A Place of Infinite Possibility: Rich Vreeland talks Disasterpeace, Early Prog Influence, and Composing for Orchestra
[mks_dropcap style=”square” size=”52″ bg_color=”#0099d1″ txt_color=”#000000″]M[/mks_dropcap]usic has a unique ability to elevate other art forms it comes in contact with, especially the music of Rich Vreeland, a Los Angeles-based composer more commonly known to the gaming community as by his musical pseudonym Disasterpeace. From indie games like Fez, The Floor is Jelly, and Hyper Light Drifter to television shows like Adventure Time and movies like It Follows, Rich’s music can be heard all across the entertainment landscape.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Rich in hopes of doing a little bit to separate the man from the music. Rich’s music often blurs the line between itself and the art it’s accompanying. As I look back on the games I’ve played that he’s composed for, it’s difficult to imagine them with any other accompaniment. There’s an organic nature to how his work blends with the game you’re playing. As such, my first big question for him was on his personal philosophy on the role of music in art, particularly in the varied storytelling avenues offered by video games.
“I think it varies obviously from project to project, but I think audio and music definitely have a large role to play in any game,” says Rich. “Of course, there’s the function of bringing sound to things that have a real world analog, and that’s kind of this base level that audio can fulfill. Bringing sound to those things can often seem a foregone conclusion, but I think beyond that audio has this power to enhance things that are already there—things that have already been formalized in the design of the game.
“Music has a lot of power in emphasizing certain things, de-emphasizing other things. There’s a lot that you can do there, but there’s also the potential of inventing new ideas to bring to the game that may not have been there before. There’s a lot of potential in audio and music to kind of create impressions, sometimes even for the lore or narrative, just to bring a new perspective to a game. You can alter the player’s perception through the choices of how you use sound. It’s kind of a huge open-ended kind of thing: how you use audio in games. There’s so many possibilities there.”
The Opening Notes
When I was young, my brother and I would go out for breakfast at least once a week with our father. For whatever reason, there were only four CDs that we ever listened to on the drive: Billy Joel’s River of Dreams, Toto’s Toto IV, U2’s Achtung Baby, and Yes’ 90125. These albums defined the kind of music I listened to the rest of my life, as well as the music I would go on to write myself. This awareness of my own musical sensibilities always has had me interested in learning about the earliest musical memories of other artists I enjoy. Luckily, Rich had several memories to share.
“I think there are a couple of points of reference that I remember,” recalls Rich. “There are certain pop songs that I have memories attached to. One is “Faith” by George Michael. When I was a kid I really liked that song. I would dance around whenever it was on. There was a song by Midnight Oil called “The Dead Heart” that I really liked, because it had these vocal passages with lots of voices. So there was certainly that pop music that I can remember, and then there’s also just the music that was just around me at that time.
“The Vince Guaraldi Peanuts Christmas album is something that brings back lots of memories. That was an album that would be pretty much playing every year around Christmas time. The Beatles were always kind of a mainstay. My stepfather was in a Beatles cover band, so that music was always prevalent. And, also, my folks were religious, so there was always church and the music there. That’s something I have lots of memories of.
“Right now, though, I’ve been all over the map with the things I’ve been listening to. I did a pilot recently for Cartoon Network, and it had a pretty cool collection of reference material that I was listening to—kind of a combination of old synth music, video game music, and some Joe Hisaishi / Studio Ghibli-type stuff. Also, for the last year or so I’ve been finding myself coming back to this band called Deerhoof. It’s really fun and really technically interesting music, but also really loose. It’s just really fun music to listen to.”
I was introduced to Rich’s music the first time I played Fez. I knew of Fez back when it was released in 2012, and one of the things I often heard about it was how great the soundtrack was. For one reason or another I never ended up playing Fez during the height of its popularity, instead acquiring it as part of a Humble Bundle on September 25, 2015.
