Taking on the challenge of composing for any aspect of the “Star Wars” universe is a daunting feat. Fortunately, composer Gordy Haab has done an outstanding job in composing for the video games expanding the “Star Wars” adventures in both STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT I and STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT II. Wanting to know a bit more about how this wonderful opportunity came to fruition, in an exclusive interview composer Gordy Haab shares a bit about his approach to bringing the iconic sound of “Star Wars” to these games and building upon that music to create its own unique sound enhance the video games.
What do you recall being the spark that pushed you into the incredible field of composing for the visual arts, whether it be for film, television, or video games?
GORDY: It was when I saw “E.T.” in the theater when I was six years old. My family found it interesting that I was unable to recall the names of characters in the film, but I was able to instantly all of the character’s musical themes— singing them or picking them out on my dad’s old guitar. I think this is a testament to the great score for that film. It was from this point that I began a journey into music and film. And it has been my lifelong passion.
What led to you getting your first opportunity to compose for the visual arts?
GORDY: I chose to follow this dream by moving to Los Angeles in 2001. The first year I lived here, while out on a daily jog, I passed by a yard sale with tons of “Star Trek” memorabilia. I promised myself that I’d stop by and check it out on my way back. So I did – and while there, I met the owner of all of these fun things. He happened to run a group where filmmakers would get together once a week at an IHop in Hollywood to troubleshoot their productions. He invited me along, and at that time, I was the only composer in the group. So I took a boombox to IHop and played my little demo for everyone in the room. And then I started working. One thing lead to the next, and here we are!
Looking back at your very first visual arts composing opportunity, what stood out for you from that experience?
GORDY: The pace at which I had to write! Not much can prepare a composer for how much material you need to generate in a short amount of time. I learned a lot about organization and being creative under pressure from those early experiences.
When you compose for a film, TV shows, or video games, what instruments do you like to use or rely upon to create specific sounds?
GORDY: It would be hard to pick any one. I tend to favor composing orchestral scores, so I’d say, “the orchestra”. A bit of a vague answer, but I really believe the orchestra is its own instrument. It’s greater than the sum of all its parts, and when it’s mastered it has the ability to create emotion like no other sound I’ve ever heard.
Were there any specific challenges that you encountered when you first began professionally composing for video games?
GORDY: Definitely. There are many technical aspects to scoring games that differ from film or television. The challenge is to manage these technical challenges while remaining “musical.” Unlike film, where the timeline is finite – with games, the timeline is constantly changing. So I need to factor in all the possibilities that could present themselves. For example, even single pieces of music may need multiple variations and be able to repeat itself seamlessly. Pre-determined transitions need to be able to trigger at any moment and smoothly jump into alternate versions of the music. Say you’re three minutes into a battle and suddenly you start losing. I’ll have also written an alternate “losing” version of the music. As well as a “winning” version…and a “neutral” version. It’s a bit like creating a musical version of one of those “choose your own adventure” books.
What drew you to working on STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT II?
GORDY: Well I also worked on STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT I, as well as a few other “Star Wars” games throughout the years, including “Star Wars The Old Republic.” So I’d say what drew me to it is my absolute love of “Star Wars” and its great musical scores. I’ve been a huge fan since I was a small child.
So far, what is your favorite part about composing for STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT II?
GORDY: Composing music for the narrative story in the single player campaign was quite fun, and challenging. Particularly composing Iden Versio’s theme. It was a challenge because of how important her character was to the game. We all wanted something that was dark, powerful, and dynamic. But also something that would become instantly recognizable and memorable. This is something John Williams excels at doing. But it’s not as easy as he makes it seem. For it to work, the theme needs to be interesting but simple. And it also needs to be heard numerous times by the listener. We all know the Imperial March theme. But I believe we know it because it’s a simple melody that plays numerous times throughout “The Empire Strikes Back.” I took the same approach and wrote many variations of “Iden’s Theme” that are scattered throughout the game. And in order for this to work, I had to make sure the melody itself was very versatile – so it could be played in many different styles, fit many different emotions, and do so in a way that felt natural, musically.
Do you have any type of favorite scenes that you can share that are cool or were fun to compose for in STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT II?
GORDY: Yes, my favorite musical scene is at the end of Iden’s last mission when she runs to the escape pod. Much like the scene itself, this was a culmination of so much emotion that had built up throughout the score so far.
What instruments did you use to evoke feelings in the scenes involving “Iden’s Theme” for the character of Iden Versio (portrayed by Janina Gavankar)?
GORDY: Honestly, I’d say every single instrument in the orchestra had a chance to play her theme at one point or another. But it was primarily conceived to be an epic melody played by the French Horn section. I also featured quite a bit of percussion in her music because I just so happen to know that Janina, who plays Iden, is also an accomplished percussionist!
Then what instruments did you use to evoke a different feeling, like in “Combat Suite” at the end of Iden’s mission to rescue her father, Garrick Versio?
GORDY: Brass, and lots of it! As well as percussion instruments. Of course the entire orchestra is involved in these final moments, but it heavily features the brass section, which adds excitement and power. I also used what is quite arguably the loudest percussion instrument on earth – the London Symphony’s “Mahler Hammer!”
What was your reaction when you found out that you would be composing for “Kinect: Star Wars,” “Star Wars: The Old Republic,” and now STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT II?
GORDY: Each time I’m asked to work on “Star Wars,” I feel pure excitement. Because as I mentioned, I’m a huge fan as well. But I won’t lie – I also feel an overwhelming sense of fear and responsibility.
