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Interview with Jason Graves

Jason Graves


Jason Graves’ Interview Here in Bsospirit we always have promoted young composers. It is not necessary to be too smart to know that their music is the future. But in some cases they are the present as well. The interview you are about to read will surprise you.

That is a feeling we have, from Bsospirit, after having the pleasure of an intercourse of impressions with Jason Graves. Jason is a very talented composer, with clear ideas and an awesome education and expertise increased along his long effort for one of the most important videogames of the moment, “Dead Space”.

Anyone who mixes the present with the promising future of Jason, can read this interview, listen to his music and know for sure that, if Lady Luck goes hand to hand with him, Jason will write that future.




BSOSpirit: In which way do you become interested in the world of film or videogame music and which one was your first job?  What can you tell us about your experience in Tv and Cinema?

Jason Graves: I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Music Composition and was trying to figure out what to do once I graduated.  There are really only a few options with that kind of degree, and I knew I wanted to compose music for a living if at all possible.  I found out the University of Southern California had a Film and Television Music program, so I applied.  About halfway through that program I started working in television and soon began composing for movie trailers.  I was scoring for film at the same time, but it was mostly ghost writing, is which getting paid but not getting credit.  It took a little bit of work on my part to finally get to the point where I was getting hired as the only composer on the job for films.

This was all starting back in the mid 1990’s when television still had a lot of custom music, as opposed to now where music libraries are so prolific.  I stayed very busy between scoring commercials, television shows and film.  In the end, the world of videogame music came to me, so it wasn’t really a conscience decision on my part to go into games, but I’m really glad I did!

BS: Before analizing your compositions for the videogames world, focusing primarily in your new score for Dead Space. Which works do you feel yourself more proud of for these two different worlds, film and videogames music?

JG: A general rule for me is I’m the most proud of what I just finished working on.  That being said, I don’t really like to go back and listen to music once I’ve finished it.  I tend to be overly critical and end up thinking more about what I wish I had time to fix.  I definitely do more work in video games nowadays, so that music would be something I would play for someone first, if they wanted to hear examples of my work.  However, I also recently finished a score for a film that was a thriller, so I would probably play a little bit of that as well.

BS: Was Curious George your first score for a videogame?. How do you get the chance to work for this Vicious Cycle & Nickelodeon Videogame?

JG: I got involved in videogames about seven years ago.  The first game I scored was King Arthur, which was the game adaptation of the same film, developed by Krome Studios in Australia and published by Konami.  I submitted a demo to the producer of the game and he hired me based on the music I had composed.  All I really knew at the time was that Hans Zimmer was composing the film score and the producer wanted the game to sound as much like Hans as possible.  In the end, most reviews of the game praised the “epic music, straight from the film” that I had composed specifically for the game.  That means I did my job, even if I didn’t get any credit for it in the reviews.

BS: Flushed Away, Zathura, Wild Wild West, Jaws Unleashed, Star Wars Trilogy: Apprentice of The Force, or some of your scores for the Star Trek universe, are cinematic adaptations translated into the videogame medium in which you have been involved. Is the work here as creative and free as in some other videogame scores, or do you feel more limited to take decisions or experiment with the legacy of music for the original stories?

JG: Honestly, I would have to answer specifically to each title.  Each one is different, both in the way I approached the score and how the producer or audio director wanted it to sound.  One of the most exciting movie-based game franchises I’ve worked on was Star Trek.  There was definitely a legacy of music I had to honor, but at the same time put my own stamp on the score for the games.  Jaws Unleashed had the same kind of mindset - use the shark theme but bend it to your own means.  The scores for these titles needed to sound familiar and still new and fresh.

Star Wars and Wild Wild West were both adaptations of the original scores, so I wasn’t composing anything new.  I was taking the music the film composer had written and re-writing it for the game engine.  However, they were both still a lot of fun to work on.  I was a student of the great Elmer Bernstein and attended the recording session for his score to the film, which was a lot of fun.  Likewise for John Debney’s score to Zathura, even though I composed an original score for that title.  I was able to talk many times on the phone with Harry Gregson-Williams about his score to Flushed Away as I was composing my own score to the film’s videogame.  Those conversations with Harry helped keep both the film and game experience grounded in the same musical world.

BS: Speaking about these adaptations, which score got from you a stronger effort as a professional, and which one is your personal favorite of them?

