Star Wars Battlefront Composer Talks Challenge of Making His Mark in John Williams' Universe
John Williams wrote some of the most iconic music ever for Star Wars, so how do you follow that up? Gordy Haab explains.
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One piece of news around Star Wars Battlefront that flew somewhat under the radar was the fact that Gordy Haab, who wrote music for Kinect Star Wars and BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic, was tapped by EA to compose all-new music for the game. He was given the job not of replacing John Williams' iconic music, but rather writing new musical themes that transition to and from the music that Williams wrote.
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Williams is one of the best-known composers in all of entertainment and his Star Wars compositions (among others) are undoubtedly iconic. Working in the shadow of Williams sounded like a daunting task and we wanted to learn more.
So we caught up with Haab, who told us more about his creative process, the challenges on working inside a universe that already has some of the most famous music ever, how the multiplayer-focused nature of Battlefront affected the music-writing process, and more. Another thing to note is that the music was recorded in London at the famous Abbey Road Studios, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Our full interview is below, while you can also hear some of Habb's music through the Soundcloud embeds in this post. More information about Haab and his background is available at his website.
How did you come to get involved with Battlefront in the first place?
I got involved with Battlefront after [DICE audio director Ben Minto] and [EA Music Group president Steve Schnur] heard some music I had written for Star Wars The Old Republic and Kinect Star Wars. They had cast a wide net, and after deciding to approach me, they asked me to compose music for Tatooine as an audition. I gave it my all, and it worked!
Where was your Battlefront score recorded and who is featured on it?
It was recorded in London at Abbey Road Studios, and we used the London Symphony Orchestra. It was a great experience recording in such an iconic place.
What did you learn from your work on Kinect Star Wars and The Old Republic that you've now applied to Battlefront?
These games helped me sharpen my understanding of the music of Star Wars. For Battlefront, I was trying to hone in on the sound of the Original Trilogy. I wanted to harken back to the original Star Wars sound, in particular my favorite score, "The Empire Strikes Back." The scores from the Original Trilogy are different harmonically and melodically than the scores Williams wrote for the prequels, and I wanted to focus on blending that sound and style of orchestration with the modern approach he used in the prequels.
Star Wars has some of the most iconic music in all of entertainment. You've worked on Star Wars projects before but does it feel daunting to work in the same universe as John Williams?
It's always daunting because I know it has such a large built-in audience, and the expectations are already so high. But I put even higher expectations on myself because I'm equally as much a fan of the music as I am the composer of the music.
People have certain expectations when it comes to Star Wars and its music specifically; do you feel boxed in creatively as a result with what you can do?
There certainly are set perimeters to live within, which creates limitations on what I can or can't do. But in a lot of ways, I believe these perimeters open things up creatively, because when the sky's the limit it can also be extremely daunting. When I know I have to live in this world, it then allows me to spread out and be as creative as possible with the given perimeters. It's a process I actually really enjoy.
I imagine you’d want to pay homage to John Williams but also leave your own stamp on it. How did you weigh that balance between respecting the Star Wars history and making your own mark?
Because Battlefront uses music from the original scores as well, I was given the task to create new music that transitions to and from the original recordings. The way I got to leave my mark is by creating brand new themes for the game. None of my original music for the game uses John Williams' themes, since we were already using the original recordings as well. So I saw an opportunity to write brand new material that was in the tradition of Star Wars but had my own aesthetic. I also feel I have a pretty unique approach to writing and orchestrating action/battle music, which makes up quite a bit of Battlefront.
How does the music you wrote for Battlefront compare to Kinect Star Wars or The Old Republic, thematically or otherwise?
This game is based more on the Original Trilogy so the music needed to be different from The Old Republic. In a way, The Old Republic music was meant to be a prerequisite to the John Williams scores because the time period was set so long before the time period of the films. And the Kinect scores were based more directly on the sound of the prequels. The Original Trilogy has such a unique sound to it, and my goal was to integrate that sound into a modern Star Wars score.
What elements do you think make up a good Star Wars song?
I think the music of Star Wars is so well defined by the fact that it’s written to be symphonic, and feature the orchestra. Many modern film scores feature a hybrid sound of electronics or big percussion, and the orchestra is just one more layer. But Williams approached Star Wars almost like an opera, particularly in the way he used melodies. He wrote for the orchestra much like one would write a symphony, featuring virtuosic playing from every instrument. I think that makes the sound unique for Star Wars. There's a very specific harmonic language that he uses in the original scores and a certain way he spreads sound across the full range of the orchestra, from from very high to very low, which creates a seemingly endless atmosphere.
What kind of preparation did you do for this project specifically?
A lot of studying. I took the original scores and broke them down to analyze them for a couple of reasons. One, because I wanted to understand how they worked and how he harmonized and orchestrated each theme. But also, since we used music from the original recordings as well, I needed to spot every instance of each character's theme. Because we never wanted to use a character's theme where the character was not. And this is where my music would come in.
For instance, in the original scores we may have found the perfect piece of action/battle music, but it would only last for five seconds before suddenly flipping over to Princess Leia's theme. This is where I'd pick up and write new music that could stretch for long periods of time, while introducing new Battlefront themes.
How did that affect the music writing process ?
It certainly influenced the writing process because I used a lot of the prequels' sounds in the past scores I had written. Going back to the Original Trilogy I had to dig in and remind myself how [John Williams] approached those scores. They're very different in a lot of ways, particularly the way he treats melody. I had to study up on that sound and reacquaint myself with his use of melody and apply that to my own writing.
Battlefront differs from the previous Star Wars games you’ve worked on in that it’s more of a multiplayer-focused, with no real campaign to speak of. Did that affect the writing process?
Having many different game modes affected how I wrote the music. Since the music would have to function in different ways. For instance, I may write a two-minute action sequence, but in multiplayer it can go on for longer periods of time. So I had to make sure that I was writing music that could seamlessly loop back on itself and not feel repetitive in any way. And the music also needed to be interchangeable with other modes and thematically related to specific planets or factions.