GameCentral speaks to the new Classic FM presenter about the latest series of High Score and being one of gaming’s only female composers.
While video games in general often still struggle to be seen as a legitimate artform one aspect of gaming that’s taken more seriously than most is its music. From the early 8-bit days of chiptunes to modern orchestral soundtracks, gaming has a long and proud history of innovative and highly influential music. And that’s something that the wider entertainment world does actually recognise, not least Classic FM with their popular High Score series.
High Score was the first UK radio show dedicated to video game music and for its first three series was presented by Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture composer Jessica Curry. But as the show prepares to return this summer her replacement has been announced as Irish composer Eímear Noone, who also has a storied history in video game and movie music.
Noone has worked on the award-winning scores for World Of Warcraft and Warlords Of Draenor, as well as most modern Blizzard titles such as Overwatch, Hearthstone, Heroes Of The Storm, and Starcraft II. She’s also recorded for Nintendo and Sony and is the primary conductor for Video Games Live and The Legend Of Zelda: Symphony Of The Goddesses touring concerts.
The new series of High Score begins on Saturday, 22 June at 9pm, but GameCentral was able to speak to Noone at length (twice the length we were supposed to, actually) about her plans for the show, her experience working in the games industry, and the genius of Shirley Walker…
GC: So I assume you have a significant interest in both video games and music, but which came first?
EN: It was music first, definitely, but the Venn diagram that covers music nerds and gamer nerds is almost like an eclipse! The two almost cover each other. But you know, it’s growing up… ours was kind of a Nintendo house and what happened with me was I was obsessed with music from as long as I can remember, from the age of four or something. But what happened is that there’s a big gap in my gaming history when my brothers all got really interested in maths and sports instead.
GC: How awful of them.
EN: [laughs] So I checked out for a while and it was really working on RPGs when I went, ‘Oh my god, this is so beautiful! What happened?’ But my entry into video game music happened by accident and it was following my love of orchestral music and my love of descriptive music, music that paints a picture. I was 17 and writing song music and I thought, ‘You know what? I really want your average person to be able to hear what I’m trying to do with this idea’. Or to be able to experience the worlds that I create in sound.
So what drew me in first was the world of cinematic music, of film music. Because when I was at school video game music was… we’d left chiptunes behind, but we were now in the era of sort of low-grade MIDI. I could hear what the composers were trying to do, they were trying to make an orchestral score. They were trying to make a type of movie score for video games. I could hear that, but the early MIDI was just… [laughs] it was tough on everybody! At least chiptunes had their own sort of nostalgic value and their own quirky sound.
GC: In the early days at least, I think you had to be a programmer just as much as a musician, given the limitations of the technology.
EN: Yes, that’s absolutely right. And you know Koji Kondo is someone who would know that’s right. If you couldn’t program note by note you couldn’t write music for video games in the early days. If you were a classical composer and you came in, there was no way you could translate the orchestra onto that hardware, it just wasn’t possible. So it’s interesting the way people from all different backgrounds became involved.
Now, my background is completely, traditionally classical with a bit of traditional Irish thrown in. It’s funny you mentioned Star Wars and the John Williams scores before we started but one of the first scores that I noticed as a kid was Willow, James Horner’s score. The reason if it struck me so much was that James Horner used different types of ethnic and rustic instruments, along with the orchestra.
And to me, growing up where I did, in a village with the most famous living composer of traditional Irish tunes – a guy called Paddy Fahey – it made total sense to mix ethnic instruments with the orchestra. And that’s become a huge part of what we do in video game music now, because you’re creating a musical culture for a fantasy land that doesn’t exist. You’re sort of writing the traditional, or the cultural, music for that world which has all sorts of rules in it, has all kinds of tribes and cultures and domains and different topography…
So it’s really become a technique that we use, taking a shakuhachi from Asia, with a tin whistle from Ireland, with a doumbek from North Africa and putting them all together with the orchestra to create a complete fantasy sound. And for me that was something I knew from a very young age with the score from Willow and I’ve always been chasing that.
Video games are kind of the perfect home for me in that way. But I come through it through music, 100%. Because when I was playing the old games I was just thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be so cool to hear this with an orchestra!’ And then hearing the early MIDI and thinking, ‘Oh, the composer is so trying to make this score on an orchestral level.
I mean, when you hear the difference between, for instance, Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII… to me that’s one of those moments that you can look at because the Final Fantasy series is laid out in numbers. You can see all of a sudden we’re going where the composer had wanted it to go all along. And that’s not taking from synth scores that work within that sound world, where they’re not trying to be orchestral. They’re just cool synth or rock scores or whatever.
GC: See, I’m old school enough that when someone says video game music I immediately think OutRun and Bubble Bobble, not anything orchestral.
GC: Which isn’t to say I don’t like modern orchestral music, but old chiptunes and MIDI had a sound that was distinctively and uniquely that of video games. I often didn’t even realise that they were trying to sound like real instruments, I just appreciated that it was a completely different sound that was specific to gaming.
EN: I understand that.
