Welcome to a very special month of IGM Interviews. Throughout September, this section of IGM will transform into the Composer’s Corner, where I’ll be chatting with some of the biggest names in the indie music scene. All this is in an effort to celebrate the often unappreciated, yet incredibly talented folks who bring so many of your favorite indie games to life through music. In addition to that, we’re also celebrating the upcoming Game Music Connect 2014 conference (tickets are available now) , which takes place on September 24 in London, an event which does its fair share to spotlight the talented individuals who play so crucial a role in our gaming experiences. (In case you missed it, I already chatted with GMC’s co-founder John Broomhall last month.)
Tonight, I have the privilege of introducing an interview with David Housden, one of the brightest young talents in the composing world at the moment. His previous work with Mike Bithell on Thomas Was Alone helped make him a household name within the community, and now he’s looking to surpass expectations yet again with the hotly anticipated title, Volume. During our conversation we got the chance to discuss some of the important topics being discussed at Game Music Connect, as well as getting an inside look at what a day in the life of composing is like for Housden. For music enthusiasts and up-and-coming composers alike, I think you’ll find this segment rather eye-opening. Enjoy!
Indie Game Magazine: Some people think that music composition in general has become over-reliant on modern technology. What do you think?
David Housden: I’m not sure I’d agree that it’s become over-reliant. What it certainly has done is open up a world of opportunity to people who would never have previously been able to write and compose for certain mediums. In general I’d have to say that this is a good thing, as the world of film scoring (and to a lesser extent game scoring) was more or less exclusive to those who had classically trained and progressed through a conservatory. Now musicians from all types of backgrounds are able to compose, and this has led to a more varied and interesting landscape. At the same time I would encourage people to include live instrumentation wherever they can in their writing. It may not be feasible to record with a full orchestra, but even recording one instance of a solo violinist and layering it in with your samples, helps to breathe new life into things.
IGM: How much about a game do you need to know before you can envision the initial direction for the score?
Housden: For me, the critical thing is the emotional undercurrent. I find that environments and concept art will often inspire my sonic palette and choice of instrumentation, but in terms of getting the melodic and harmonic content right, I need to establish what it is the audience should be feeling throughout the game.
If development is someway along, then having an early build can help establish pacing and ensure that the mood is right; equally, I enjoy coming in right at the beginning and having a chance for the music to inspire creative choices in the design process.
IGM: How does working alongside a developer from the ground up on a new project improve the final product, as opposed to being brought on after the game is mostly developed?
Housden: In my experience, the best results have always been achieved when the music becomes an intrinsic part of the dev process. Chris Nolan got Hans Zimmer to start writing for Inception after reading the script, before any footage had been shot. This way the music has the opportunity to influence the project, as well as vice versa. Unfortunately in this medium, music can often be an afterthought, but you only have to look at the success of games such as To The Moon, Journey, Dear Esther and even Thomas Was Alone to see what can be achieved when it’s given the time and attention it deserves.
IGM: Is it easier to compose music when you’re retelling/modernizing a classic story, like that of Robin Hood with Volume, when you have a baseline of other incarnations to pull from? Or do you prefer original ideas that come without any predisposition on the audience’s part?
Housden: That’s a tough question, because Volume is really the only game I’ve worked on which is a modern interpretation of an existing story. I think I’ve probably found it harder than I would writing to a blank canvas. Believe it or not, medieval tinged stealth isn’t a genre I’m naturally proficient in, so it’s taken some time to find a way to apply my musical strengths whilst still serving the game’s needs!
IGM: You’ve had rather tremendous success since graduating from school just a few years ago. What would you say to current students looking for the right music composition courses to take while attending a University?
Housden: Thank you very much. Yeah, it’s a tough one, I must have worked on around 20 productions over the last three years and not a single one of them has been reliant on me having a degree. In fact I don’t think anyone’s ever even asked me if I have one. Having said that, I simply wouldn’t be here now if it weren’t for the skills, advice, and experience that I gained over the course of my studies. So I think looking at course content and what you personally will be able to take from your studies, should be of far more importance than which institution you apply for or how prestigious your qualification may look on paper.
Obviously it’s never going to hurt having Oxbridge on your CV, but spending 3 years studying music theory and writing traditional pieces for live ensembles without so much as looking at a DAW, isn’t going to help you very much. With tuition fees upwards of £9000 a year now, if a course isn’t priming and preparing you with the relevant skills and experience to go out in your chosen industry and find work directly afterwards, you’d be better served putting the money towards your own set up and spending three years writing, practicing, building contacts and getting some experience under your belt. These are the things which are going to get you work.
IGM: Having now worked across a variety of entertainment mediums, how does composing the soundtrack for a video game differ from say, TV and Film?
Housden: It’s 50 times harder! Seriously, I struggle so much writing interactive music, it does not come naturally to me at all. When I write a piece of music, I work hard to make sure it’s the best arrangement I’m capable of producing, so naturally that’s what I want the audience to hear. So writing for film and TV is great in that sense, because you can highlight and underscore the emotions and actively manipulate how the audience will feel at any given time. Writing for a game you never know what the player will be doing at any given moment, so you have to write for all eventualities! But the reason I still do it is because when it comes off, there’s nothing quite like it. Truly interactive music allows you to tailor a unique experience for the player and this is something which just isn’t possible with linear narratives.
IGM: Do you think music composition will continue to play an increasingly larger role in video games, now that soundtracks are receiving so much recognition?
Housden: Absolutely. AAA titles have been bringing in Hollywood names to write their themes and in some cases the whole score, for some time now. There are live orchestral concerts dedicated to game music around the world, Journey was the first game soundtrack to ever be nominated for a Grammy, and Classic FM has started to recognize and regularly play pieces from game scores. Even in indie games, people are reaching out to work with well-respected composers, and using the music as a key selling point. I’m genuinely excited to see things continue to progress in this manner.
IGM: Do you prefer working on projects that are smaller in scope, or more large-scale productions? Are there advantages to both?
Housden: I’ve only really had the opportunity to work on smaller scale projects thus far, so that would be difficult for me to say. I would absolutely love to have my work played by a world class orchestra and recorded at Air or Abbey Road, but at the same time there’s something nice about the intimacy of lower scale projects and the knowledge that you’re single-handedly responsible for every facet of the finished production.
IGM: What types of music do you prefer to listen to when you’ve got a free moment?
Housden: I used to be in a pop-punk band, so I still listen to a lot of that. I love pop-rock, indie-pop, anything guitar based and melodic. I listen to a lot of post-rock music as well, and this comes through regularly in my work. I love soundtracks but I try not to listen to them too often, as I like to draw my influences and inspirations from other areas.
IGM: The Game Music Connect panel you are a part of lists its panelists as “experts.” Do you consider yourself an expert in music composition?
Housden: Haha, certainly not. I was in University three years ago, without a single credit to my name. I’m learning every single day and am nowhere near naïve enough to consider myself as a finished product. I fully expect to look back on my current work in ten years time and think “What the hell was that?!”. I’m immensely flattered and humbled to be sitting on a panel with such prestigious names and only hope my insight and relatability(?) as a recent graduate will compensate for my lack of comparative experience.
A very special thanks to David Housen for taking the time to chat about his experiences. You can look forward to his next composition when Volume releases… as soon as it’s ready. Or just keep up to date by following his Twitter account. Be sure to stay tuned every Friday night, as I chat with another member of the INDIE GAMES: Revolution or Renaissance? panel, including the wonderful likes of Jessica Curry and Olivier Deriviere.