JG: I look at each new game as the chance to learn something new and try some things I’ve never tried before, musically speaking.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a huge blockbuster film adaptation, a continuing franchise of an extremely popular game or a smaller, independant children’s title.  I pour my heart and soul in every game I have the priviledge of scoring.  And I really look at each job that way - it’s a priviledge to be able to earn a living composing music, let alone music for games!  I try hard to keep a good perspective on what I’m able to do for a career and not take it for granted.  That’s why I work so hard on each title, no matter how big or small it may seem to the general public.

As far as a personal favorite film-based game, I love the scores from the first two Star Trek films so much - that whole game franchise was like a dream come true for me.  The only direction from the developer was to make sure that the score “sounded like Star Trek.”  Given the vast universe that had already been scored for Star Trek, I had plenty of room to flex my muscles and come up with lots of original themes and combat cues.  Star Trek: Legacy was the first time all the captains from every film were represented together, so I had the chance to compose an original theme for each one, which was a lot of fun.

BS: Let’s talk about Dead Space. How do you get involved with the project?

JG: My agent got a call from EA.  They had a new franchise and they needed a unique approach to the score, one that would set the game apart from other titles in the same genre.  There were some example tracks already picked out, film music from “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “The Grudge” - real suspense, horror kinds of tracks.

I submitted some music I had composed from other projects and also put together a few cues specifically for the Dead Space pitch.  In a month or so I got a call from Dead Space Audio Director Don Veca, who loved what I had submitted and wanted to arrange a meeting and sit down and play through the game.

BS: Ok, in the very minute you were already in Dead Space and you did your first approach into the elements of the videogame, which one do you think was the biggest challenge for the creation of the score?

JG: The element I spent most of time trying to figure out was how to make the music play as seamlessly as possible in the game.  Don had a wonderful idea to create each piece as four individual layers of music that increase the musical tension as the layers get higher.  The bottom layer would be a exploring, creepy kind of piece and the very top layer would be a huge, super tense horror piece.  The game engine would base which layer was playing at any given time depending on what was happening in the game.  We both wanted the final result to be a natural, flowing score that was so integrated with the visuals it was almost like you were watching a film instead of playing a game.

So the task I was given was to compose everything almost in a deconstructed format.  When I finished a cue I would split out the four layers of music and send them to Don to hear.  Each one of those layers had to be able to stand on its own, but also work with the other layers to create a “big picture” kind of piece, where everything related to each other and the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

BS: It is refreshing and surprising your approach to this story of space terror through a natural orchestral/symphonic palette, avoiding for instance, electronic samplers or artificial (or created in the studio) sounds. Why do you decide to take this more organic sense to the music, when on the contrary, the story seems perfectly fit for electronics?

JG: I think it’s fair to say the orchestra/electronica hybrid sound that permiate so many film and game scores these days has become “expected,” if not a little tedious and predictable.  That’s not to say there weren’t some attempts to integrate electronic elements into the score.  I did some experiments with them, but they seemed to pull you out of the gameplay experience.  The creatures you battle in Dead Space are totally organic and non-human, but you can usually see some sort of human aspect still left in them, which I think makes them that much more scary.  I wanted the music to have the same kind of approach.  Everything is natural and organic, but listeners may not recognize a lot of the score as “music” – that’s an intentional direction that hopefully creates a much more tense and scary game experience.

There was also more than a year of experimentation and development with the score itself, with the final result being what you hear in the game.  Being able to take that time allowed us to hear how different kinds of music worked or didn’t work under the gameplay.

BS: No doubt, the success of choosing a more organic feel to the music, maybe gets things more complicated. Was it easy working, not with one, but two orchestras, the Northwest Sinfonia y la Skywalker Symphony?. Tell us about the proccess of getting a sound so carefully worked and elaborately fashioned for Dead Space.

JG: When you’re dealing with electronic instruments or orchestra samples, it’s just you sitting at your keyboard.  You have the freedom to change anything you want on the fly almost instantly.  If there’s a full orchestra (or two) involved, things start getting a little more complicated, especially since we wanted to have a lot of control over the final version of the music, so that the score could adapt almost instantly to what was happening in the game.  That’s a big point as well - the music ADAPTS to the gameplay and changes as the game changes.  What it doesn’t do is take a player out of the game by “telling” them when something’s about to happen.  I wanted a score that was reactive instead of predictive.

There was definitely a lot of planning that I had to put into each of the two scoring sessions - more than I had ever done before!  The goal of using live orchestras was to capture a unique sound for Dead Space that hadn’t really be used in games before.  I composed hours of effects and experimental textures and then recorded the orchestras playing everything, but I recorded all the instruments individually.  That gave me the control I needed for the game’s adaptive music engine.

