by my teacher and this exercise book was what is considered the true classical approach to composition, which I found pretty odd (and by Classical, I mean the Classical period of music, not all orchestral music that is coined classical). One of these practices was not constantly using consecutive fourths and fifth intervals, be it in motion or to form a chord/two-part harmony. If that doesn’t mean much to you, think of any rock song by The Who, Green Day or Nirvana. You have heard this open sound before, many, MANY times.
One lunchtime, the GCSE and A level music students were made to attend a lunchtime music concert. Someone from a nearby college was entering a competition and used us as a practice audience. He played a handful of pieces by Liszt, Chopin and Mozart, all of which were masterfully performed and interpreted. The opening piece was The Sunken Cathedral by Debussy, who was a huge rule-breaker in 19th Century France.
The piece is filled with these huge consecutive fourths and fifths and excessive pedalling on the piano, often the sustained one being held for most of the piece, creating this wash of sound that transported me to places I had never been before. In addition to this, I just fell in love with the constant extensions heard in the chords, which essentially means Debussy just added notes on top of your basic chords, usually in clusters to create a brilliantly warm sound. I can remember going to my music teacher after the concert and telling him about how much I loved this piece and Debussy’s use of harmony in that piece. During the following lesson, we discussed the piece in great detail, tearing apart and putting back together again. When I was allowed to compose a piece of music for an assessment that wouldn’t penalise me for following Classical tradition, I adopted harmonic cluster chords and extended close harmonies, both are things I practice to this day.
5. & 6. Riverman & Introduction (Nick Drake)
When I went to college (2014-2016), I studied Music Tech, to further my music production skills to improve the quality of my orchestral mock-ups and recordings. Despite it being a Music Tech course, it focused a lot on performance and songwriting/craft. I had lots of experience with the former at school and the sixth form, but not the latter. I learnt a lot during those two years about that though.
During my second and final year, I felt more confident than I ever had done before. My guitar playing improved, as did my songwriting. That being said, none of them is mainstream radio material. They were good though...or so I was told.
One afternoon, I auditioned to play in a college gig that would take place during an opening evening. One of the three songs caught the eye of one of my lecturers, for it reminded him of a Nick Drake song. At the time, that meant very little to me, so I wasn’t sure that it was a compliment or an insult. So when I naturally investigated this further, I searched for Nick Drake on the YouTubes and found Riverman, which is in 5/4 time that couldn’t decide whether it was in C major or C minor with this incredibly chilling string arrangement, with Nick Drake’s vocals that could easily be a sax line.
I love it!
Nick Drake would become my favourite guitarists and one of my favourite songwriters. His lyrics were incredibly poetic and fuckin’ miserable that toyed with death and insecurities with unique chord voices and string tunings unique only to Nick Drake. I quickly saw what that lecturer saw in that song of mine.
As I do with most pieces of music I love, I have a habit of studying other works that they did, which led me to ‘Introduction’, one of the few instrumental tunes of his, and one of many string arrangments done by the great Robert Kirby. Lyrical and simply subline, with legato lines that soar like songbirds. It is quite easy for anyone to over saturate one’s orchestrations with notes and movement where it is not needed. Less is often more, and any writer/arranger for strings should study Robert Kirby’s works.
7. The Lark Ascending (Ralph Vaughn Williams)
On the topic of brilliantly British writing, I return to one of my favourite pieces of classical music, a piece I discovered whilst transition from college to university. It is a tone poem set the actual poem of the same name with a solo violin and chamber orchestra accompaniment. The observant ear will notice that the strings will have mutes on the strings, not to interfere with the delicate virtuosic pentatonic/folky melody (the harmonies are also rather simple). Likewise, and solos from the horns, clarinets, flute etc. are all literal solos. Nothing interferes with the melody, which is just as useful composition advice, as it is on a music production level.
As is the case with many of the pieces on this list, The Lark Ascending tells a story through music and create many stirring emotions in the process. It is an important principle I stand by when composing.
8. Literally any Pokemon Game Score… (Various, mainly Junichi Masuda & Jo Ichinose)
I have always been heavily passionate about the Pokemon games and their accompanying scores, even though I have rarely talked about them on my social media pages. I should make an effort to address throughout 2020.
But I digress. I think I have always been influenced by the game design and music of the Pokemon games. I learnt I loved RPGs (and by extension, JRPGs) with simple battle mechanics strengthened by strong narratives. The Pokemon games have played their part in my love for catchy melodies and interesting nonfunctional harmonies that I try and incorporate into my works as I deem appropriate.
