An Interview with Video Game Composer and Musician Taylor Ambrosio Wood
Taylor Ambrosio Wood is a Seattle-based video game composer and marimba player. She has scored a wide variety of games, performed on Materia Collective video game music albums and created original compositions outside of the video game realm. She studied percussion and composition at the Boston Conservatory of Music and got her master's degree in music from the Berklee College of Music in Valencia, Spain.
I interviewed her about her creative process, her sources of inspiration and how she keeps her creative batteries recharged.
Karl Magi: What first sparked your passion for music?
Taylor Ambrosio Wood: When I was 9 years old, my mother enrolled me in a Zimbabwean marimba ensemble at my elementary school. (I know that’s strange, but it’s Oregon.) I instantly fell in love with their sound (they have a ‘buzz’ very much like Mexican marimbas) and the music played on them. The interlocking patterns, polyrhythms, and intricate melodies—I was completely enamored with Zimbabwean music. I would go every day during lunch to play and I have never looked back.
KM: How did your interest in video game music start?
TAW: I always played video games as a kid, but actually never noticed the music until graduate school. During my Master’s program, Scoring for Film, Television, and Video Games at Berklee Valencia in Spain, we were required to take a video game scoring class. It was there that I discover how amazing and complex video game music could be. I loved the puzzle-like challenge of placing different pieces of music together to adapt to the player’s actions; there is no other compositional field quite like it.
KM: Talk about your approach to composition?
TAW: As I’m sure most composers will tell you, each piece typically warrants a different approach. Sometimes I create the chord progression first, and sometimes the melody. But almost always, I start with the sonic pallet, choosing what instruments I want to use like a painter would choose their color pallete.
Next, I’ll start with the most important element and frame the rest around that. So, if I know I want the main feature of the piece to be the melody, I start with that, or if I know the most prominent element will be an ostinato bassline or rhythm, I start there. This also helps later with orchestration, mixing, and production, because I’ve composed the piece so that each element fits into a hierarchy of importance. Therefore, every element is not competing for attention, which would result in a muddy mix or an orchestration where all the instruments are overlapping in frequency range. It also helps the listener to be able to latch on easier to the most important elements, streamlining the emotional impact of whatever you are trying to convey.
KM: How do you approach music performance?
TAW: I approach music performance very much like I approach composition. For me, the goal is to communicate something and, at the same time, entertain the audience—to both express myself as an artist and be commercially viable. This combination is especially important as a media composer. One composer who I think walked this line perfectly was Johan Johansson, who tragically passed away this year.
KM: Who are some of the composers/artists who have been influential for you?
I am inspired by all different kinds of music! First and foremost, Zimbabwean music and the man who is commonly known as the ‘grandfather of Zimbabwean music,’ Dumi Maraire. I also love composers for visual media, like Joe Hisaishi. He has such an unprecedented command of orchestration that I am constantly blown away by every cue. The gorgeous melodies and string writing of romantic composers, like Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, are also deeply inspiring to me, as well as the catchy melodies of pop songwriters, like Taylor Swift, and the rhythmic diversity and skill of rappers, like Nicki Minaj.
I think it’s very important for composers to be open to all types of music, and to never dismiss an artist because they are too ‘popular’ or their music is considered ‘too simplistic’ academically. Sometimes the most simplistic things are the most effective.
Kyoto - Taylor Ambrosio Wood (influenced by Zimbabwean mbira).
Mhondoro - Taylor Ambrosio Wood (influenced by Joe Hisaishi)
KM: Tell me about some of the projects you've done that you're most proud of and why.
TAW: I’m very proud of my soundtrack for Balthazar’s Dream. It gave me the opportunity to experiment with strange combinations of instruments and sounds. To convey Balthazar's dream world through music, I wanted to use instruments and textures you wouldn’t normally hear together. Toy piano with mbira, hang drum, marimba, voices, metallic percussion, udu, frame drums, synths overlaid with strings, and many other unusual sounds. I also experimented with how tuning affects our perception of music by using 'out-of-tune' instruments interlocked with those in standard Western-tuning. The combination of de-tuned instruments, unusual textures, and cyclical interlocking patterns create a sensation that things within this sonic world are not quite right.
The Window Box is a game I just finished scoring and I’m very proud of how it has turned out. The CEO and Founder of Sundew Studios, Allie Ast, came to me wanting a soundtrack that was a mix of Debussy and jazz, so the result we came up with is a fun jazz/classical soundtrack that is extremely unique. Allie allowed me the freedom to be creative while pushing me musically in directions I never would have gone without her fantastic direction.
You never know where other’s input will take you, so don’t be afraid to really collaborate with game developers.
KM: Where does video game music fit into the broader world of contemporary music?
TAW: I think that it is on the rise to be critically acclaimed, like film and television soundtracks. Video game music has more popular appeal than current concert music, and I think it resonates more with today’s youth. I wouldn’t be surprised to one day see video game musicians performing at the Grammys or featured in magazines. Video game music is the next logical succession of contemporary music, often using avant-garde approaches and 20th century music techniques… but with a commercial spin. That’s what makes it so palatable for mainstream audiences, as well as respected by trained musicians.
Here is a curated collection of progressive and avant-garde music from indie video games, 2010–2018, one of which is my piece:
KM: Where do you want to take your career in the future?
TAW: I would like to write and record with a full orchestra again, and keep growing and experimenting as a composer. I’d like to put on concerts of my music someday, as well as continue working with people I enjoy and projects that I resonate with.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
TAW: I recharge by playing games and listening to music, going to the symphony and just getting away from what I’m currently working on. When I am stuck compositionally, I enjoy listening to something I love or seeing a concert. Recently, I saw bassist Victor Wooten and that inspired me so much! I find it important to always enjoy and foster my love of music no matter what may be going on in my life or career.