I had at my disposal literally anything I could think of doing with a live orchestra.  Normally I would produce a demo of the score for the producers to hear and approve before the recording sessions.  But with Dead Space the avant-garde techniques and effects I recorded are not available in commercial sample libraries, so no one heard any of the music before we went to the recording stage.

I researched and studied every piece of 20th century experimental music I could find and completely immersed myself in these beautiful and horrific aleatoric techniques.  Those techniques became the building blocks for the entire score; A puzzle to be put back together in different ways for different parts of the game.

Working with both of the orchestras was a wonderful experience.  We were recording extremely tense, scary music, but both recording sessions were really low key.  There was a great vibe going.  We all laughed so much between takes I had to make it a habit to make sure we got silence after a piece was finished, otherwise the ending would be spoiled with folks chuckling.

I think a lot of it had to do with how much FUN aleatoric music is to perform, which is funny given the final results of the score.  Players had a huge amount of freedom to improvise on their instruments and the orchestra really got into it, too.  Some of the most fun the strings had was playing with these wooden dowels I had made for the session - they were an inexpensive substitute for the backs of the bows that string players use.  I had them tapping and playing everything possible, from the sides of their instruments to the music stands, and I was conducting it all live during a fifteen minute take.  Everybody was smiling the whole time - I think we all felt like kids again, just goofing off and having fun.

BS: “The Necromorphs Attacks" and "The Leviathan" are two excellent highly fuelled adrenaline rides. What was your major inspiration to accomplish those themes, apart of the game references?

JG: I think it all goes back to the emotional response I’m trying to elicit through a specific piece of music.  Both of those pieces were for combat with the Necromorphs, so I knew the music had to be really raw and aggressive.  I also chose to utilize rhythm and meter changes in place of the more traditional, familiar musical themes that I could have composed for those pieces.  There are definitely some short musical motifs that are played around the orchestra, but they aren’t really something you would leave humming when the music is finished playing.

In general I was going more for emotion and texture than a traditional, thematic approach would have allowed.  I think the non-musical aspects of the score are what set it apart - they were also the most inspring to work with.  It seems the more time I spent on these crazy, adrenaline-fueled combat tracks the more ideas I had for new tracks.  A few times I even composed a piece before I knew exactly where it would end up in the final game.

The nice thing about using effects and textures is you get an immediate sense of what the music is all about - it’s almost instantaneous, even if you don’t necessarily recognize exactly what it is you’re hearing.  In fact, I think the more alien and unfamiliar the sounds are, the more they have the potential to scare the pants off you.  That was a driving source of inspiration for me when I was working on the entire score for Dead Space.

BS: Despite of having accomplished a pretty original and unmistakable sound for Dead Space, it is easy to feel much of the Jerry Goldsmith clever style of composing, in your work for this score. Am I a mistaken? He became your teacher at the University of Southern California, didn’t he?

JG: I had the immense pleasure of studying under both Jerry Goldsmith and Christopher Young.  I think it’s fair to say there’s some influence from both of them in the score to Dead Space.  I really love Jerry’s rhythmic style, especially being a classically trained percussionist.  All those odd meters bouncing around and syncopated rhythms lend themselves to being unpredictable and catching the listener off guard.

There’s also a wonderful sense of immediacy and urgency that Jerry had with so many of his horror scores, like Alien and Poltergeist.  I wanted to convey that same sense of dread and fear in the score for Dead Space.  Hopefully what players hear will grab them and put them on the edge of their seat, even if they don’t even realize what they’re listening to is music.

Chris is another master at psychological suspense.  A few of his film scores were early examples of the direction EA suggessted for the score.  In the end I found many of the “source” pieces Chris had used as inspiration for his scores - the 20th century experimental classical pieces I was talking about earlier.  It turns out I used many of the building blocks and ideas that Chris has used in several of his film scores, albeit I treated them differently becuase of the interactive requirements of the game’s score.

BS: Where is the secret of a score so addictive for the listener as Dead Space, in spite of the use of certain atonal elements or sync rhythms that could have made of an isolated listening an uneasy experience?

JG: For the simple purpose of balance, there are fortunately some more cinematic, less horror-based cues in the game.  Those help break up the dissonance of the rest of the score.  But even when I was composing the most aweful sounding music (and I mean that in a good, horror-based way), I always tried to ground it in a specific emotion, whether it be tension while you’re walking down a hallway or sheer terror as you’re running away from a huge creature.