The music was so immediately engrossing that upon completing the game I knew I had to search for Disasterpeace on iTunes to see what else he had written. What I discovered was a body of work so incredibly broad I wasn’t even sure where to start listening. I decided to start at the beginning, or at least very near the beginning, with what I soon found to be a 70s prog-rock-inspired chiptune wonderland. Albums like Level, Deorbit, Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar, and Neutralite displayed such frenetic and acrobatic musicianship that it caught me off guard the first time I heard it.
“I think Level especially really encapsulates this sort of progressive-rock inspired chip-music stuff that I wrote in the early stages of my career,” Rich recollected. “I kind of stumbled into doing chip music in part because I discovered there was a kind of flexibility and agility to writing that kind of music. I was coming from a guitar background, and I had tried a bunch to record tracks with my guitar and get them to a place where I felt happy about the production quality, but I really struggled because I didn’t really know what I was doing.
“So I kind of stumbled into the chip music stuff where I found I could hone in more on the compositions and spend less time on the production side of things. I mean, Level was very close to the beginning of me working with computers and specifically using software to write parts and stuff. At that time a lot of the music I was writing was either written on guitar or partially written on guitar, and Level is an album that is kind of a mashup of music that I wrote with a guitar and laid out in tab, and then stuff that I penciled in on computer. There’s a kind of immediacy to just loading up some simple synthesizers and dialing in a couple of changes.
“In the beginning, I found myself doing lots of writing like that, in part because even though I had been surrounded by music for a long time I kind of got into it late, so I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do. I had so many ideas early on and it helped to have a way to get them out quickly. Anything new was exciting. During that time I kind of had this epiphany where I realized that within chip music I could write things that I couldn’t necessarily play on guitar, and in transcending that limitation I found a lot of my early music became much more athletic. I was starting to figure out my musical vocabulary, and I was going to town on these ideas where I was writing these epic, long, through-composed pieces and experimenting a lot with rhythm and meter.
“When I go back and listen to those things, I hear a lot of enthusiasm and excitement about trying stuff. I think that’s reflected in that music. It’s all very much inspired by progressive-rock, minimalism, video games, metal, and things like that because those were the things that were really front and center for me at that time. But there’s also a lot of piano music that I’ve wrote early on too that I haven’t really finished or released—it’s more kind of singer/songwriter type stuff.
“Since then, it’s generally been some combination of writing on the computer using some kind of software and more traditional methods. Nowadays, I tend to find myself sketching out things on a real instrument if I’m not working on a particular project. If I’m sketching something on the computer it’s probably for some particular project. But from time to time I still play piano or play the guitar, and if I come up with something cool I’ll record it. If I have vocal idea or some kind of drum thing I’ll record it on my phone. I have a pretty extensive library of just little recordings and voice memos.”
The Place of Infinite Possibility
Every artist has a different way of going about actually getting notes out of their mind and into the world.
“It’s highly contextual, so it varies from project to project, but my workflow is often changing,” Rich admitted. “I enjoy experimenting a lot with that. That said, there tends to be a conceptual period in the beginning where I’m searching for ideas and trying to take in information so I can formulate some of the sounds I might approach for the project.
“Then there’s just a period where I’m really getting into it and starting to try stuff—just kind of sorting things out and figuring out what’s going to work and what’s not going to work so I can create some kind of limitation set, and that set doesn’t necessarily need to be small. It can be pretty open ended, but there’s definitely a process where I’m starting from this place of infinite possibility to something a little more in focus.
“In a game like Fez or something, that might just be determining the sound world—just figuring out what the elements are that create certain sounds. Or if it’s a game like Mini Metro, it’s figuring out what the musical tools are within the game and maybe figuring out some of the overarching concepts I want to explore. For Mini Metro, especially, there was a long period of rampant exploration, just trying lots of different things all the way through pretty much until the end of development. So every project is different.
“Sometimes your parameters are clear early on which opens you up to other avenues of exploration within the confines of what you’re doing. If you know that you’re doing a film or a game or something and you’ve already established what the parameters are, then you may have more real estate creatively and mentally to kind of flesh out certain elements of what you’re writing.”
