It’s no small thing, the Halo music. In fact, it’s kind of a big deal. As I wrote last week, Martin O’Donnell’s music for the first five Halo games evolved to become one of the most iconic soundtracks in modern video games.
While many chiptune anthems have been enshrined in gamer consciousness, O’Donnell’s Halo score is one of the few orchestral, Hollywood-style scores to have achieved a similar consensus.
And so it’s no small thing, taking over the role composing the Halo music. Yet that’s just what British composer Neil Davidge is doing. Earlier this week I spoke with Davidge on the phone about the challenges of composing video game music, why they chose to release that fairly ho-hum musical sample last week, the role that music plays in a Halo game, and how his daughter kicks his arse at Halo.
Best known for his work with the trip-hop band Massive Attack, Davidge has scored films, created musical museum installations, and worked with artists from Snoop Dogg to David Bowie.
And now, he can add Halo‘s Master Chief to that list, doubtless edging out Bowie as the Most Impressive Person Neil Davidge Has Worked With. He has been working with 343 Industries on their first stab at making a Halo game, since Bungie, the studio who created the franchise, has moved on to another project.
Thanks to Neil for taking the time to speak with me.
Kotaku: What are your thoughts, generally, on taking over Halo’s music?
Neil Davidge: It’s pretty huge for me — I’ve been a fan, I’ve been playing the game for over 10 years now. I’ve never been involved in something where i’ve been a huge fan before I got involved in the project — even with past artists, maybe with the exception of David Bowie, that was definitely a star-struck moment. But this game is about as star-struck as I’ve been on any project that I’ve worked on. Just because I’ve been living with this game for that long.
My daughter loves the game, she plays it all the time, I introduced her to that. She plays it all the time, and often when she comes and stays with me, we have Halo matches on a Saturday morning, running into the afternoon.
Does she usually win, or do you?
[Laughs] She kicks my arse. She’s amazing! Most of her friends she plays, she kicks their asses as well. Girls and boys.
Which Halo is your favourite?
It’s gotta be the first one really, that’s the one that really captured my imagination. I’ve really enjoyed all of them, but the first one made the biggest impression on me. It’s a very deep story, it’s a very immersive sort of game, getting thrown from one world to another world, you never quite know what’s around the corner, it’s genius, it sort of captured me right from the start.
And of course the multiplayer — the programmer who was the engineer on the Massive Attack album 100th Window, we’d spend many hours waiting for the band to turn up, just on multiplayer, trying to take each other out. We used to try to throw stickies across Hang ’em High, trying to land them on one another, you know?
Ha, I do! So, broadly: When you hear Halo’s music, how do you describe it to yourself? What sort of language do you use?
I tend to look at things, when I’m working on any music project, I look at it in terms of emotion and sound texture. For me, I always – it was a core aspect of it, especially the first game; that was the thing that really pricked up my ears. It was the mystery, it was the romance, these lush chordal movements and melodies.
Hearing that in a video game was quite a revolution for me. Previously, any times I had played games before, it was Grand Theft Auto… and most of the time in that game we’d just tune into the talk radio channels when we were using a car.
For me, previously game music was about powerful fast energy tracks, or a lot of synced music, I never really associated what I considered to be film score music and game score.
Halo really shifted my perception as to what could be achieved with a video game and how a story could be told in a video game not just through the use of visuals and cinematics and little movies in between but by the use of the music throughout the game, and how as a game player, you kind of understood why you were there, why you were on this mission. What your purpose was, emotionally.
And the music is a part of that?
Yeah, it really does help with that. One of they key things I’ve been trying to achieve in the music on Halo 4 is to move that forward, and to help even more to bring the story into gameplay, not just for the story to exist in the cinematics in between each mission.
You’re known for audio manipulation, with the work you’ve done as a producer. It’s been announced that you’ve got Matt Dunkley working as an orchestrator, and doubtless a whole team under you. How’s that been for your process?
It’s been amazing working with Matt, he’s a great orchestrator and a lovely guy, a very safe and experienced set of hands and a wonderful conductor. But for the most part, actually all the orchestrations have been done by myself and my assistant Andrew Morgan, who has been working with me since the beginning of this game.
A lot of my work in the past, especially with Massive Attack, I’ve been associated as the sound guy, you know, the guy who kinda puts it through weird boxes and makes the guitar sound like something that you’ve never heard before. But that’s only a part of what I do — melody has always been a major part of what interests me about a project and the potential for bringing contrasting disciplines, [combining] electronic music and organic, orchestral music and making them work together in a kind of seamless fashion.
