Thank you James, for agreeing to be interviewed by Radio Rivendell. You’ve received more BAFTA nominations than I’ve had cooked meals, so it’s going to be a tricky one!
Most of us know you for the work you’ve done on games such as Command and Conquer 4 (EA), The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn’s Quest (Headstrong/Warner Bros.), Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (WBIE), Reign of Fire (Kuju Entertainment), and Warhammer; Shadow of the Horned Rat (Mindscape/Games Workshop). Yet you also have created music for the hugely successful TV series Primeval, trailers for TV and movies, and sound for Lost in Space. Do you have plans to continue focusing on video game scores, or would you like to have more involvement in movie and TV soundtracks?
J: I don’t have any set plans for the future, and I quite like it that way! I’m certainly open to scoring films and doing more television, but equally like working in games, which I see as a very exciting and developing medium.
You are well established now as a composer. How did you get into this line of work?
J: Music has been a big part of my life from an early age. I started playing the piano as a boy and enjoyed improvising as much as playing the music of others, so creating music was something that came naturally. In my teens, I experimented with multi-track recording using rudimentary equipment and started to place some of my music into production libraries. After doing this for a time, along with some bits and pieces for TV, I sent a handful of demo tapes to games companies (back then burning a CD wasn’t so easy!) and I got offered a job at Electronic Arts as in-house composer, where I worked for a few years on various EA Sports titles and games such as Space Hulk and Privateer: The Darkening. They had a great studio for the time, so it was useful experience being in that environment. After my time at EA, I went back to freelance work around 1997, continuing to work with EA and others on games like Theme Park World, F1 and Grand Prix 4 for Infogrames. It was also around then I got involved with Digital Anvil and Martin Galway (Audio Director at DA) and worked on games like Conquest, Brute Force and Freelancer. And from around the same time, I started working with Elixir Studios on games like Republic: The Revolution and Evil Genius.
As mentioned earlier, you have received many awards, including a BAFTA for Theme Park World (2000). What was it like when the nominations started rolling in?
J: It’s always very pleasing to receive any kind of recognition for your work, so I’m thrilled every time something like that happens, but sitting and waiting for the result on the night can be a bit stressful!
I hear you were based at Pinewood Studios in London between 2004 and 2007. This is the spiritual heart of movie making in the UK. How did it feel to work in the place that gave us the “Carry On” and “James Bond” films?
J: I was at Pinewood from 1998 to 2007, so quite a long time. The atmosphere there is great and, as you mention, the studios have a great history. I eventually left because it didn’t really feel necessary to be located there and working from home meant I could make better use of my time. I miss the place though. It was often fun just wandering around the stages, seeing sets in construction for the various films in production there.
When listening to some of your pieces, I cannot help but taste a flavour of James Horner, Basil Poledouris, and Gustav Holst. Have any composers left their mark on your music style?
J: I love the work of the composers you mention, but while I was growing up I would listen to lots of composers of different backgrounds. I think the ones who have had the most emotional impact on me are JS Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith – but the list is endless really, and I can’t begin to list every composer, or every kind of music, that I like.
There is a real sense of drama to your music. Where do you get your inspiration for your projects?
J: I do like dramatic, imposing music at times, but also minimal, understated music when it’s appropriate. Ultimately, I think each project is different in terms of what it needs, and less can sometimes be more. Increasingly, I think a restrained approach is being sought by many in games, but this at least makes any moments of drama a lot more effective when they do actually come about. A bombastic, wall-to-wall score is always fun, but increasingly feels like trying to break a walnut with a sledgehammer! Having said that, I really enjoy writing a big theme when I’m permitted to, as I find this is a great way to get excited about a project and can set the tone for a lot of what follows. I think it’s nice to have moments where some dramatic music is showcased or in the foreground, in order to leave a lasting impression. I imagine it’s a lot easier to forget music that’s more integrated and in a supporting role, even though that’s very important as well.
Are there any genres you particularly enjoy working on?