The most base musical language is EMOTION.  If you’re not speaking some sort of emotion to the listener, why would they bother to even listen?  My intent was to provide an emotional experience though my music, which honestly is always my intent, no matter what the project is.  But for Dead Space there was a more unique challenge in that the music was so often extremely brutal and visceral.  I wanted to keep that idea of immediacy and emotion and pull the listener into the world of Dead Space, but also keep the music fresh and new so you weren’t hearing the same Psycho-strings playing every time you encountered a new creature.

BS: I suppose that musically your new score for Aliens RPG will keep many similarities or resemblances with Dead Space in terms of style, but which important differences will we find between them?

JG: That’s an excellent question that, unfortunately, I can’t answer yet.  :)

BS: Having a look over your previous efforts … Seed of Darkness, Area 51, Blacksite: Area 51, Dead Space or Aliens RPG, What do you feel being the official composer for Stories with Grotesque Spacial Monsters or Bugs?, ha ha. Do you think it is time for a change, or do you feel really comfortable with the genre?.

JG: If that was all I ever composed, then I think I would be ready for a change.  However, the beauty of game music, at least what I’ve experienced so far, is having the chance to compose for all different kinds of games.  Different games require different styles of music, which keeps me “fresh” and happy to come back to a genre I had previously composed for.  Right now I’m working on a techno racing game, a sci-fi shooter and a wonderful kids project, which is really a lot of fun because I’ve got two girls that are the target audience.  It’s also refreshing to “cleanse the music palette” and work on simple, musical, tonal tracks for a change.

The Sci-Fi genre in general is very liberating - there’s really a lot you can do with the music.  I’ve composed my fair share of sci-fi music and have been able to provide unique scores for each one.  I think this speaks volumes for both the potiential of so many different styles of music in sci-fi as well as game producer’s willingness to embrace them.

BS: Regarding the low level of quality of some of the musical compositions for big budget films and blockbusters right now, do you think the videogame area is the right place nowadays for a composer to develop his creativity in total freedom (avoiding non creative people invading the process of creation of the music for instance)?.

JG: Composing music for games definitely has a lot more freedom than the world of film music, but it can be a double-edge sword.  On one hand, there’s a lot more freedom - I get descriptions like “Creepy Boss Fight” or “Ambient Exploration.”  Other than general instrument/mood guidelines, I have total freedom to create whatever music I think would work the best for that specific scene in the game.

On the other hand, I have to work harder to keep up the excitement and “cinematic” quality of the music since I’m not constantly scoring to picture as I would with a film.  With games, I may have a screen-capture of the gameplay, but I have to wait until the music is implemented into the game to hear the final results.

Also, people may watch a film a few times and hear the score once or twice - the whole film is maybe two hours long.  In contrast, even “short” games provide at least 10-12 hours of gameplay.  I have to compose with the idea that players are going to hear my music a lot more than they would a conventional films score.

BS: It may be the reason why many film music composers decide to create scores for videogames, don’t you think so?.

JG: I think people are finally starting to take game music more seriously.  Technology is finally allowing us, as composers, to create the kind of music that can pull the players into the games and immerse them in the world they are staring at on their screens.  Game developers are beginning to implement the music with adaptive qualities, which even further enhances the entire game experience.  As a result, more composers are looking at videogames as potential avenues for their music, and rightfully so.  Games are finally becoming a means for expressive, emotional scores that were previously only found in theater and film.

BS: What kind of musical approach we will find in Alpha Protocol?

JG: Fortunately for me, not the same one as Dead Space!  Alpha Protocol is a spy/espionage game, so there’s plenty of great sneaky, slinky tracks for exploring and hiding in corners.  The heart of the score is orchestra, but the locales of the game allowed me to augment the orchestral pallette with subtle eletronics and some great ethnic instruments, many of which I played myself.  Like I said before, anything that changes up the music for me from project to project is a welcome opportunity.

BS: Any other future projects you feel free to speak us about?

JG: I’ve got some other real exciting games lined up for release in 2009 and 2010, but unfortunately can’t talk about them just yet.  There are two film scores I’m composing in the next four months or so, one thiller and one documentary, which again will be nice breaks from the world of combat games.  And, of course, the ever-present commercials and trailers always seem to pop up.

Hey, I say whatever I can do that keeps me on my toes, musically speaking, and learning new things is fine with me.  You know how they say “variety is the spice of life” - I think holds holds twice as true for composers!

BS: Thank you very much for your kind attention and patience Mr. Graves, it has been a real pleasure.

JG: Thank you!

Jason Graves

Questions by David Doncel & Asier G. Senarriaga.


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