British born composer Gareth Coker is a talented and wonderfully gifted Maestro, who has written the atmospheric and haunting soundtracks for video games such as Ori and the Blind Forest, and Ori and the Willow the Wisps. He has also scored Halo Infinite , Immortals Fenyx Rising ,and Ark.
Can I begin by asking was music always something that you wanted to do as a career?
Definitely not! I was always enthusiastic about music throughout my school life, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it could be a career until I was told by a schoolteacher that I should apply to music school for composition. I did so, got accepted to the Royal Academy of Music, and from then on (2002) I started to take it seriously. Even then, I did not become truly a working professional until 2010. After graduating the Academy, I spent three years teaching English in Japan, and then in 2009 I came to America to study at USC’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program. It was only after finishing that program that I felt truly ready to try and make a career out of it.
Your scores are so theme laden, which is rare these days with the soundscape like sounds that are being used in film, would you say that it is important for characters in games and in films to have a musical identity so the audience or the players can be inspired by this?
I truly feel that good theming is the strongest tool in the box for when you’re wanting to give a film / game / character an identity. But of course, it is also one of the most challenging ones to craft. What defines a good theme? Is it the actual melody itself (E.T. Star Wars, etc.), or is it some kind of sonic texture that we’ve never heard before but immediately connects with the character (Dark Knight – Joker, or Into the Spider-verse – Prowler). Or a combination of both and everything in between?
The biggest thing with regards to musical identity is that a score should not be interchangeable with another one. When as a composer you have achieved that, then you’ve given your score something that the viewer / player will forever associate only with that project that it was attached to.
Your music for Ori and the Will of the Wisp is superb, how much music did you compose for this project?
Thankyou! All in all, probably close to four hours of music for the game, which was ‘reduced’ (ha) to 3 hours for the soundtrack. I’m very aware that the soundtrack is very long, but it does follow the golden path that the player will take through the game, thus the music really does reflect Ori’s journey throughout.
There are a number of ethnic instruments within the score for Ori and the Will of the Wisp, is is difficult at times to find musicians who are able to play these?
It honestly depends on the instrument. I’m very fortunate to be able to work with a woodwind collaborator, Kristin Naigus, who has a few hundred instruments at her disposal. Often I will present her with a melody and ask her to play it on more than one instrument, and we generally just pick the one that fits the track the best. It’s amazing the nuances and differences one learns to hear between a flute from South America – like the quena – and a flute from East Asia, like the bansuri.
In terms of other instruments, one just asks around the composer community. There’s a lot of us here in LA, and the chances are high that someone knows someone who can play a certain instrument that we want!
How did you become involved in the writing of music for games etc?
I started by working on student games and also being active in the games mod scene for a few years. Video game mods are free add-ons for games developed by the community or game developers who are between projects. I can actually trace most of my career opportunities back to my time working in mods. I was contacted by the developers of Ori through ModDB (a centralized website where a lot of mod developers hang out). My work on ARK Survival Evolved led from knowing a team that I worked with through ModDB, and so on. My other opportunities have all stemmed from these initial projects. For example, my work on Minecraft stemmed from Ori.
Your scores are grand and sweeping, and you also utilize voices to great effect, what size orchestra did you have for Ori and the Blind Forest?
For Ori and the Blind Forest, the string section for the majority of the game was chamber sized (22 strings), with a small woodwind section of flute, clarinet, and oboe. For a handful of the bigger and more dramatic cues in the game a bigger orchestra of 40 strings with full woodwind and brass section (minus trumpets). We also used the solo vocals of Aeralie Brighton extensively, along with solo winds. There was no live choir in the score due to budget reasons. For Will of the Wisps, the score needed a more mature sound and a slightly darker tone. The intimacy that the chamber orchestra provided for Blind Forest wasn’t required nearly as much. The string section for most of Will of the Wisps was 50, with a woodwind section and full brass section again contributing to the largest cues. We also had a choir of 20, occasionally double-tracked for the sound of 40.
Are there any composers or artists that you would say have inspired or influenced you to write in the way that you do, or does all music inspire you no matter what genre?
There’s composers I enjoy listening to, and I’m sure there’s a process of osmosis that happens when listening to other composer’s work often, but I try just to write what I feel will work, irrespective of inspiration. That said, I particularly enjoy the work of Mychael Danna, and his effortless fusions of world music, orchestra, and electronics. I’ll always be a fan of James Horner’s work and also Johann Johannsson. I can usually find something in any music to get inspired or interested by though, and I particularly enjoy trying to understand why others might like something more than I do (we all have different tastes!).
You have scored shorts, TV series as well as video games, does the scoring process differ at all from say a TV series to a short, is it more difficult to establish a thematic thread in a limited amount of time?
I think it mostly depends on the story trying to be told and whether the short / TV show has the opportunity for music and therefore themes to develop. If it’s there you grab it, and if not, you find another way to get the music to enhance what is already on-screen. So much of thematic development depends on the material you are working with. This often means you need to be working very closely with the director and/or editor to figure out the best approach. Ultimately, whether it’s a game, TV episode, or a short, it always just comes back to storytelling and then figuring out how to do that best within the context you’re given.
What musical education did you receive, and were there any areas or instruments that you focused more upon?
I started learning the piano from the age of eight, and then picked up trumpet, trombone, organ over the subsequent years. As I got into composing I started to make sure I had an understanding of the instruments I wrote for. I did this by spending a lot of time with performance students at the Royal Academy of Music, just doing my best to ingest as much information as they could give me!
Do you orchestrate all of your music, or is this sometimes not always possible also do you conduct all of your scores?
