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Composer interview: Winifred Phillips offers ‘A Composer's Guide to Game Music’

Renowned video game composer Winifred Phillips simply does not stop. She has no “off” switch. When not composing award-winning game soundtracks like “Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation,” “LittleBigPlanet 2” or “God of War,” Phillips gives lectures on the process and elements of video game composition. Her latest endeavor, however, is the MIT Press-published “A Composer's Guide to Game Music” - a 275-page tome comprising equal doses of academia and personal anecdotes, offering immeasurable insight to the ins and outs of the game score composing industry. It’s perfect reading material for the dog days of summer.

"A Composer's Guide To Game Music," by Winifred Phillips
MIT Press

Although Phillips is in a constant forward-motion, Examiner managed to secure a bit of her precious time to dig a little deeper into “A Composer's Guide to Game Music.”

You begin the book by listing the traits one should have to compose game music. What are the criteria for writing a book about composing video game music?

I think that if we want to write a book about composing game music we should first cultivate in ourselves all those qualities you mentioned – a love of games and appreciation of the gamer community, a passion for music composition and a fearless attitude towards technology, a desire to work with fantastic development teams and contribute to the brand new art form of video games. These qualities are all a part of what it means to be a game composer, and we can’t write about composing game music unless we embrace every aspect of the profession. The final requirement is a love of writing, and I’ve loved to write for as long as I’ve loved to compose. It just seemed natural to combine my two passions, pass along the lessons I’ve learned in my career, and try to help other composers and audio folks in the process.

What compelled you to write a book in the first place?

It was my music producer’s idea. Winnie Waldron has worked with me on every game project I’ve scored since I landed my first gig, “God of War,” so we’ve been in the game industry for ten years now. About two years ago, we were finishing up work on music for “LittleBigPlanet Vita,” and she turned to me and said that I should write a book about game music composition. At first I laughed it off. I didn’t really think I had anything to write about. Then Winnie suggested that maybe I should take a look at all those game audio books I had in my collection, and see if there might be something I could add to the discussion. For awhile, I thought about what she said, and eventually I grabbed a pad of multicolored sticky notes and sat down with those books. Whenever I read something and felt like there were some things that I’d like to add, I stuck a sticky note to the page. When I was finished, the books looked like a sticky-note rainbow had exploded in them. That’s what convinced me to write my book.

From reading the book, it really sounds like Roger Ebert’s prejudice against video games really burned your backside. Care to elaborate?

I wasn’t really offended by what Ebert said about video games, and I certainly respect his distinguished career and his right to express his opinion. In a way, his writing on video games perfectly encapsulated a widely-held viewpoint – that games are an intellectually barren waste of time. Do I agree with that? Absolutely not! But I felt that it was important to address this idea in the book. There are a lot of composers attempting to enter the field of video game composition, and some of them are fairly new to video games. Perhaps they aren’t gamers at the moment, but they are intrigued by the vitality of the game industry and the opportunities for their careers. Unfortunately, the bad press and accompanying negative viewpoint on games has the potential to impact these composers, which can potentially influence their compositions – even if they don’t realize it. These composers can add wonderful creativity and emotional nuance to video games through the inspired quality of their compositions, so I felt that it was important to help them understand the value and artistic depth of a game composer’s profession. I wanted to make sure that I championed video games in my book.

Did you have to turn down any juicy jobs in order to research and write the book?

Not at all! It took me two years to complete the book, and during that time I juggled my writing with music composition for games, including “Assassin’s Creed Liberation.” When I returned to writing the book after completing the “Liberation” project, I reevaluated the manuscript for “A Composer’s Guide to Game Music” and did a big rewrite so that I could incorporate what I’d learned while composing for “Liberation.” I think that staying active as a game composer while writing about the profession helped me to speak more meaningfully about the kinds of concerns that game composers face everyday.

Tell me a bit about the balance between education, training, and visceral experience that you express through the book.

Much of the book focuses on more intuitive, visceral concepts. In the book I’m constantly deferring to the creativity of the reader, urging them to interpret the info and ideas I’m giving them in a way that inspires them to conceive original solutions and follow their natural musicality. I’m a big believer in something I like to call “critical mass.” I think that as creative people, we become more inventive when we stuff our brains with diverse stimuli and provocative ideas. At a certain point, all that mental content reaches “critical mass” and explodes into creativity. In order to reach that explosion, we have to have enough intellectual fuel to power it. In the book, I explore a lot of ideas that come from scholarly research in the fields of music, psychology and popular entertainment. I think this knowledge can be fascinating for composers, and if we let it bubble away in our subconscious, it can lead to unexpected bursts of inspiration.

