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Interview: Yamaoka, Shigihara, And Jackson Play For Japan

Interview: Yamaoka, Shigihara, And Jackson Play For Japan

July 5, 2011 | By Jeriaska

July 5, 2011 | By Jeriaska
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More: Console/PC, Art, Audio, Design

[In this interview, Gamasutra contributor Jeriaska talks with talented composers Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill), Laura Shigihara (Plants vs Zombies), and Woody Jackson (L.A. Noire) about their work and contributions to charity album Play for Japan.]

Following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunamis in March, game composer Akira Yamaoka organized a charity album whose proceeds will go to the Red Cross in Japan upon its release in the near future. The watercolor design of the dust jacket (pictured), has been contributed by Final Fantasy series illustrator Yoshitaka Amano.

Yamaoka, the composer of the Silent Hill score and designer at Grasshopper Manufacture, invited a diverse array of musicians working in the game industry to participate in the creation of the album, titled Play For Japan. In this interview we hear from Yamaoka (whose composition "Ex Animo" is represented on the compilation) and two additional contributors:

* Laura Shigihara is currently at work on her independently developed game Melolune, while writing the soundtrack and recording her own vocals. Her music became widely known upon the release of PopCap's popular tower defense game Plants vs Zombies. Prior to recording "Jump" for Play For Japan, she held a soundtrack album sale and contributed the proceeds to the MercyCorps charity organization.

* Woody Jackson recorded his entry "Moshi Moshi" at his studio Electro-Vox, established in Los Angeles in 1931. The co-composer of Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption, also responsible for the incidental music in L.A. Noire, performed in Tokyo prior to the earthquake, where he first met Yamaoka. We had the chance to hear from the three musicians about their music and involvement in Play For Japan.

Akira Yamaoka at Grasshopper Manufacture headquarters in Shinjuku

Being based in Tokyo, how would you describe your response to the reports of the Tohoku earthquake's effects that you observed in newspaper and television coverage?

Akira Yamaoka: As a Japanese citizen, it had a tremendous impact on me. It awoke feelings of concern and anxiety, emotions that I think will persists here following the tragedy.

I have observed many people reevaluating their priorities as a direct result of this experience. In all regions of Japan, people became motivated following the earthquake to contribute however they could toward the recovery. There have been considerable stresses experienced throughout the country in the wake of this disaster, but now I believe a positive attitude about the future is emerging throughout Japan.

Grasshopper Manufacture's sound team has uploaded the Otomodachi songs, dedicated to those encountering hardships due to the earthquake and tsunamis. How did this activity, your charity iPhone application and auctions, lead to organizing this album?

AY: Directly following the earthquake, I was touched by the outpouring of well wishes I received from people from all over the world. It was this widespread concern for our situation that encouraged me to strengthen my will and respond.

Over the years, as a game creator, I have maintained contact with composers based in various geographical regions, all working in the game industry. With this aspect of my profession in mind, moved by all of the heartfelt messages that I had received through email, I felt inspired to act on those feelings. This was what led to "PFJ." Bringing game composers from around the world together to lend their artistic strengths to this album was my way of expressing hope for the future.

Looking ahead to the debut of the album, which is due soon, what were you interested in communicating through your original composition, "Ex Animo"?

AY: Of course with such negative consequences of the disaster in mind, my initial idea was to write a piece of music that was hopeful. On further consideration, what I felt was equally important was expressing my own musical style. There are a wide variety of musical approaches contained in the PFJ album. As with the music for the games these artists have contributed to in the past, there is a strong sense of personality underlying each track. In one album there are numerous expressions of individuality. That is what has inspired me, in my own contribution to the album, to express my own uniqueness.

Laura Shigihara, creator of Melolune, at the Game Developers Conference

Following the Tohoku earthquake, you had uploaded to YouTube a cover of "Ue o Muite Aruko," a song written in the early '60s. How would you describe your personal experience with the song?

Laura Shigihara: My dad first introduced me to the English version, "Sukiyaki," when I was young. It seemed like a weird name for this song and he told me the reason was that it was the first Japanese song to become very popular overseas. Since just about the only thing from Japan that Americans were very familiar with at the time was sushi and sukiyaki, that's what they named the song.

He explained the meaning of the lyrics: that when things aren't going well, you want to keep your head up to the sky so that your tears won't fall. I've always thought this was a very Japanese mentality. My relatives, when they are going through dark times, they won't tell you. They act like everything's okay and persevere. To me singing that song was also a way to say, "Be strong when times are tough."

The song seems to represent a historical moment in the reception of Japanese popular culture in America. Would you say your style as a singer-songwriter has been informed by both Japanese and American musical traditions?

LS: When I'm improvising, I definitely hear influences both from Western and Eastern culture. It's only been kind of recently that I started thinking about what makes a song sound Japanese, besides something obvious like the use of Asian instruments. There are really subtle things with the chord progressions that I notice in my music that may have been influenced by Joe Hisaishi or even enka singers.

pvz_soundtrackGrowing up, I listened to a wide range of music. People are always surprised when I say I listen to hip-hop, because I'm a five-foot-one half-Japanese girl. They're like, "You like Tupac?" And, yeah, I do. I like any music that makes you dance, or if there's a compelling story behind it.

What was it about the particular approach of classic game composers that made you interested in joining the profession yourself?

