Thanks for taking the time to chat to us James. Tell us a bit about yourself – where do you come from and how would you describe the music you write?
I’m English, although my ancestors are from all over the place, so I don’t really feel I have any definite roots as such – although, as you can guess, my surname is Irish. It’s hard to describe my music objectively and I’m not fully aware of all of the influences on me, really. The projects I work on usually determine the style I adopt, and I find that an exciting part of being a composer, getting pushed in new or uncomfortable directions.
I’m a minimalist at heart and I believe that if something is worth stating it’s better to state it in the simplest possible terms, and I like music to be direct and to speak to the heart immediately. I try not to get bogged down trying to make my music overtly complex for its own sake or to impress my peers, as that’s not really why I make music. Some styles are complex and hard to work with, while others are deceptively simple, but essentially I just try to do what works for the project I’m on, and then try to imagine how a listener would experience it with fresh ears, and to consider carefully the message conveyed by the music in context. I see that latter aspect as being as important as the composition itself.
I often think of music as being made up of sounds as much as being about notes and harmonies in a traditional sense, and I think a key aspect of making music in recent decades has been about how you actually render, record and produce it, and not just how it sits on the page. Games in particular force composers to think in terms of the surface texture of music as much as structure and form, and that suits me quite well as I see sound design as an integral part of composing these days.
If there’s anything I think I may be best at, it could be writing (hopefully) memorable themes, as melodies come fairly easy to me for some reason or another. There’s nothing I enjoy more than writing a big, bombastic theme when the opportunity arises!
You’ve written music for a huge range of video games so far in your career including Harry Potter, Command and Conquer, The Lord of the Rings, Dead Space 3 and RuneScape. Which have been your favourite ones to work on and why?
Sometimes you have to separate what you feel is your best work from what you think are the best games, as the two don’t always go together. Although, if you’re lucky, there are times when everything ends up being pretty good and the net result is that the music seems better as a result of working well in context and there’s a synergy between all of the elements. One of the difficulties working in the commercial arena is that you cannot choose in advance to work on successful projects or determine whether or not your music will ultimately be heard or noticed, as this is often down to the commercial success or critical reception of the ‘product’ as a whole. It’s this exposure that largely seems to determine how widely disseminated someone’s music ultimately is, regardless of how good or bad it is. I know people say, ‘the cream rises to the top’, but a lot of the time I think that’s wishful thinking. It seems to me that almost any music can rise to the top and gain exposure if it’s of a decent quality and heard in the right project at the right time. I say that from bitter experience, as I’ve had times when my worst music has received quite a lot of praise simply for being in an otherwise popular game, and other times when my best ever music has been completely ignored because it’s in a game that has flopped for some other reason. But that’s just the way the cookie crumbles!
Purely in terms of music alone, I think I’m proudest of my Harry Potter scores, as I got to develop a set of recurring themes and motifs for those and the various characters in them, and they had pretty good production values – so we were able to record most of the music with full orchestra and, when required, a fantastic choir as well; mostly at Air or Abbey Road Studios in London. The only down side is that when working on licensed games like this your music can be overshadowed by the film’s music, or people who hear it and assume it’s derived from the film scores, which is rarely the case. In games, it’s surprisingly difficult to get to work on new IPs, which is where things really make a cultural or artistic impact if successful. Those are the Holy Grail for composers, really, if the truth be told, as there are just so many licensed games, sequels and so on being made in games now. What you really hope for is something new that you can define a signature sound for the game, from scratch.
Some other favourite projects are Freelancer and Evil Genius – mostly because they were original games and the music works well in context, I feel, even if it doesn’t always operate that well by itself. I felt Red Alert 3 had a decent score, similarly adding to the fun of the game.
You worked with Jagex to re-imagine the Runescape music, recording the new music with the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra. Talk us through the process you went through when composing and expanding on earlier Runescape themes.
It was quite straightforward, really, but good fun all the same. My initial involvement saw me doing some orchestral sessions with a large orchestra, recording a few variations on the original RuneScape theme along with some entirely new tracks. But after that, Steve Lord, who heads the audio department at Jagex, felt the way forward was to record a set of lighter, more intimate tracks with a smaller ensemble for in-game use. At first I wasn’t sure how these two approaches would sit side by side, but somehow things ended up gelling quite well. I’ve become quite conditioned to the sound of a large orchestra over the years, and I found recording a smaller group more of a challenge than expected. Recording so few and in a small space really exposes each musician’s performance, and the inherently dryer sound means that any mistakes or issues with intonation are glaringly obvious. So, in many ways, recording smaller scale acoustic music I feel can actually be more challenging than working with a big orchestra, but I wouldn’t say the effect is any less dramatic once you get it right. I guess less really can be more sometimes!
How long did the project take, and what were some difficulties you encountered along the way?
I was on and off it for around six months. Steve likes to give a certain amount of free reign to composers, which is nice. I got to rework and develop some of the older RuneScape tunes and also write a set of new ones, putting my own stamp on things here and there.
What does your studio currently consist of hardware/software wise?
I feel quite strongly about not going into this side of things too much because I see technology as a means to an end and fairly incidental to the whole process of making music. Obviously it’s important, but I just see it as a given. A studio is just a studio, at the end of the day, and maybe the only thing that really distinguishes them now in this era of widespread and affordable music technology (unless you’re talking about somewhere really special and unique for some reason like Abbey Road, with its amazing acoustics and vintage gear) is the location, furniture and décor at the end of the day.
In my view, the best sequencer or DAW is the one that you are most familiar with and they’re all much of a muchness, really. A lot of my music happens to be acoustic or fully orchestral, so I tend to record at studios such as Abbey Road or Air Studios, but when I need to generate electronic textures or other elements then I have an arsenal of synths and plug-ins at my disposal, old and new. My favourite hardware synths of old include the Waldorf Wave and Roland JD800, but soft synths like Virus, Zebra and Absynth have in recent years dragged me kicking and screaming away from my aged and temperamental collection of synths.