I used to, but when one becomes busier (a good problem to have!) it becomes physically impossible to orchestrate everything on a tight deadline. That said, when I am starting a project, I tend to orchestrate some cues myself to give a template to the orchestrator(s) for how to work on the rest of the score. Additionally, I make sure that the music is very clear in its dramatic intention, orchestration is a big part of that, so any orchestrator who works with me is going to have a good idea of what I’m trying to achieve even with my mockups.
How much time are you given to work on a game score, maybe use Ori and the Blind Forest as an example?
This entirely depends on the game, and how much the game developer is willing to share and how early they want the composer on board. There’s no real set answer. For example, on both Ori games I was on from the very beginning, a 4-5 year process each time. Not full-time, but generally just being around the game as it grew. Immortals Fenyx Rising I came on with about a year and a half to go in development. All my Minecraft expansions I was working on for about 2 months. I think one of the key factors in how much time a composer has depends on how narratively driven the game is, which requires a lot more customized content that isn’t dependent on a game’s music system, but also simply how large the game is. A 10-12 hour game doesn’t always need as much music as a game that will last more than 50 hours.
The only thing I will say, is that almost always, for narratively driven games, a better score comes from the composer being involved as soon as possible. It is a key factor of how a game’s identity and feel is forged.
So, in movies the composer normally spots the film to see where music should be placed to best serve the film, is scoring a game done in much the same way and when you are seeing the project for the first time is there anything like a temp track installed?
Spotting exists in games too, it’s just a bit more fluid. I’d say that spotting is actually one of the Ori games’ strongest assets in terms of music. The reason for that is because I play the game quite relentlessly during development, and therefore have the best possible understanding of where music can change and how it will affect the player. Even though games are non-linear, there are often key points which every player will experience that you can use to change the music. It’s spotting just with a different mindset.
As with temp tracks, it also depends per project. For Ori there were no temp tracks and I was encouraged to try and come up with a unique sound. For Immortals Fenyx Rising, my own music from Minecraft Greek Mythology was used as temp!
When you write a particular piece of music for Female voice, do you have a particular vocalist in mind?
There’s so many talented female singers, so it’s just a case of finding the most appropriate one for the project. Different voices have different timbres and characteristics.
Do you think that game score has in the past few years become more popular, and when a soundtrack is released do you like to supervise or have a say in what cues will appear on the recording?
Yes, I’ve generally supervised most of my soundtrack releases. I think for game soundtracks it is very hard to curate a good ‘listening experience’, because there is simply so much music, and the demand from fans to release as much as possible is extremely high.
I also think that in the age of streaming, a curated album is going to be a thing of the past. Users will curate their own playlists from the tracks that they like. That said, there is still room for curation on physical releases with vinyl and CD, but streaming releases I think will get broader and less focused. It’s a good thing that game music fans are so hungry for our work!
Do you have a set way in which you score a project, as in from start to finish, or do you tackle the bigger more prominent sections first and then move to smaller pieces?
I tend to look for the ‘pillars’ of a project, the scenes which will generally be built around. They’re also often the more difficult scenes and with the most weight attached to them amongst the production team. Often getting those scenes scored early can really help drive how the rest of the project goes.
For longer term projects I do a lot of concepting and palette building at the beginning. I often write long suites of music, a suite for a character or an environment or certain situation, and then I draw from those long suites to start creating cues that are more specific.
On Ori and the Will of the Wisps, what percentage of the score was realized via synthetic means or electronics?
About 20% of it was handled by synths or samples. In most of Ori there is an undulating pulse and rhythm. This is because the game is primarily a platformer game, whose emphasis is on movement. As a player you are always moving and so I want the music to feel constantly alive as the player moves through the environment. If you listen to almost any of the tracks, you can hear the aforementioned pulse. It is usually played with tonal instruments that are plucked or struck but they are also affected (reversed, delay, etc…) so to help make them sound otherworldly. This is obviously then combined with the orchestral element of the soundtrack and great care is made to make sure the disparate elements blend well together, and aren’t just mashed without any thought for the other.
Do you have a preference as to where you record your scores?
Abbey Road, Air Lyndhurst, Ocean Way Nashville, Synchron Stage Vienna. As a Brit, recording in London will always be my first choice. I would love to record at one of the LA stages one day, but it needs to be the right project.
Ark was a video game and soon will be realized as an animated series for TV, will you employ the themes you utilised in the video game within the TV series?
I can’t say much about this yet, but I can say that there will definitely be some musical convergence, and I’m having a great time utilizing the 6 years worth of prior ARK music from the game and drawing upon it for the TV show.
Your first credit is for Minecraft the video game, which was in 2009, how did you become involved on this?
This is a slight error by IMDB. Minecraft the game came out in 2009, but my involvement with it did not happen until 2016. Microsoft is the publisher of Minecraft, and after the success of Ori and the Blind Forest, I think it put me on their radar and they thought I was a good fit to do some of their expansions. It has since led to several albums, including the Mythology series (Greek, Chinese, Norse, Egyptian) which is a collection I’m quite proud of.
Have you given concerts of your scores from games, and if not would this be something that you would like to do when the current situation allows?
I’ve had a couple of concerts that have featured Ori medleys, and one concert entirely dedicated to Ori and the Blind Forest. I’d love to see more game-focused concerts, as I think the audience is definitely there for it. Some of the most engaging narratively driven music is being written for games and for sure I think fans and players would love to hear their favorite scores live and be in the same room as the music. It’s one thing to hear on speakers or headphones, it’s another to be in the moment with real players.
What is next for you?
Halo Infinite is out later this year, and then my work shifts to the ARK Animated TV series for 2022.
Thank you so much for answering my questions.
Thanks for having me!