Remember ancient times when every video game sounded like a Casio CZ-101? Depending on your age, you may not. Nowadays, the big blockbuster games feature full-blown symphonic scores with lush orchestration and memorable themes – just as you know them from the big screen. A whole new generation of composers has emerged and some of them can be considered as true masters of the interactive arts. Classically trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London, Richard Jacques is one of the most distinctive game composers today. Having been the first one to record a video game soundtrack with the London Session Orchestra at the legendary Abbey Road Studios, Jacques set a benchmark for the genre. With his recent score for the Activision-Game „007: Blood Stone“ he entered the Fleming-franchise with some of the most refreshing and powerful Bond-music of the new millennium. With us, the multi-award-winning composer talked about the process of game scoring, symphonic live-performances, Basil Poledouris, the Bond-legacy and his early love for filmmusic.
screen/read: Richard, thanks for taking the time to do this little interview with us. In preparation, I found out that we accidentally could have met before as you had been invited to speak at the c/o pop festival for electronic music in Cologne back in 2008. Also, you had a concert in Leipzig a couple of years ago. So Germany is not completely unknown territory for you.
Richard Jacques: That’s right, I was doing a talk about my music and video games in general at c/o pop. I think the concert was for the game festivals that used to be held in Leipzig. I had my music performed in the Gewandhaus, which is an amazing historical concert hall. Very, very beautiful and brilliant acoustics. It was a real pleasure to attend.
screen/read: You’re doing quite a number of live performances of your scores in general, which is surprising.
Richard Jacques: It’s been interesting. The last five years a lot of people have got to know my music and it’s been really great to have it performed live because most of it is written for live orchestra anyway and I think outside the game or the film or whatever projects it’s for, it works well on the concert platform. The audience seems to really enjoy it and the orchestral players as well, so it’s a wonderful opportunity to have my music played live in other countries with different orchestras. I really enjoy it.
screen/read: Do you conduct yourself at these performances?
Richard Jacques: Not usually, I mean, I can conduct, but I prefer to sit in the audience, I like to hear a different orchestration and see what I can do better next time [laughs].
screen/read: What is the reaction of the audience like, and what type of people attend these concerts?
Richard Jacques: It’s been a variety, a whole different range of people and age groups. For the video games live concerts that featured some of my music in the past, it really varied in age from young kids up to middle aged people that love film music. It’s a very nice experience to have people hear my music live that may not necessarily know the games it’s related to. And quite a few email me after the concerts saying how much they enjoyed it and how it sounded like a filmscore and things like that. To me that’s fantastic.
screen/read: It’s interesting to see that video games scores are getting performed more often nowadays.
Richard Jacques: I think it’s great for the music industry actually, there’s a new audience coming to hear film music and video game music. I mean, there’s more film music concerts happening now like „Lord of the Rings“ which I went to see in London, and some of the „Star Wars“ concerts. It’s becoming like the classic pop industry in a way, and there’s a whole new audience. For classical music it’s always difficult to keep the attendance of concerts and funding for the orchestras etc, especially in difficult financial times. But video game and film music is really popular with the younger generation, and they’re going to watch concerts with a symphony orchestra, which they normally may not. People may not realize when they’re watching a movie or playing a video game quite how many musicians and what some of the instruments are, what sound they make and what they look like. But to see eight year old kids at the Gewandhaus or in London at the Royal Festival Hall, that’s just amazing. It’s really cool and exceptional for them to go and do that and hear this wonderful music. So I hope there’s more and more concerts like that because they’re certainly popular and there’s definitely an audience there.
screen/read: I think you were actually one of the poeple who made it possible by bringing the big orchestra to video game composing. How did you manage to carry that out?
Richard Jacques: That is a good question. The „Headhunter“ project was the first game soundtrack to be recorded at Abbey Road Studios with live orchestra. I don’t think it was the first one in history that was recorded with a live orchestra but it wasn’t long after that. Certainly the first one to be done in London on that scale. It was quite simple really. The director of the game very much wanted a Hollywood cinematic action movie type score. And a traditional classic education is the training that I had, so I was used to write for an orchestra but I didn’t really have the opportunity on that scale until this project was announced. So I had to basically compose some demo material for the game and then we had to look at the budget and I had to convince the producers that it was worth spending the money on getting it recorded live. It was quite an expensive project, especially back in 2001. But then some of the video game press and the soundtrack press were able to attend the recording session at Abbey Road and it was really quite groundbreaking for its time and it’s great that other people have been able to go and do that as well since then. I encourage my fellow composers and it’s fantastic that everyone has helped to raise the profile of orchestral music in video games and now it’s becoming common in a way that at the beginning of a project the producers will often allocate the budget for orchestral recordings before the game is even in development and that’s exactly the way it should be.
screen/read: What’s funny about that is that at the time you were doing this everyone would consider writing scores for video games is the worst thing you can do as a composer while today, well-established name composers are going after the big games. From your experience, would you say there are different options that you have in game scoring as opposed to film scoring?
