Space, Guns, and Music Pt. 1: Massive Attack’s Neil Davidge on Scoring ‘Halo 4′

Halo sounds a certain way to longtime fans of the series. If you ask anyone who’s played through the campaigns of the main titles in the series, composer Marty O’Donnell’s score has been integral to the Master Chief and Cortana’s galaxy-spanning adventures (to the degree that even O’Donnell’s own jazzier compositions for ODST were met with doubt and confusion by fans).

But with 343 Industries taking over the franchise from Bungie, the Kirkland, WA-based developer had to think about what was next sonically for the series, vetting several candidates to give the first game in a new trilogy its own sound. And as Neil Davidge, the man who would eventually get the gig tells it, they didn’t want to do the usual film composer doing games things.

Davidge is the longtime producer and writer with the British electronic outfit, Massive Attack, and he knows something about wedding music to action, having worked on the very distinctive soundtrack for 2004’s Danny the Dog along with documentaries Battle In Seattle and Trouble the Water. Davidge’s soundtrack will be available a on October 22nd in the U.S., a couple of weeks before Halo 4 hits shelves.

So what was it like taking over the reins for Marty and finding a new sound of the Chief and Cortana? In this interview, Davidge, an avid gamer and fan of the Halo series, talks about approaching the material, the challenge of writing music around gunfire, and what he thinks is the heart of the game.

Tomorrow, in our next installment, we’ll be talking with DJ Skee about his remix for the Special Edition release of the game’s soundtrack.

MTV Multiplayer: So how were you approached about scoring Halo 4?

Neil Davidge: There was kind of a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that I was unaware of. I only actually became aware of the project—well the actual project—I think two weeks prior to visiting 343 Industries in Seattle. Up until then, all I was aware of was that Microsoft was interested in me scoring a video game.

So I had no idea that it was Halo, and actually no one else had any idea that I would be a fan of Halo from the start.

It took some time—maybe three months—where all I knew was that there was talk about me doing a game store and that it was just an idea, and I wasn’t taking it too seriously. Just “Yeah, give me a call if anything happens,” and I left it at that.

But there were conversations going on behind the scenes between 343 and a music supervisor I used to do a lot of stuff for named Kyle Hopkins. And they had quite a list of industry heavyweights they were talking to to potentially score Halo. They were looking for something outside of the box, really, because they were very aware of how important the music had been to previous Halo games.

They were looking for something iconic, something unique, so consequently, they wanted to kind of check out other options from the typical film score options, which I why they came to me. And I think Kyle has been a fan of my work with Massive Attack for many years, and he had the chance to meet me with my management company in L.A., at which point they mentioned that I’d been moving over to film scores and my interest in sort of branching out from producing albums.

At that point, he put my name forward for the project. It was really cool.

Multiplayer: You mentioned being a fan of the series—how did you approach moving away from Marty O’Donnell’s score that we associate with the game so closely?

Davidge: It was pretty daunting, I have to be honest. My first question, actually, was “Hang on, haven’t they got the composer all sewn up?” Marty’s been scoring the game from the beginning, and his style is synonymous with the franchise. At that point, I find it hard to separate Halo from Marty’s music.

It took a lot of experimenting in the studio and several trial runs to try and compose something that—not would compete with what Marty had done and not necessarily pastiche what he’d done—that would evolve from where he left off and take it to a new place, a new world, and introduce him to a new generation of game lovers and music lovers.

So, yeah, for the most part, I reached the point where I had to just sit in the studio and draw on all of my experiences actually playing the game and try[ing] to imagine the form of music that, for me, captured the essence of Halo, and the characters Master Chief and Cortana who are central to the Halo games.

[Laughs] There was a fair amount of trial and error at first—it was a pretty rocky road.

To begin with, we had a few early successes. There was a piece that I composed before I went to meet 343 for the first time. I actually composed it the week before, just sat in my studio for a day and threw out lots of ideas and came up with this one particular piece. When I went to Seattle and they asked me if I had any ideas, I played the mix, and they instantly sort of loved it.

I think in many ways that secured the gig for me.

Multiplayer: You had your own vision for the game’s sound, and evolving it beyond what Marty had done in the past. What did 343 want or how did they articulate what they were looking to do for Halo 4?

Davidge: Well, obviously, storytelling was important to them: the dramatic quality and the cinematic quality of what Marty had done before. And Halo itself is a huge story, it’s up there with Star Wars in terms of its awesomeness. So they wanted the music to kind of tell the story. But more importantly, they wanted not so much an orchestral, sort of piano-led score, they wanted an electronic aspect, a kind of modern electronic aspect.

So they were looking for a composer who could pull that together, who had experiences in both genres and had been at the cutting edge of electronic music, hence coming to me [and] liking the idea of what I could bring to the table.

[Sotaro] Tojima, the audio director, he wanted a seamless meld of organic and digital, so that was a key thing for him.

Yeah, so it was those three things: blending the digital, the organic, and the orchestral, and the emotional with the storytelling aspect.

Multiplayer: And that blending of the organic and the electronic speaks to the relationship between Chief and Cortana, or even to Chief himself who is in part a blend of man and machine. To what degree were you thinking about that when composing for Chief and composing your music for Cortana?

Davidge: I was thinking about it a lot. Their relationship, to me, has always been key to the game, always been from the beginning. I wrote, actually, a theme specifically for their relationship which is a very graphic mixture of orchestral and digital to call on this friendship that’s sort of been building and blossoming since the very first game—making it a real thing tangibly and musically. So yeah, it was very important.

That piece, I think I wrote very early on—I wrote that before I officially worked on the prototype for the music for the game, one of the first themes that I composed. So right from the beginning, that relationship was central to my writing.

Multiplayer: So it sounds like you figured out the relationship fairly early on, but how long did it take you to get a feel for the action of the game? Figuring out how to be complementary to it while keeping gamers’ attention?

Davidge: [Laughs] Yeah, that wasn’t very easy.

There’s only so much you can take of someone running around and shooting aliens. If you’re the guy at the controller, you can play for hours and hours. If you sat there trying to compose while watching the game, watching video game captures of someone else playing the game, with this sort of rapid fire constantly getting in the way of your percussion patterns, it gets quite tiring.

So, composing for the battle scenes was, I would say, the single greatest challenge for me in the project. Because I couldn’t actually do it by watching the gameplay at the end of the day. The only way I could actually do it was I’d watch through a sequence of gameplay, then I’d turn it off and I’d just try to imagine myself in that particular environment, then I would write from that point. If I sat and tried to compose to the actual gameplay, it’d be so frenetic musically at the end of the day. It just didn’t work, and I’d completely lose all perspective of the plot as well.

The music in the game has a very important role in terms of storytelling and it’s very easy to lose the plot as you’re sort of shooting around and not be emotionally engaged in your purpose, the purpose in that mission. Which is why music can play a very important role in terms of keeping you in touch with your purpose, your reason for being there—why you’re racing towards this strange structure. It’s a central aspect to the storytelling.

Multiplayer: And at the same time, I guess you kind of had to find your own emotional connection to the material, and to the visceral stuff happening onscreen. I’m not sure I have a question here, but it just seemed like an extra layer of challenge on top of everything else—getting slices of gameplay, or snippets of cutscenes and being able to somehow pour yourself into it.

Davidge: Yeah, I immersed myself in the world. As I said, I’ve been a Halo fan right from the very beginning. I’ve played all of the games and I’ve played them several times, I’ve bought all of the books, I watched everything I could possibly watch on Halo, all of the interviews with the various creative people on the team, the documentaries Bungie made.

I devoured everything I could find on Halo, almost like a method actor to put myself into the shoes of the Master Chief so I could actually inhabit these green suits of armor so I could imagine myself in that particular environment, in that particular situation with aliens boarding my ship, chasing whatever objective I was chasing at that point. But it would be a very personal journey rather than sort of third-hand.

So that was the only way that I could write. Otherwise, I don’t see how anyone playing the game, experiencing the music, whether they notice the music or not—whether it’s completely subliminal—it’s got to mean something, therefore it has to mean something to me, therefore it has to be very personal. So yeah, I poured myself into this project, as I do every project that I work on.

This one is so rich in storyline, and I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed getting all of the books—I’m a big fan of sci-fi, anyway.

Multiplayer: When you were announced as the composer for the project, I kept going back to your Danny the Dog soundtrack—it’s something that’s been in rotation on my iPod consistently over the last few years. And one of the things you captured with that score was this sort of ferocity among some of the characters, and the driving, propulsive violence in some of the scenes.

With Halo 4 was there something similar that you really wanted to capture and make central to your compositions?

Davidge: Yeah, I wanted to find a unique sound for the universe [of] the game—textural and percussive that would give the score that I’m doing for this game a distinctive sound. But more than that, it was to bring heart to it. That was the most important thing: I wanted to leave something to people when they play this game, I wanted them to be emotionally engaged with the characters, the action, and the energy of the game very much in the way they would be listening to the soundtrack of a film.

So that was the key thing: to get the emotional balance right, not to be overly cliché, but to tug on the heartstrings just enough so that people would be drawn into it, and not just as a straight shoot-em-up.

Multiplayer: Have you thought about any other series you’d like to tackle now that your work on Halo 4 is done?

Davidge: That’s a really difficult one to say because I’ve thrown myself completely into this game and right now it’s very hard for me to imagine myself working on any other game project. Halo is pretty much the pinnacle of all video games. It’s the one with the richest and deepest experience, so it’s hard to imagine getting involved in any other video game. I’ve not given it any thought.

I’m hoping to be involved in the rest of this trilogy, that’s going to be very good for me.

Halo 4 will be available on November 6th. Mr. Davidge’s soundtrack will be available on October 22nd.

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