Interview With Composer Jason Graves

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With a name like Jason Graves, you know that you’ll be hearing music that will make you afraid, very afraid. Perhaps that’s why his gut-ripping contribution to DEAD SPACE made it one of gaming’s truly terrifying experiences, let alone that it happened to occur in the video game genre. Like Jerry Goldsmith given an overload of insanity-inducing adrenalin, Graves’ ferocious orchestra blasted, dismembered, and otherwise stomped to bloody goo the endless Necromorph creatures that were prowling the USG Ishimura, courtesy of a cultish “church” that unleashed a Lovecraftian “marker” on the universe.

Now with said spaceship and its accompanying planet destroyed at the end of EA Games’ DEAD SPACE, our hapless engineer Isaac finds himself waking up in the space city called The Sprawl. But maybe he had it better on the Ishimura, as dementia and nightmares of his lost love Nicole still plague our hero, not to mention a new horde of mutates that are creeping through a futuristic metropolis gone to hell. Atmosphere plays a big part in DEAD SPACE 2, both literally and figuratively, no more so than with music that once again roils across our ears like the second coming of Cthulu. Graves does one better as he dons Isaac’s multi-lighted helmet again, relentlessly attacking us with dark, pounding percussion, seizure-inducing bells and the kind of nightmarish, ever-advancing orchestrations that let gamers know terror is right around the corner, or flying towards us in zero-g. Yet there’s also a subtle sometimes-beautiful creepiness to DEAD SPACE 2 in the mournful cellos and glistening bells that stand for the unholy beliefs of the Unitarians.

By soundtrack’s end (and the game, if you somehow survive it), DEAD SPACE 2 stands as a truly bad-ass sequel score in prolific video game scoring career for Graves that’s included the sequel likes of SILENT HUNTER 4 and 5 and BLAZING ANGELS 2, along with two far nicer STAR TREK games for ENCOUNTERS and LEGACY. Yet none reach have the primal affect of DEAD SPACE 2, music that makes sure you keep your den lights as you enter the blackest void that’s likely to be seen, and heard in the video game genre for some time to come.

As a budding composer, which horror and science fiction scores impressed you? And how did you want to pay tribute to them here?

That really goes back to the first DEAD SPACE. Because what I intentionally did with the second one was to try and not listen, or be influenced by any other music. The only music I listened to was the soundtrack from the first game, as if someone else had scored it. I thought, “What can I do to improve on this score, while basically staying in the same universe as the first DEAD SPACE?” The first score drew on a lot of modern, 20th century classical stuff by composers like Gyorgy Ligeti and Krzystof Penderecki. I didn’t lean on anything in the film or television worlds, which is why, I guess, DEAD SPACE had an original sound to it. That approach still holds true in the second game, but it’s as more of an extension of the first score’s sound.

How did you want to make your score “new,” while recapturing what fans loved about the first DEAD SPACE?

That’s exactly the question. Welcome to my world, for about the first three months of working on this! I was scratching my head, trying to figure out what to do. But in the end, EA had such a great direction with these games that I figured out that all I had to do was what I did with the first score. That was to immerse myself in the game and figure out the direction it was taking, both of which would naturally funneled itself into my ultimate score. In the first DEAD SPACE, you’re running around doing a lot of errands, and things would jump out at you. But there was no true “course” for the game. This game has a much more concise plot, and Isaac’s mentality is different. In the first one, I was scoring everything was jumping out at him- the feeling of “Oh my God, what is that?!?!” Everything was new. You weren’t prepared for it. So most of the time DEAD SPACE’s orchestra was a barely-controlled cacophony. With DEAD SPACE 2 I’m using the same instruments and the same sounds, but everything is more controlled and precise, because Isaac’s already been there and done that. His experience is still scary, but he’s got a point to his actions now, and the music had to do the same thing. So in a way we’re taking all of that aggressive orchestral stuff from DEAD SPACE and tightening up the rhythms a little bit, giving everything more of Isaac’s more concrete motivation. That gives this score a bigger dynamic range, allowing it to be both more intimate, and larger than the first soundtrack.

In DEAD SPACE 2, we move from the USG Ishimura to a space city called The Sprawl. Did the new setting have any effect on your music, or open it up even further?

Absolutely. That was a big part of being able to get bigger, and smaller with the score. The Sprawl is much more open. So when you get into its corridors and apartments, you feel even more claustrophobic. That also allowed me a larger emotional arch within the music, while also playing how Isaac gets out into space again. It was cool to be able to contrast those environments, unlike the first game, where you’re on a spaceship the entire time. This is a rare sequel that’s the exact opposite of what they did the first time, and I think DEAD SPACE 2 works great because of that.

Isaac has much more of a personality in the new game, especially since you really get to see his face, let alone get inside of his very troubled head. What difference did that make in your approach?

It was the finer emotional brush that I was able to use musically. Isaac’s conflicted, and talking with himself and to the ghost of his girlfriend. He’s trying to come to terms with all of his guilt. For a videogame, those are some pretty heavy issues going on. That gave me the idea of using a string quartet. It’s essentially playing a smaller version of the music in DEAD SPACE, in a way that can reflect Isaac’s newfound vulnerability as he progresses through the game.

The Church of Unitology has an even bigger role in DEAD SPACE 2, especially in your “Lacrimosa” concerto for string quartet. How did you hit on this approach?

