Interview: Chris Christodoulou

chris

(Para leer la entrevista en castellano haced click aquí)

I still remember those days when I tried to avoid thinking too much about my future, before I moved to England. I remember spending many hours playing Risk of Rain, being absolutely absorbed by its tremendous soundtrack, among other things. My intuition wasn’t wrong at all, I knew there was an inevitable progressive essence, that’s why I started looking for answers. Who would have told me that, after almost three years later, I would’ve had the opportunity of interviewing that very composer, the great Chris Christodoulou.

PART I. Recent news and stuff:

1. The Risk of Rain soundtrack is widely known within the gaming community. When I played it, I honestly don’t know what I loved more – the game or the music within it. This is because the music creates certain ambiences and incorporates electronic and progressive cadences, which I find extremely interesting. We know that you’re a follower of bands such as Dream Theater or Ozric Tentacles. Have you ever thought of forming part of the progressive rock scene with an album and not as a soundtrack? Also, what made you want to compose soundtracks in the first instance?

Let me start by saying thank you for the kind words and the invitation to do this interview!

To your question: I do have plans to release stand-alone albums. I’m gathering material and some of it is indeed in the prog genre. That said, I love all sorts of music and enjoy combining styles so I can’t say with certainty I will ever release a purely prog-rock album—not ruling it out either. But since prog is a major influence of mine, any music I write is bound to be filtered through it.

The seed of my relationship with soundtracks was planted with Danny Elfman’s score for Batman (1989). I have noticed other scores before but the combined experience of Elfman’s dark score with Burton’s fairy-tale vision was so singular that I still have a hard time thinking of a better music & film combination. My infatuation with game soundtracks in particular consciously formed while playing Monkey Island 2, specifically because of iMuse (the system that handled the transitions from one room to another). The way the orchestrations would seamlessly change between scenes was truly fascinating and I realised games as a medium can do something unique when it comes to music.

At that point, for a young person in Greece, a career in game music was not something feasible. That changed with the advent of the internet and music technology becoming affordable, or at least pirate-able (around early 00s). At some point I realised writing game music might not be the far-fetched dream I thought it was so I actively pursued. After many years (and a gazillion of unanswered emails) I’m at the point where I’m able to make a living off of it.

2. Over the last few years there has been a revival of the indie and retro scene within the gaming community as a counterpart to the complexity and the spectacular nature of games from platforms such as PS4, Xbox or PC. This is clearly exemplified in games such as Minecraft and Terraria. This explains why in modern times, games like Risk of Rain or Deadbolt have a flavour that inevitably evokes the ‘old Commodore Amiga’, and are widely accepted. Drawing from your knowledge of historical platform games, what do you think it is that makes retro-inspired modern games so successful?

My knowledge of “historical platform games” is rather limited since I played almost exclusively adventure games. Nevertheless, here are my two cents:  1) There’s the nostalgia factor. It obviously applies to gamers with first-hand experience but to younger people too since they are usually familiar with older games through osmosis. 2) the democratization of the means of game development. Particularly the fact that it is easier to make a pixel-art game with engines such as Game Maker etc. than have hand-drawn art or a full-fledged 3D spectacle (although, even that is now doable).

I personally find it really interesting when, once in a while, a project’s team expand on the retro aesthetic and innovate on established mechanics creating something that, while evoking the past, is essentially new.

3. In relation to the previous question, the soundtracks of these games also comply with the standards of the golden era of video games. They contain very memorable tunes, which have been produced by a single composer and, often using polyphony as a resource to the limited technology. What do you think about this actual self-production style? Talking about your compositions, do you think there would have been a different outcome if there was a whole music department with many people working on the soundtrack, rather than a single composer?

Being able to produce an entire soundtrack on a relatively cheap computer is a great privilege! I can’t speak for everyone but as far as I’m concerned, the luxury of working on my music from start to finish without external interference is definitely a blessing. While I have occasionally worked with other musicians when I felt the project required it, was rarely on the composition side of things. I like to have complete control of that.