GC: I almost resent modern video game music being so good, because now, apart from the odd indie game, there’s no need to go back to that distinctive sound. I hate when games just try to copy movies as exactly as possible, I feel that way about narrative too. They’re such different media, that trying to copy the methodology of one into the other risks stripping it of all its uniqueness.
EN: I think there’s room for all of that in video game music, because depending on the subject matter of the game the score could require anything. I understand what you mean about resenting the orchestral version of something that was originally on synths, or whatever, because there’s definitely… synths and 8-bit stuff, that can stand alone as its own sound world – it doesn’t have to be orchestrated, it doesn’t have to be trying to represent something else. It’s pretty cool by itself.
However, I will say that when I’m looking at video game music as a genre, versus, say, film music there’s certain freedoms that the composer has that allow them to write the big scenes and the big tunes, that they don’t always get in movies now. The fashion in film music has changed from the big John Williams sound…
GC: Yes, melody no longer seems to be fashionable.
EN: Yes, exactly! Because what they want now is they want a texture, they don’t want you making too much of a comment on the characters’ inner life. A lot of video game composers work on film as well and it’s definitely a head space shift, because you don’t want to inform the listener of what the character is thinking on-screen.
We can’t tread on dialogue is the big one, so writing a big ol’ tune on eight French horns on top of a line of dialogue isn’t going to work. Whereas when you’re writing in-game music for, say, a fantasy game you have the freedom to write those big tunes. And then those are the things that can translate to the concert hall stage and people get excited when they hear those melodies. And you’re like, ‘Yes, melody lives!’
GC: It’s interesting that one of the game franchises that has segued all way from 8-bit to orchestral to the modern textural style is The Legend Of Zelda, which is of course something you’re very familiar with. But is there any going back? Will we still have games with recognisable, melodic tunes? I think of something like Assassin’s Creed, which always has these technically very competent soundtracks but they’re so unmemorable… I can’t hum them!
EN: Yeah, yeah. That’s a good example actually. I’ve heard this premise before, where people think that now that we have the technology to have these big orchestral scores are we gonna lose the themes that give us this nostalgia in the first place? Like, of course there’s the Mario theme and Zelda… Zelda is just littered with themes. It’s not just the main theme, there’s The Wind Waker theme, Zelda’s Lullaby, so many… But yes, I do think it is possible.
I think there’s a lot of creative people out there, it depends on the game itself, of course. Some games need that textural type of score, but then you have things like Jeremy Soule’s Dragonborn theme from Skyrim, which is a great one that’s been reinterpreted by fans. Judith de los Santos did a very famous version of that theme online and I loved it so much I invited her to sing on a version of a song I did for World Of Warcraft. But there are definitely things like that out there, like the Halo theme as well.
GC: It reminds me of the argument over superhero movie themes and how they’re never as memorable as the old ‘70s and ‘80s ones. But the one time they did seem to make an effort with Avengers it worked very well, so I don’t understand why there’s such a push against being memorable. Even those games you’ve just mentioned are all around a decade old now.
EN: It’s entirely up to the director, both in the film world and the game world. When you’re talking about the superhero movies, one of my best friends on the planet is Pinar Toprak who just did the score for Captain Marvel. And you know, those kinds of things… it depends on the type of composer as well but a director, if you’re somebody who’s known for writing the big tunes that’s what a director will call on you to do, but it’s really up to them.
Now, I have noticed something about game directors, which is they tend to come from a slightly different world than film directors and they often times are guys who want a John Williams score and they grew up loving the DVD extras of things where you see the composer in the recording studio… I’ve done a lot of recordings at Skywalker Ranch and we’re there because of a bunch reasons, and all of the team will be there – the directors, the producers – and they all want to be in George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch because they all love Star Wars.
GC: Well, that’s understandable.
EN: [laughs] And loving John Williams’ music and his big themes and his big tunes… it’s a gift for a certain type of composer to work with directors like that. And then for other composers it’s stressful trying to come up with the big tunes. But it usually is all about what the director and producers want. We get more of a chance, and I think this is why the two are becoming separate genres, in that we’re getting more of a chance in video game music to write those big tunes.
Like, World Of Warcraft is littered with those sort of themes, Skyrim, Metal Gear, I really love Greg Edmonson’s Uncharted 2 stuff… There’s so many to choose from but the best way of seeing which ones are successfully memorable or not is to go to YouTube and look at what the fans have done with them. Especially, Final Fantasy has lots and lots of themes that fans have taken and done rearrangements of and I love that. I love that video game music has an entire community out there of musicians.
GC: That’s true, and it’s often with different instruments or music styles or adding lyrics to songs that never had them…
EN: Exactly! I cried like a baby when the Triforce Quartet played one of my pieces, arranged for string quartet. It’s incredibly moving to see fans do things with your work. That’s a really special thing.
GC: I’m also interested in your experiences of working as a woman in an industry dominated by men. You mentioned the composer for Captain Marvel, but before that the only female composer I’d ever even heard of was Shirley Walker.
EN: Oh, Shirley!