I’ve delved into that to some degree with Massive Attack and a little more with some of the films core work I’ve done, but this is the first time I’ve been let off the reins and allowed to really explore that side of my creativity. Coming up with very big and strong and iconic melodies, and sweeping chordal shifts, and lush orchestral arrangements. It’s been a joy from that point of view.
This has been a hell of a project scope-wise — you’ve got this huge orchestra, a choir, a giant team, you’re recording a Abbey Road…
I know, it’s a dream come true! I can’t believe my luck – really, so many aspects to this project have been a real joy for me. Establishing my creative working relationships with various professionals around the UK, like Matt for instance, and Andrew Morgan and various other people around the area. All the musicians, the incredible classical musicians in London, people like Jeff Foster, who was the engineer on this project. He’s worked on many if not all of the last 10 years’ worth of Hans Zimmer’s scores. These people are at the top of their game. That in and of itself is amazing, but actually working with the guys at 343 as well, you know, they’re very passionate people. They really care about this project.
If anything inspires me it’s the passion of other people. That really sets me off. I’ve been working with music for several years now, I love music, I loved music as a child. I was a painter when I was a kid, so I loved the whole visual medium thing as well. But more and more it’s about the people who are actually involved in the project; that’s what really gets me off my arse in the studio.
Has this been the biggest team you’ve ever led on a project?
Not necessarily in numbers, unless you factor in the whole of 343… but yeah you’ve got the orchestra, all the engineers and programmers, orchestrators… it has been a pretty big team. But I’ve worked with pretty big teams in the past, and you know, taken over whole studio complexes and been running from room to room while various aspects of the project are being worked on.
But I would say that in terms of level of passion, and integrity, this project is up there.
How did this gig come about? How does one become the composer for Halo 4?
There were secret meetings going on behind my back between my management and 343 that were happening for many months before I found out about the project. My management didn’t have any idea that I was a Halo fan; they didn’t know I even knew of the game, let alone how much I had been a fan for many years.
So, everybody was kind of working in the dark on this. When my management actually told me, I could see the look in my manager’s eyes, I could see him kind of preparing himself to convince me that this was a good project for me to be involved with. But of course, he told me, and I was like “What? Amazing! Yes, let’s go! I want to do it!” [Laughs]
There are some other things that he’s had to battle me over, but that one was an easy win.
How far along are you guys? How’s it coming together?
We’ve clocked off about 4 hours of music. It’s a huge amount of material. I think we originally signed on to create 150 minutes worth of music, [laughs] we went over that in the first couple of months of working on the project.
Something that occurred to me the other day was that in the last 18 months I’ve probably written more music than I have probably written in the last 18 years working with Massive Attack. The process has been so painfully slow, in many ways I feel like I’ve been released, and allowed to just my instincts and follow my gut on this project.
343 have been amazing in that way, and very very trusting, and allowing me to experiment and just gently prodding me every so often when I kind of go off track. [laughs] Well sometimes not quite so gently, but… for the most part, they’ve applauded my wish to experiment and just to see where we can go with a particular theme or piece of music. And sometimes I go too far, and I’m very aware of this, but it feels necessary when trying to flesh out a whole new universe — this story is a progression, it’s a whole new story arc — it’s important to me to progress the music as much as the story’s progressed.
So, there was a lot of experimentation. They’ve given me a lot of free reign in that, and in return I’ve given them a huge amount of material from which they can then go and choose what is most fitting for the game. What’s most fitting for that particular mission or that particular character.
I’m guessing a lot of the game isn’t finished while you’re writing the music — you can’t just watch it and get a sense of it, since it’s still being built. Is that challenging, when compared to scoring film? How much of the game do you see while you’re writing the music?
I see a lot of concept art, that’s been huge for me. They’ve given me lots of various builds of missions. I think I’ve only seen one cinematic so far, from this project; at times they’ll give me a bit more of a written description of what this theme is meant to represent… It’s hugely different from a movie, where you would have a pretty advanced cut of the movie before you actually start scoring for it.
That sounds like it’d be challenging.
You’ve got to come up with appropriate music for scenes that basically just exist in everyone’s heads.
Yeah, exactly. And the thing is, just imagine you’re trying to create an image in your head, you’re trying to understand the characters, the emotions, motivations, trying to get a feel for the environment you’re in, a strange alien landscape, or a desert, and whatever it is. And also get a feel for the energy of the scene, and the process you would go through to get from A to B, and the issues you would get into along the way.
