What is your background and how did it lead you to the music of video games?
I received traditional classical music training from the age of five. I started composing at a very young age, contemporary music, and then I turned to film music composition. This passion has its origins in the 'programme music' of classical composers, music that is intended to be narrative or descriptive. I first worked on a video game when I was about 19, with another student, David Downes, the future founder of and composer for Celtic Woman, a famous Irish band. Much later, we discovered that this was the first part of the famous Metal Gear Solid game! Then I studied conducting with the conductor Gerhard Markson, and I followed this by working with an orchestrator who brought me to Los Angeles. For my first project, I had to orchestrate a score for Jason Hayes: it was the first World of Warcraft. Since then, the game has been played by over 100 million people!
Do your two professions (conductor and composer) feed off each other?
Being a conductor makes me a better composer and vice versa. I have a different approach to the composers I conduct, because I too have to put notes on paper. And my job as a conductor allows me to pick up all the gems of other composers' music, to be inspired by them in turn. The best part is when the two come together on stage. It's particularly moving to see the musicians working on a piece I wrote. A very moving and intellectual encounter.
A video game is by definition unpredictable. How do you compose music that fits this unknown?
There are several types of music in video games. First, there’s the music composed for a cinematic, a video animation that sets up the story and takes the player into a world. There are certain themes that will be heard again and again throughout the game.
Then, in the game itself, we start by creating an imaginary and emotional environment. We take the player out of his everyday life, and the programme music is once again an inspiration. For the music that must react to the player's actions, we compose and record in such a way as to be able to add or subtract elements, by blocks of timbres in particular, while maintaining musical coherence. Mozart could have written for video games: he loved riddles, musical puzzles! It's really fun if your brain likes that kind of thing. It's like a three-dimensional crossword puzzle, but musical.
Finally, there is also music that we compose but which seems to come from a concrete element present in the game: a jukebox, lift music, etc.
Is the music composed before the graphic design, or afterwards?
It depends on the type of music you are working on for the game, the directors, the schedule, the game companies... What is certain is that artistic collaboration (with visual artists, directors, etc.) brings out different things in your own creative work. This is what composers have done throughout history. Practical concerns, obstacles, always lead to a different kind of creativity. There is nothing scarier than a blank page; we welcome constraints, because very often they lead you in a direction you might not have gone.
La musique est-elle composée avant la création graphique, ou le contraire ?
Cela dépend du type de musique sur lequel vous travaillez pour le jeu, des réalisateurs, du calendrier, des sociétés de jeux… Ce qui est certain, c’est que la collaboration artistique (avec des artistes visuels, des réalisateurs, etc.) fait ressortir différentes choses de votre propre travail créatif. C’est ce qu’ont fait les compositeurs tout au long de l’histoire. Les préoccupations pratiques, les obstacles, conduisent toujours à un type de créativité différent. Il n’y a rien de plus effrayant que la page blanche ; nous accueillons les contraintes favorablement, parce que très souvent, elles vous conduisent dans une direction que vous n’auriez peut-être pas empruntée.
How would you describe the musical evolution of video games since its inception?
Early video game music was more like the work of a computer programmer than a composer. Koji Kondo, who wrote the music for Super Mario and Zelda, had to program his themes note by note, in binary language (composed of 1 and 0), for the first game consoles! Little by little, arrangements of these themes appeared, then midi scores, before having fully orchestrated scores.
Is it a challenge to establish yourself as a woman in two historically very male professional environments?
The body is the vehicle that carries the spirit through the world. When I'm in music, I don't think at all about the fact that I'm a woman. I am pleased to see that many wonderful female performers have come on board, whereas there were fewer when I started directing. People sometimes think that all women conductors are the same, when in fact we are quite different from each other; we only have our gender in common! We do not have to be seen as a group, but as individual beings. I love the audience, I serve them and I serve the orchestra. So it's important to do it as individually as possible: to do that, you have to exploit every single thing that makes me 'me', and one of those things, one of an infinite number of things, is that I am a woman.
Interview by Séverine Meers (Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège)