Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
Jesper Kyd’s distinguished career as a freelance composer spans more than two decades, and his singular style has earned him numerous distinctions, including a 2005 BAFTA for the dark electronic score to Hitman: Contracts.
Kyd has created music for Borderlands 1 and 2, the Hitman and Assassin’s Creed series, and State of Decay, just to name a few. His most recent work can be heard on the second season of the Metal Hurlant Chronicles, which premiered Monday, April 14 on SyFy at 8 pm. Samples of the soundtrack are available on Mr. Kyd’s website and his Soundcloud account.
He was kind enough to grant an interview with T. Blake Braddy, in which he discusses his influences, the evolution of game music over the years, and the differences between composing for games and television.
BD: It has been reported elsewhere that you are mostly self-taught. In what ways do you think that has affected your approach to music and composition?
I think it allows me to constantly push my music forward and mix different music styles and genres together. For me it’s always been about trying to define a score by being creative and unique in order to find a sound that goes deep, which then becomes tailor-made for the project. If you listen to my Assassin’s Creed, Darksiders or Hitman music, for example, and in a few seconds can recognize the scores, then I’ve done my job.
I enjoy composing soundtracks that go beyond the typical orchestration styles and I like to experiment with different sounds rather than relying on traditional orchestral techniques only. For example, Hitman Contracts was a mix of DJ-style electronic music and choir, Assassin’s Creed II was a mix of Renaissance music styles combined with a modern edge (electronics, guitars, drums, vocals), Darksiders II was analog-synth based and not a traditional fantasy score.
BD: Did you decide to be a composer because you loved video games, or did you gravitate to the medium due to the music itself?
Great question! When I started out playing games on the Commodore 64 I didn’t really know much about video game music…Before the C64 all I remember hearing was some “bleeps” and “bloops” instruments that used to play such as the theme from Kings Quest 1 on PC. The C64 music chip was an amazing analog chip and the phrase “chip music” started to be used to describe C64 music.
I was a big fan of Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis and Mike Oldfield in my childhood and once I heard Martin Galway, Rob Hubbard and Tim Follin’s C64 music in games, it was like no music I had ever heard before. To make music like Vangelis was unobtainable, I simply did not have access to that kind of gear, synths etc. But I did have a C64 so I started making music every day, and I have been composing ever since.
BD: Recently, you did the music for the television show the Metal Hurlant Chronicles. What major differences exist between composing for television and composing for games?
I think it’s a bit easier to compose for linear visual media. Once you understand how music works in film/TV, it’s relatively straightforward to apply. But in games there are so many challenges with having to score for something that’s not there (if the game is early in production) or having to kind of guess what the mood needs to be since there are so many ways to play a game.
Basically, for me it comes down to working with creative people who are supportive, who understand that making the music fit the game will not be some miraculous event but that it takes hard work and going back and changing things, trying new things, learning from things that don’t work and taking some creative risks.
BD: What similarities, if any, do you see in your most recent work – Metal Hurlant Chronicles – and some of your earliest? Does going back and listening to earlier compositions show a through-line for how you put together a soundtrack?
With every soundtrack I learn something new and so I feel I keep moving forward. Learning never stops. So perhaps if you listen to my early Sega Genesis work and listen through to my work today, I’m sure you’ll hear where I started to focus on what etc. One thing that has not changed is my love of unique ideas, using creativity (not just technique), mood and atmosphere to tell a story.
BD: I’m sure that designing music for games has changed drastically since the Commodore 64, but how have the lowered constraints opened up the approach to a game’s audio design?
Well, the C64 was 3 channels of pure analog bliss but there were no samples or recognizable instruments. These days we work a lot with live orchestras and choirs. It couldn’t be more different really. Of course the role of music is still the same, to set the mood and enhance the experience/story with music.
BD: How early into the game development process are you brought in to start composing music? Do you play the game at all, or are visuals basically all you need?
I often play the game as there’s just so much guess work involved if you don’t know the feel of the game and how it plays. Sometimes I create an entire score based on concept art, but that can only be done if you are working with a really supportive audio department. Having access to the same visual assets (concept art, for example) can really help you understand what the development team is trying to achieve. Sometimes the game doesn’t come together until the score is almost done, so you have to learn how to write the score without certain elements.
BD: How much freedom do you have in determining the auditory aesthetic of the score? Do the developers give you notes on what they want, or do they give you free reign to design the game’s musical aesthetic?
I find that for most of my projects I get a lot of artistic and creative freedom. I think perhaps that is what I am known for, to bring something creative or unique. But to hire me and say you want it to sound like this or that score, well there are probably better suited composers for that. I often get crazy ideas and try out new things to see what the team thinks.
BD: Video game music seems to be a very challenging field, because it has to command the player’s attention and accentuate the experience without distracting from gameplay. Does that ever influence how you approach a piece of music, and how do you think of music in terms of how it interacts with the on-screen experience?
I think music should enhance and deepen the gameplay experience. It’s there to give the world life and emotion. Imagine Blade Runner with the music playing in the background (at low volume), the movie wouldn’t work – that score is meant to be noticed. So that’s what I try to do as well, write music that grabs the player’s attention and thereby enhance the game world a lot, perhaps put some magic and mystery in there. Like “Ezio’s Family” from Assassin’s Creed II – that music was played loud and clear at a key moment and so people noticed it and reacted to it.
BD: You’ve had a historic career, full of a wide array of projects. In almost every conceivable way, Metal Hurlant Chronicles is way different from, say, State of Decay. How do you adapt to and approach different genres? Is there any sort of learning curve for the kind of instrumentation the game demands?
If you keep challenging yourself there is a learning curve on each score. I love creative challenges and that can add a sense of freshness in the music since you kind of have to be fearless when writing this way. For example, I had never written an orchestral cue before I was asked to write a purely orchestral soundtrack for Hitman 2. That was my first orchestral score and it was an amazing experience to work with a live orchestra and choir.
BD: To build on this, the music on State of Decay is especially eerie. It almost has the jangly vibe of early horror, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Are you a fan of horror movies and games at all?
Yes, I am a huge horror fanatic! I have probably seen every horror film worth watching from the 1970s and 1980s. 1970s horror is my favorite, especially the early David Cronenberg movies.
BD: Do the PS4 and Xbox One offer even more potential in terms of music? What, if anything, excites and interests you about developing for the new platforms?
I’m really excited about the potential of next-gen games. Music will follow the game experience, so if there is something really crazy in development, I’m sure crazy music ideas will follow along with it.
BD: What can you say about the projects you’re currently working on?
Well, I am working on a new sci-fi game, the Lifeline expansion for State of Decay and some other exciting projects I can’t talk about yet.