You also recorded the score for “Kinect: Star Wars” with a 100-person orchestra and 20-person choir at Abbey Road Studios in London (the same studio where John Williams recorded the music for “Star Wars”). Why was it important for you to use the same setting and same type of musical composition when creating the sound for “Kinect: Star Wars”?
GORDY: I figure if the goal is to compose a score that can live alongside the great scores John Williams wrote for all the “Star Wars” films, then my chances are greatly improved if I have the exact resources he had. Basically, I wanted the only difference in the entire process of composing “Star Wars” music to be me; I’m the only factor I have 100% control over.
To date, what has been one thing you have taken away from your experience working on STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT II?
GORDY: To enjoy the process. Not too many people are given the opportunity to contribute to their lifelong favorite franchise. So I’ve learned to really savor the opportunity, and to enjoy every single day of it, from start to finish.
What would you like readers to know about that particular project that may not be obvious just watching STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT II?
GORDY: The audio and music leads at DICE, Motive, Criterion, and EA — the four companies behind this game — put their complete trust in me. When dealing with a project like this, it’s common to expect very little creative leeway. These guys, however, allowed me to write what I thought would work within the framework they gave me. We’d bounce ideas off of each other, and collaborate on the overall vision, but I felt like I had a lot of creative freedom. They also made sure to provide every tool to bring my vision to life, even when it seemed crazy. For example, I wanted a percussion section to play a set of Taiko drums the size of a house and I wanted to hear how it would sound for three contrabass clarinets to play together; they made it happen! I’m very grateful for those folks: Ben Minto, Olivier Asselin, Nathaniel Daw, and Steve Schnur.
How does it feel to complete a project that viewers really respond to?
GORDY: People already have expectations and emotional attachments to the scores within the “Star Wars” universe and there’s pressure from the industry, fans, and myself to compose something that both honors those expectations and carries my own touch on the franchise. From that standpoint, seeing fans enjoy something I got to be part of is extremely rewarding and encourages me to keep doing what I love.
How does it feel to have composed for two of the biggest film and television franchises in history: THE WALKING DEAD and “Star Wars”?
GORDY: The fact that I got to be part of them is both amazing and humbling. Like I mentioned earlier, these franchises have fans who are deeply invested in them. I feel a responsibility to create something that would resonate with those fans. The fact that people have responded so positively to the projects and what I’ve composed is rewarding.
At this stage of your career, what do you think you have learned from the amazing variety of projects you have worked on?
GORDY: Whether it’s game, film, or TV, I’ve learned to approach each project to its own technical composition challenges. I’ve also learned that even after working on so many compositions there’s still no rush like seeing them come to life. I can spend many hours on my own on a project just coming up with ideas, sketching, editing, and revising. But hearing some of the greatest musicians in the world actually perform those ideas makes all the effort and work really worthwhile.
Are there any cool perks of where you are in your career right now?
GORDY: Other than getting to work on the coolest IPs in gaming? Yes, for sure. But I’d say that the projects I get asked to work on are a definite perk. And getting to write music for a living.
Do any of your projects ever leave a lasting impression on you? Like what?
GORDY: Definitely. The game projects I work on can last a year or more, and AAA games have a lot of moving parts and pieces — including large orchestra recording sessions. Those are some of the great memories of my career — some of the sessions at great studios with incredible players. While working on “Star Wars: Battlefront,” I made nine trips to London to Abbey Road Studios.
Has there been any great advice you have gotten in working as a composer?
GORDY: I had a mentor while I was studying at USC, who said to a room of composers hoping to break into the industry, “You’re all very good, but 90% of you will fail. The 10% who will succeed will be the ones who didn’t leave (referring to “Hollywood”). And the 90% who fail will be the ones who convinced themselves it was too difficult, or created excuses as to why it wasn’t in the cards for them.” It was perhaps an eye-opening, somewhat blunt statement. But I took its meaning a bit more broadly, as, “Do or do not. There is no try!”
What advice would you offer to other upcoming and aspiring visual arts composers?
GORDY: The best piece of advice I can give is: to be true to yourself and to your process. Composing pencil to paper is a big part of my composition process, even though I have been told many times that it’s “wrong” in today’s industry. But it works for me, and has a way of quieting my soul and allowing me to just write. There is no wrong way to create music, so find what works for you and never stop learning and growing. Always be humble, and always be a student of music.
What do you consider to be one of your proudest accomplishments as a composer?
GORDY: Wow — it’s hard to pick just one thing. I’d have to say working on a franchise as beloved as “Star Wars” ranks very high up there. A more specific personal accomplishment was the first time I recorded my “Star Wars” music with the London Symphony Orchestra. I was pretty nervous. I started them off with a really complicated action sequence which they played to perfection on the very first time. Immediately following the last note, the whole orchestra stood up and applauded. I looked at the engineer and he said, “they don’t usually do that.” I had just received a standing ovation from the very orchestra who recorded the original “Star Wars” scores — the ones which had inspired me to pursue composing in the first place. It was an overwhelmingly emotional moment that I’ll never forget.
Do you have any other upcoming projects that you can share that fans should keep an eye out?
GORDY: The industry is very secretive, so I’ll say that there are some cool game (and film!) projects on the horizon.
If you have not already, be sure too check out STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT II to hear Gordy’s incredible work in composing the action and battle sequences. To also learn more about Gordy’s career and future endeavors, you can follow him on Twitter @GordyHaab and cheek out his website: https://www.gordyhaab.com/ for updates.
You can also hear a bit of Gordy’s work in this HALO WARS 2 music video: