Celebrating the album releases of Broken Age, and the recent re-release of the score for Grim Fandango at Sumthing.com are a very BIG deal.

So much so, that back in May, I went in search of their composer: industry legend Peter McConnell. On a very bright and HOT day in June, Peter and I discussed the hidden blessings of crowd-funding, the echoes of space, the villain theme, Lucas Arts, and the beginnings of his work on Grim Fandango.

Be sure to order your copies of both Broken Age and Grim Fandango here on Sumthing.com

Geno :

It’s the summer of 2000, and I have just moved to Austin, Texas. I’m completely miserable. Having no real sense of friends, school and money… my free time was spent feeling utterly despondent. I was just working a record store job and playing in a rock band. My computer just BARELY ran Tim Schafer’s 1998 classic Grim Fandango, BUT it ran, which was good enough for me. I was there, you know, huddled in a corner of my room with headphones. It was late at night, and I was trying not to wake my roommate. The headphones were key because they amplified the component I felt was the most important, aside from the story’s brilliant writing: your singular and altogether mind-blowing score. Your music was one of the ONLY truly bright spots of that year. I have always wanted to thank you for that, but never thought I’d have the chance, and here we are. I just wanted to say, before we get started, thank you from the bottom of my heart, and multiply that a few million times.

Peter McConnell

Wow, thanks for that. It’s nice to know I was able to create something that had that effect. Expressing yourself is only half of the value of music, if that – the other half is touching someone else personally.

geno 1

Legendary Composer Peter McConnell

Geno:

Broken Age was a dream made possible in part by the dollars of the newly-minted initiatives of crowd-funding. While it’s a blessing to the gathering of momentum, and the green lighting of a project I imagine it’s an artist’s nightmare in terms of expectations turned into demands, and a rather strict timetable for the delivery of the finished product. What was the consensus, the overall mood while you worked on Broken Age? When you were first approached about composition of the score, what did your initial blueprints look like? Did they end up matching the boldness of the ink as seen in the final record? What changed? Did the investors on the project grow too loud in that they disrupted your creative process? Can you tell me a little bit about the first piece you composed for Broken Age? Did it make it onto the final track list? How long did everything take from the demo phase to completion and insertion of your pieces into the game?

Peter McConnell:

When I first heard that Double Fine had hit a record in crowd-funding I emailed Tim, who was at the DICE show in Las Vegas, to congratulate him, He mailed back “so, are you going to do the music?” I believe my answer was “hell, yes!” I was very excited to be involved in a totally new way of doing a project. Believe it or not, I particularly liked the “reality TV” aspect of it. I had never had the opportunity to connect directly to the audience of a game while it was in production, and I enjoyed making the videos where we talked about how the music got made. And honestly I was kind of insulated from the downside of that process – some of the intense discussions on the forums – for me it was all good.

As for the blueprints versus the final score, the blueprints were the humblest hint of what we were finally able to do. The big challenge in the beginning was to figure out how to score the kind of emotional drama that we could see unfolding with the very limited (that’s right, very limited!) budget we had to work with. Doing live instruments at all seemed barely affordable, so I tried to figure out ways to portray everything with a small group of players, even with the first Mog Chothra scene. But when Shay stepped out into space for the first time free of his tether, I thought, “Man, I just HAVE to have French horns here – but how?” What happened at that point was pure serendipity. I had been commissioned by Andrew Pogson, who was assistant artistic director at Melbourne Symphony, to do a suite of Grim Fandango music. This was a major effort in itself, as it involved getting permission from LucasArts and Disney, and in the course of our many discussions it came up that Andrew was a backer of Broken Age. When he found out I was the composer for Broken Age he asked me what would be the chances of getting MSO to record music for Broken Age. I said, “You read my mind!” and what followed was truly a miracle – we were able to get the MSO leadership, the players union and members of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to come together with Double Fine and figure out a way to record music for the game. The blueprints could never have accounted for that amount of good fortune.

geno 2

Welcome to the Broken Age

Geno:

There’s something inherently special about the adventure game genre. Nothing is forced, you’re not brandishing a gun or weapon in the classic sense most of the time, and there are indefinite moments of pause. Most importantly, (I have always thought) is that the music isn’t always ratcheting up tension and forcibly bombarding the player’s emotions. Do you feel that a more natural human connection is able to be established through music within the confines of an adventure title? Does it give you more room to interpret a scene? What, if any makes the adventure genre a different sort of musical vehicle?