I have to keep all of that stuff in my head, I really have to imagine myself in the game as that particular character, and not just as the Master Chief, but also as the people and the characters that he comes up against. Understand their motivations. No character in this game is black and white.
I’ve actually always kind of thought the other characters are more interesting than Master Chief, just because he’s this kind of opaque dude.
Yeah, absolutely. Part of my fascination is “Do we get to say a little bit more about who master chief is?” And we are trying to develop him more as a character. I think that’s been important.
I don’t know how far we’ll go on this project, because yes, there’s a lot that I haven’t seen, and a lot of this game is still being built. None of the cinematics have actually been done as of yet. In the next couple of months they begin that. As a process it is so completely different from a movie, it’s quite baffling.
I’ve come to realise that it’s a great thing, I did stress myself out quite a lot in the early days of this project, since I thought “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be writing to.” As soon as I let go of all of those preconceptions about how one should work in a visual medium, I found it very freeing. I focused more internally on what I was doing. When I did read the script, when I did look at these artists’ impressions.
Even the missions, I would only watch through the mission once, and I would turn it off. Often it was very distracting seeing what was happening on a screen. Going back to the fact that the music in a game needs to help tell the story. I think if you score too much to the action of what’s happening on the videographs, you can very easily go off track.
That’s not me playing on the video, that’s some guy from 343. That’s not you playing, you’ve got a completely different style. If I’m just scoring what I’m seeing on the screen, I’m going off in the completely wrong direction. I need to be telling the story, I need to be enhancing whatever is happening in the environment, and giving it emotional context.
Is making the leap from film to video games present a similar challenge to making the leap from album production to film? How are you approaching the task of creating dynamic music?
There was a project I did a couple years ago at the Victoria art museum in London. (It was called “Volume,” and you can watch a video of it to the side here — Kirk) It was this very complex setup of 46 different poles with various LED light-arrays, and every pole had its own separate speaker, and when someone would walk around this maze of these poles, the music and the visuals would react differently depending on where they were in the grid.
So I had to write a piece of music that was very open-ended, this multitrack of music, that would never be heard in a certain way. It’s kind of similar to that.
Yeah, that makes sense.
It’s only on the [Halo 4] soundtrack album that you’ll actually hear something closer to my original intent for that music.
Though you do have to come with that iconic Halo menu track — every game has one!
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s true. There are going to be those moments. A lot of that I leave up to the guys at 343 to choose which of those themes are going to be the leads, the iconic ones.
So, the sample track you guys released. I thought it was alright, but I was a little curious why you went with that track. It was pretty safe, and didn’t have a lot going on really. It seemed very basic; I was expecting something a little bit bolder. Why did you guys go with those tracks to make your debut?
It wasn’t actually my decision. It was a guy in Seattle that chose to put those two pieces out. I’m not sure why they chose those two pieces, it’s a… as a score, it’s quite eclectic, I think it would be very difficult to choose one piece that captured the essence of this score. There are a lot of different angles to it, so it wouldn’t have been an easy job for them to choose which pieces [to share].
Everyone has their favourite, some people kinda sent me emails about some pieces that they loved, and other people won’t mention that piece because they like another one. That’s the great thing about music, you know, what I love you might hate, and what you love, I might hate. Or not necessarily hate, but you know!
Yeah, at the end of the day, I’m trying to write the best music I can for this project. And the primary purpose of this music is to actually fit in the game. It’s not like writing a piece of music for an album. As much as I, you know, care about music, the music must work for the game, that’s its primary purpose.
So at times, I have to put my own particular artistic aims to one side in favour of what’s actually working for the project.
So, as we’re wrapping up, a basically impossible question. What’s your favourite album of all time?
It’s really difficult. I’m kinda tempted to say… the very first album I ever owned was Abbey Road.
Well, that seems fitting!
Yeah. I think OK Computer is a pretty seminal album; it’s a pretty complete album. I love Bowie, I love a lot of film music, I love Marvin Gaye, I was brought up on Stevie Wonder; I have a very eclectic musical tastes. I love Debussy.
Who is the musician that you like, that no one would ever think that you like?
Glen Campbell, definitely. “Wichita Lineman”, one of my favourite tunes ever. [Laughs] “By the time I get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman,” just two very beautiful songs. I love the musical arrangements for those pieces.
I love Harry Nilsson as well, I was brought up on Nilsson Schmilsson, that album. So yeah, I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily weird, but it might actually give you some clues as to my character.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Neil.
It’s been a pleasure.