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Welcome, my name is Garri Voodoo. My journal will feature articles by my good friend, the violinist and music scholar, Runa Fanany. She will mostly cover classical music, with perhaps a slightly alternative point of view. Enjoy!

Interview with Peter McConnell

February 9th 2007 03:36
I was recently able to pitch a few questions to the highly respected video game music composer, Peter McConnell. Peter has worked and collaborated on a number of successful Lucasarts adventure games, and continues to work at Double Fine Productions with industry guru Tim Schafer. His most recent recognized soundtrack work has been for Psychonauts, published in 2005.

I took the opportunity to ask him some questions about possibly his most famous soundtrack, the game Grim Fandango, published in 1998. If you aren't familiar with this music, most of it can be downloaded from the Grim Fandango Network here.

On writing the music for Grim Fandango:

CMJ: What is your personal appraisal for how the soundtrack to Grim Fandango turned out?

PMC: I thought it turned out great. The performances and engineering were really fine. Most of the composition still holds up for me. My only regret is not using a better piano sound.

Peter McConnell
CMJ: How much of the game's visual components were complete when you started writing for Grim Fandango? Did you start out with a good conception of the unique art style being used?

PMC: I started really early on the project, at least in terms of thinking about it and coming up with melodies in my hand-held recorder as a background task. I had lots of concept art to work with pretty early on, so the art style was clear from the get-go. By the time I was really doing tunes I had artwork for all of the characters and most of the environments.

CMJ: Did you find it difficult to translate your exact vision into a performance from live musicians? During recording, do you take much interpretive control over the musicians?

PMC: On the contrary, I found the live process to produce results that were even better than my original vision. Once you're in there working with real players, you start to see a lot more possibilities (see your question later about bass clarinet). I do tend to be a bit of a task master in the studio. I work people pretty hard -- sometimes too hard. There's a real fine art to getting the best out of a performer, and I'm still perfecting it. It has to do with pushing hard enough, but also being open to an artist's own creative style, and letting the unexpected just happen.

CMJ: For the pieces that weren't using live musicians, what software did you use?

PMC: Digital Performer was and still is my main tool, plus a lot of samples. In the Grim days it was mostly E-mu EIV samples like the Miroslav library. But nearly every piece in Grim had some kind of live instrument.

CMJ: In regards to the bass clarinet\ contrabass clarinet extended techniques that show up later in the game(used to great effect near the very end) - how did they come about? Was it your decision or some fiddling on the part of the musician?

PMC: That is a part of Ralph Carney's style. He is a unique San Francisco player who does a lot of work with Tom Waits and other luminaries of the lo-fi, unpolished school of jazz. I saw him get up onstage and jam on some Tibetan horn with Beck once in a concert at the Warfield, and a year later accompany Allen Ginsberg at another big concert here -- probably the last time the poet read in the Bay Area. The point is that the guy is out there. If you're an Eric Dolphy fan, you'll know the sound is not without precedent. But his particular thing was just right for certain situations in Grim, and the way it was applied kind of grew organically out of the recording sessions. Those parts gained even more momentum later when I was editing the bits down out of their original context and found they worked in a number of places as a centerpiece of music in the cut scenes. BTW most of the extended technique you heard was on contrabass clarinet, since it is more conducive to that overblowing effect. Ralph also played some of the wilder regular clarinet parts, such as the klezmer solo on "Swanky Max" and the slide clarinet (an instrument of his own invention) on the Bonewagon tune.

CMJ: Were there any ideas for the soundtrack that didn't quite pan out, or anything you would have liked to pursue further but didn't have the time or funds to do so? Is there anything you'd like to do again?

PMC: I'd say all the ideas that really mattered to me panned out pretty well. If I had an opportunity, I'd do a re-mix of some of the tunes with better piano sounds and a better orchestra library. Or better yet, to re-do the score with a real budget and use all live musicians for every sound.

CMJ: What was the biggest challenge for you in writing this soundtrack?

PMC: Knitting all the musical styles together into a cohesive whole. I'm pretty happy with how that aspect of it came out.

On your background and the current state of the industry:

CMJ: Has your prior musical education(at university) been of particular use to you as a game composer?

PMC: Quite a bit. I think if you are doing music for a picture, you quickly run into situations where you need to speak the language that has been spoken for centuries in our culture to evoke certain kinds of emotions. One way or the other, you need to get grounded in what's gone on before you. If you don't have that grounding, it really shows. The drawback of formal training is it is often necessary to forget some of what you learned in order to move forward. But on the balance, the things I'm glad I learned outweigh the things I had to forget.

CMJ: Recently with the latest generation of consoles, there is often the option available for players to use their own choice of music in games. Do you see this as a threat to the credibility of video game music?

PMC: Not if I'm doing a good job.

CMJ: Your career has stretched over 15 years now, what do you think the biggest changes to the video game music scene have been during this time?

PMC: Two things. First production quality has obviously gone up, so that triple A titles now have production values than exceed those of most TV and rival those in mid-level films. Second and more importantly, the technology is now reaching a sort of tipping point so that it has almost become transparent. In other words -- somewhat ironically -- the tech is so good that it doesn't matter as much as it used to. It's becoming less and less amazing to see visual pyrotechnics in a video game now, or hear 5.1 surround sound. This is a good thing, because what matters now is story, creativity and the interactive experience. Hollywood went through the same transitions very early on. George Lucas alluded to this in a pep talk he gave us LucasArts folks once. He said that in the very early days of film, people would go to the theater and just watch a movie of a train going by and say, "Oh my God, look -- it's a train!" That phase didn't last long, and soon people wanted to see (and eventually hear) a real story. Of course we still have a long way to go technically until we get to the holodeck. But it's an exciting time to be doing games now because we've gotten good enough at dealing with the technical issues that there is more time than ever to do things like make the music.

CMJ: What would you like to see, and not like to see, in the future of game music?

PMC: I'd like to see more great stories, and especially more of the smaller off-beat productions. I'm glad there are blockbusters because they move the bar up and move us all forward in terms of production value, but a little more imagination in the blockbuster area would be nice. I hate to say it, but there are too many games trying to aspire to be yet another shtick that Hollywood did ages ago, and Hollywood itself is hardly the paragon of originality.

CMJ: Thank you very much for your time in answering all of these questions.

PMC: Thank you. It's been a pleasure to answer such good questions.

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