A Tirade, in C minor
We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning
- Werner Heisenberg
It’s been a fun month. Prune was chosen by Time magazine as the top game of 2015; it was also selected as Apple's Game of the Year, which is kind of nuts. Beating out bigger titles with larger budgets feels pretty weird.......but I suppose I’ll live with it. It’s vindicated some of the philosophical choices I made early on deciding to compose for video games. I think indies tend to take more risks yielding more interesting ideas; not always, but more often than not. And that is why I like working with them so much : )
Recently, I got the chance to visit Bungie along with a few of my fellow Seattle game audio comrades; sorry I don’t have pictures to share, but it was a pretty unique experience. Eye-opening for sure, learning some of the crazy limitations their audio department had to tolerate for Destiny was quite enlightening. Makes me feel lucky to work with Indies, as I’ve yet to hear a dev tell me “sorry dude, no more room for your ideas”. But anywho, there have been others to visit the studio before me, and they were kind enough to share their experience, if you’re curious. And now this.
A Completely Unrelated Rant
A lot has been said of "good" music, and I encounter enough people online and in person that have much to say on the subject. Of course, the topic is subjective, yet it is frequently mentioned, by certain people, in an effort to discredit a composer or artist that the lecturer feels doesn't deserve the credit or success they receive. There are plenty of opinionated people (on...the internet...of all places) that seem to consider music only in terms of theory; the chord progressions, the notes, articulations, etc. - yet when it comes to the less quantitative aspects, like timbre, texture, tone-color, they either completely ignore it or they classify it as “sound design”, and are sure to point out the distinction as "not music”. Almost suggesting that sound design should not be granted the privilege of being 'musical'. In my opinion, most of this is complete bullshit and it’s exasperating to repeatedly hear this kind if rhetoric over and over again. I’ve encountered it enough in the realm of game/film music to be aware that it’s a somewhat prominent belief and I wanted to express a few things on the matter.
Music is more than just notes!
Describing music in terms of notes is not an all-encompassing method for describing what music is. If you've written out a piece on the staff lines with all of your articulations, all you've demonstrated is the anatomy of a thing, not the thing itself. It is like saying that physics is just a collection of equations - which has never been true. Ever. Yet there are those who spend significant portions of their time saying otherwise. These qualitative aspects of music can enhance, and dictate the direction of a musical piece. Choosing to use a violin instead of a trombone might be an orchestrative choice, or a "sound design" choice, but it's still a musical choice. Building a synthesizer from scratch to achieve a sound you want can be a musical choice; the instrument is irrelevant because it is all technology. It has always been technology! So why limit your understanding of music to all of these reductive definitions and bind yourself to so much less possibility. Not to mention that this mentality usually leads to the dismissal of so much great art because your perception fails to fall in line with your subjective definitions of music.
I'll use the Limbo soundtrack as an example. I have heard often enough from industry folks that "it's good sound design but it isn't music". I encourage you to listen to it and make up your own mind. But I think people who make statements like this enjoy drawing lines and boxing themselves and others into neat little units so that all parties reside "where they belong". Maybe they respect the art of sound design in a different way, maybe not, but I'm really annoyed by these rigid lines, and I'm tired of this particular opinion being thrown around and offered regularly as good advice. We are all audio storytellers as Scott Gershin might say; sound design is an expression of emotion. And I'd go further in saying that if the definition of music is "humanly organized sound", then sound design itself is a musical art form. But ultimately, whether or not this is true, I don't think the classifications matter much; labels aren't that important. With technology changing as fast as it is, the disciplines are blending together and I think it is making music a lot more interesting.
And while we're on this topic, there's an entire underbelly of other factors that get dismissed with these black and white, rigid definitions; factors like class, education and environment, all of which are tremendously important influences. It reminds me of a comment I heard awhile ago, I was out drinking with some local musicians in Seattle and I heard a statement that sounded something like this: "People who listen to (insert generic popular rock band) are all dumb-asses, and they deserve their shitty life".
But underneath that generalization is a disturbing assumption, and I would speculate that it's there due to ignorance and hopefully not malice. But the assumption is this: there is some objective reality to the belief that some music is just "better" than others.
Better for whom, better for what?
Is Mozart better than Coldplay? Well, his music is certainly more complex (and more interesting imho), but "better" is a relative term. A lot of people, myself included, certainly prefer his music, but that doesn't make it objectively better.
Imagine growing up pre-internet (oh gawd I'm so old), in a place that offers very little in the way of cultural nourishment. Somewhere that it's less likely you'll be exposed to artists like The Beatles or Jeff Buckley or Marvin Gaye.
Sometimes, in places like this, a band like Coldplay might really speak to you, because there is something genuine and musical in there somewhere, even if it's drenched in commercialism and advertising. I'm sure Coldplay wasn't always obsessed with selling millions of albums (and if this is your endgame as an artist, you're probably placing a stronger importance on commercial interests than music as an art form); but as a person stuck in this cultural void, they might be the only thing available, just like McDonalds. I'm not saying these are good things, I don't think they are, but McDonalds technically is food, and if you're stuck between the choice of starvation or McDonalds, I think I know what you'd choose.
Labeling people who have tastes that differ from your own, due to uncontrollable circumstances, doesn't make your opinion objectively correct. And some of us are sincerely tired of listening to you.
For further reading, Doron from Designing Sound has a much more educational and less opinionated post on this subject. It's a great read, as are all of their articles.
Phew...glad we got through all of that self-righteousness. Feels good, we accomplished something together.
I'm debating about sharing some new music with you. Need to give my ears a break for a period, and listen with fresh intentions in a few days. Will keep you posted : )
Oh yeah, and the International Business Times UK added the Prune soundtrack to their Best Game Soundtracks of 2015. Feels pretty cool to be on the same page as Austin Wintory for Assasin's Creed; he's one of the best there is imho.