LS: One of the things I noticed about old Nintendo and Super Nintendo music is that it's often a fusion of styles. The composers were faced with a lot of limitations, so they really had to be creative with their composition.

On the flip side, I think they also had a lot of freedom to create music outside of a genre box. The Castlevania soundtrack, for instance, is gothic classical music with synthesized metal instrumentation and even some syncopated drums going on. It's a very interesting fusion of different genres.

In March you held a soundtrack sale for your Plants vs Zombies album, donating the proceeds to relief efforts by MercyCorps. What led to your choice of donating to this group?

LS: Choosing a charity can be difficult. The reason I was drawn to this organization was because I had been following their blog for quite some time. On their website they talk about supplies they've given to a middle school, how many stoves and blankets they've donated, the specialists brought in to help with post-traumatic stress... On top of that, they are working with a Japanese organization called Peace Winds that is very well established over there. There's something more fulfilling about donating to a group that tells you exactly what they're doing.

Your song "Jump" is appearing on the Play For Japan album. At once there is a happy quality to the piece, while also a recognition of the hardships that families in Japan have faced in recent months. How would you describe the story that informed the writing of the song?

LS: "Jump" is about how you never really know what the future holds. You don't know whether you will fall or fly, you have to go forward whether the outcome will be good or bad. That theme in mind, the song grew from there.

I wrote at the piano and for some reason the arpeggiation that appears at the beginning made me think of a child's storybook. Writing the lyrics, I imagined a boy who was in a hospital. His mom visits him every day and reads to him from this storybook in order to help him escape into a fantasy world.

A line of the lyrics says, "If you tell me everything will be all right, I'll believe you. You don't have to tell me how." A lot of times parents will tell their children that everything will be okay, even if they can't say how, and that in itself can be comforting. Sometimes you just want to hear that things will be all right.

Woody Jackson and Masa Tsuzuki at Electro-Vox in Los Angeles

What inspired "Moshi Moshi" your contribution to the Play For Japan album?

Woody Jackson: Masa, who edited and engineering all my music for L.A. Noire, came up with the name "Moshi Moshi," which means "hello." Whenever I reach him on his answering machine, he's saying, "Moshi Moshi." I thought the normalcy of that was cool.

At the time, I had just had finished watching the Kurosawa movie "High and Low." It's a Japanese noir and centers on a kidnapping. I've been really into the music by the composer of the film, Masaru Sato, who is kind of like the Morricone of the samurai genre. All through the beginning of the film the father [played by Toshiro Mifune] is calling the kidnapper and trying to keep him on the line, saying, "Moshi moshi! Moshi moshi!" That was the first time I'd heard it and understood the meaning.

On this recording I performed all the instruments, except my friend Todd Simon played flugelhorn. He also played on L.A. Noire.

For L.A. Noire, you provided music for interactive segments of the game. Having scored both music for gameplay and cutscenes during the development of Red Dead Redemption, what is your sense of how the challenges differ?

WJ: In-game music is the challenge. You have to write something anonymous in terms of context, even while wanting it to be memorable. When I joined L.A. Noire, all of the cutscenes had been written already. I re-orchestrated a section of one of the existing themes and then wrote a significant amount of the in-game music.

rdr_soundtrackA brilliant thing that Andrew Hale got to do was to use a live orchestra. But some orchestral music has many ups and downs and is always changing. For in-game music, that doesn't always flow well. You'll hear it loop. I talked with Ivan [Pavlovich] at Rockstar about which portions might work as in-game music if it were expanded upon. A few sections worked, but being so inspired by film noir I departed from Hale's music altogether and wrote over an hour of new original music for the game in about a month.

Were you watching noir detective dramas for insight into potential musical references?

WJ: Oh yeah. That was really fun. It was exciting to look for references both for Red Dead and for L.A. Noire. Both games belong to amazing genres and there were a lot of relevant movies to watch. I'd see a movie once for fun and watch it again for study. It's really nice that we live in a time when digital movie files let you rewind so easily whenever you need to.

Like many Japanese game composers, including Yamaoka, you've been fully immersed in the spaghetti western scores of Ennio Morricone for years. Was getting into the genre of noir something where you'd previously had a degree of exposure?

WJ: Yes, I am a huge admirer of Bernard Herman's work. I don't know of any composer who isn't. And even though it's technically not a noir, Herman's Taxi Driver score epitomizes many aspects of the genre. A lot of music techniques used in noir, particularly twelve-tone, were a lot of fun for me to revisit and explore.

However, sometimes it's hard to apply the film music approach to a game score. In noir there's so much suspense, and that can go only so far. It doesn't apply to driving or searching for clues during investigations. On some of the chase scenes in L.A. Noire I used bass clarinet, ala Eric Dolphy, even though that's from the '60s

You had mentioned that while on tour performing in Tokyo, several of the people that came to see your show were Ryuichi Sakamoto, Yoko Ono and Akira Yamaoka?

WJ: Yes, the sound was really amazing and so were the people. As an American, you think of playing in Japan as a pinnacle of musical experience. They just have so much respect for music.

Images courtesy of Play For Japan - A Game Industry Relief Effort. Translation by Yoko Wyatt. Photos by Jeriaska. For more information on the artists, see the official websites of Grasshopper Manufacture, Laura Shigihara, and Electro-Vox Recording Studios.

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