There is a textbook kind of quality to the progression of the book. Are you treating this as though you are instructing a class? Do you have aspirations for seeing this book used in a college-level course someday?

I had no desire to write a textbook, but I was very conscious of the distinguished and intellectual reputation of the MIT Press. This is a publisher that routinely releases the books of geniuses in their fields – enormous minds that are imparting discoveries for the edification of future generations. I have no illusions that my book about game music composition would reach that extreme level of scholarship, but I did want my book to at least fit in with the rest of the books published by the MIT Press. With that in mind, I worked very hard to give my book a foundation in scholarly research.

The book is rooted in your own personal experiences and observations. How much of what you have written do you think applies as the industry standard? Or have you compared notes with other composers before publishing it?

In my ten years as a game composer, I’ve enjoyed taking part in the active and vibrant community of game music professionals, and I’ve gotten to know many other game composers. What I’ve found is that we all tend to share some common experiences that are fairly universal to the life of a game composer, and my book focuses on these kinds of stories. As musicians and creative people, we are all driven by similar passions and frustrations. I don’t think my personal experiences can apply as an industry standard, and I don’t really think there could be any kind of “industry standard” because each composer’s career inevitably follows its own unique trajectory. Nevertheless, I thought that some of my own personal stories might help to make the ideas and information in my book more accessible and relatable, and I thought that readers might recognize some of their own successes and failures mirrored in the stories I tell about my own career.

In such a cutthroat industry dominated by males, how do you make yourself stand out with value, aside from the “novelty” of being female? Further, is gender actually an issue in the video game scoring industry?

The question about the issue of gender is one that I get asked fairly often, and I can only answer by saying that I don’t really have any dependable way to tell if gender is an issue in my career or not. As a contract composer who works remotely with development studios all over the world, I’m often not privy to the kind of casual conversations that would reveal any existing preferences or prejudices stemming from my gender. Often when I’m hired, it’s by virtue of a very polite e-mail, and on those occasions when I’m not hired, I’ll sometimes find out by receiving another very polite e-mail. Not one of those e-mails has ever betrayed any hint of gender bias, one way or another. Does it exist? I have no way to tell. In regards to your question about making myself stand out, I think there’s really only one reliable way to do that. Write great music. That’s what I always try to do.

The book revolves around a “breed of composer,” who, through skill, training, and experience, can grow into a proper video game composer. How do you feel about name Hollywood composers infiltration “your world,” especially when the reverse is rarely possible (Giacchino & Lennertz excepted)?

I’d say that video game composers are infiltrating Hollywood in much greater numbers lately, and I think we’ll see that trend only becoming more pronounced in the coming years. I think that Hollywood should be as welcoming to video game composers as the game industry has been to Hollywood composers. We all have something to offer, and in the end, the quality of the music is what matters.

When discussing tone color on page 201, you mention grouping an “accordion, calliope and vocal beat box together.” How did you even know those instruments would complement each other beyond the similarity in frequency?

All three instruments make me smile, so it started with that emotion. They’re all imaginative and rhythmic, and all three can express humor very well. I liked that the calliope has a pure, clean quality while the accordion is much grittier, and I thought that both of those instruments could find a pleasingly eccentric rhythmic foundation in the vocal beat box. Also, all three instruments have a feeling of traveling entertainment – the calliope is a traditional circus instrument, while the accordion is a great instrument for a street performer, and a vocal beat box is the most mobile instrument of all (and an ideal background for a sidewalk b-boy).

How much does frame-of-mind come into play in being an effective composer? Does your own mood alter your ability to score?

I don’t find that my mood has an effect, but that’s usually because I’m working under a tight deadline and I can’t afford to let my mood influence my work. There have been times in which my deadlines were so tight that they induced some pretty intense emotions. If I’d allowed my emotions to impact my music, then the scores I composed during those times might have been inappropriately tense and edgy. But thankfully, this hasn’t been the case. The discipline of being a working game composer really supersedes any passing emotional influences. The only mood I’m concerned about is the one I’m responsible to evoke with my music.

As a fan, what is your favorite video game score, and why is it special to you?

