An Interview With Composer and Video Game Music Creator Will Brueggemann
Will Brueggemann is a composer, musician and podcaster with a wide-ranging interest in music of all types. He has a particular passion for video game music, both retro and modern, as well as an abiding love for film music. He's also one half of the Super Marcato Bros. video game music podcast along with his brother Karl.
Interview with Will Brueggemann
Karl Magi: Talk about some of your formative musical experiences.
Will Brueggemann: Ever since I was a kid, I was enamoured with music and with video game music particularly. I’m the youngest of four children. There’s an eight year span between my next oldest brother Karl and Marty, my oldest sibling, is 12 years older than me. Both Marty and Karl were hugely into music growing up, my sister was always singing and my parents were talking about music and encouraging us to do all kinds of outgoing things like acting and singing.
Karl played the drums and Marty played guitar and saxophone. I really looked up to them when they’d be playing in these bands. I looked on with envy because I wanted to one of the big kids playing music.
Some of my earliest formative experiences were with video games. Marty and Karl really helped to shape my early years of being exposed to different kinds of games. Not only would they show me games from my generation of the late ‘90s and early 2000’s, but they’d also share with me games from their childhoods. I was playing NES games and Sega Genesis games and I really fell in love with all of those worlds, particularly Nintendo. The music was a huge draw for me.
It played a huge impact on me as a composer. It was the first music that I felt was my own because it was something that my parents didn’t understand. I really engaged with it emotionally. Old school video game music is the perfect music for children because it’s vulnerable and it’s accessible. It really is beautiful and has this depth of emotion, but it’s also simple. It’s the benchmark for me in whatever I’m doing now.
Whether I’m writing an opera, writing a piece of concert music or working on a film score or doing video game music work, I always remember that feeling of listening to music from Sonic the Hedgehog or Mario and being moved emotionally. It was so beautiful and I didn’t even understand why. I think that’s really a powerful thing to give to a person and that’s always been my goal.
KM: What is it that you find so compelling about video game music?
WB: Video game music is interesting in that it supports an existing visual medium. Film does that, ballet does that and there have been other forms in the past that have done that, but video games are interactive, so the music is inspiring the action in a sense.
People talk about how the video game music from what I consider the golden era (the ‘80s and ‘90s) is so melodic and tuneful. I completely agree with that, but I think one of the reasons why it is that way is because the music is meant to have an impact on the player and inspire the way that they approach the game itself.
It’s a different mandate from film music, for example. Film is a static medium, so they have the final edit and they can score it right to the beats of the movie. Video game music needs to be more atmospheric. I don’t mean atmosphere in terms of genre or style. If it’s an action game and it’s a fight sequence, it just needs to generally be scoring a fight rather than specific actions.
As the technology has gotten more advanced and composers have found ways to make the music more moment to moment specific, it has aided in the immersive aspect of video games, but I feel we’ve lost a bit of the directness that existed in the older era.
On systems like the NES or the Commodore 64, you can only produce so many simultaneous tones or pitches at one time. You’re also limited by the timbres that you can use. The ingenuity that the composers had was really remarkable. They were able to make the music sound like a whole rock band or a full orchestra. I’m really inspired by that kind of creativity. It’s where art meets the artificial.
I think that if Mozart was alive today, he’d be writing chiptunes or EDM. Composers have always been fascinated by technology. Mozart wrote music for these French clocks that were like glockenspiel. He was writing music for these mechanical apparatuses and almost sending up the fact that it was meant to be mechanical and grid-like in his composition.
KM: Where does video game music fit into the realm of contemporary composition?
WB: In terms of contemporary composition, concert music tends to skew towards the avant garde, and there are so many facets in which contemporary video game music can be sympathetic to those desires. Media, in my opinion, is a more lucrative place for experimental techniques than concert music.
If you’re watching a film and it’s a tense scene where a woman’s turning a corner and there’s a guy with a knife on the other side, you can have all of these extended techiques with strings playing at quarter tones apart from each other, all of these aleatoric* phrases and really dissonant things and people will accept it because they’re given a context for how to feel. The understanding is that this is unsettling and scary and the music reinforces that.
If that same stretch of music were called Opus 23, String Quartet #4, people wouldn’t have that same context and they might be confused because they’re used to String Quartet #4 sounding like Beethoven. People don’t know how to engage with a lot of avant garde music, even if it has a programmatic title.
People like having the visual association, so I think you can get away with all kinds of really neat stuff in games and movies that you wouldn’t be able to get away with for a general audience in concert music.
I think that a contemporary composer ought to be familiar with video games as a medium, even if they’re aren’t fans of what I personally like about video games. I think the medium itself is so open to great things.