As far as polyphony and memorable tunes, I have my own philosophy on composition. A firm set of rules is extremely important. Instrumentation, motifs, form, even theoretical constructions, all these can help a lot with creating something inherently uniform (it can also create a huge impact when you break the rules at the right moment). That said, polyphony in the sense of chiptune-style restrictions, is something I don’t think about too much. I also don’t consider sound design as part of the composition process. It is of great importance and I spend a lot of time on it, but creating a cool sound is not music composition, it’s music production.

Finally, I’m not a big melody guy (I think that’s clear from my music). I’m not very keen on (nor good at) writing tunes for people to whistle while gaming. I always feel that the melody comes from the players’ themselves, so I provide a backing track for them to sing their own special song. Until it’s time for my solo, of course.

4. We know that the game ‘Risk of Rain 2’ is currently being developed, and the game is shifting from 2D platform into 3D. Will you be the composer of the soundtrack again? If so, do you think we will experience any changes to the soundtrack from the players’ perspective? Furthermore, do you think that similar melodies from the first game (or remakes of some tunes) are likely to appear in this new game?

I’m working on RoR2 right now! I’m honoured that Hopoo has invited me to compose for it. I was also overwhelmed by the positive reaction when we announced it!

A discussion we had early on was about balancing the old with the new in all aspects of the game, including the music. I was very glad that Hopoo took the bold decision to make such a radical change to the game. I don’t like repeating myself and this move to 3D provides fertile ground for experimentation. By the way, since I have been asked this repeatedly I’d like to put it to rest once and for all: there will be no Coalescence 2. I don’t rule out the possibility of occasionally using some of the original themes but such call-backs will be more as fioriture than as principal material. After all, if people want to listen to the RoR OST again it is widely available.

5. Do you consider yourself a gamer? If so, what kind of games do you usually play?

I consider myself a person who plays games. Gamer, as an identity, is something that I’m not bothered nor interested in bearing. Unfortunately, I play much less than I used to (and want to), but I do follow the gaming world. The games I usually play are adventure games, puzzle games, turn-based strategies, and I never miss a Hitman game. I do play other things but less often. For instance, I enjoyed the new Wolfenstein games (1st was a better game, 2nd was a better story) but I tend to set them on EASY and enjoy the story and spectacle. I also like a good simulator once in a while. The one thing I never care for is collectibles, unlockables, achievements, and all sorts of nonsense that usually break immersion rather than make the game better in any way.

6. In Spreading the Sound we support and follow the great composers Nobuo Uematsu, Koji Kondo and Michael Land. Are there any composers, or is there a certain soundtrack to a videogame that has really stood out to you and almost created a turning point for you as a composer?

Well, as implied above Michael Land is almost single-handedly responsible for my love of VGM (he and Peter McConnell created iMuse). Some soundtracks that are not only great game music but also have a personal significance to me are Jesper Kyd’s score for Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, the OST of Machinarium by Tomáš Dvořák (aka Floex) and the brilliant score to L.A. Noire by Andrew Hale, which I consider a masterpiece.

And then, there exists The One Score, the unsurpassably greatest soundtrack of all times until the end of times: Peter McConnell’s Grim Fandango.

7. Do you have any advice that you could give to those musicians that have come from the analogic to the digital world; that start the way of self-production either to make pop, rock, electronic or videogame music? This question is especially important with the amount of decisions that composers have to make from (i) choosing the physical instruments, (ii) choosing between Cubase, Pro Tools or other DAW software? (iii) choosing amongst the great amount of VST between synths and drums, effects, mix, etc.

My advice is, spot caring about hardware and software. Work on improving your skills. Study music theory, study playing, study music history, listen critically & analytically, study physics, learn how to mix and what mixing plugins do (you can’t decide which compressor is the best if you don’t know what a compressor does), learn synthesis, learn how acoustic instruments work and how they work with each other.

Also, expand your horizons. Music exists inside the world we live in, so learn more about it, let it feedback into your work. Study science, study art, study philosophy, study history. These things will help you write music more than the most expensive DAW or plugin even will.

8. How do you personally go about composing? Do you get inspiration from an idea and work through it giving you total freedom in the composition process, or do you follow strict instructions from the game producers?

