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Conversation with Wildstar Composer Jeff Kurtenacker

Jeff conducting.
Jeff conducting.

As of September 2015, the MMO Wildstar is officially free-to-play.  To celebrate the number of new players who willbe exposed to this fantastical world, I got to sit down with Wildstar composer, Jeff Kurtenacker.  We’d been interacting on Twitter for a few months, and I thought that Jeff was going to be as fun a guy to hang with as it is to listen to his music.  Turned out I was right.  We learned that we lived in the same area, and met up at a nearby coffee shop.  He even offered to pay for my drink!  We drank our iced coffees and lamented over the California heat.  I took a sip, and dove in with my questions.


Deva: Did your music teachers influence you?  Did you have a lot of music growing up?

Jeff: My music teachers were very influential.  I remember my parents made me take piano lessons when I was a little kid.  I quit ended up quitting, because I was playing a ton of classical music and was having difficulty getting into it.

Then I discovered Billy Joel and Elton John, and I realized that’s the kind of piano I want to play.  I started buying their sheet music and listened to how they played.  I fell in love with piano again, and I got back into lessons and learned theory.

I also played trombone and drums, so I wanted lessons in those.  I absorbed as much as I could.  I found the more I learned about music, the more I learned to express myself.

Deva: The music is very whimsical and it has a sense of fun to it compared to a lot of MMOs that have epic, sweeping music.  Was it important for you to differentiate Wildstar’s music?

Jeff: When I first started composing, people threw the word “epic” around so much, and for me it’s lost its meaning.  What I didn’t want to do was be another epic score in a sea of epic scores.  When I started writing, I wanted to embrace the sci-fi-ness of it.  This is where the acoustic guitar came in and the use of synthesizers.  I also used a process called bit crushing which gives a distortion to certain elements.  It’s been happening in film for a long time, but I hadn’t heard it used before in an MMO.

Then a lot of the pop influences came in.  When I was in college, I was studying Bach and Prince at the same time.  I was ridiculed a lot for it because we’d be in class and the teacher would be talking about what an octave is, and I’d say “Yeah, that’s like the base line of My Sharona!”

Some film scores I was influenced by, like Back to the Future and Indiana Jones, carry strong melodies with such nostalgic weight to them.  I didn’t know it at the time, but when I heard it woven through the movie, it made an impact on me.

So, when I started Wildstar, I knew I wanted to write very thematic material.  The question became, how do we do this without becoming repetitive and boring.  The challenge was how to make the music memorable without it becoming annoying on the 20th hearing.  I want to give people a reason to keep their volume on.  I think we made a good job with it being memorable and thematic instead of annoying.

Deva: Some people will argue that graphics make or break a game, but for me music is such an integral part of my gameplay.  Do you think music is important for a player’s experience?

Jeff: I do, but it’s because I’m passionate about it.  I think we are probably in the minority, but I think music is important.  Try watching a movie without sound effects or music, and you lose perspective of what world you’re in and an emotional frame of reference.  Having music score a game gives you an emotional benchmark.

Celestion.
Celestion.

If you walk into Celestion without music, you don’t know if it’s mysterious or happy.  The music can help inform what the emotional connection is.  You lose a bit of the overall experience without music.   The music and the story give you the whole package, and if you don’t have your music on, you may miss out on that.  Some people may not care about that, and they’ll put on Slipknot.

I’m going to step in right now and urge you not to listen to Slipknot while playing Wildstar.  They don’t mesh.

Deva: How does composing for video games compare to composing for film?

Jeff: It’s a completely different puzzle to solve.  Film tells a linear story.  As a composer, you know how to set up the next shot or force foreshadowing, and working with the director and editor, you know how this thread is going to be woven.  In a game, especially an MMO, you have no idea what the player is going to do next.  It’s very difficult to set up something when I don’t know if the player is going to do what I set up.

What I tried to do was not necessarily focus on the overarching story of each zone, but try to focus on the emotional context of each pocket in the zone.  By doing that, the pockets start to glue together to form an arch to the story.  As you play, the story will start to come together.

Deva: What’s your method for composing for Wildstar?  Do you sit down at the piano or go to the computer?

Jeff:  I like to be visually informed.  I like the art in our game.  I think our artists are unbelievable.  The art is my first source of inspiration – what feelings do I get when I look at it?  Then I talk with the content designers, because the zone may look beautiful, but it could be deadly.  I want to make sure I have the emotional context right.  Then, I’ll sit down at the piano and find the colors that hit the emotional center.  Sometimes it comes right away, and sometimes it’s like pulling teeth, but that’s all part of the creative process.

Deva: Do you use a lot of technology when you’re composing or do you do most of it at the piano?

Jeff: Usually, I start with a piano.  I have a whole notebook of staff paper, and it has all the thematic ideas that we use and do not use for the game.  I’ve had it for years, and I keep adding to it.  I jot down an idea and play with it and see where it goes.  With the computer, it gets a little tech heavy with virtual instruments and samples, but it starts off pretty basic, because that’s what I’m used to and comfortable with.  Pen, paper, and piano.

Deva: If you had say four words that described the Wildstar sound, what would they be?  And it can’t be Prince or Back.

Jeff: Or epic.  I would say adventurous, evocative, thematic, and memorable.  That sounds egotistical to say, but I have people tweet at me saying that it is stuck in their head.

Deva: I honestly say that I got stuck in the character creator forever making my Aurin.  I’d make coffee the next day and be humming that music.


Jeff
: The music in the character creator is probably in the top five songs that I’m most proud of.  First of all, it’s long.  It’s almost an overture at the beginning of an opera where I give you a sample of things to come.  I started to develop this idea of a prologue.  I wanted something that was House MD meets the calm music in Star Wars.  I wanted it to ebb and flow.

We recorded it, and it was really satisfying hearing the music come to life.  We took a bit of a chance, because I didn’t know if people were going to enjoy listening to the character creation music on repeat.

Deva: Do you have any other themes you really liked writing?

Jeff: Drusera’s theme: Our Perception of Beauty.  That one was pretty emotional for me when I recorded it.  She’s such a unique character and I wanted to capture the hopefulness and beauty that’s inside her – the promise of the world.  Yet that hope’s darkened.

A lot of my own feelings towards my daughter are wrapped up in Our Perception of Beauty.  I see her as a bright, beautiful, fun-loving child.  The whole world is an oyster for her right now, but there will come a time when that will start to crumble.  So I tried to write something that encapsulated my feelings of that idea.  Hold onto that hope and cherish that beauty and light.


Jeff and a fan-girling Deva.
Jeff and a fan-girling Deva. Thank you, Jeff!

It was an absolute pleasure to spend time with Jeff, sharing our love for music and gaming.  Thank you Jeff, for this wonderful interview, and to everyone on the Wildstar team!

Now free-to-play, you can download the Wildstar without a subscription, and listen to Jeff Kurtenacker’s score as it was made to be heard.  To hear more of his work, visit his soundcloud by clicking here.

Like this interview?  Want more?  Check out Top Shelf Gaming on Twitter and Facebook for more cool gaming news.

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Written by Deva M. Gregory

Deva is a fiction writer, actor, and honorary Krogan from the Pacific Northwest. Her favorite companies include Blizzard Entertainment and Bioware. She is still waiting for her Hogwarts letter, but will also settle for the Tardis landing in her front yard. You can read more about her at devamarie.com.

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