Richard Jacques: Yes, certainly. It is a different process. I worked in tv and film as well, also commercials etc. and it is a different process. I think often there’s probably more creative freedom in video games but that depends on the relationship between the composer and the director or producer, so even in movies there’s a lot of creative freedom if you have a trusted relationship. But the pressure is different in video games. The music has a slightly different function. It’s not just background, it’s sometimes background, sometimes foreground, sometimes it tells the story, sometimes it describes the characters, it displays the emotions that the video gamer is expected to feel when they’re playing a game. And in the technical challenge of writing, interactive music is something that I enjoy, personally speaking, having three or four or five or more layers of different orchestrated music all working together and all fading between layers in a seamless and very smooth way. It’s an absolute joy to be able to write for something like that because it gives the player the control over how the music plays out within the game. So the actual sound of the music is different every time you play the game depending on what I’ve composed for it. Those things certainly are attractive to me as a composer and there are plenty of composers crossing over into film as well now so I think the synergy is really good. It shows also that video game music has now exceptionally high quality. So it’s a great industry to be in at this time and it presents opportunities for all composers.
screen/read: You already mentioned the non-linear approach that a video game has compared to a movie. How is the process there, how are you developing a score?
Richard Jacques: It depends on the style of the game and on technical aspects. Sometimes it depends on the console or the computer system that it is for. But in general, let’s say there’s a combat cue and I was creating a piece of music that I would like to have different varieties of. As an example I would compose the highest layer of combat music first, the most intense, the most bombastic, the layer with all the percussion and everything. And then I would completely rewrite that cue and completely reorchestrate it in a different way but following the same harmonic progression so that I can create a different intensity, say, maybe a middle intensity of combat. And then I would do that process again one, two or three more times to create different intensities. So you will end up with five different compositions and orchestrations and arrangements but they still follow the same basic harmonic progression so they can fade and change between the layers. It’s quite a long and complicated process because if you’re rewriting the same cue maybe five times and it takes you two days to write the cue, that’s immediately ten days work. Also that material has to be rerecorded with the orchestra as well which can mean additional costs. But in general that’s the approach I take when writing interactive cues.
screen/read: How much time do you have for a big game like „Blood Stone“?
Richard Jacques: „Blood Stone“ was two major composition sessions, I think in total including mixing and implementation, if you put the two sessions back to back, I was probably composing for like seven or eight months. But it depends.
screen/read: That’s a very long time compared to a film composer, who usually has four or eight weeks to finish a score. On the other hand, as you just described, there’s probably a much more complex process behind it.
Richard Jacques: That’s true. We had nearly two and a half hours of music in „Blood Stone“ which is a lot more than the average movie. Even a ninety-minute movie may only have sixty or seventy minutes of score. So from that point of view an awful lot of music is to be written. And also on a movie you would often get the budget for a very large scoring team with maybe four or five orchestrators etc. It depends on the project but we don’t get that very often. And time, well, it’s always tight, but it’s not the tightest writing a movie score in four or six weeks.
screen/read: What’s the first thing that you get on a game? Do you see drafts or where does it start?
Richard Jacques: Yeah, the first thing would normally be some design drafts, like a word document and some concept artwork, so that I can read through the design of the game and what happens on each level. Often there’ll be a script in place at that stage with all the dialogue and some concept artwork of some of the environments, some of the characters, maybe some of the set piece sequences, like a car chase or something. And then as the game is being developed I would often have a very early version that I can play. At this stage it’s usually only grey boxes, no lighting or textures or colors, it’s just very basic animations. But as the game develops I’m able to play updated versions and see more complete levels with more detail on the characters etc. and maybe some of the physics. So it really helps to get an idea of pacing from the beginning to the end of the game and that’s something that’s quite important for the score where you can actually realize the high and low points that you want to achieve throughout the score. So it varies slightly but in general that’s the kind of material that I will be working from. And then of course there’s the linear material for the cinematic sequences. I would work from quicktime movies and have them on my computer while I’m scoring.
screen/read: Is computer gaming something you felt at home with even before you started composing?