While there was some use of voices in the first one, I knew the one texture we hadn’t used a lot of was choir with struck bells, but in a futuristic, spacey sort of way. And the one thing that EA knew they wanted from me was for to give that religious aspect a bigger role in this soundtrack. I thought that would work well for The Church, because you only have to have a couple of notes in these bells, or hear the choir moaning in the background, and you’d instantly relate that music to Unitology. For me, that’s always the biggest challenge- to do something that’s instantly recognizable, but doesn’t step over everything else.

It might be a videogame, but the first DEAD SPACE was scarier than many recent horror films. What kind of musical effects do you think make for such an unsettling experience, and how have you added to them in the sequel?

It all goes back to the psychology of fear, which I had to think about a lot on the first game. What makes us scared? I think it comes down to the fear of the unknown, whether it’s the shark under the water, the masked killer, or the thing under your bed that’s grabbing for you. So I tried to do everything I could to turn the conventional world of music upside-down, in hopes that it would be the musical equivalent of that fear of the unknown. I figured out the best way to do that was to have the orchestra play all of their instruments in a way that you wouldn’t be able to identify them- to make the strings not sound like strings. Yet you know that you’re being put on edge, because you can’t picture the instrument in your head.

How important a component was melody in DEAD SPACE 2?

This time around, I wanted to have some sort of melody that would play a bigger role than in the first soundtrack. The only time I used melody there was for Nicole’s theme, which was still a common musical thread that had to run through the whole story. The reason Isaac is on that spaceship is to rescue her. So while we needed to have a recurrence of her theme for DEAD SPACE 2, EA gave me carte blanche to do pretty much whatever I wanted. I ended up composing a new theme for Isaac that would represent his character arch. In the first one, there wasn’t much of an arch. He just, kind of, lived! But in this one he actually goes through some stuff. I came up with four notes that were a bit less atonal for him, where were D-E-A-D. And what seemed musically simple ended up working very well in the game, with the antithesis of his theme being the one for marker. It’s four notes in the same rhythm as Isaac’s, but stepped down chromatically. Those two themes play against each other, especially during the cinematics. They bring the score to life.

DEAD SPACE 2 proudly continues the splatter-ific tradition of the first game. Did you ever say, “This is too disgusting” while scoring it?

I think after a few months, anyone dealing with this would be bludgeoned into submission. You get so used to the violence that you kind of grow numb. I also have to be careful, because when I go onto another soundtrack right after doing a DEAD SPACE score, I’ll end up hearing, “You know, this music is really great. But isn’t it a little too dark?” And I’ll say, “Well, it doesn’t sound that dark to me!” But then, anything compared to DEAD SPACE isn’t really that dark!

Do you think it’s important for videogame composers to be game players as well?

I’m definitely not a great game player. Thankfully, one of the great things about being a videogame composer is that you’re with the developer while you’re playing the game. They’ve given you all the “cheats,” so it doesn’t take you three hours to get through a level. Yet while you don’t need to be a great player, it is important for you to appreciate the game from their perspective. I’m first person evidence that while you don’t have to be good, you have to be eager!

Did you have a sense that DEAD SPACE would become a “franchise” game when you worked on the first one?

I had no clue at all! I knew that DEAD SPACE was immersive, original, and really, really awesome. But you have no idea how people are going to respond to any game until it’s finally out there for general consumption. Now they’ve got comic books, two animated films, and are talking about doing a live-action movie. I’m really amazed by all of it.

How do you see DEAD SPACE evolving as a game, and how do you think your music will grow with it?

I kind of feel that I’m halfway through the arch of DEAD SPACE’s pendulum swing, musically speaking that is. There’s an interesting dichotomy in the music world between playing a large, and small group of instruments. It’s kind of like chocolate and vanilla, the Ying and the Yang. One makes the other better. It know that’s really pretty general, but that’s what I’m into if I’m involved in more DEAD SPACE scores. I’d love to continue exploring the new ideas I’ve begun with the second game.

With so many game scores behind you, what do you think will be the key for you to make the leap to feature scoring? Or do you think Hollywood is still afraid to mine that video game territory for new musical talent?

It’s a double-edged sword between videogame scoring and composing for Hollywood movies. The first thing you need to do if you really want to jump into the film scoring world is to move to Los Angeles. And I already did that. I’m living in North Carolina now, and am honestly perfectly happy to be scoring videogames. I love do film scores though. I’m now working on two independent movies with people I’ve known for a long time. They essentially want me to do the same thing as the game developers, which is to bring them unique musical ideas. I’m not working with temporary tracks, or people who want to listen to music every day. These are relationships built on trust. That’s how I like to work. I’m not doing it to make a lot of money, or to get a lot of fame. I’m doing it because I love music. Video game scoring gives me complete creative control. And everyone I work with is just awesome.

On January 25th, Get ready to stomp Necromorphs here with the DEAD SPACE 2 collector’s edition (featuring a score compilation CD), then get infected by Jason Graves’ music for DEAD SPACE 2 on Amazon and iTunes

Visit Jason Graves official site here

1 Comment

  • Phillip Park
    January 13, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

    Jason Graves is one of my favorite composers for video games. Great scoring philosophy(avoiding influence by contemporaries for the benefit of an original approach). Really looking forward to the developed themes Mr. Graves talks of, something that was not a presence in the original Dead Space (though that score was quite excellent regardless, in my opinion).

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