The Sound Architect speaks with professional game music composer Winifred Phillips.
Winifred is an award-winning composer and author. Some of her video game credits include Assassin’s Creed Liberation, The Da Vinci Code, God of War, LittleBigPlanet 2, Speed Racer, Shrek the Third, Spore Hero and many more.
She has received a Global Music Award, an Interactive Achievement Award / D.I.C.E.Award from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, two Hollywood Music in Media Awards, five Game Audio Network Guild Awards, an IGN Best Score Award, a GameSpot Best Music Award, a GameZone Score of the Year Award, a GameFocus Award, and three Gracie Awards from the Alliance of Women in Media.
She has released fifteen albums. Her soundtrack album for the Legend of the Guardians video game was the first video game soundtrack album released by WaterTower Music, the film music record label of Warner Bros.
In her ten years as a game composer, she has been profiled in books such as Keeping Score by Tom Hoover, Cash Tracks by Jeffrey P. Fischer, In Her Own Words: Conversations with Composers in the United States by Dr. Jennifer Kelly, and in Music Connection Magazine, which described her as a “Superstar of video game music.”
She spent the last two years dividing time between her many music composition projects and the completion of a forthcoming book for the MIT Press. Entitled A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, the book explores the art of video game music from the viewpoint of an award-winning game composer, and offers guidance for musicians and composers who want to deploy their musical creativity in a dynamic and growing industry.
Thank you so much for speaking to us Winifred, we’re very excited to read your book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music! Before we talk about this great book tell us a bit more about yourself, how did your journey into music composition begin?
I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t aspire to be a composer, so I guess my journey started pretty early. My first professional credits as a composer came via the Radio Tales series of dramas for National Public Radio. The series adapted classic sci-fi, fantasy and horror stories and novels for the radio, so it was a great way for me learn the craft of music underscore composition while on the job. I was hired by award-winning producer Winnie Waldron, who both conceived the series and hosted it for NPR. We discovered we had a really great working relationship, so when Sony Computer Entertainment asked me to contribute music to the God of War video game, I asked her to come with me and jump into the video game business as my music producer. We’ve been working together on every game project since then.
Did you always want to work in games?
It didn’t occur to me that game music was a career option until I’d been with the Radio Tales series for quite a while. We were moving towards our hundredth episode of the series, and I was playing a video game in my free time, and suddenly bang! It hit me. Very big moment for me – still as clear in my mind as though it were yesterday. I’d been a gamer from way way back, but for some reason, it had never occurred to me that I could write music for games. Once the idea got into my head, I never looked back.
Have you written a piece that you’ve always held closest to you?
It always seems to be music from my most recent project that has a special place in my heart – probably because the memories of creating it are so fresh. At the moment, the piece that occupies that place is from an unannounced AAA video game I’m currently working on – which I’m not allowed to discuss at the moment.
Who has inspired you most throughout your career?
That would be Winnie Waldron, my music producer. She has “golden ears,” which means she can tell when music is working and when it isn’t, pinpoint the reasons why, and guide music composition and production in the right direction. People with golden ears have an instinctive understanding of what makes music appealing, and how to get it there. I’m lucky to have a person like that as my music producer – I trust her opinion implicitly, and her guidance has been incredibly inspirational to me.
You definitely have a huge passion for game music but what made you decide to write your book?
It was actually Winnie’s idea – she said I should write a book about game music. I didn’t take the idea that seriously at first, but I kept thinking about it. I’ve been composing game music for ten years, and I’ve learned a lot in that time. I eventually realized that I had a bunch of things I’d like to say about being a game composer. I wanted to write a book that focused exclusively on the music in games, and I wanted the book to divide its attention equally between the technical and artistic sides of the profession.
Obviously it’s about composing for games, but there’s more to it than that isn’t there?
Yes, that’s true – I did write about my own experiences as a game composer, so it’s also sort of a slice-of-life. The game industry can be really intense, and I wanted to share some of my more colorful memories as a part of an overall discussion of the role that music should play in works of interactive entertainment. I think you can’t really understand what being a game composer is all about without hearing some of the war stories and adventures that a game composer will inevitably experience.
What were the main challenges you faced when writing the book?
Trying to fit the work into my schedule as a game composer! It was definitely a challenge. As a matter of fact, I started composing the music for Assassin’s Creed Liberation while I was working on A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, so I had to set the book aside until the work for Liberation was complete. Afterwards, I went back to the book and did a major revision, in order to include everything I’d learned while working on Liberation.
You’ve worked with some amazing people and the book has some great endorsements! Did you speak to the game audio community a lot once you decided to write the book?
Yes –I’ve been speaking at both game development conferences and game audio conferences. It’s been great meeting so many wonderfully creative people, and I’ve been grateful that A Composer’s Guide to Game Music has given me so many opportunities to become more connected to the community of game audio professionals and fans.
Were you influenced a lot by others when writing?
I think that I was influenced most strongly by the working relationships I’ve had with game developers over the years – particularly the producers, audio directors and sound designers who have directly supervised my music composition. I gained a tremendous amount of knowledge and practical experience by working with these folks, and their insight and guidance was certainly in my mind while I was writing the book.
Did any other books inspire you?
In the acknowledgements section of A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I offered a special thank-you to Karen Collins, who is the Research Chair in Interactive Audio at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. She has written and edited several scholarly books on game audio, including two for The MIT Press, and she’s definitely blazed a trail for other authors to follow.
How has the experience of writing A Composer’s Guide to Game Music been?
Writing a book is an enormous undertaking! I’m grateful to the MIT Press for the tremendous support and encouragement they’ve given me. The process of writing a book for such a distinguished press was especially intense, but their peer-review process, coupled with the guidance from their fantastic editors, made me feel more confident. And I’m grateful that Winnie served as the first editor for the book. As a former script editor for Radio Tales, she understands what constitutes good storytelling, and she kept me focused on sharing information in a way that would be entertaining as well as informative.
Is there a particular message in your book that you want readers to benefit from?
I wrote A Composer’s Guide to Game Music with both established and aspiring game composers in mind, and I wanted them to feel encouraged and enthusiastic about their own careers after reading it. I hope the book will offer them information they can use, and that it will stimulate their imaginations and open up new creative possibilities for their own compositions. Also, it would be great if game music fans also found enjoyment in the book, and maybe it can give them a new perspective on video game soundtracks.
What lies in the future for you now?
I’ll continue composing music for games. Looking forward to it!
Check out the book trailer below:
Also keep up to date with all of Winifred’s work and activity at her blog and social links:
We hope you enjoyed this interview!
The Sound Architect
Interview by Sam Hughes