Peter McConnell:

In a word, yes. What the adventure game offers, through the natural pauses in action created by solving the puzzles, is a way to reflect on the emotional content of the story. Another way to think of it is that the story in an adventure game is more evenly split between gameplay and cut scenes (as opposed to being mostly in the cut scenes), so more of the music is directly connected to telling a story. On a very practical level this means you get to write more slow and melodic music, which I love to do. On the other hand, it’s a lot of fun to write a good action piece for a platformer or shooter as well!

geno 3

The Sound Of Peter McConnell’s Space

Geno:

Broken Age explores some of the mystery of being an ordinary person marooned in space. Galactic exploration is still very much undone, still something largely mythical. Time to get up Little Spaceman, and Hello Space, epically, beautifully marks the vastness of this ordeal. How do you envision the sound of the unexplored planet, the black hole, and the dying star? What takes more precedence when you’re scoring for space: the vastness of the echo, the singular desolation, or the darkness? I hear a little bit of all three in Hello Space. Which is your favorite element?

Peter McConnell:

Great questions. As I mentioned earlier, the space music was where it really became clear that we needed an orchestra – because of the sense of vastness and the big feelings I wanted to portray. That started with the French horn theme at the beginning of “Hello Space” and grew from there. Another element in that piece besides the orchestra was my electric violin playing, to give an otherworldly effect. The loneliness part was tied to the smaller ensemble pieces like “Time to Get Up, Little Spaceman” which we recorded with a string and wind quintet. The darkness suffuses both types of pieces and that’s harder to explain. I’m very visually oriented, and I keep either a movie or a still of what I’m scoring up on a screen at all times, so I can be in direct visual contact with what I’m scoring at as I compose. I just wrote something that felt like darkness.

geno 4

Vella’s Morning Stroll

Geno:

Broken Age’s Vella wakes and Was That East Or West are absolutely gorgeous! Speaking directly about Was That East Or West You never hear truly remarkable ballads inside a video game. It’s all things genuine, plaintive and haunting. Was there any temptation to add vocals or chorus to complete it? Why are we not seeing the Peter McConnell band proper? Similarly, it’s a testament to the core of Broken Age’s make-up of normal, mildly broken hearted protagonists, and how they deal with their individual set of overwhelming circumstances. What do you feel were the score’s most important tenets? Is there something you absolutely felt the record needed to convey?

Peter McConnell:

With “Was That East or West” I was channeling producer/guitarist/singer Daniel Lanois as well as harkening back to some of my own folk-rock band roots, so I think it’s safe to say there are imaginary vocals in that piece, suggested by the slide guitar part. As for the score concept, it was to evoke as vividly as possible the unique character of many different worlds. There is a pretty broad range of musical style in the game. Just as I couldn’t imagine the space parts without orchestra, acoustic guitar music for the forest just seemed right. During production one of the backers wrote in that it was cool that they were using different composers for different parts of the game. I took that as a complement.

geno 5

Meet Mog Chothra

Geno:

The idea of the boss or level guardian in video games has changed radically in video games over the last 10 years. Gone are the traditional fanged beats, or floating death scythe wielders; it’s become an encounter based in ether, almost invisible. Do you feel your approach to the scoring for a game’s main villain/s has changed? With that in mind, how do you keep up that sort of bottomless creativity and momentum going when approaching this task with every new score year after year? “It’s another bad guy…whoopee!”

Peter McConnell:

I’m always trying to do what I do better than the last time. So even with my experience, I don’t feel that I’ve touched on all I want to do with any particular type of musical moment, not even the Big Scary Boss cue. And the process is always the same, but still full of surprises – bring up the picture or video of game play, and then listen carefully for the first thing I hear. Once in a while I find I have to re-visit an initial impulse, but I chalk that off to not listening carefully enough in that first moment.

geno 6

Life aboard the Bossa Nostra

Geno:

On that note, Broken Age’s Mog Chothra and Final Battle are two of my absolute FAVORITE boss themes in recent memory. Can you tell me about how you map out that villain DNA? What did you do specifically for Mog Chothra and Battle at Shellmound?

Peter McConnell:

Thanks for saying so! Both of those pieces weave together themes from the major characters, especially Mog, Vella and in particular Vella’s grandfather, who is an important symbol of the strength that comes to Vella through her lineage. One of the most poignant themes to me in the Broken Age story, now that I’m a dad, is the relationship between parents and children – how both can succeed or fail, teach each other or make terrible mistakes. My own kids intuited this in the game. They got right away how Shay was testing his limits in the spaceship, for example, and knew instinctively that Marek in his wolf form was important and in a sense a bringer of knowledge, but perhaps not without some kind of darker motive. And to me almost everything that Vella and Shay do has some relationship to their families, even when rebelling, as rebelling exists in relation to what is being rebelled against.

In Vella’s case, it seems at first to be all about rebelling, since her own parents appear to be clueless, but her grandfather is a rock throughout. You think in the beginning that he is just a crazy old coot, maybe a bit senile. But he’s the one who invokes the Beastkiller name; he’s the one who won’t give up the knife; he’s the one who cheers when Vella escapes from Mog Chothra. So his theme is important. You first hear it on what could be called the silliest of instruments – a mediaeval instrument called a crumhorn played during the knife puzzle. It’s kind of a cross between a bassoon or English horn and a kazoo in sound (again serendipitously one of the clarinetists in our quintet also played crumhorn). You’re supposed to hear it as archaic at best and comic at worst. But then it comes back as a noble French horn theme in the scene when Vella learns to ride the bird who rescues her from Mog Chothra. In the moment when she takes command, you hear the theme breaking through as if she is drawing from something deep within – and that something comes from her heritage.

By the time she fights Mog Chothra for real at Shellmound, she is fully in touch with her warrior ancestry. So you hear the grandfather theme in full force at the climax of the Shellmound Battle piece. In the finale, the theme comes back again in super-compressed form as her grandfather seems to psychically transmit each blow that she delivers to put down Marek. There are a number of other themes woven into these pieces, but for me the theme that connects Vella to her grandfather is the most important.

geno 7

Welcome to Shellmound

Geno:

I’ve been trying to gather shards of Broken Age’s record together to fashion my own central title theme. There was no single piece. There was no such designation on the album, but if I had to cobble one together, it would be pieces of Welcome to Merriloft, mixed with Cloud Colony Arrival and Rising Sun. Do you agree with my math? Are there specific points in the score that you would tie together so as to create the score’s ultimate piece? Were there ideas that you wanted to include, but for whatever reason, simply had to check at the door? Can you talk to me a little bit about your initial ideas for Welcome to Merriloft and Rising Sun ? Is that a didgeridoo on The Lumberjack’s Cabin? I love that piece.

Peter McConnell:

The title theme of Broken Age is the piece called “Broken Age” as it appears in the complete version of the soundtrack – “Broken Age” plus “Vella Wakes” in the initial version. I admit it’s not obvious to the ear how the score springs from this music, which comes from the opening split screen followed by Vella waking on the hillside. Musically, this opening music works as an intro to “March in the Clouds,” which you might call Vella’s travelling theme. This same theme is the essence of “Welcome to Merriloftt,” which is essentially an airy version of the march and defines the whole cloud colony, even though it comes before the march. Shay’s wake up music works as an alternate consequent, or follow-up, phrase to the first half of “Broken Age.” So a lot comes from the very opening piece, and it isn’t obvious because the musical order of things in my mind is a little different from the chronological order in which the story is told.

geno 8

Life in Vella’s Shoes

Geno:

The score for Broken Age feels so incredibly fresh, so physically organic, and so playful. Case in point: March In The Clouds, and Face The Cupcakes. Is there anything you use as a barometer to test your own work to see if it will achieve the results you see inside your head? Do you feel more comfortable in a recording session with many players (a full symphony, a band), or do you prefer the intimacy of you alone in a sound booth? Where does Broken Age fit into this spectrum? How large is that symphony? Do you feel like you achieved all that was possible with Broken Age? What are your favorite pieces? Would you change anything? I wouldn’t.

Peter McConnell:

Thanks – I especially like the word “organic,” because it suggests what I wanted to evoke in the score. The only barometer I use is this: as I’m working on a piece, how do I feel when I press “play?” I listen very closely to my own reaction, and if it’s not what I had hoped, I figure out what is responsible for the problem and fix it. I love all recording sessions, whether they are a small group or an ensemble. Because time and money are at stake they can be stressful, but they are far and the way the best part of my job. When real instrumental artists play the music – that’s the moment the music comes to life. It’s a privilege to be there when it happens, and a joy to guide it. Of course I enjoy playing the parts I play as well, but there is a kind of vicarious thrill I get when hearing someone else play the music that is hard to explain. There were different configurations of players used for the symphonic part: most of the music was a 38-piece and the finale and some of the bigger pieces in Act II were a 42-piece group. I can’t say exactly what my favorite pieces are, although I think you’ve named just about all of them, and I’m certainly happy with the whole thing as it came out.

geno 9

Broken Age receives the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Treatment.

Geno:

Grim Fandango Remastered just hit the digital retail storefront, and Sumthing Else Music Works celebrated the occasion with a re-release of your original score. I worship Grim Fandango’s soundtrack (just wanted to make sure you knew that!) All these years later, how does it feel to hear those songs again? Are you like most musicians who would rather not listen to their older material in favor of moving ahead? Do you find yourself nit-picking at things that bother you about it?

Peter McConnell:

I didn’t nit-pick after the fact – I fixed all those things that bothered me! I put in a ton of work into that re-release and was super lucky to have resources like the MSO and the teams at Sony and Pyramind Studios in San Francisco to fix the problematic sounds, add new parts, do killer re-mixes and make the orchestral music actually orchestral. I have to say that I truly enjoy listening to the soundtrack now, which honestly I didn’t before, since we had 1990’s-era sounds in the original and no live orchestra at all. The good parts stayed good, though; we kept all those wonderful original instrumental jazz performances, as well as adding a couple of new ones.

geno 10

Grim Fandango Finally Gets Remastered

Geno:

There’s so much to love on Fandango’s vinyl that I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite, and it changes with the day. If push came to shove, I’d say Mr. Frustration Man , or Gambling Glottis, Hi- Tone Fandango…never mind, like I said too hard to choose, and it’s a temperamental list changing with the second. My GOD! You single-handedly redefined the birth of cool over the span of 50 tracks! What are your memories of that time period? Can you share a funny story with us about the creation of Grim Fandango’s score?

Peter McConnell:

I often say that Grim was a perfect storm. Tim Schafer was tapping into major currents of the time from the rebirth of swing to a sudden new awareness of the Day of the Dead in Anglo culture. Musically this was reflected in the San Francisco music scene. There is a particular part of town called the Mission District, full of clubs, where on one night you could go into one place and hear a great swing band, into another and hear acid jazz, into another and hear Tom Waits’ reed player, then drop into a Tacqueria and hear a mariachi band. Almost the entire Grim score was already right there in the Mission, and indeed virtually every musician on the original soundtrack played or lived in that part of town. The mariachi band in particular was an adventure to work with, since only the band leader spoke English. Music is the universal language, though, and I asked him if the guys thought what I had given them to play was reasonably authentic. He said they thought it sounded like “Halloween music,” which I took as a compliment since, after all, it is about the Day of the Dead.

geno 11

Grim Fandango: The Sight and Sound

Geno:

Where did the inspiration for Grim Fandango come from? Your compositions play like a man possessed, like it had been something you had wanted to do your entire life. Was it a sound you had grown up with? I see you as a punk-rock kid, and less the child reared on Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

Peter McConnell:

I have always been interested in many different kinds of music. I was classically trained on violin and loved playing folk music on guitar and banjo in high school. I’ve also played a lot of rock and roll and fronted an alt rock band while I was working at LucasArts. But jazz has always been something special for me. I first developed a great love of it in college, more as a listener than as a player. I heard Dizzy Gillepsie and Sun Ra live and it changed my life. And that’s what I tapped into for Grim. In that sense it was something I had always been dying to write, no pun intended. In fact I came up with Maximino’s theme before Grim was even conceived of – think it was during Full Throttle or even Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis – this tune just popped into my head and I thought, “Man, that would be a cool gangster tune, I hope I get to use it someday.”

geno 12

Grim Fandango: It’s in the visuals

Geno:

How do you compose generally? Are you more visual with drawings and sketches, or do you read the scenario and just find it as you play? Can you give us an example of a more challenging piece? How did you overcome it?