The score to “Final Fantasy VII” comes to mind, particularly due to that final boss battle. The sheer contrast between the preceding MIDI score and that choral finale was breathtaking at the time, and that moment remains one of my most vivid memories connected to a video game score.

More specifically, do you have a favorite video game cue? Mine will always be that “unknown tension” piece that erupts right before the T-Rex comes out of nowhere in the first “Tomb Raider.” No matter how many times I’ve heard the cue and played the game, it still has the same effect EVERY time.

I remember that track! Great cue. Classic game music really has the power to stick in your head – like that success music from “Wing Commander 4”… or those ridiculous tunes from the Rocket Bar in “Space Quest 1”… or that creepy chase music from the original “Alone in the Dark”… or that eerie dungeon music from “Xenogears”…so many fun tracks came out of classic games.

What video game do you wish you could have scored, either because it is so great, or because you think you could have done it better?

When I was a kid, I played a lot of classic video games, but one really stuck with me. I vividly remember playing “Missile Command.” Maybe it was because the look of the game reminded me a little of “WarGames” or “Tron,” and the idea of waging an imaginary war on-screen and then having the reality playing out elsewhere was an idea that took hold of my imagination. As a kid, I liked to pretend that I really was defending some faraway cities from imminent obliteration. The game’s presentation was tremendously simple and stark, and that somehow played into my idea that I was interacting with a stoic and no-nonsense computer display interface for a distant missile defense system. As much as I loved that game, it had no music, so I think it would be cool to see a modern remake of that game, and I’d love the chance to score it.

How much do trends and styles of Hollywood affect/influence video game composing? Will we eventually lose rich theming to the ever-popular “wall of noise” sound design that seems to have taken over the action genre?

I think it’s a little more difficult to succumb to the “wall of noise” in video games because predicting the sonic landscape at any given moment is such a difficult task. Given that the makeup of the aural environment is likely to be highly changeable, the sound team for a video game doesn’t have the luxury to fit all the audio elements together in a predictable jigsaw pattern, maximizing the relative volume for every single element until the listener is pummeled with sound. Instead, the music and the sound design elements have to occupy their own sonic space and also leave room for each other. It’s certainly possible for a game’s audio to achieve the “wall of noise” you mention, but I think that the potential for disastrous overloads and distortions becomes very real at that point.

When working on a franchise project, is it difficult to find freedom or new places to explore while retaining the familiarity of the brand?

I haven’t found it difficult, but I’ve worked on franchise projects in which the music requirements have made that particular game distinctive from the others in the franchise. For instance, in “Assassin’s Creed Liberation,” the cultural background of the protagonist virtually guaranteed that the music would be highly distinctive. Also, for “Speed Racer,” the futuristic/retro nature of the art style set it apart from the previous animated series and manga. Focusing on these sorts of qualities helps me to keep the music unique, while also enabling it to best serve the interests of the game.

Similarly, when working collaboratively with other composers, how do you make your presence known without betraying the style or theme of the score?

Typically, when I work as a part of a music composition team, I’m brought on for a particular reason. The audio director or project supervisor thought I had my own particular musical sensibility that could enhance the project in some way. As long as I’m true to myself, I’m not worried about making my presence known. I trust the audio team to know what it’s doing, and to coordinate and combine our talents to the game’s best advantage.

You mentioned game music cover bands in the book. How do you actually FEEL about their existence and interpretations of composers’ works? (I ask because I’ve seen PowerGlove several times and interviewed them.)

I love them. There’s nothing so flattering as having your music reinterpreted by a cover band. Just the act of singling out a particular composer’s music for such a treatment is a very sincere compliment. I’m very glad that cover bands are performing game music and spreading their own infectious enthusiasm for these soundtracks. Their performances help to attract new game music fans, and that keeps the game music community engaged and energized. It’s a great thing for game music.

Are you content in the video game world, or do you have aspirations to branch into other realms of composing?

My passion is game music. While I’ve composed music for other forms of media, I’m most excited about creating music for games.

What do you hope a reader will take with them after reading your book?

I hope that readers will develop an appreciation for the game composer’s craft. Also, for those aspiring to the game composer’s profession, I hope the book will serve as both encouragement and inspiration.

“A Composer’s Guide To Game Music” is currently available at iTunes, and at Amazon on hardcover and Kindle.

Keep up with Winifred Phillips on Facebook, Twitter and at her official website.

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