The Sound Architect speaks to excellent Fallout composer, Mark Morgan. Mark is a composer of film, television and video games who lives and works in the Los Angeles area. Influenced by some of the more fringe elements of music making, Mark has developed a style embracing an electronic, industrial, ethnic, and acoustic palette that is not only sonically cool but emotionally deep as well.
Born and raised in Southern California, Mark was surrounded by a diverse artistic environment. His father was an Architect well versed in modern design and his mother a classically trained pianist. In this creative environment Mark started piano studies and began listening to different genres of music from Stravinsky to the Beatles to Miles Davis. Upon completion of high school Mark moved to Boston and enrolled in the prestigious Berklee School Of Music to further his piano studies and add composition as well. During his studies Mark was introduced to the theory of sound manipulation by way of electronic music, this completely changed his life.
With this new found sonic freedom Mark embarked on a more experimental and minimal approach in both his performance and composition.
Read our interview below:
Firstly I’d like to say thank you very much for speaking with The Sound Architect Mark, we’re very glad to have you on the site!
Thanks for having me!
So how did your journey into composition begin?
My journey as a composer was not my initial goal. It was an evolution for me as a musician. I studied piano as a kid and as I got older decided it would be cool to pursue music as a career. I started playing clubs around town, then landed studio work and was fortunate enough to work on some large tours, but always as a player. While working on the last Starship record I started writing and producing some of the tunes and decided it was time to head down that path. I also was becoming more and more interested in scoring music for film. After Starship had run its course I left the Bay area and moved back to LA and started working as a synth programmer for established film and tv composers. Aside from programming I was beginning to do some of the writing, and in some cases scoring entire shows. It became clear to me that composing music was for sure that next step in my journey as an artist.
Have you always wanted to work in games?
To be honest I sort of fell into it. I was working on a SyFy show called Prey when I was approached by an agent friend of mine asking if I would be interested in possibly working on a video game. I wasn’t aware of the process or technique or even how to start but I gave it a shot. At first it took me a minute to get my head around it because I had never seen a video game let alone played one so it was quite the learning curve. The first game I did was Dark Seed based on the art of H.R. Giger. I found the visuals so cool and inspiring that it just pulled me right in, so from then on I was hooked.
What has been your proudest project so far?
I don’t really have a particular or proudest project. I tend to like bits and pieces from certain ones. If I had to say as a game project as a whole it would probably have to be Fallout. There are a few pieces in that game I like and at the time spoke to where I was headed musically. I was also very moved to find that it resonated with people on an emotional level, that to me is whats it’s about.
What has been you most challenging project so far?
I think Wasteland 2. Because of its similar DNA to Fallout I had to come up with something that had the dystopian vibe of those earlier games but maybe tell the story in a slightly different way. In Fallout the music seemed to be very location specific which is cool, but with Wasteland 2 I, along with the producers, wanted to make it more focused and to the point. I wanted it to have a similar sounding texture running throughout the game but still depending on the location have some subtle theme moments.
Do you have a dream project that you’d love to work on?
My dream game project would have to be Silent Hill. I would give anything to score that and have the opportunity to put my stamp on it…
Is there a piece/composition that you particularly hold close?
It’s a tough one because there are so many variables to consider when answering that. Sometimes in television there is a piece of music that really works well to picture, so it’s a combination of not just the specific piece of music but how music fits in the puzzle.
There were a couple of pieces Dreamtown and Many Contrast in Fallout that worked for me on different levels because in part of what the music portrayed.
In Dreamtown I was experimenting to find this emotional connection through minimal ambient music. In its simplicity it seemed to have a hopeful, calming respite but still fit with the dark feel of the rest of the music. With Many Contrast, it has a dark dirge feel but inside still has emotional moments that I would like to pursue in the future with specific soloists.
Can you tell us more about your current projects?
I’m just about done with Wasteland 2. I’m actually in the mastering stage now for the soundtrack. I will be starting Torment: Tides of Numenera in the next couple of months, although we have recently been working on some of the major themes. If all works out as planned we will be doing some of the Torment score with an orchestra which will open up some new sonic avenues for me which I’m very excited about. I really enjoy working with people that really have a passion for what they do, Brian Fargo and the team at InXile have that commitment in everything they do.
Another project that I’m proud to be a part of is from an indie game company in South Africa run by brothers Chris and Nic Bischoff. The game is Stasis which is a 2D isometric adventure game that takes place in a seemingly derelict spacecraft. When I first saw the artwork and some of the gameplay on their kickstarter I was completely blown away so I called them up to ask if they had someone to score it. They hadn’t picked anyone yet so we emailed back and forth and I was able to talk them into letting me do it.
