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Interactive Composing in Gaming and Television: An Interview with Joris Hoogsteder

Music, other than being a form of entertainment and a catalyst for body movement, can also trick our brains into sensory nostalgia. Like many of those in my generation, I still have the melodies for popular ‘90s games and shows like The Legend of Zelda and Twin Peaks ingrained in my head, and if I ever hear modern music containing similar progressions I am reminded once again of those unique tunes. Modern game and television producers rely on composers music for the same reason, to hopefully create accompanying melodies idiosyncratic enough to instantly remind audiences of a show or game; However, from a musical perspective, with every passing year it becomes increasingly difficult to stay original original as the amount of media created and distributed stacks up worldwide. One composer who has managed to stay ahead of this creative curve within the gaming and television industries is Joris Hoogsteder. With his works being used in ‘The Today Show’ by NBC as well as cutting edge virtual reality developers, Hoogsteder is making his mark across the spectrum of entertainment and has attracted renowned symphonies to play his work at concerts in front of thousands. We had the chance to ask Hoogsteder about the craft of making music for modern media, and learn about his most notable works.

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Who are your biggest musical influences and role models? Also, what forms of visual media excite you most as a composer?    

Hoogsteder: I draw influences from so many artists, musicians, and composers. However, starting out as a composer for musical theatre, Danny Elfman’s score for ‘Edward Scissorhands’ inspired me to want to compose orchestral music for motion picture. There’s something about that particular score that still gives me goosebumps every time. Nowadays, I very much look up to some of the heavy jazz cats out there, such as the members of Snarky Puppy, Hiatus Kaiyote, and others. Believe it or not, but some of their works very much inspire me in orchestral writing as well. 80 percent of my day-to-day work is writing music for video games, a medium which excites me a lot. While I love writing music for linear media like film or TV, video games are always non-linear, meaning that you need to account for all the player’s decisions within the game while writing music; the game is never played exactly the same way twice, and the music has to adapt to that. I can go on for hours on this topic, but writing music for interactive systems like video games is really exciting.

One of your most recent compositions was performed by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra at the Seattle Key Arena, where some of the biggest performers play when coming through the city. What were you feeling at the time, knowing that your music was to be performed in front of 20,000 people and streamed by millions online?

Hoogsteder: It was unreal. I got to arrange all the DotA2 music for the symphony, plus the video game tribute rockband Critical Hit, led by video game music veteran Jason Hayes. We had been working on the project for a while, so all that preparation all came together at that day at The International 7. DotA2 is a hugely popular game, and there were a lot of moving parts in the production of this performance, since it was right before the final round of the competition. I was both super excited and nervous at the same time when I got into the arena and sat next to the stage to see the performance. When the first note was heard, I was beyond stoked and time flew by. Before we knew it, we were listening to the applause.

What were critic reactions to the Seattle performance?

Hoogsteder: They loved it! The crowd was going wild when we finished. It felt like such an adrenaline rush seeing all the people in the audience cheer for us. Since gamers spend so much time in the game, and therefore with the music, they are so passionate about it! it’s always a little scary at first when you take something they love and you adapt it for such a grand performance, but people ended up raving about it! Critics usually write about the 7-day event as a whole, but were very positive about the work we did during the final round!

What sort of compositions did you create for the NBC Today Show and did you have some creative freedom in the process?

Hoogsteder: I have written many cues for the Today Show! Most recently, I got to write orchestral music for their coverage of the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. This was such an honor, and such an exciting experience. It had to sound very ceremonial and celebratory, so I could go very much go over the top with my orchestration! Think big and warm ‘fan-fare’esque’ brass, and lush, sweeping violin melodies. They recorded it with an orchestra, and I’m so happy with how these pieces came out. Regarding creative freedom, you are only bound to this certain style/sound. Other than that, you are free to write what you think fits the format, and you make sure the audio logo is weaved into your composition!

How did you end up collaborating on the music for Disney toy commercials?   