For example, Austin Wintory’s score for Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is just fantastic. The whole score is all of this string quartet music. He draws influences from composers like Bartók, Ravel, William Walton and Benjamin Britten. These are influences that the average gamer would have no exposure to and wouldn’t give the time of day. It’s amazing for a contemporary composer to write music in that style and reach an audience that large. People really need to celebrate that.
*Music in which elements of the composition are left to chance or are determined by its performers.
KM: How do you approach the process of composition?
WB: It’s been very important for me to change up my process. I don’t want composing to be like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes. I don’t enjoy writing music. It’s laborious, painstaking and emotionally draining, but I love music, I love creating it and I love the feeling of having created it.
The sense of accomplishment from being able to look at a finished score, have a piece of music played back by an orchestra or listen to a finished chiptune I’ve created must be similiar to an engineer buidling a great machine. It’s something innate to humans, I imagine, this sense of creation.
For me, music isn’t just an avenue for self-expression. I must and I do express myself and my emotions, but I feel like music is an alchemy. It’s craft, it’s science, it’s math and emotion.
When I’m at the piano, I’ll starting with a melody or a motive. Sometimes I’ll be driving in my car and a tune will come to me or maybe I’m sitting with my guitar. There’s all sorts of ways I approach it.
With video game music, I do tend to start with melody. Even if the initial impetus is a certain kind of chord progression or harmonic idea, I really don’t feel like I have any kind of idea until I have a melodic statement.
Writing a melody is the hardest thing for me. You might have a great five note phrase, but the hard part is turning it into something that feels natural. It’s something that I’m happy and proud to work on because that can make the difference between a great piece of music and something that isn’t meeting its potential.
KM: How does the collaborative composition process work for you?
WB: In the last few years that I’ve worked with my brothers, the genres and styles have been so different from some of the other music that I’ve been working on, that it provides a challenge for a distinct part of my brain which is great.
It’s also a different process because you’re writing something that’s being judged by and talked about with a partner. Karl and I are the ones that tend to work collaboratively. The process we tend to land on most frequently for our game projects is that I’ll come up with the DNA of a song and Karl will work on fleshing out the arrangement. He’ll be the producer and engineer of the project. We’ve also flipped that around. We try to change it up so that it feels consistent.
The more I’ve grown as a composer and the more I’ve learned about music, the harder it’s been to collaborate. When I was in high school and Karl and I started working together, I had a limited set of skills that I could bring to the table. I was useful in certain situations. I didn’t have an extensive knowledge of orchestration or music production. I needed Karl to help me realize my ideas.
As we’ve both grown as composers, we’ve developed and diverged in terms of what our styles are. Now there can be a little more friction or disagreement when it comes to ideas.
KM: Who are some of the different composers who’ve had a strong influence on you?
WB: If there’s one composer who I could say has had an impact on every piece of music I’ve written, it would be Koji Kondo. It doesn’t matter what the genre or style it is because I think his melodies are so ingrained in my head because of their rhythmic physics. HIs melodies are so pure, they’re like folk tunes. So much of his impact has been overt, I’ve written so many albums celebrating different series that he’s done.
Another one would have to be John Williams. In addition to writing the most iconic melodies of our time, I think his sense of harmony and orchestration and his dramatic sense of what he’ll do in each moment makes him the greatest film composer that’s ever lived. He’s very much influenced a lot of what I’ve done.
As a songwriter, Alan Menken has been hugely influential to some of the music that I’ve done. He’s a melodic genius. He’s written so many iconic tunes that are going to be part of our collective culture for probably hundreds of years. He can stack up against any of the great American songwriters.
In terms of classical composers, Tchaikovsky is probably the greatest melodic classical composer ever. I think he’s unsung as an orchestrator. I love his symphonies and his ballets.
KM: What are some of your future goals for your musical career?
WB: I’d love to be working on more films, I’d love to be doing more video game work. I’d love to get an opportunity to do some video game work that’s a little more contemporary. Karl and I have done so many of these retro 8-bit scores and that’s fun, but I’d be really curious to do something where I really have to grapple with some of the technical challenges of scoring a modern video game.
In terms of my music in general, I hope that I’m always doing a little bit of everything. I love writing music for choir so I hope that’s something I’m always doing. I hope that I always have an opportunity to write orchestral music. I hope that I can look back on my work in ten years and identify something that I do that’s unique to me.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
WB: I tend to feel like I’m either in a period of being a great composer or being a great listener. If I’m struggling with music or I just feel unmotivated, when Karl and I record a podcast I’ll feel so articulate. Other times, I’ll be working on music and thinking it’s the best thing I’ve worked on, but I’ll go on the podcast and I’ll stumble and stammer because my brain is elsewhere. I’m a very obsessive person so I’m either in a period of studying music or I’m in a period of creating.