What is it like returning to video games after working in TV for a while?
It’s cool! I like the idea of working in both genres. In video games it can be sometimes more challenging. For the most part, unlike film or TV, you don’t have picture to fall back on or guide you. On the flip side for me, artwork in games is so amazing and inspirational; it’s usually all I need and plays a huge role in telling the story.
What was your approach with each of these current projects, are there any major differences?
In “Wasteland 2” because of its close ties to “Fallout” the score is definitely rooted in “Dark Ambient”. The producers wanted it even more minimal than “Fallout”. Other than the slide guitar used to portray the Arizona Rangers there isn’t any common instrumentation to grab onto, so to convey the feel it was all about the underlying textures. It was a little daunting to say the least.
With “Torment: Tides Of Numenera” as with “Stasis” they both will be more theme-based.
“Torment: Tides of Numenera” is a story-driven CRPG set in the world of Monte Cook’s Numenera. I believe it will have a different mixture of instrumentation depending on locations in the game. Like I said earlier, if all goes as planned a live orchestra will be used for the main themes and also for the larger more important moments in the game. Because of the emotional storylines I was able to use the piano not for drama but in a modern way as a prominent voice, this one’s wide open.
With “Stasis”, Chris has a brilliant idea because the story of “Stasis” is to start with a nursery rhyme inspired theme. By using that theme we can tweak it, twist it and expand the score from there. Most of the music will be used like in film to underscore certain moments. Having said that because of the subject matter and Chris’ love for the horror genre I think that the score could turn dark pretty quick.
Has your approach changed at all since working on Fallout?
It obviously depends on the type of music but there could be some comparisons to “Fallout”. I do approach, even music that is theme-based, from a minimal, textural point of view. I think a lot of this, directly or maybe indirectly, comes from my love of modern architecture and the idea that not everything as with music has to look or sound familiar. I spent a lot of time when I was younger listening and studying Miles Davis, and he always had this insane ability to say what he needed with very few notes. For me most of his later albums used that approach, but one record stood out, “Bitches Brew”. It opened a whole different approach to music for me, not only from a compositional point of view but as a listening experience as well. Miles made it always feel I was inside the music instead of on the outside looking in. This has always stuck with me so it’s always been a quest to search and strive for that outcome.
What advice would you give to aspiring composers?
Other than the obvious musical, technical and logistical things such as knowing what notes to play and the tools in which to play them it’s about what kind of composer do you want to be. I know it’s a cliché but even if you want to be one of those play and write any style kind of composers or one more stylized, you really do have to find your own voice. It’s an interesting business in that even if you go the straight ahead route or the outside-the-box route both make for different sorts of opportunities.
If you want to score-to-picture you really have to put in the hours. I know it can be subjective but it’s a serious craft. In my experience it’s been one of the most enjoyable avenues to pursue musically. If possible try getting an intern job where you get a chance to see if you have an affinity for it. There are techniques you learn along the way that help guide you in the writing process because it’s not about plastering music all over the film.
Would you say there are any major Do’s and Don’ts along the way?
Don’t: I know more about Don’t than Do so it goes first.
This took me a while to learn but from experience I guarantee it’s one of the most important things. Don’t piss anyone off. The guy or girl that’s getting the sandwiches or running all the errands will eventually be an Exec. Producer, Game Developer or even run the Network. Trust me! It will happen, it always does.
Take any project you can get. There is always something to learn and it also kind of relates to my Don’t: [above]
If you’re writing in a specific style try to be as authentic as possible. Although not being true to style might work for a certain crowd, at some point you will be asked to write for someone who really knows the style and you can’t fake it.
Do not get discouraged. If you have decided to pursue this as a career you have to have a thick skin. Coming from the pop side of things it took me a while to grasp the concept that people could or should have an opinion about your music. People will say things you can’t believe about the music and you basically have to keep quiet or lose the gig. Having said that, you have to become open to others’ ideas which I hate to admit, but in a lot of cases can work better for the project. Be as open as you can to criticism and try not to take it personal because in most instances it’s not.
Enjoy the process! That’s what it’s really about and if you do it will show in the music.
What lies in the future for you now?
It’s pilot season for television so will be interesting to see what that brings. Looking at a cable show that for me would be the dream show… We’ll see.
As far as the game world, I’m in the middle of mastering the “Wasteland 2” soundtrack which I’m anxious to get out there, and really looking forward to starting “Torment: Tides Of Numenera” and “Stasis”. It should make for a good year!
We hope you enjoyed the interview and found it useful! Listen to some of Mark’s pieces at his official site:
You can also follow Mark on Twitter: twitter.com/Kotowst.
The Sound Architect
Interview by Sam Hughes