Do you prefer to work on game soundtracks, or would you like to expand further into film & TV also?
I’d be happy to branch out, and I do occasionally work in television. Just recently – perhaps stupidly – I turned down opportunities to work on a couple of prime time TV series. I don’t really pursue jobs that much and I do the occasional project when one drifts towards me. A lot of other composers in my industry are more driven and ambitious than I am, and I sometimes feel as though they behave as if their very lives, or self-esteem at least, depend on getting the next gig! I made a decision a while back that I wouldn’t live like that, as I don’t actually think it’s good for your health. So, I just do projects when they come my way and it’s as simple as that, really.
As for TV, films and games in general, it seems to me that music is – stylistically at least – homogenizing to an almost ridiculous extent in almost every avenue of mainstream entertainment these days, as things become more and more business driven. It can sometimes seem that everyone is just after music resembling whatever it is that has been most successful recently in Hollywood, which really kills the art of composing. Maybe this will change, but it’s difficult to know. I can see why many turn to the independent sector to get really creative.
Do you think the video game scoring industry will have changed much for composers in 5-10 years time? Maybe the introduction of video game royalties?
Some may be able to demand royalties on an individual basis, some will not, but I can’t see it happening by default without such changes being fought for. But you never know. At the moment game music sort of falls in the cracks between performance/broadcast and mechanical royalties, and it’s been that way for a very long time. It’s a very difficult position to challenge, and it has been tried before – and will be again no doubt. I can remember the debate around all this flaring up in a big way in the mid-1990’s, when I worked at Electronic Arts, but nothing seemed to come of it at the time.
On the plus side, as budgets rise, fees for AAA games are not bad for composers, and in some small way can counter this lack of royalties. And there are avenues for secondary exploitation of music as well, if the publisher is willing to explore them, and you will find that some are already doing so, for instance, through the sale of soundtracks or by putting music into libraries and generating income for both them and the composers involved. It’s worth remembering that, unless you work on something pretty big in TV, or perhaps something that gets syndicated, royalties are not always something to write home about in any case in TV, for example. But, yes, obviously it would be great to see games fall in line with other industries at some stage with regard to royalties, if this can be achieved.
As for scoring in general it’s hard to see where are things are heading because the industry is fragmenting and it’s hard to even define what a game is these days. Things could go more filmic, they could go more episodic like TV, or in any number of other directions. But the drive definitely does seem to be one of becoming more ‘cinematic’ in general. It’s a pretty vague notion for many, and like ‘epic’ a word often used inappropriately if you ask me, but I suspect that what’s really being talked about is storytelling in games. Everybody’s into the idea of telling stories in games and in emotionally engaging players in them, through the use of music as well, so it’s no surprise the language of film and TV are playing a big part in games – and will continue to, I expect.
I just hope more thought goes into the fundamental role of music in games though, as, although games involve composing to picture, that doesn’t mean music functions in them in quite the same way as everything else. Your very involvement in the game as a participant differs greatly from that of belonging to a passive audience for a film or TV show, for example.
You are the co-founder of Game Music Connect. Tell us a little bit about that, and why you started it?
Briefly, it’s a symposium and event series I created with John Broomhall, aimed at those interested in making music for games, at any level and within any sector of the games industry. We held our inaugural event at the Southbank Centre in London recently, and had several games music luminaries attend and take part in the day’s panels, which covered everything from interactive music through to the business side of music for games and working with audio directors. The focus was pretty much AAA games this time but we’ll be expanding on this to include the independent sector in future as well. You can read more about Game Music Connect on the official website at www.gamemusicconnect.com. We’ll be back with more events soon and hope to make some announcements in the fairly near future.
What’s your definition of success?
I think it depends on your values, how you measure success. On a personal level, maybe it’s about having a sense of achieving what you want to artistically, regardless of commercial success, although I imagine many measure success in business terms. In terms of pure recognition, maybe it’s about all of these things at once – achieving critical and commercial success and having some cultural impact as well. I still believe most composers go into this form of work because they love writing music, as there are other easier ways to make money if that’s your only goal.
How do you stay fresh as a composer?
It’s very hard to stay fresh in terms of style, but I think the thing to do is to learn to put your stamp on music even if you are working within familiar parameters or with a recognized style of music. Or to try to fuse styles in original ways. There are certain things, certain devices that composers like to do again and again – but in a different context – and that enables you to recognize their work at times. For example, I can often recognize John Barry’s Bond music after only a few bars because of his use of key modulation or through his unique orchestration.
What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when you were originally starting off?
I’d tell myself, ‘Don’t waste your 20s. I spent far too much time having fun instead of writing music in my 20s, largely relying on my talent (if I actually have any!) to carry me from project to project and could have achieved a lot more than I have, looking back. I lost several opportunities to work on some truly huge projects through inaction and in deciding to do other things instead! But, then again, maybe having fun in your younger years isn’t such a waste of time in the scheme of things. All in all though, if I could go back I’d try to have a good time still, but wouldn’t be quite so passive! There’s really no time like the present if you want to do something.
Your studio is on fire and you only have time to grab one thing – what do you take?
I’d get everyone out and let it burn. Who needs stuff anyway? OK, seriously, I think I’d probably stay and try to put the fire out.
Can you recommend any useful books on composition/mastering/business etc. that you’ve read and enjoyed?
I’ve always felt that the best way to learn is through listening to music and in trying to internalize it that way, working out from the ‘inside’ what is happening. I don’t think you can beat having a good ear and your own intuition.
But one great book that springs to mind is Walter Piston’s “Orchestration”.