Richard Jacques: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been a gamer since I was very young and even as a student I think I had two consoles and a computer, so it’s something that I’d grown up with, I was very comfortable doing and I knew games very well and I understood games very well. So it was something that was very natural for me.
screen/read: Now being a classically trained composer, was moving over to game and film composing something that happened by chance.or did you plan it from an early point on?
Richard Jacques: Composition is something that I wanted to do since I was very very young. My father is also a composer and my family are all musical and I think since I had my first computer when I was maybe ten, eleven years old, I knew that I wanted to write music for the screen. It didn’t matter what kind of media it was for, film or tv or video games, it was definitely something that I wanted to do from a very young age. So that’s what I focused my career on certainly during my studies and my university degree. And then video games, it was just a bit of luck that there was a full-time job just when I was about to complete my music degree. So I started working for a large video game publisher and then I set up my own company about ten years ago.
screen/read: When writing for the screen was the initial idea, I suppose you had been into filmmusic early on already. Can you remember the first experiences there, maybe the first score you got aware of?
Richard Jacques: The first experience was probably when I was very young, watching „Star Wars“ at the movie theatre. That definitely had a big impact on me and probably every other person of my generation. I was already learning piano and trombone by that stage in my childhood and this was definitely one of the things that made me think of what I wanted to do with music. But also lots of other things, I mean, all the movies I’ve been watching as a kid, all the John Williams scores. I’m a big fan of Alan Silvestri as well, and the „Back to the Future“ films have wonderful soundtracks. And then just as I kind of absorbed more music from different movies and different kinds of music, I also became very interested in some of the Bernard Herrmann scores and those kinds of things. I was always listening and watching and trying to figure out why the music works so well with the picture and the dialogue etc. And that’s something that I’ve really been interested in from quite a young age. I suppose it was natural that I ended up doing it because it’s always been my passion and still is very much today.
screen/read: It’s interesting to see that about every composer around our age always mentions „Star Wars“ as their first and decisive influence.
Richard Jacques: That’s quite funny, but it’s been such a groundbreaking movie and I can’t even remember watching other movies around that time. I suppose the reason why „Star Wars“ resonates with so many composers of that time is because it was one of the first true symphonic scores that we had experienced to a movie while most of the scores in that time were just kind of wall-to-wall pop songs and and electronica. There have been so many great movies with great soundtracks in that four-year period to follow and of course Spielberg and Williams are making great movies and music still today.
screen/read: Probably a lot of Williams’ popularity comes from the strict leitmotif approach he usually takes. It’s remarkable that this tape of writing is pretty much waning in filmmusic, whereas in game composing it seems to be totally different.
Richard Jacques: Yeah, leitmotif is just such a brilliant tool for a composer and Williams does it so exceptionally well. I certainly think you have freedom to do it in games. I think it’s a great shame that it’s not used more in the right situation in film or tv music. I don’t know what the reason behind that is. It’s not appropriate for every score of course or for every situation but I like very much writing in that style. A lot of scores I had done were like that, „Headhunter“ for instance had four themes for the characters etc. And it’s a brilliant communication device to get the story and emotions across to the player or the movie viewer. There are several new sound palettes available to the composer today and a lot of electronic soundscapes etc. and they’re appropriate for the right setting but I still think leitmotif definitely has a firm place in all soundtracks.
screen/read: Talking about „Blood Stone“ in particular, Bond scoring has a rather strict approach, meaning you have a certain style, a certain orchestration and of course you have the classic Bond theme which makes it difficult for a composer to make their own and personal voice being heard. How did you approach it?