With Rich’s mention of Mini Metro, it felt like a good time in our interview to take some time and talk about a couple of his more open ended soundtracks: the aforementioned Mini Metro and a smaller personal project of his entitled January.
Mini Metro is a game about connecting subway lines in a minimalist city, and the soundtrack is generated as you construct your various rail lines. Similarly, January features a score created by catching snowflakes on your tongue.
“January is actually kind of how I ended up working on Mini Metro,” Rich recalled. “The developers had seen January and thought I’d be a good fit to bring a procedural soundscape to Mini Metro. With Mini Metro we made it so the music would get built by decisions that the game’s systems make about what to play. Those decisions are determined by what’s going on in the game at that moment, so it uses the game’s data to make decisions about the music. And all that works off these kind of these predetermined databases of information, sets of pitches and chords that the music moves through in different ways.
“I guess the difference between the two though is that January—even though it is also somewhat predetermined—uses these things called Markov chains to make decisions about what notes to play. Depending on what the previous note was, the game will make a decision about what the next note will be from a series of options. These options are determined based on the condition of the music: what key the music is in, what mode, what scale, things like that.
“It’s kind of a more free form system than Mini Metro because there is a little more player agency in progressing the music forward. The player definitely has control over certain aspects of that system. They can choose to change keys and do all kinds of other stuff through January’s controls. Mini Metro is basically building off of and riffing within a preexisting rhythm oriented system. January is much more rubato. I think they’re kind a good pair though because they were both these kinds of games where I was deliberately trying to explore a different way of generating music. Mini Metro was a definitely cool project to work on coming off of something like January.”
From Digital to Physical
In 2015, Rich’s soundtrack for David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows earned him much deserved attention from moviegoers and music appreciators outside of his already established audience in the gaming community. We talked briefly about his work so far on Mitchell’s next film Under the Silver Lake, and how the score will set itself apart from most of Rich’s previous work.
“It’s an orchestral score,” said Rich. “It’s been a very interesting and challenging process, and it’s still ongoing —we’re almost done. It’s different in a lot of ways from the things I’ve worked on before.
“One of the things that was most interesting to me was having to shorten the feedback loop between making a writing decision, hearing it, understanding what I’m doing, and getting feedback on it so I could hone in and make more adjustments. I realized early on that I needed to approximate these sounds on my own, and using notation software wasn’t going to cut it for me. I had to invest some energy into getting good orchestral samples, just so I had a way to experiment with different sounds and get an approximation of what I was working with.
“There were quite a few technical hurdles just to be able to mock something up and hear it back, and learning how to work with all those instruments—learning what their limitations were in the real world but also the literal technical challenges of those instruments—was kind of tricky. I also had to get past the limitations of my own setup. I had to upgrade my computer and do all this kind of stuff, but I knew this was something that would not be smart to blindly rush in to.”
Rich found a helping hand with the minutia of orchestral composition in Star Wars: The Old Republic alum Kyle Newmaster.
“It’s been really helpful to have Kyle there to bounce ideas off of,” said Rich. “He’s someone who’ll give me feedback, and someone who really knows how all this works. For me, that was really crucial to the process.
“I knew that I wasn’t really interested enough in the long-run to learn the ins and outs of composing for orchestra, and I felt that as long as I had a general understanding of how this stuff works. The writing and the sonic elements of the orchestra was what I was really interested in, so I kind of had to pick and choose my battles with the technical elements. You can only grow in so many ways at the same time. I didn’t want to bite off more than could chew.
“For me, it’s really been an education in writing for film in many, many ways. I was able to spend some time on set, and I’ve had a number of new musical experiences that I’m looking forward to talking more about once the film is out. It’s been a really challenging project, but a very fulfilling experience. I mean, It Follows took us a month to score, and I’ve been working on this for a year.”