J: I very much enjoy sweeping fantasy scores, but I’m equally at home with, say, science fiction. I’d like to do more music along the lines of the work I’ve done for Freelancer, Red Alert 3 or C&C4, for example. I write a lot of music for acoustic instruments and the orchestra, but I also love working with synth textures and taking more of a sound-based approach to music when I can. I’d also like to do more work in the direction of Republic: The Revolution.
You work with a lot of live orchestras and choirs. Does this help with the creative process?
J: Yes, when you’re working within orchestral parameters, it is of course wonderful to be able to record the real thing rather than sit there trying to emulate one. Even though it’s often perceived as being more difficult to write for the real thing than use a computer to create a pseudo-orchestral score, I tend to think it’s easier to work with the real thing. For example, instead of having to wade through orchestral libraries for the right articulation, with a real orchestra all you have to do is mark this on the score and then let the musicians do their work. This frees up time for writing instead of spending ages trying to fake it through programming and mixing.
During "A Night in Fantasia" in Sydney’s Entertainment Centre, the Eminence Symphony Orchestra debuted the first live performance of Command and Conquer's “Soviet March” theme. Are there plans for further live performances of your work?
J: I was really honoured when the Eminence Symphony Orchestra played Soviet March, and likewise when Video Games Live toured with some of my music as well. In terms of forthcoming live performances, as it happens I have a talk and small concert coming up at GameCity Nottingham in the UK, on October 28th. There’ll be the Pinewood Singers (a choir I work with a lot) performing the theme of EA’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, along with a version of Soviet March from Red Alert 3, and some other pieces. I also hope to do an interactive music demonstration and talk a bit about composing for games as well. For some outside the industry, I think there’s still a bit of mystery surrounding how music goes into games and changes as you play, so I think it’s great that GameCity are creating events of this kind. It makes a change from preaching to the converted at industry events.
If you have any spare time, what sort of music do you enjoy listening to when you’re not working?
J: Getting time to listen to music can often be a problem for composers in general, I imagine. One reason being, after a day of composing or mixing, you often find that the last thing you are able to do is sit and listen to more music when you need to give your ears, not to mention your brain, a bit of a rest! Moreover, while you actually work you can’t easily have music in the background. But in between projects I do try to make time to take in what’s going on in music.
Which CD gets the most listens at the moment?
J: The other day I dug out Ryuichi Sakamoto’s B-2 Unit and I’ve been giving it a lot of listening. There’s so much in there that amazes me, particularly on the production level. It’s that strange kind of fascination you can get with how music of this kind can be made using the limited technology of its day, a bit like with early game music. Tracks like Riot in Lagos are almost like a blueprint for a certain kind of Japanese game music and electronica that emerged in the 80s. I also rediscovered Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Alien recently, which is pretty terrifying at times!
I get the impression you are heavily involved with your music writing. Do you ever get a chance to play computer games? And if so, what games do you enjoy?
J: I love games and have done since around the age of 9, when I received an Atari 2600 console for Christmas. The music in games has always held a great deal of fascination for me, partly because the geek side of me wanted to know how this music was created and even possible at all. But in terms of my favourite games, they include most of the Mario, Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil series, and numerous RTS titles. These days, I mostly like action adventure games that I can dip into, progressing the story a little each time. I’m a little less keen on open world games now, or those requiring a lot of skill to play, as I just don’t get the time and there’s a serious risk of addiction! I found games like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus to be aesthetically pleasing as well, because they manage to immerse you in such a rich and cohesive fantasy-based gameworld.
Are there any projects in development on that we should look out for?
J: I’m currently working on EA’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and 2, and there’s another action-adventure title I’ve started that I’m not able to mention at this point.
Finally, if you could be a character in any fantasy or science fiction setting, what would you be, and why?
J: I find clean-cut heroes a bit implausible and boring, so I think I’d cast myself as more of a flawed anti-hero struggling to get by in some sort of futuristic dystopia. It would have to be someone I could relate to on a human level, trying to do the right thing under difficult circumstances. You know, making sure his daughter gets a teddy bear for her birthday, while also managing to save the known universe by 6pm the same day.
Thank you very much again for taking your time James, and good luck with your future work!
Official site of James Hannigan: www.jameshannigan.co.uk