Richard Jacques: It was apparent that it had to be a Daniel Craig Bond. So it did have to be fairly contemporary in terms of sounds and production, and there’s quite a lot of electronic elements in it now. Nevertheless, I didn’t want them to dominate the rest of the orchestra or the sound. Like you mentioned, melodically and harmonically Bond has a style of its own, it’s got some orchestral elements, some jazz, some of this and some of that, and I felt very comfortable writing in that style because even though I was classically trained I did a lot of jazz studying and I was playing in big bands and I’m a big fan of jazz as well. We couldn’t use the Bond theme on the score itself for a number of reasons so it’s only being heard on the end credits of the game. And that presented certain challenges to make it feel like Bond while not actually being able to use the theme. Of course it would have elements of the influence that has gone on for the past fourty, fifty years through all of John Barry’s amazing work and David Arnold’s, but also Michael Kamen’s and that of some other composers. But generally, I wanted it to be very much my kind of take on the franchise while fitting in the style and being instantly recognized as a Bond score, though one that people hadn’t heard before because it’s all new material. So far the feedback has been very positive from the Bond fans and soundtrack fans and that’s really wonderful.
screen/read: You also did two other games before „Blood Stone“ that were based on movies, being „Alice in Wonderland“ and „Starship Troopers“. Again, there had been musical styles established by other composers, Danny Elfman and Basil Poledouris. Did you try approach these games the same way you did with „Blood Stone“?
Richard Jacques: Yes, pretty much. Of course any composer taking on a project following from another composer would want to be respectful to the franchise or to the sequel and respectful to the other composer but also find their own voice within there. And that can be quite a tricky thing. But in the case of „Starship Troopers“, Basil Poledouris was amazing and I had a bit of an email discussion with him and he actually sent me over a photocopy of the opening cue „Klendathu Drop“. It was all written in pencil and it was amazing to see. That scene we were actually allowed to use for the opening sequence. The music is both a brilliant action-adventure score and it has this tiny bit of tongue-in-cheek where you have these little marches and things like that and I really thought that was fantastic. So I did sort of look at that blueprint to actually make the game score in keeping with the movie. „Alice in Wonderland“ was slightly different because I was writing my score at the same time Danny Elfman was writing his as the game was being developed for release on day one of the movie. So I had no idea what he would do for the movie itself and I hadn’t heard any of his work and I wasn’t allowed to and really busy with my score. But again I wanted to put my take on that and my interpretation of the story. The game follows the movie quite closely, but there’s also lots of puzzle sections and explanations around the different settings and I wanted to make sure my score worked with that as well. There were lots of fans who wanted to find the music for that game. It’s nice to have the interest and I think I have been true to myself and the franchises and hopefully I struck a good balance.
screen/read: Some of your music has been released apart from the games as mp3 or on CD even. It’s not a regular case yet but do you think that it will be a standard in the future just as it is with filmscores nowadays?
Richard Jacques: Yeah, I think so. For me personally, I definitely want to have more of my material released, and that’s something that I will be negotiating before starting a new project. For the simple reason that it’s so easy with digital download now and that’s the way people are consuming music these days. If the music is there and it’s already recorded it’s not only a great promotional tool but it’s also a small amount of extra revenue as well for the publisher, the developer, the composer, the record company. I think the only reason people say that soundtracks are in decline is because they don’t release them. And that’s kind of a double-edged sword. A lot of people are doing less and less movie soundtracks as well now because they consider the audience being small. I don’t really accept that. I think you still have to grow the audience and still promote the music and the soundtracks as well. And having digital download, there’s not a real reason why you have to do a physical CD, which could be the expensive part. In video games it’s nice to see some boxed sets of games, some collector’s editions or limited editions that come with a free soundtrack or five tracks from the game or something like that. I think that’s a really great device as well. Because at the end of the day most of the music from video games works very well away from the game. And the fans are really into the music and the number of video game music websites online shows how big the audience actually is. So I hope it will continue to grow and I will try and encourage other composers and games companies and certainly for myself I will try to have more of my music released.
screen/read: Is there anything planned for „Blood Stone“?
Richard Jacques: That’s not really my decision unfortunately. I don’t think there is at the moment but we’ll see. A lot of the fans have been asking for an official soundtrack released but I’ll have to ask my friends at Activision and see if it would be possible.
screen/read: What kinds of developments do you see in video games in the future? Do you think they will be more character driven and have stories with more of a psychological background?
Richard Jacques: I think so. A lot of people working on games now really understand the narrative medium. Professionals from tv and film and writers are becoming involved, and those are really the ones to make that narrative element happen. So I definitely think it’s going to grow and that’s some of the most exciting developments in games because it’s the type that I enjoy working on most and it brings the best out of me as a composer.
[Thanks so much to Richard Jacques for taking the time. It was a pleasure.]
Recommended LINKS for further reading:
[Images courtesy of Richard Jacques (portraits, orchestra) | Activision (Blood Stone)]