An Impressionistic Post-Apocalypse
The opportunity to talk to the composer of one of your favorite games doesn’t come around too often, so I would’ve been remiss to have not talked to Rich about his excellent work on my game of the year for 2016, Hyper Light Drifter. The rich soundscapes Rich composed elevated Hyper Light Drifter from an already incredible work of art to something even grander, and there were several points of the soundtrack that I wanted to talk to him about.
“Hyper Light Drifter was a very emotional project to work on,” Rich admitted, “and I think part of that was because of the creative approach that I took with the music. I ended up trying a lot of things that didn’t really work, and so there was a lot of starting over in the middle of the process. It was a little weird because the very first thing I wrote for the project ended up in the game. It was kind of a seminal representation of the sound of Hyper Light Drifter and it plays when you’re descending into the final area of the game.
“But with the rest of it there was this sort of trial and error feedback loop, and it required a lot of emotional engagement to my work. I think that’s part of why it was so demanding, because I kind of had to use my emotions to figure out what was working and what wasn’t.”
“As I was working on it, I kind of stumbled into this sort of impressionistic way of approaching the music for Hyper Light Drifter. There ended up being a lot of piano improvisation as I was trying to hone in on these very particular feelings and very particular vibes for different areas of the game. There was a lot of trial and error as I was figuring out what sort of sound I was looking for and figuring out what I wanted to evoke in a particular area—and in the game there’s a pretty good range of material there.
“There’s some very placid music that’s sort of serene with a tense edge—that’s how I’d describe the music in the east, the water music. There’s a placidity to it that I was really trying to capture, a water vibe, and I didn’t really know exactly what that was but I just had these semi-intuitive notions of how that’s supposed to sound. I tried to lock into that. And that kind of process occurred in every area. I had to figure out the sound of a post-apocalyptic desert where it’s raining all the time. What does that sound like? What’s the sound of a crystal forest, or the sound of ascending a mountain?”
I stopped Rich here so we could dig a little deeper into the last sound he brought up, the sound of ascending a mountain. That was a sequence in the game I distinctly remembered for one very important reason: it made me stop playing. Now, I don’t mean stop playing in a sort of rage-quit sense, but rather that the game caused me to pause and take a breath. For some context, as you start ascending the mountain, the music is very minimal, very atmospheric. As you climb higher, new melodies and rhythms begin to sneak into the scene. It keeps building until you reach a precipice overlooking a chasm. At this moment, the music swells and you see the massive body of some long forgotten titan clinging to the peak in the distance. This mesh of music and scenery stopped me dead in my tracks. It wasn’t a cutscene. I hadn’t hit some invisible barrier. I stopped because I was swept up by the music. And this whole series of events is no short stroll either. It takes several minutes to journey from the bottom of the mountain to the crescendo at the chasm.
“There was lot a lot of experimentation just figuring out how I could build on a piece of music and keep it interesting within the limitations of what we had to work with,” says Rich. “And we definitely had certain limitations, technical limitations. Everything kind of had to be just cross-fading music—that was what we were limited to. We figured out that the music needed to be relatively short so we could capture the vibe we were looking for, but the music also had to be reactive enough that when you change from area to area or context to context the music is ready to capture that change.
“I had to pick up some tricks along the way in figuring that out. One of the things I did with the ascending the mountain music is that I wrote the music to be made up of these two kind of call and response elements. So when you’re in the beginning of that ascension, you’re only really hearing the responses. They’re kind of quiet and whispery, and then slowly the call section of that track enters. It’s kind of this reverse progression in the sense that you’re hearing the answer but you’re not hearing the question of the music, so it’s this thing that needed to be introduced over time.”
Another thing I knew I needed to ask about regarded Rich’s representation as a character in Hyper Light Drifter. On the western path out of the town, there is a little skeleton man playing the guitar—that’s Rich.
