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Jason Graves:  Interview
Soundtrack composer for Silent Hunter 5

Your U-boat is deep beneath the waves, creaking from the pressure. Your men whisper course changes and sonar bearings to you. Above, the screws of destroyers hunting for you. And in the background, adding tension and suspense to your gaming moment, is the sometimes solemn, often stirring score from award-winning composer Jason Graves. The Silent Hunter series has featured quality soundtracks since the second game in the series. In Silent Hunter 5, Jason's beautiful composition adds depth and gravity to a game that is as serious as it is fun. Subsim caught up with Jason on his way to the the conning tower.


Tell us a bit about your background. Where did you study music theory? Who are some of your influences? Classical and contemporary.

I went to school for music composition but the emphasis was on modern 20th Century music.  That, and Bach chorales, so I was like both extremes and nothing in between.  I really started studying contemporary theory and harmony once I graduated from the University of Southern Californiaís film scoring program.  At the time, ďstudyingĒ was really more like spending hours listening to film scores and classical pieces, sitting at the piano and trying to work out what the harmonies were.

Krzysztof Penderecki, Pytor Tchaikovsky and Richard Wagner are all huge classical heroes of mine.  My love of film music begin and ends with John Williams.  I canít say enough about his creativity and the emotional impact he brings to everything he composes.  Iím also continuously inspired by the music of Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith.

Youíre soÖ (scratches head, searching for a diplomatic termÖ) well... young! What led you into composing for computer games?

Ha, I get that a lot!  Honestly, Iím pretty sure that will never get old, although I think people will stop telling me some day.  Iím 36 and have been composing professionally for fifteen years, the last eight years being in videogames.  Maybe 36 is ďyoungĒ for games?  I donít know.  My first game was in 2002 and I was brought in to compose and conduct for a small live orchestra.  Ever since then Iíve been hooked - more than eighty games in eight years!  The videogame medium is definitely the best place to be for composers, as far as creative freedom goes.

Could you tell us how you were brought in to score Silent Hunter 5?

I had the pleasure of composing the score for Silent Hunter 4 a few years ago. It was a really fun score to work on and I guess Ubisoft Romania liked what I did, because they asked me to come back for the next installment.  As a composer, thatís a real treat.

What approach do you take when you are starting a project like Silent Hunter 5, which is a serious, almost scholarly game with a deeply historical heritage, as opposed to a game title like Dead Space?

The biggest thing I was focusing on for SH5 was the best way to musically bridge from the score I did for SH4.  At the beginning of a project I always try to establish some sort of musical identity - something that would separate this new score from projects Iíve composed in the past (and previous releases of the same franchise).  Obviously, this is a little trickier when Iím writing a sequel to my own music, but it also makes it a lot of fun.

In Silent Hunter 5, players command a German submarine.  I wanted the music to have a unique sound that mirrored that same idea.  I approached the score the way a classical German composer might have, using operatic harmonies and choir to give the whole soundtrack a sense of drama you hear in those kinds of classical pieces.

Do the developers provide you an outline for the project? To what extent did Mihai Gheorghiu play in the overall direction of the score?

Mihai was the one who implemented my music in SH4.  He said he and producer Alexandru Gris really enjoyed the soundtrack for SH4 (Alexandru said he still listens to it in his car).  When Mihai was assigned as the Audio Director for SH5, he wanted to bring me back.  They were both a joy to work with.  I know everyone always says stuff like that, but these guys really were.  They provided a lot of essential information into the gameplay and were a wonderful sounding board for my ideas for the direction of the score.  I havenít had the pleasure of meeting them in Romania, but we did have very entertaining phone conversations.

They embraced all my musical suggestions and in the end Mihai only had a few little tweaks on two pieces.  I can honestly say thatís as close to a best-case scenario as it gets for a composer.

Clearly you have a passion and a love for not only music, but the composition of music to accompany the subject matter, whether itís a film, TV show, or a computer game. Have you listened to Kevin Mantheiís work on Silent Hunter II? Patrick Giraudiís SH3 score? Could you give us an overview of how much research on Silent Hunter games was involved when you started work on the SH5 score? How you ďrevisit old themes and creating new ones to continue the storyĒ from previous Silent Hunter titles?

I havenít heard Kevinís music for SH2, but Ubi Romania did send me Patrickís score for SH3 as a reference when I was composing the score for SH4.  To be perfectly honest, I intentionally donít research previous game scores when Iím brought in on a new project in a franchise, unless thereís a specific request from the developer to reference something.  Itís nice to feel unencumbered, musically speaking, at the beginning of a new project.

