Interview with Robert Holmes
Compilation input: Crazy Owl, Emily of Spielburg
Date: 26th June, 2006.
The past games
IH: The GK games created a specific atmosphere, something very moody and mysterious as well as bad-boy sexy with the character of Gabe. As we see the feverish popularity of books and films that are focusing on precisely those elements that make GK so taut and fascinating plot-wise – with mystery, historical secrets, the supernatural, and so on – to what extent do you think music contributes to creating this ambience?
RHolmes: I (of course) think it’s more important
than anything else! <grin>
Actually, I believe that one feeds the other. I have found with games as well as film and other media, that there is a very interesting phenomenon that seems to occur. Great content, whether it’s visual, story based, or technical-seems to absolutely influence the quality of the music created to support it. The richer the emotion and depth in the content the more the composer has to react to and draw from. This was certainly the case with all the GK series for me. There were some many levels of great work to pull from in the stories, the characters, the visuals, the textures of the environments, etc. So yes I believe it can help create the ambience undeniably, but usually that doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
IH: To what extent do you feel the ambience of Gabe himself, the whole persona, was affected by the music you created for the games?
RHolmes: I like to think that the music served as a critical leg on the table. Could GK have been as great with other music? Certainly. But it would have been different, and I think we all love it for exactly what it was. I do think that as Jane and I were working so closely together as both the games and music came to fruition that the relationship between the elements was very close and that helped create the quality of the relationship of the music to the game.
IH: What led you to place in the score of each GK game an “audio-candy” piece in the new and constantly different arrangement of the well-known spiritual song “Oh, When the Saints”? Did the Louis Armstrong version play any role in the arrangement you used for “Sins of the Fathers”?
RHolmes: Actually, I remember it being a very random, almost serendipitous situation. We really had no plan to do it in the later games, the opportunities just arose and we thought it would be a good little wink to the true GK fans who would know its Genesis. My father has always been a huge fan of The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Al Hirt, and others from the region, so I was hearing a lot of that stuff at an early age. I’m sure that’s in there somewhere in the approach.
IH: You've mentioned before that sometimes, when you listen to music that you created for the GK games (especially GK1), you wish you'd done things differently. What sort of differences do you have in mind?
RHolmes: Boy, where do I start. There really are only a couple of things I wouldn’t change! Most of the themes were created in some technical limitation of the time, or under some aggressive schedule where I was working on other things and traveling a lot, so I never got to spend as much time on finished polish and quality as I would have liked. Certainly to think that many folks only heard GK1 through very bad midi set ups or early Sound Blasters makes me cringe. Frankly, I was never very good or patient with trimming down my work to lower end midi, I usually tried to retain too much and overloaded the typical user systems of the time, and I know that compromised some of the pieces. I would love to recreate many of the pieces with the gear and technology I have now, or even real players. I know I would feel much better about it as a legacy that would be out there for some extended time. If I had to absolutely have one piece that I would not be able to change, I think it would be “Grace’s Theme” from GK2. It’s one of my particular favorites.
IH: The Wagnerian opera in played an important part in the plot of GK2. Do you see music playing a similar, although not identical, part in any future GK games, assuming that such games eventuate? What do you think about music-based riddles?
RHolmes: I’m trying to talk Jane into doing the next
one all based in Hawaii, so I can have the texture be ukulele based! <laugh>
It’s really hard to know until we see what the story needs in any specific game. I do think it’s very cool to have it integrated at those levels, and musical based puzzles would be very cool! I would absolutely love doing something as closely knitted as the Opera was. It was a pretty demanding challenge, but I think all of us involved in it are still pretty proud of it. Though I still expect Wagner to show up at the end of my bed some night with a very displeased expression on his long dead face!
IH: Can you tell us about the music that you created with the intention of including it in any of the GK games, but which never made it into the games? Do you see a great potential interest there for fans if the first three GK games were to be released as a special edition, perhaps, with the music that wasn't incorporated into the games accessible on that special edition?
RHolmes: There are some demos that were created in the games, when I would be tossing tunes over to folks like Jay Usher or David Henry and the team, even before we had any specific rooms or environments, just to investigate texture and tone. Many of those pieces were never used, but usually there was good reason. Either they were not up to snuff, or too outside the GK norm, or some other reason. But the quality of those types of demos is pretty low and they are rather quick and dirty in nature. I’m not sure they would offer a listener much.
IH: You wrote the music for “Inspector Parker” and “Booby Trap” – was the experience for these games different to your work on GK?