Peter McConnell:

I’m extremely visually oriented. I have a big screen that is just for visuals – concept art, gameplay video or cut scenes, and I keep something up on it all the time when composing, because it helps me stay true to the feeling of what I am scoring. When I was working on Grim I had paper art all over the office – mostly black & white pictures of the characters and backgrounds, which was appropriate for a Noir story, don’t you think? I also kept a picture of Duke Ellington as a young man right over my computer screen to inspire me. We even had a visual way of putting the whole score together. There was a tool in the music system we developed, the iMUSE system, that let you create buttons on a Mac screen, associate them with audio files, and put them in a little map with lines between them indicating connections in the game. Each button stood for a room or a situation, and the audio files started out as recordings we made of Tim talking about the various parts of the game. It was cool because you could visualize how all of the parts of the game and the score related to each other. As the production progressed, Tim’s recordings would be replaced with recordings of me humming a theme into a hand-held cassette player, and then with mockups of each piece using sampled instruments, and then finally with finished recordings.

geno 13

                                                     The History Of Lucas Arts

Geno:

You worked at Lucas Arts during its Adventure game heyday, and worked on everything from The Dig, to Full-Throttle and Indiana Jones and The Fate Of Atlantis. WOW! What was your very first job at the company? In those days, were you already accustomed to writing rather large scores, or was it very much a trial by fire?

Peter McConnell:

I got the job at LucasArts in large part because my friend and colleague Michael Land was starting up the audio department there and needed someone who could both program and write music, and I fit the bill. But my music experience at the time consisted mostly of my college work and from playing in a number of bands. So I was not all accustomed to writing large scores, and in that sense it was trial by fire. My first job at the company was to help Michael develop the iMUSE system, which was LucasArts’ system for playing music that would adapt in real time to gameplay. When we were done with the first iteration of the system, we got to road test it by writing music for Monkey Island II. By that time there were three composers: Michael, Clint Bajakian, and me. Right on the heels of Monkey Island II came Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. I have to say those were a couple of wonderful titles to have as first scoring gigs, even with the limited sound capabilities of the time.

geno 14

                        Preview: Indiana Jones and The Fate of Atlantis Soundtrack

Geno:

How do you feel about composing music in video games today as opposed to 25, 30 years ago? You’ve scored every type of medium; which do you find the most rewarding and the most challenging? Is there anything you still have a desire to do, a dream for yourself? Where do you plan to be 10 to 15 years down the road?

Peter McConnell:

I do like the fact that we have much greater resources to work with now, whether we are working on a AAA console title or a hand-held game. You have to remember the state of the art back then – the first Pro Tools system came out well after Monkey II and Indy IV, cost something like $6K and we didn’t have one, because we couldn’t justify the expense. Now we have state-of-the-art studios, get to record at places like Skywalker Sound, and work with orchestras from all over the world. I just got back from playing music of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and Broken Age with the Colorado Symphony at the Video Games Live concert in Red Rocks. If you had told me I’d be doing that 25 years ago I’d never have believed it. That said, things haven’t changed that much when it comes to scoring a game. And I love all the types of projects I get to do, from Broken Age to Hearthstone to Plants vs. Zombies. Each has its challenges and particular rewards; in fact I think it’s the variety of projects that is most enjoyable for me. No two of them are alike. If I have any desires it would be to keep the same variety of cool and interesting projects going – that and write a score for musical theater, but that’s another story completely.

Geno:

Thanks so much Mr. McConnell; it’s been a true honor to be able to sit with you here today, and it’s not something I will ever forget. Do you have any parting words for our readers at Sumthing .com?

Peter McConnell:

It’s been my great pleasure. And thank you to all the readers at Sumthing.com for listening!

——————–

Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love. He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake. Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.