GC: Her work on Batman: The Animated Series alone is incredible, and I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t more famous and prolific. And then of course I realised why…
EN: There’s so many stories I could tell you that you can’t repeat [laughs]. I did actually interview Shirley before she died. Oh my god, her work is so wonderful. Her work on Batman, on the animated stuff…
GC: It’s so varied as well.
EN: She ended up ghost writing and orchestrating for so many people and I can’t… no, I can’t tell that story [tells that story].
GC: That’s awful. If Shirley was working today do you think she’d be more recognised, would she be able to get higher profile work than she did?
EN: I don’t know to be honest, I’m so excited about Pinar Toprak scoring Captain Marvel and she did an excellent job. I went to see the movie with her and it’s absolutely fabulous, but it’s an anomaly. Pinar just made history by having the biggest budget for a movie ever scored by a woman. But it’s one example and if you look for the other women coming up behind her they’re just not there. It’s not good enough to have one or two standout examples and then nothing, you need a whole pyramid to be there, you know.
I have shown up to lots of sessions as the conductor and there’s a roomful of composers and the only women involved in the project are the orchestrator and the conductor, basically the support staff. And it’s incredibly frustrating and I look at pictures of music departments… a lot of video game companies have a similar structure to the old Hollywood studio system where often you’ll have an in-house music team and I’ve worked with some of them and I’m the only woman there.
GC: Yeah, I’ve never seen a woman in those circumstances when I do a studio tour anywhere.
EN: I remember doing a particular recording session and I’d been asked to come into a university to talk to their women student composition students, so it was on my mind, and I looked around the dinner table on the break from recording and there were 13 men and myself. And the weird thing was I was so used to it that I hadn’t even noticed until I was thinking about, ‘What am I going to say to these artists tomorrow?’ And I looked around the table and – oh my god – I’m so accustomed to this but I didn’t even notice.
But I think it’s going to be up to both the public and game companies themselves to have some affirmative action in this regard. And Hollywood is trying, and I appreciate that in terms of films. But I think it will be up to companies to say, ‘Look at our audio department there are no women in it! What are we going to do about that?’
There are lots of qualified women out there. And I think it’s going to be corporate that are going to have to look at affirmative action until these things are balanced out a little bit. I think it makes good business sense to have more women game developers and more writers and more animators creating content that appeals more to the other half of the population.
That’s a lot of people with a lot of buying power and surely that makes more business sense. We need more women developers, we need more women writers, we need more women in the industry in general.
GC: You’re completely right. The only thing I wonder is whether it’s always a case of purposeful sexism or just the inherent conservatism of video game companies, or any business. They just want each project to be as similar as possible to the last one that was successful, whether it’s making another online shooter, the style of music, or using a male composer. They don’t want to change anything if they can help it, which obviously ends up being horribly biased towards men.
EN: That’s a really, really good point. I never thought about it that way. Actually, that’s a really good point.
GC: I don’t think many people are motivated enough to be actively evil. They’re just being lazy and apathetic.
EN: [laughs] There are other things where… you know at one point people used to think that women couldn’t write action scores. And I’m like, ‘What?’ There’s this expectation that if it’s a woman everything is just going to be played on five flutes and a harp.
EN: The best artists are always the ones that are rounded in terms of their ying and their yang, you know? It’s like saying a male composer can’t write music for a female character. That’s rubbish. Yes he can, if he’s a well-rounded artist. Somebody said to me recently, ‘Oh we need more women to get into composing because they can bring a female perspective to female characters’. But that’s rubbish, what a load of tosh! A well-rounded artist should be able to say something worthwhile about virtually anything.
GC: But there is one area of video game music that isn’t unfairly dominated by men and that’s presenters of High Score on Classic FM.
GC: I’m assuming you probably know Jessica Curry?
EN: I do! I’m a big Jessica fan, she is super cool and we support each other in the industry and since she won her BAFTA I was so excited and it really meant something to me. I felt like I wasn’t just proud for an author; I felt like I sort of won it a bit as well, because here is this brilliant woman winning a BAFTA for writing video game music.
And I was a huge fan of the show, I used to listen in from the United States, to Jessica on air, and she used to play my music online or on the show. Those are big shoes to fill and I think that the British video game industry should be really excited and proud to have a composer like her living and working here. But yeah, it is really cool that you have one female composer following another in High Score and hopefully that’s a statement.
GC: How will your approach change from Jessica? Are you planning anything radically different or is this intended as a smooth transition?
EN: Well, I loved what Jessica did and what I’m trying to do… we have some really fun themes for each show but what I’m trying to do is add some anecdotal stories from inside of the industry from my own experience. Little situations I’ve been in with certain pieces and people around them and stories that you can’t read off of the inside of the soundtrack album.
It’s not out there in the public domain, because most of the composers whose music we’re playing I’ve either performed their scores live – so I’ve had to study them and learn them – or I’ve recorded them or I’ve worked with them. I’m trying to bring a personalised approach to the show and also, for uber fans, lots of little stories and little Easter eggs that they might not have known before.
GC: That sounds great, well it has been fantastic to speak to you.
EN: It’s been a real pleasure, thank you.
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