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Interview with Inon Zur
Interview - posted by Exitium on Wed 30 October 2002, 05:15:24Tags: Black Isle Studios; Icewind Dale 2
Ian "Exitium" Cheong talks with the man behind the music of Icewind Dale 2, and Baldur's Gate: Throne of Bhaal, Inon Zur.
Music in games has gone a very long way in the past two decades; from the old 'chip' style music of Castlevania, to the fully orchestrated soundtracks, like that of Final Fantasy 7. With different inflections for the various game genres, there's a wide scope of musical styles; from the catchy electronic Darksynth/EBM/Industrial tracks of the first person shooter/RPG Deus Ex, the musical brainchild of Alexander Brandon and Michiel van den Bos, to the veritably splendid fully orchestrated soundtrack of the classic real-time strategy game Total Annihilation, composed by Jeremy Soule.
The quality of a good, memorable soundtrack is, as common sense will inform you, the result of the hard efforts of the composer.
One such man is Inon Zur; responsible for the soundtrack of Black Isle Studios' latest effort, Icewind Dale 2. Delivering not only quality, but also originality, Inon Zur's soundtrack gives the gamer the sense of being in a living world, brought alive by the rhythm and melody of his creative expression.
Now, you might be wondering what relevence this interview has to do with the RPGCodex, or RPGs in general. Oh, don't fret. I've gotten reliable word that Inon Zur is going to be composing the soundtrack of Reflexive Studios and Black Isle Studios' upcoming RPG, Lionheart. This interview covers the going ons underneath the making of an RPG's soundtrack, and the man behind it.
With that said and done, let's hear about the man behind the music.
RPG Music Related Questions
It is to my understanding that you have done several projects with Interplay. Can you tell me what it was like working on RPG projects like BG2: Throne of Bhaal, and most recently Icewind Dale 2?
RPG games, because of their story-like nature and fantasy aspects, are a great field for composers to score. Much like their older relatives - fantasy films - in these types of games music plays a major role. It needs to create the whole atmosphere for the game and to portray the reality envisioned by the developers. As hard as it is, it is the most rewarding type of game to score. It also seems to be the case that RPG gamers are the most aware of music, and that pushes the composer to perform his best.
How much freedom and flexibility does a typical (role-playing) game allow you to have in your musical compositions?
In fact, I have been given a lot of freedom for several games I have worked on. For example, in Fallout Tactics I came up with a whole new musical concept that was quite different from the previous game. I incorporated the electronic synthetic sound design with what I called "organic" sound design. It was created by musicians using their instruments and voices in a totally different way than is the norm. The outcome was very unique. There are other times however when I need to stay closer to the style dictated by a former game. In these situations I'm trying my best to compose without actually copying, and that is quite a difficult task.
If you could have had complete creative control with some of your recent projects (RPGs - BG2: Throne of Bhaal and Icewind Dale 2), is there anything that you would have done differently?
From a composition point of view I feel I had been given almost all the freedom I would exercise if I had done the music for the game without supervision. In many cases however, I am looking for the right style for the game with the audio director. Together we try to see what will work best for the game, and that is sometimes a trial and error process. You have to understand that games, like other media, are being created by a team that the composer is part of, and the final product needs to reflect the combination of everybody's effort. This is also the beauty in it.
Would there be anything that you find particularly challenging about composing a musical score for a computer (role-playing) game?
Unlike TV or film, music in games has to describe a situation and not a specific scene. Since there are no pictures you need to accompany you have to come up with your own idea of what to describe. This is a task that I find quite challenging and equal almost to free writing. The other challenging aspect is that the music for a game will have to repeat many times throughout the game. So, you have to come up with something complex enough not to bore the gamer after a few times, but also to be catchy enough to help the gamer get closer and familiar with the game.
In comparison to composing music for cinema film, games seem a tad less prestigious in the public eye. What is your perspective on this viewpoint?
You have to remember that the way music for games started, much because of the limitation computers had, was not that appealing. Who could not remember the electronic bleep bleep music and the irritating sound of the first games? So, when we are talking about a history of almost 100 years of compositions for film versus game music that has evolved only in the last 15 years we can better understand why it is less prestigious. We have not yet established our place in the public's ears and minds. That will probably take more time, but eventually everybody will realize what we and the games community have already figured out - that music for games today is equal in quality to other media and deserves to be on store shelves next to motion picture scores.
You have referred to game composers as "pioneers at the cutting edge of an evolving art". In your opinion, how, and why do you consider games a new frontier in music?
Today, games are evolving very fast. Almost every new game that is coming out has something new and more innovating to offer. Music has to follow this pace. In order to be able to answer this challenge, we are constantly looking for a way to create a new sound for games. By the time that most of today's films are already temped with music and the composer has to try to follow this temp very closely, we are trying to come up with something totally different for every game. The outcome is that music for games is rejuvenating all the time and not trying to repeat somebody else's achievement. It makes our job as game composers much harder, but much more rewarding.
The Personal Stuff
You have an enormous amount of experience with musical composition in both television and gaming mediums. If you were to look upon yourself today in the eyes of your past, how do you view you and your accomplishments? Has your road been a well-traveled journey, or a difficult struggle?
In my case - it has been a journey of no pain, no gain! I have always tried my best in every project I am involved in, and game music has become an extremely important part of my working life. I think that so far I have accomplished quite a lot that I'm proud of - music that I'm proud of - that matters a lot. However, every journey has it's ups and downs but when you really believe in yourself there is always a source to inspire you and to try again. Another huge accomplishment I'm proud of is that I have been able to maintain a great family life alongside my career. My wife and two kids have always been a great inspiration, and for that I should be very thankful.
When you were growing up, did you ever foresee yourself becoming as talented and successful a composer as you are today?
This was always the dream of my life - to become a composer, and every milestone, every score or musical piece I'm doing is another dream come true. I started with music at a very young age playing piano and composing short pieces and my heroes were always the great composers from the past. Of course, I have a long way to go but I'm happy and thankful for where I am today.
Is there anything, or anyone in particular that inspired you to yield to the inclination of indulging in the art of music, and composition in particular?
To begin with, my parents contributed a lot to my love for music. They encouraged me all my life and are still doing it today. They were also the first to introduce me to music from all genres. In our home good music was always on and there was a lot to be inspired by and to learn from. Later, my composition teacher the composer Theodor Holdheim pushed my interest in music even further by giving me some great composing tools and encouraging my enthusiasm for music to a new degree. Other teachers like film and TV composers Dick Grove and Jack Smalley added their contribution too. Also, listening to great music by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms or Prokofiev gave me a huge motivation to try to create scores as moving and inspiring.
Have you ever spent time contemplating what your life would have been like if you had decided to pursue a career other than music?
I don't think so. Even though in my life I've been through other experiences like being an officer in the Israeli army or work in agriculture back in my Kibbuts (small community village) I always knew deep down inside that music is my centre being.
To finish up this wonderful interview, I would ask you to please share with us some words of wisdom for any aspiring musical composers who are interested in getting into the business.
If you really want to become a composer (and it doesn't matter for what media) you have to know that it takes all you've got and sometimes more to become one. You have to learn a lot, listen to lots of music and try to understand it as profoundly as you can. Music is a language, and like other languages it has to be communicative in order to become noticeable. You will have to understand your audience, but also you will have to understand your producers and supervisors. Don't EVER develop an ego-trip (I'm the best, no one will tell ME what to do). Always understand that you are PART of a team and you have to work together to come up with a great product. Have respect for your fellow composers and try to learn from anyone.
Resources Inon Zur's Official Website