9. The entire Oneknowing Album (Lena Raine)
I first heard of Lena Raine in a similar fashion that so many others did, which was through the critically acclaimed game ‘Celeste’. I haven’t gotten round to playing the game or listening to the soundtrack in full, as I have a rule of thumb that I won’t listen to a soundtrack before experiencing the accompanying media, to minimise spoilers. I will admit that I have heard snippets of it through social media. Of course I have. There has been no avoiding it, as both the music and the game have been very popular. ‘Celeste’ is one of many games this decade that tackles difficult mental wellbeing. In particular, anxiety is a focus of the game, in addition to overcoming all the odds that life throws at you. It saved a few of my friend’s lives, something I am grateful for. I said this to Lena when I briefly spoke to her at the 2019 BAFTA Game Awards, thanking her on their behalf. She seemed pleasantly surprised that her music had that effect on these people.
What makes the music of Lena Raine stand out to me is how unique her sounds are. I say ‘sounds’, for Lena has a wonderful take on synthesis and production that you just don’t hear anywhere else. And there is no better place to experience such wonderful electronic soundscapes than with her latest album (as of 2019), Oneknowing, which is the most refreshing albums I have heard in years. So many contemporary artists follow similar production techniques and harmonic progressions that have become stale and boring to my ears. With Oneknowing, you are never quite sure what to hear when you listen to this album and I love that. One moment you are in a New Age bed of dreams, before being teased with a mini-D&B backbeat that pulls the rug beneath your feet, with strangely hypnotising lullabies that could fit nicely into the ‘NieR’ franchise.
In case you’re curious, my favourite track on the album is Momodani.
10. GIANT (IMERUAT)
I have been in awe with this piece and its music video with the same level of intrigue and childish wonder since the first time I watched it on YouTube. It was one of the more influential YouTube algorithm recommendations of my life.
IMERUAT is a duo consisting of composer Masashi Hamauzu and singer Mina Sakai. Masashi Hamauzu is most famous for composing the soundtrack to FINAL FANTASY XIII, which is one of my most favourite games in the franchise (don’t at me) in addition to one of my favourite soundtracks. Mina, whilst most famous for being the face of IMERUAT, she was also a vocalist on the FFXIII score (‘Sulyya Springs’, ‘Will to Fight’, and ‘Gapra Whitewood’).
The arrangement of this is deceptively complex as the sections hop back from 5/8 time to 6/8 time, meaning an additional quaver (or eighth-note to you Yanks) is added, which is just enough for the piece to remain interesting on a rhythmic level. That is not to say the harmonic content and melodies aren’t interesting. I think it is a beautiful violin melody that has clearly been double-tracked (you can hear a slight chorus effect, implying the same violinist played the same part twice) to create a richer and stronger sound.
What is also deceptive is the harmonies found in this piece. The syncopated piano chords could easily be found in any jazz standard. Jazz is hidden behind many of Masahi Hamauzu’s works, usually with close voicings (ie, the notes are close together, not spread out) which create a warm texture, like a hug.
Then there is the dance that accompanies the piece, which is incredibly captivating. Music and dance have gone hand in hand with each other for literally thousands of years, so it is only natural for us to seek pleasure out of the relationship between song and dance. This especially so because I find it so unprecedented. I long for the day to have a piece of music of mine set to dance or write a piece of music to be set to dance.
There are hundreds of pieces that have played a huge part in my compositional style, so to name just ten(ish) examples across a 10 year period is painstakingly difficult, so I will leave some honourable mentions for to explore at your leisure, in no particular order of preference. Some are albums, whilst some are specific pieces of music.
- The soundtracks for Silent Hill 1-4 by Akira Yamaoka
- 'The River Cam' by Eric Whitacre
- The soundtrack to the Kharon's Crypt by Tony Manfredonia when that releases (I had the pleasure of hearing snippets of it whilst it was being worked on, as my friend Tony would ask for my help concerning production (things like EQ, compression, etc.)).
- Any score done by Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman & Erich Wolfgang Korngold
- Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Stephen Sondheim
- The Music from Riverdance by Bill Whelan
- Wicked by Stephen Schwartz
- 'The Light We Cast' from Everybody’s Gone to The Rapture by Jessica Curry
- The first movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, performed by Jacqueline du Pré
- The soundtrack to Shadow of The Colossos by Kow Otani
- 'Music' by John Miles
- Nick Drakes albums. All of them!
- Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of The Worlds (Original cast recording and New Generation cast)
- The soundtracks to Dark Souls & Tales of Berseria by Motoi Sakuraba
- The Bloodborne soundtrack, composed by various fantastic composers.
- The soundtrack to CHAOS;CHILD by Takeshi Abo
- Oxygene by Jean Michel-Jare
- 'Fire on High' from Face the Music by Electric Light Orchestra
- The soundtrack for The Last Guardian by Takeshi Furukawa
- Requiem for My Mother by Rebbeca Dale
- Literally, everything done by Kate Bush, Earth, Wind & Fire, Motown, CHIC & Shoji Meguro and the rest of the ATLUS Sound Team.