“We talked about having all the team members represented in the town, as kind of a fun Easter egg for ourselves,” Rich said with a chuckle, “and I suggested that my character be playing the guitar and have my monogram as his face. I just thought it would be neat, and we had the tech to do synced pieces of audio that could be positioned in the world and fade in and out as you approached them. So we had him play a kind of acoustic noodling improvised part over the underscore just to play with it a bit and make it a little bit fun—kind of to have this diegetic and non-diegetic sort of thing going on where you’re blurring the lines between what’s in the world and what’s underlining the action.”
The Artist and The Audience
As Rich’s popularity has increased over the years, so has his interaction with fans. Before getting this opportunity to talk to Rich we had had a handful of brief Twitter exchanges, usually regarding some sort of praise for one soundtrack or another he had composed. As an un-famous layperson, I had always wondered how people really feel about these kind of unsolicited attempts at conversation. At our core, we’re all just regular people. Some of us just have larger spheres of influence for one reason or another.
“I think it’s a tough subject,” Rich confided. “There’s a certain level of empathy, or tact I guess, that I appreciate when people are speaking to me directly. There was a time where I often found myself just thinking about how I would want to be treated and how I would communicate with other artists, and I think that, just from my own experience and the experience of talking to other artists, there is often this desire of not wanting to feel like you’re being commodified. You never want someone to just tell you this is what you are and that’s all you ever can be.
“Even if you do a hundred different things you may only be widely recognized for one specific thing, and then that becomes the thing that most people associate with you. I don’t think there’s anything malicious about that, and in the larger scheme of conversation I think it’s fine, but I was in a period where I was getting a lot of first hand contact with people who were doing that directly to me: putting me into one box or another. I know it wasn’t on purpose, not in any sort of malicious way, but I just felt that people maybe didn’t know that it doesn’t feel great to be constantly told this is what you are. I think it’s kind of a dissonance. I don’t know—I just think there’s some level where the work I’ve created belongs to everybody. Once it’s released it belongs to everybody, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own sort of opinion about what it is and who I am. I think there’s some element of being misunderstood in those sort of exchanges.”
I was guilty of this exact pigeonholing the first time I heard Radiohead’s most recent album A Moon Shaped Pool. One specific track, “Daydreaming,” featured a keyboard arpeggio that was tonally very similar to some of the synth sounds on the Fez soundtrack.
“I was getting a lot of tweets around the time of Stranger Things,” Rich recalled, “but certainly the ‘Daydreaming’ track was something that I kind of got a lot of people contacting me about. People would ask me if I was somehow involved with Radiohead because they chose to use a simple waveform, and suddenly that waveform was this automatic Disasterpeace association.
“I think that for me sometimes I tend to get a little worked up about stupid stuff like that. I mean, it doesn’t really matter, but I think in those moments I feel a little misunderstood as an artist because, obviously, the way I think about my work is not going to be the same as what other people think about it or even what the general consensus is about it. I don’t really consider myself to be a chip music artist or whatever. Sometimes it’s hilarious to me because people will use words I don’t even recognize or genres I haven’t even heard of or understand to describe something of mine that they’ve heard.
“People may classify my music as 80s music or chip music but they don’t really know what my relationship is to nostalgia. It’s not that I just write for nostalgia or that I only write 80s sounding stuff. For It Follows I wasn’t really even thinking about the 80s at all. Things just come out the way they do, and you might be inspired by a certain thing. As someone who’s done so many different projects, it just feels really dissonant. I feel like I’ve done a lot of different things, but I know sometimes I might take things a little too personally.”
Moving on from the serious topics surround fame and success, I wanted to steer the conversation to something on the more positive side of the fame spectrum: having your work covered by other artists.
“It’s a really cool process. The first time that that happened was a little while back, maybe five or six years ago, so I may not be able to articulate the way it felt the first time. I mean, it still feels really nice. I feel a certain amount of pride or maybe gratitude to have been able to create something (rather unseemingly from my perspective; I started just making music in my bedroom) but was fortunate enough to be a part of something so big and widespread that people still get inspired by that work and put their own spin on it. That’s a really beautiful thing and it means a lot to me. I think it’s awesome—it feels really good to be sure.”