Jason Graves is responsible for creating the innovative, unique soundtrack for Dead Space, which has become Electronic Arts’ best-selling original title and called “the scariest game ever made.” Jason’s groundbreaking score has been hailed by critics as a “truly original soundtrack” and “the best score of the year.” I talk to Jason about writing the music for the sequel Dead Space 2.
I understand you’re classically trained? Did this help when approaching the score for the Dead Space games?
Absolutely. There was an extensive amount of research that I did before I began the score to the original Dead Space. It’s probably not a coincidence that my classical composition background is, in fact, in 20th Century music. So in many ways this was like “going home” to me. However, I knew there was a lot I still had to learn in regards to performance techniques as well as music notation in order to get the sounds I wanted for the score.
So on one hand, it definitely helped to be classically trained. On the other hand, I was really learning performance techniques and notation from scratch. The research itself didn’t actually require much classical training aside from simply being able to read music. Even then, sometimes the scores were so abstract and graphically written that there was actually no music to read!
I can hear a lot of influences from 20th century music. The extended instrumental techniques for example. Where there any particular composers that really inspired you?
I researched and listened to as much modern orchestral music as I could find in the music library and online. Two composers immediately caught my attention. One was Gyorgy Ligeti, whose music was definitely more textural and nature. All of his scores were written with traditional music notation, which must have been an amazing exercise in patience because he wrote every instrument line out, sometimes including 40 or 50 string players! By the way, in traditional orchestral notation the strings are written on a total of five staves. Ligeti would expand these parts into 30 or 40 different lines in order to treat them as individual instruments as opposed to a section of 20 or 30 players.
The second composer was Krzysztof Pendercki. At times, his music is amazingly visceral and horrific. At other times, it’s incredibly beautiful and sensitive. He’s one of the pioneers of modern music notation and actually invented many of the symbols and techniques that are used for extended performances on orchestral instruments. If anyone has watched the movie “The Shining,” they have heard Pendercki’s music. It’s used to great effect as underscore for some of the creepiest scenes in the film.
What’s the creative process like for you?
Challenging! Seriously, I always struggle to find a way to explain how I do what I do. I’m sure a lot of people romanticize the thought of “being a composer.” The reality for most of us is that we sit in a room by ourselves all day, beating ourselves up over the quality of our work and simply trying to make it sound better. Obviously, I take a lot of inspiration from whatever project I’m working on, whether it’s a film, a game or something else entirely.
Where you given complete creative control over the score?
I definitely had a lot more freedom for Dead Space 2. I think a large part of that stems from the recognition the audio received on the first game. That being said, I work very hard to listen to game developers and incorporate their thoughts into the music I write for them. Since the world of Dead Space had already been established, it was very easy for me to slip back into that universe and freely move around it.
So technically speaking, I was given complete creative control over the score. However, that control was always judiciously exercised within the existing world that I had already established, musically speaking.
Compared to the first game, Dead Space 2 includes much more melodic material. How did you approach this?
I knew from the beginning I wanted to do something to distinguish the score from the original. There really weren’t any themes in the first Dead Space besides the one for Nicole, which I think ended up working well for the game. The whole idea of a non-musical score that writhed and screeched along with the on-screen monsters definitely struck a nerve.
There were plans from the beginning for Isaac to literally have a voice in Dead Space 2. Not only was he going to speak, he was also going to have a presence on the screen and emotional journey that he undergoes. That seemed like the perfect opportunity to introduce a more intimate, melodic aspect into the score. I chose a string quartet to counterbalance the giant churning orchestra. It’s small, intimate and incredibly vulnerable sounding. Essentially, Isaac is the string quartet and the orchestra are the Necromorphs.
How do you structure your music for the video game medium? Does this add additional difficulties?
The most challenging aspect of scoring videogames is interactivity. There is always a fine line between what is ideal and what is possible, especially concerning technology and the engines that playback the music. My job is to walk that line as discreetly and efficiently as possible, without overburdening the game developer with too many choices and all the while providing a seamless as possible experience with interactive music in the game.
Every title is a unique experience, even the sequel of an existing franchise I had worked on previously. But that’s one of the many things I love about working in video games – every job has its own unique set of challenges and rewards.
What advice could you pass on to newer composers getting into the business?
If you want to write music for a living, you have to speak the language. Like any other language, the more you speak, the more proficient you become. You should be writing music all the time. Even if no one is paying you for it. Even if you don’t think anyone wants to hear it! The more you write, the more you learn. The more you learn, the better a composer you become.
And don’t just listen to film scores all day! Listen to classical music as well. If Mozart or Beethoven is too pedestrian for your ears, investigate the romantic composers. Listen to ballet music. It’s the forerunner of film music and is far superior in many ways. If you don’t have anywhere else to start, go listen to Stravinsky’s ballets. You’ll be amazed how many film scores you hear in them!
You’re in very high demand as a composer. What’s coming up next for you?
Lots of things I’m not allowed to talk about yet! I’m currently signed on to six different game projects in various stages of development. Most of these games are big franchise titles with long production cycles and many hours of music. However, I found that these kinds of titles give me so much more time to work on the music, simply because they bring me in early on and I have eight or twelve months instead of eight or twelve weeks. Needless to say, that makes a huge difference!
Outside of the world of games, I just finished a dramatic score for an independent film and am wrapping up another score for a documentary, which is a blues-based score. I get to play my guitars and drums and I’m bringing my friends to play on it as well. It’s great having different things to do and break up the world of “action music for games!” a little bit.