Hoogsteder: Through the company I work for, Moonwalk Audio, I got to work on these commercials for Disney. We work a lot with this toys named Zuru, who produce a lot of the licensed Disney toys, and we got to score the commercials for the Disney Tsum Tsum toys line! It was a lot of fun, and these toys are so immensely popular that after working on the commercials I saw these on TV often, plus I started recognizing the exact lines we worked for when shopping at a store like Target.

Is there more pressure when working for a big corporation like NBC or Disney?

Hoogsteder: I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily more pressure. I’ve gotten to a point where I understand the sort of production quality and sound they are looking for; However, since deadlines are always very tight, and there are more moving parts, there is more weight on your shoulders. Compositions need to be approved before we go into the recording and production process, but these recording dates are often planned beforehand. So, there’s a very limited window in which there is room for revisions. While I don’t feel a lot of pressure, you kind of need to get your composition right the first time around. When working on these projects, I try to get as much briefing beforehand.

Which of your projects stand out to you as being the most innovative or unique from a music perspective?

Hoogsteder: Most innovative.. Hmm. Right now I’m working on a VR project, which I think is very innovative! Creating music and sound for Virtual Reality has proven itself to be a whole ‘nother beast! Our ears are so well trained in defining location when hearing a sound, and in VR, you are basically simulation this spatialization to trick your brain, if that makes sense! There is a lot of experimentation being done right now, to translate the way we hear and experience the world, and translate that to Virtual Reality. Since the medium is so new and relatively unexplored, it is really cool to work on this project as Oculus, the inventor of the largest VR-device right now, is backing the project to help us stretch these boundaries of VR sound. The project is called FutureFest VR, and will be a social experience around the festival scene, in which people can enjoy festivals and concerts together in Virtual Reality.

How do you approach creating musical compositions intended for large orchestras with so many different instruments and musicians involved?

Hoogsteder: Honestly, it’s different each time. Sometimes I come up with an idea on the piano, and then translate idea that to an orchestral setting, and sometimes I get inspired by a violin melody I composed and work from there. While orchestral pieces can contain up to 90 players that you’re writing for, you’re not actually writing 90 different melodies as keeping track of 90 individual players would be an enormous challenge. This is a simplified example, but when writing for a big orchestra, you think about four major elements: melody, countermelody, harmonic support (chords underneath the melody) and rhythmic support. When keeping this in mind, writing for such a big orchestra becomes much more clear as each member is playing their part in one of these four elements. Also, in orchestration, there are instrument groups that are often grouped together and play the same part/role within the orchestra. When you’re keeping this in mind when writing, it doesn’t matter a lot whether it’s a big orchestra or a small ensemble, as long as these four elements are divided well and sound balanced across the range of the orchestra, your piece will sound nice.

Over the course of your career you have composed for high-profile performances and companies, but in regard to networking your talents and abilities, do you have any advice for aspiring composers?

Hoogsteder: In regard to networking I only have one main thing to say – be a good person. Of course, being good at what you do is a plus, but we work in a creative and subjective industry. We create art together, and everybody is personally invested in the projects you get to work on; it’s heavy teamwork. You can be the best composer or sound designer in the world, but if you’re difficult to work with, you will have a hard time working on big projects as you need to be on the same page with a lot of people. When networking at events, make friends instead of business contacts. I used to think I had to meet as many people as possible at conferences or network mixers, and exchange as many business cards as possible. This will not do anything for you in the long run. Genuine friendships do though, and if you can figure how you can help each other out, everyone will benefit from this later on.

Do you have any notable projects planned later in 2018 or 2019?

Hoogsteder: I do, but I can not say much about it, unfortunately. At Moonwalk Audio, we’re writing music for a big, well-known online game right now, and will start writing songs for a blockbuster film soon, but we can’t say which or what until it is closer to release date! If you want to stay updated, check www.moonwalkaudio.com for updates!

by Giorgio Chang

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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