I welcome feedback from the people who have asked me to compose for their project. Almost every single time their feedback has influenced my work in a positive way. That said, I’m trying to always stay true to myself and not produce music that goes against my own instincts. I do enjoy freedom but I don’t allow myself “total” freedom because that would probably work against the project and the music would likely be a total mess.

The way I practically approach composition is spending more time thinking about the project and less time actually in front of the computer. I’m very interested in having some sort of underling concept (either on a top level or on a deeper, less obvious layer) and once I have it I usually write much faster (all things considered, since I’m a slow writer in general).

What I often do is write sketches (frameworks or incomplete compositions) that I revisit once themes and ideas have been fully shaped. Then I infuse those sketches with the new material and end up with a set of compositions that feel interconnected.

9. Do you have any hobbies apart from music and video games that you would like to share with us?

I read constantly. I don’t mean this in a high-brow way, it’s just something I do for pleasure. Sometimes I read deep stuff, sometimes I read light stuff, but I always read.

I love walking while listening to podcasts. I enjoy a good board game (lately I regularly play Eldritch Horror). Finally, I’m a big connoisseur of bad movies, especially ones shot on grainy film during the 80s and 90s!

PART II. Quick personal questions:

10. One band. One Album. One Song

The Beatles. Discovery, by Daft Punk. California Dreamin’, The Beach Boys cover.

11. A music dream accomplished.

Writing for an adventure game I loved playing (The Sea Will Claim Everything).

12. A music dream you want to accomplish.

Write a string quartet and have it performed. And then another one, and another, etc.

13. A game which you would have liked to compose the music for.

The Talos Principle

14. A collaboration with…

I work solo.

PART III. 5 Albums:

15. Would you talk to us about 5 albums that have been essential for you personally and/or musically?

Discovery, Daft Punk

This album literally changed my life. I used to be one of those rock snobs that looked down on electronic music until I had my mind blown by Discovery. There is never a time that I don’t want to listen to it. It’s probably the album I reference the most in my own music. If you listen carefully you will find numerous Easter eggs from Discovery in Risk of Rain and Deadbolt.

Images and Words, Dream Theater

As with most people, this was my introduction to Dream Theater. From that point on nothing was the same. Images and Words, and Awake after it, are albums that if were released today they would somehow be even more revolutionary! The fact that what was essentially a rock band could play with such mastery and use it in such musical ways had a great impact on me. I don’t claim that DT are the first band to do this, but it was the one that introduced me to progressive and for that they have special significance.

Dead Air for Radios, Chroma Key

The first solo album of ex-Dream Theater keyboardist, Kevin Moore. No one knew what to expect and when we finally listened to it, it was such a departure from Dream Theater that it was shocking! My music is permanently stamped by this strange artifact. The darkness and melancholy of it have put a spell on me ever since. It was also very liberating to see an artist leave a successful career behind to do what was in his heart.

Made in Heaven, Queen

I miss Freddie. When I listen to this album three things happen every time. I smile, I sing, I cry. It’s so beautiful! The optimism and love in these songs, coming from a man on the verge of death, is unbelievable! It’s such a worthy farewell to one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. And Brian May’s guitar is soaring above the songs magnificently. The solo in Let Me Live is so uplifting, and then there’s the one on Winter’s Tale which has the most beautiful sound ever created by a guitar!

The Wall, Pink Floyd

…down Pink Floyd and then tried on at least five albums of theirs to decide which one would make the cut. Perhaps I like The Division Bell even better than this, but it’s marginally Pink Floyd. So is Final Cut, which was also on the photo-finish. So, it finally came down between this and Wish You Were Here. Either could have made it (in fact it was the other way around when I started writing this paragraph!). In the end I took the desert island approach and The Wall won because it’s longer and more varied. It also has Comfortably Numb. For this choice I wrote…

Abbey Road, The Beatles

I know you said five, but I’m breaking the rules. After all, The Beatles are my favourite band. This list could have easily been populated only by albums from their catalogue.

I want you to believe me when I tell you, Abbey Road has that special something. It comes together so majestically and hits you like a hammer coming down on your head (it’s so heavy), perhaps because it carries that weight of being the end.

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