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Interview with award-winning video game composer Peter McConnell

Peter McConnell
Peter McConnellwww.petermc.com

We caught up with the award-winning composer Peter McConnell to discuss his recent work on the Broken Age soundtrack. McConnell has been creating video game music for decades, with previous notable scores including Double Fine's Brutal Legend and Psychonauts, along with the classic LucasArts titles Grim Fandango and Monkey Island. Additionally, we also found out about his influences, challenges, and more.

"The music in Broken Age is very dynamic. It sounds as if it could have been written like something for a play or ballet even, more than "just" a modern video game. Where did you draw your inspiration from when crafting the score to Broken Age?"
"It was a long and organic process. I started by looking at concept art, storyboards and early versions of the characters and imagining the world of Broken Age before it had come to be. Then there was input from Tim and other members of the Double Fine team: from Greg Rice the producer, who sent me some reference music for the spaceship, from Camden Stoddard who made some wonderfully inspirational choices of temp music for both Vella’s story and Shay’s, and from Brian Min who put the emphasis on doing as much live music as possible early on, starting with the trailer we did for the Choice Awards at GDC last year. Musical influences for me included Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which I studied closely, also his L’Histoire du Soldat and various works by Erik Satie that were just in my ear, and movie scores by Thomas Neumann and Henry Mancini. Because the Broken Age story is so compelling, I did approach it like a ballet or musical theater, except that the size of the ensemble was allowed to change dramatically depending on the situation."

"Were there any creative challenges while writing the soundtrack for Broken Age?"
"The big challenge was reconciling the epic nature of some of the scenes with our small budget, while staying true to the goal of being as live as possible with the production. Ultimately we were very fortunate because I was doing an orchestration project for Andrew Pogson, Assistant Artistic Administrator for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and we were able to involve the MSO in the score for Broken Age. Additionally it was a challenge to create a score for a game which has such vastly different environments while keeping it cohesive. I ended up dividing the music between small and large ensembles, with more intimate or closed-in situations scored by the smaller ensemble music, and more dramatic or emotional situations handled by the orchestra."

"What's your favorite piece(s) from the Broken Age soundtrack?"
"I really like the opening pieces for both Vella and Shay and the dramatic Maiden’s Feast Battle music, as well as the drifting piece that plays in Merriloft. I also have a particularly soft spot for the wolf music, or Marek’s theme, with its slinky bass clarinet part."

"You've been composing video games music for nearly two decades. With so much history under your belt, if you had to choose your top five soundtracks which would they be?"
"It’s hard to have perspective on this stuff. Today, of titles that have been released I would choose Grim Fandango, Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time and Broken Age."

"Would you classify yourself as a gamer? What were your favorite games growing up? Do you still play games today?"
"Yes, although I don’t have the time to play that I once had. The first game I really went crazy for was Zork, and that goes back a long time. Today I still try to play everything I score."

"What video game soundtrack (that you haven't composed yourself) is your favorite?"
"That would be a toss-up between Journey and some of the more recent World of Warcraft scores. I love the Voodoo Vince music as well."

"Who were your favorite artists as a child? Was there a particular band or song that impacted you the most?"
"The first music I remember hearing was the Mozart A major Piano Sonata and the cowboy songs of the Sons of the Pioneers. Since then I’ve always loved both classical and pop or folk music of all kinds. Artists and composers who made a big impression on me growing up were Paul Simon and Canadian singer/guitarist Bruce Cockburn, The Beatles and Sergei Prokofiev. As a folk blues guitarist and banjo player, I was also a huge fan of Taj Mahal, Mississippi John Hurt, John Hartford and Earl Scruggs. I remember being crazy about the album “Dueling Banjos” from the movie “Deliverance” when it came out. Later I got pretty heavily into rock and roll and jazz. I’m a huge Duke Ellington fan. But in terms of sheer life impact I would still have to go back to Mozart. I’m told we visited his house when I was two and I ran under the ropes and played is clavichord until the guards whisked me away."

"Music is constantly evolving. How have your tastes changed over the years? Who are some of your favorites today?"
"My tastes have always been pretty broad. I have enjoyed music by everyone from Edgard Varese to Ozzy Osbourne. I don’t know that my tastes have changed that much; I just always like to find new (and sometimes old), interesting music. Most recently I’ve listened to Stravisnky, Bernard Hermann, Human League and Lene Lovich."

"Do you play any instruments? How does the music you create for fun differ from that for your work on game soundtracks? The music in Broken Age is so gorgeous and serene, it'd be interesting to learn if at home you hammer out riffs on a guitar?"
"I play most things with strings on them except the cello. On "Broken Age" I played electric violin, fiddle, mandolin, slide guitar, 5-string banjo, wooden flute and kalimba. The composition process depends on the type of piece I’m doing. I work in a studio at my home in West Marin County outside San Francisco. Most of the music was worked out on the keyboard and sequencer slowly and methodically. Some of the pieces evolved from something more like a jam, such as Shay’s sad bedroom music, which started out with me improvising on electric violin to a pattern played with a Celeste sample. Then I scored it for acoustic violin, viola, cello and live celeste as part of the process of doing the trailer for GDC. The strings were recorded here in San Francisco and the celeste was recorded by my friend Andy Burton in New York. The pieces which heavily feature acoustic guitar did come from me hammering out riffs on a guitar."

"If you could perform with any artist or band (alive or dead) in the world, who would it be?"
"Zakir Hussain. He is one of the most sensitive, versatile and accomplished musicians I have ever seen. Unfortunately I would probably have to practice non-stop for the rest of my life to be up to the honor."

"Do you have any other projects you'd like to share with readers?"
“Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare” has a super-fun synth-pop score, entirely different in style from almost anything I’ve done. And I’m looking forward to finally being able to play it.

"Where can fans follow you online? (website, facebook, ect.)"
www.petermc.com, facebook.com/music.Peter.McConnell, @PeterNMcConnell on Twitter, and soundcloud.com/peter-n-mcconnell.

"Is there anything else you'd like to add?"
"I can’t wait to get to work on the score for Part 2!"

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