RHolmes: Yes, totally different. They started off similar, as Jane and I would put our heads together and talk about direction, etc…but those games were much more victimized by what is politely described as “Design by Committee”. By the end of the process, there would be many people who were not necessarily creative in nature chiming in and offering feedback or even influencing decisions. One symptomatic line of feedback I still chuckle over was “There’s too much space between the notes…”. Good times <reminiscent grin>
IH: You've focused a lot in GK on associating themes with particular characters – almost as Wagner used leitmotifs in a similar way and as Marschner did before him. And that's especially intriguing because you wrote the “lost Wagner opera” for GK2. Do you think about themes in the same way that Wagner clearly did? And do you think this influenced you in composing that lost opera? What is it that makes you feel, when you're composing, that you've created music that fits the character?
RHolmes: My attraction to using motifs with characters and
places come from being very influenced by the great composers of Hollywood’s
golden age. Brilliant artists like Max Steiner, Newman, and Bernard Herrman,
and John Barry have done this much better than I ever have. An of course they
are all influenced by the classics and the fathers of that movement.
The best I can describe in terms of writing for character, is that it’s almost easier and more prevalent in the GK’s to treat the rooms and environments as characters and write for those. With the exceptions of something as pointed as Mosley or Ludwig, where the characters are so ripe and easy to react to. I consider those two some of the better instances where the music was definitely led by their personalities and attributes.
IH: Music was a very important aspect of Gabriel Knight 2 in particular, although your music was always strikingly effective and atmospheric throughout all three of the games. Do you see a special approach to the music you'd create if GK4 were to be made?
RHolmes: That’s a sneaky question <grin>…Like all the games; it would absolutely be defined by the emotion and texture of the setting, characters, and story. Though regardless of those, it would certainly attempt to retain the level of darker emotion and melodic horsepower other past scores.
IH: You've been involved with GK as the composer both working in a team and working alone. You clearly had a strong vision of how GK should sound. Which environment worked best for you as a creative personality? What are the advantages and disadvantages of both methods for you?
RHolmes: I think GK1 was the best scenario. In that case as I was working as the Producer for the game as well, I was more connected to the team and every aspect of the games development and evolution. The momentum of all that served as a daily stimulus and fed my creative process. I also felt, as much of the team only knew me as their Producer that I had something to prove creatively to earn my stripes as that part of the team. It was great to have a desk set up in the middle of the team where part of the day I spend as Producer, and then I had keyboards set up at my desk as well, and I would just turn around and write music whenever it came to me.
IH: We know you're a McCartney fan. Do you anticipate writing something to illustrate his influence in future GK games?
RHolmes: Most of that influence really surfaces more in the pop and rock I have done over the years. When I was MUCH younger, I remember playing the famous Whiskey a Go-Go in Hollywood, and that particular band was very much a throwback to melodic vocal pop ala The Beatles. The first line of the review in The LA Times the next morning called me a gifted McCartney look and sound alike. I was both flattered and crushed at the same time! <grin> I have since had a friend who plays with Paul, and have been fortunate to see him live several times. I would be able to die a happy man, if I could ever write just one melody as memorable and wonderful as his work with the Beatles.
IH: Do you have any music projects at the moment? Many fans have been captivated by your work through GK - do you find you have a similar approach in your various other compositional projects? Or does composing for a game require a different approach?
RHolmes: I always have something in the works. I have just finished doing some live playing with a band here in Seattle, and I have been doing some work for commercial clients here in the Northwest. I have some songwriting collaborators that I work with on pop and rock projects, and that is ongoing as well. We are also trying to get some demos of my daughter who is a great singer (I’m obviously totally objective about it) recorded this year as well, so that’s going to be fun. I continue to feed my guitar addiction and try to update and deepen my studios capabilities continually. I know a certain game designer who says she may have some work for me soon, but we’ll have to wait and see <enigmatic grin>
IH: How has music in interactive media evolved from your first involvement with it to the present? Are there some innovative products now available that would radically affect the sort of music you would create for a game now?
RHolmes: Absolutely! There is so much more possible these days in terms of layering and non linear approaches. Also, the depth of the sampling and rhythmic tools available lead to new and very cool combinations texturally as well. And the ability to do digital quality recording at the level possible today is so cool compared to the old analogue days. It’s a very fun period to be involved with music and musical tools these days.