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I did bring back some key themes from my own score for SH4, and had a lot of fun dressing them up two years later, using some newer sounds and equipment to try and improve on the quality of the music.

What orchestra were you working with on Silent Hunter 5?

That would be the Jason Graves Music Philharmonic, otherwise known as me sitting in the studio banging away on my keyboard!  There wasnít a live budget for SH4 or SH5.  When thatís the case, I do my best with my computers and personal orchestra sounds.  Hopefully the end result sounds as if it were recorded with a live orchestra, especially once itís in the game and playing with the sound effects and dialog.

When you were composing the Main Theme for Silent Hunter 5, what elements were you using to help the game connect with players?  What are the roles assigned to various parts of the score, such as the lone trumpet? It sounds reminiscent of the Godfather.

Thatís a German trumpet playing all the solo stuff.  Not that I would expect anyone to get the inside music joke!  But it does have a darker tone than a traditional orchestral trumpet, and since I was going for the whole ďGermanicĒ music approach it was a nice additional to the palette.

Actually, ďThe GodfatherĒ isnít too far off, musically speaking.  Itís a more traditional Italian sound, but harmonically speaking thatís not too far off from German, especially when you have a solo trumpet.  In general, I was letting the trumpet play the role of the heroic captain leading his men into battle.  As the theme builds, itís gradually backed by a large chorus, which represents the captainís crew

On ďDepth Charges,Ē the pacing is deliberate, the tone is ominous, even a little menacing. What do you picture when you write a track like this?

Thatís a great one to pick out; one of my favorite suspense pieces on the soundtrack.  When I was working on it, I could literally see the sailors looking all around them as the sonar pinged away and they waited in suspense to see if anything blew up their submarine.  Itís a waiting game for sure, and I wanted to try and musically express the idea of ďwaiting under duress.Ē  Just say, ďCaptain, depth charges in the waterĒ out loud and then play this track.  Hopefully the music will paint the picture for you.

Have you viewed Das Boot? What is your take on the work by Klaus Doldinger and how it supported the film?  Another well-known example of submarine score is Basil Poledourisí Red October; it also features a robust chorus.  

Those are both excellent films AND scores that worked very well.  Itís always dangerous when youíre scoring something as well-trodden as a wargame, especially something as specific as a realistic subsim set in World War II.  Iím always careful to stay away from anything that risks sounding too stereotypical or clichť when it comes to music.  While I have an enormous appreciation of submarine movies and their scores, I intentionally avoided listening to them when I was working on SH4 or SH5.

You have done scores for a wide range of video game publishers (Ubisoft, EA, Bethesda), are you becoming the John Williams of the gaming world?

Ha!  If that were only 10% true I would be a very happy person.  There is an amazing amount of diversification in titles and music styles in my job.  Thatís a great benefit of working in games.  Williams truly is a master craftsman.  I hope one day to be half the composer he is and work hard every day to try and make that happen.

You also have several Star Trek games to your credit. Are you a Trekkie?

Iím absolutely a die-hard Trekkie, especially after working on four titles over a few yearsí time.  The first two movies are still my favorites, but I have to admit First Contact is also on my short list.

Kirk or Picard?

Kirk!  Picardís probably smarter from an intellectual standpoint, but Kirk is all ďact first, ask questions laterĒ and always gets the green female alien in the end.  Kind of hard to argue with.

You won a pair of British Academy Video Games awards for your work in Dead Space. What was that like? Are you a ďred carpetĒ composer now? J

I can only hope so.  The BAFTA Awards were really amazing.  Definitely a career highlight for me, especially since Dead Space was such a unique horror score.  It was really gratifying to have all that hard work validated on an international level.

Whatís next for Jason Graves?

Somehow people have it in their heads that Iíve got a knack for composing suspenseful, even downright scary music.  My lips are sealed as far as details go, but letís just say itís a good thing thereís plenty more material to mine in that genre of music.

Thank you very much, Jason. I will be buying the game Dead Space now, thanks for making my game backlog as little busier.

Happy to help!  Just remember, I may be responsible for you jumping out of your chair, but thereís no point trying to send me the dry cleaning bill because you spilled your drink all over yourself.  Or threw your remote in the air and it broke.  Or couldnít sleep that night.  Iíve heard it all before and apologize in advance.


April 2, 2010

For more information and great audio samples, visit Jason Graves Website

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