An Interview with Video Game Music Composer and Arranger Josh Barron
Josh Barron is a U.S. based composer and arranger of music for video games, but he's also composed two multi-movement works for string orchestra. His work combines a wide variety of musical elements to create a unique, harmonious whole. I talked to him about how he got started as a composer, how he approaches composition and arrangement and his creative inspirations.
Karl Magi: How did you first get interested in making music and composing?
Josh Barron: My interest started when I was 11 years old and I’d just played Final Fantasy VII. At that point, I felt like the music really clicked in my mind. At the same time, my grandfather had given me classical music CDs, George Gershwin in particular, so I really got into that kind of music. From that point on, after listening to FFVII and the classical CDs, I really wanted to become a composer.
I started arranging music at first because it was much easier to take someone else’s work and add to it. That experience really kicked off my career as an arranger. I realized that it’s what I wanted to do, but I didn’t really get into it until later in my high school years.
KM: What is it about video game music that draws you into it?
JB: It’s just the creativity that video games allow you to have. With a film, there’s really one narrative or vision that the director and the writer want you to experience. With video games, there are tons of different angles because everybody’s going to play that game differently. I always like the aspect of video game music that adapts to your experience. I feel that’s why, in part, video games are starting to rival films in the entertainment industry. They give you that custom experience.
It really challenges me as a composer because I have to get into that person’s head and write a piece that will tailor the game experience, not just for one person, but for thousands of people. I really like that idea as well as the ability to combine all sorts of styles of music together.
KM: Which artists and composers have been influential on your own work?
JB: I was just talking to Benjamin Nuss who’s a friend of mine. He’s a world-class pianist, a really great guy, and he has done numerous recordings for Masashi Hamauzu. He’s been my inspiration as part of my generation of musicians and composers who are trying to bridge the gap between classical and video game music. I’m also inspired by the music of the video game composer Masashi Hamauzu. His music is just so artful. I love how he combines complex chords and unique progressions that take you to another place entirely when you hear them.
KM: Tell me more about the projects on which you’ve been working lately?
JB: I’ve been doing mostly Materia Collective stuff. I just finished the biggest track that I’ve ever done. It was for the Xenogears Omega tribute album. It’s the very first time we’ve ever done Bulgarian music. My friend Peter Jones created amazing lyrics for the choir since I have very little experience with choral music. When he’d done that, he just added so much more to my orchestration. We had over 90 stems of recorded music that we had to go through and put together piece by piece. It was quite the challenge, but one I am very grateful to have done!
As far as what I’m doing right now, I’m working on another ETHEReal String Project album. We’re doing music by Masashi Hamauzu and Hitoshi Sakimoto, so you’ll hear music from Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story. These are pieces that people have really wanted to hear arranged, but it just never happened until now.
KM: Tell me more about your creative processes for arranging and composing.
JB: With arranging, I usually just listen to the piece once or twice. It depends on whether or not there’s sheet music available to give me an idea of it. If there’s not and I’m doing it completely by ear, I have to listen to the piece quite a bit. For me, arranging is about taking someone else’s narrative, but at the same time you have to re-create that moment in that game without a vision. It might require putting a slight motif reference from another piece in there or trying to structurally change it to where you can re-create that moment.
On my ETHEReal String album, for example, I did the Metal Gear Solid 2 suite and I included quite a few themes that would re-create the tanker infiltration opening scene of the game. You’re playing as Snake and you meet Revolver Ocelot and run into Olga Gurlukovich. I used the Russian theme because the Russians are on the tanker. When I do an arrangement, I try to re-create a picture. My arrangements can sometimes be pretty conventional, but I try really hard to make things a nice, fresh experience while maintaining that feeling of nostalgia and familiarity.
These days when I compose, I just sit at my keyboard and tinker for hours and hopefully an idea comes to me. It’s just a matter of a teasing those melodies and ideas out.
KM: What sorts of musical projects would you like to work on in future?
JB: I’d really like to do more concert music. I’ve been commissioned twice to do that sort of work. I’d also like to finally get into an actual video game. It’s a really hard industry to break into. Most of my career has been doing arrangements and now I’m trying to market myself as a composer, so it’s a very hard transition to make. Over the last decade of writing music, I’ve learned that as long as you keep at it, eventually you’ll make headway.
KM: How do you reinvigorate yourself creatively?
JB: It comes down to learning new music and having new experiences. The Traveler’s VGM is a very good example of that. I helped co-found that band after my friend Masha Lepire and I had sat down and discussed the fact that there wasn’t a single album out that did video game folk music, let alone with 100 percent live instrumentation. I’ve learned from my friend Ian Martyn and each of the 44 members that we have so far. Ian has immense experience in Celtic music and I’ve learned so much of that music. It’s reinforced my own music because when you learn new styles, you also learn how to bring those styles together in new ways. I encourage people who want to grow in their music to learn the past and see how to apply it to now.