IH: Music is being used quite powerfully in many films and games today. Do you see any films and/or games, focusing upon the fantastical, or the mysterious, which you consider particularly effective?
RHolmes: There are so many cool things being done in scoring these days. Stewart Copeland (ex Police drummer extraordinaire) is doing some really cool work with rhythms and textures. Also, some of the thriller films coming out of Japan and the East are taking some fresh and interesting approaches, as they are attempting to sound western in some cases, but it’s inherently different and fresher due to their perspective. It’s very similar to back in the 60’s when the British bands tried to do American blues and R&B and it came out as something brand new.
Gabriel Knight 4
IH: With “The Da Vinci Code” (both book and film) recently retreading ground already treated thematically in a taut and incredibly powerful way by Jane Jensen, it's been suggested that this is the right time for GK4 to be created. Do you feel that music specifically would help to add atmosphere and mystery to the narrative of another GK, were it to be made? And if so, how?
RHolmes: I think the goal of the music in broad terms for
any future GK would be attempting dual goals. On one level, the music
is a key agent and opportunity to create some sense of continuity and continuance
or belonging to the overall series. Think about a revival of any TV series
you know and love. If they came out after a long period of time, with an entirely
different approach to the music, at some level, it would undermine the joy
of revisiting the old friend you know and love.
Another aspect of the music would be to bring the series forward and make it more current in its use and treatment of music (all of course within whatever dramatic or thematic texture the game would be set in, of course). You could say these goals are at odds with each other, but to me the fun would be to try and accomplish both at a highly functioning level.
IH: Do you have any music ideas bubbling inside you at present which you want to use for GK4? Or do you prefer to wait until having the information precisely there - location, character, situation, duration needed - before composing?
RHolmes: Do I sense a theme here, hunting for clues about
a GK4 direction? <grin>
I do have little bits and pieces of things I come up with that I will set aside for Jane’s projects (GK or otherwise) because I feel they might work well. Or I might take note of some piece of source material, or some work I hear out there, that I may go back to listen too later. But in general, it’s much better to wait and let the concept and idea that comes from Jane feed my imagination. Usually, I have no choice but to get immersed in the texture of her projects, as they tend to take over our personal space in all kinds of forms as she does her research.
IH: Which of the three GK games do you think would be most similar to a new GK game, if it were created? Or would a new game be breaking new ground musically?
RHolmes: I hope it would have the best elements of all three, the emotional aspects, the depth, and the melodic focus, yet be in a new and interesting direction, with new textures and new kinds of themes. I believe that would make it more valuable to both the listener and myself.
IH: What are the requirements you see as essential, if GK4 were to be made, that would propel GK4 to a powerful position as a computer game? Would you include a concern for a very good engine, great graphics, superb music, Jane’s usual wonderful plots and puzzles? Are any of those the most important point? Or to what extent would they all need to work together?
RHolmes: The music is the most important, obviously! <grin> But seriously, great graphics and music are certainly helpful, but they are almost a given these days in any quality game production. What really sets GK apart is the unusual depth of the stories and characters. This will always be the case, and amazingly if another GK comes to the current game market at some point, it will still be just as intensely refreshing in those aspects as the first GK was. It’s amazing how much the industry hasn’t learned..
IH: Those who have asked SIDney about GK4 received the distinct impression that GK4 was planned to focus heavily on the topic of ghosts. Would you say that's still true of Jane's conception for GK4 at present?
RHolmes: I am unfortunately restrained from being able to talk about any content issue relating to a possible GK4 under threat of severe marital discord. <laugh> But you guys should know Jane is doing all she can to make this a possibility, and as usual she has no shortage of great ideas for the next installment.
IH: Although there's no doubt Jane Jensen's the driving vision for GK, it would be true to say that you have been an influence upon the games creatively. Given that you have had that creative influence, do you have any ideas about what you'd like to see happen – even in broad terms – with the series and its characters?
RHolmes: I would love to see many more iterations of the game, as I do feel they are truly special. I think it could actually be pretty entertaining to see those characters age together over time… I have always felt, and feel even more so now, that GK is an incredible property for film and television! Much more than any other franchise that has been taken in those directions from the gaming world. Jane could do some killer work with the characters in those arenas, and I would certainly love doing the music for those realms as well. Who knows, maybe thanks to you guys, the companies who are sitting on these vastly underutilized wonderful intellectual properties will wake up to the potential power of the series and make that possible! Thanks for all your support and interest in GK and the music after all this time. You GK fans are the best!!!!!!!!