Neil Davidge may not be a name as tweetable as the Weezys and MDNAs of the world, but modern music lovers certainly know his work: As Massive Attack’s producer since the ’90s, Davidge is largely responsible for the direction of the sonic sexscapes that would become Mezzanine, 100th Window and Heligoland.
When not creating songs to get pregnant to, Davidge has managed to split his time between working with David Bowie and Snoop Dogg (no, not at the same time), as well as contributing music to everything from Oscar-nominated documentaries to, well, Clash of the Titans. This fall, however, Davidge enters an entirely new realm of music-making: video games. And not just any video game — Davidge has taken on soundtrack duties for the rabidly anticipated Halo 4.
Originally created by developer Bungie, the series recently came under new management after 2010’s Halo: Reach, handing all things Halo, including its near-silent space-marine protagonist, Master Chief, off to 343 Industries, Microsoft’s internal division devoted to the linchpin property. Halo 4 will be the first non-Bungie title in the series, which has up until now sold upwards of 40 million copies and at one point even spurred director Peter Jackson to pursue a Halo film as well as his own Halo game, though both endeavors appear stalled by the usual creative, legal and monetary complications.
While Halo games themselves are as captivating as any silver-screen space opera, equally as inspiring, has been Halo’s music. With an iconic soundtrack consisting of equal parts sci-fi synth, tribal percussion and brooding monk chants that millions of gamers the world over could hum for you at the drop of a hat, creating entirely new music for such a seminal franchise seems like task that most would approach with no small amount of fear and trepidation. But as an avid Halo fan, Davidge’s inner geek leapt at the chance to pick up the conductor’s baton from long-standing series composer Marty O’Donnell, marking the first time anyone else has touched the series’ sacred tuneage in over a decade.
So how did a guy who made Mezzanine get involved with a game about super soldiers and space aliens?
It was actually through my management. They’d been having secret meetings in LA and didn’t actually tell me anything. The first time I actually heard about it was a week before I was booked on a flight to go to Seattle to meet up with 343. It was a bit of a surprise.
What did you know about Halo going in?
Oh, right from the beginning. I first started playing when I was working with Massive Attack on 100th Window, spending many hours in the studio waiting for the band to turn up. I’ve stuck with it ever since. Even today when I get stressed in the studio, one of my ways of relaxing, apart from going for a nice walk, is to play Halo. So it’s kind of perfect, really.
What was your approach? Did you go back and listen to the previous soundtracks?
Not really. From playing the game for many years, the soundtrack was very much a part of my everyday life. You can’t play a game for that many years for every bar to not be familiar to you so, I’d been unconsciously studying what Marty had done for a long time. For the most part, the writing process began with me surrounding myself with the very little material they’ve provided me — a few artist impressions, a paragraph or two describing a scene or environment — and imagining how I would feel if I were the Master Chief in this situation on a very much gut level. I just wanted to do whatever felt natural without contriving it.
Did you ever meet with Marty to discuss?
No, we’ve never spoken! I would love to meet him to sit down for a beer and chat. I’d be very interested to see how he approached things as opposed to the way that I’ve approached things. I’m pretty new to this. Prior to this, I’ve been making albums and doing a bunch of film scores. It’s a whole different ballgame for me.
How would you compare your experience with Massive Attack and film soundtracks to writing for Halo 4?
Making albums is all about the music and it’s about the band and how they want to represent themselves. With films, I have a particular scene to write to and I know the length of that scene even if it’s recut. Also, normally with a film you would actually have, even if it’s not the final edit, a rough cut before you actually start any writing. With a game, I’m going to finish the music and 343 will still not have finished the game. I’m not actually going to know how the music’s going to work in the game until I actually buy the game and sit down and play it. I have to trust that they know what they’re looking for and I have to produce as much material as I can in the schedule and give them as many options as possible. Some of the pieces that I’ve written may start with a very simple, basic theme but the final piece that I’ll give them could be up to 20 minutes long with many, many variations — rhythm, sonics, textures — so that they have enough ammunition when they’re implementing it into the game.
Do you listen to other music when writing?
Oh, I’ve listened to an awful lot of music. I’ve been listening to a lot of orchestral music as well as some Russian and Bulgarian choral music. Plus, a lot of electronic scores; Brian Eno has been one of my references, but even moments of the Prodigy and Radiohead. Plus classic film scores, some John Williams, some Cliff Martin — Solaris, in particular. But there’s also just a lot of me doing what I do: sitting in the studio playing around with sounds, with melodies, seeing how the contrasting elements of distorted and effected electronics with pure orchestra and melody fit together. And always trying to find the angle, something that will make that piece a unique experience. Every sound is pretty original on this game because it’s a whole other galaxy, a whole other universe. It’s in space. It’s alien.
How much material have you created at this point?
We’re way above a hundred pieces of music that are actually being presented. I know that in terms of minutes we are probably approaching seven hours worth of material with about four hours worth that’s actually being used in the game but I don’t know for sure right now because they’re still looking at how to implement it all.
That’s a lot.
The last project I worked on took seven years to complete and in seven months I’ve written way more material. One of the pieces comes in at 42 minutes. It’s been a lot of experimentation.
How do you feel about games as an artistic medium?
That’s a difficult one. I’m hoping that in time it will be a lot easier to experience the story in games without also feeling like you’re being controlled and forced down a certain path each time, so that the game player feels free to go wherever they want but they get a sense of why they’re going here and why they’re doing this so the storyline kind of follows through. Otherwise, if it’s just another mission killing aliens or killing marines or killing Russians as fast and efficiently as you can, that’s a bit too two-dimensional for me. I would like to be more emotionally engaged, emotion other than excitement or fear. I think it’s possible to kind of fall in love with a character in a game. I think that’s down to the technology getting so good and people becoming so proficient at using it that it becomes more transparent and dictates less how the game should play.
Are there any artists today that excite and inspire you?
I’m in the studio at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and have been for quite some time. As you can imagine, when you’re making music all day long, you don’t really go home and listen to music. You go home and you want a nice bit of dinner with the wife and go to bed.
Fair enough. What’s next for you after Halo 4? Will you be working with Massive Attack again any time soon?
They’ve been asking. They want me to get involved in their next album but I’m actually doing a solo album at the moment. Well, I started it before I started this game, and it’s been on hold for the last eight months but I’m going to be getting on with that again as soon as I’ve finished this and then there are a bunch of film scores in the offing so I think I’m probably going to go that way. I’ve worked with Massive Attack for 18 years, I could do with a break. But I will work with them again. There’s been no falling out at all but I just think you get to a point where it becomes stale. You need to shake things up, you need to go and grab some new experience, and then you come back together and see what you’ve got to say to each other. If you liked Mezzanine and you liked 100th Window, then you’ll like the score for Halo 4. It’s a different beast but there’s the same kind of graphic sense of mixtures of textures and melodies. It’s gothically beautiful and very dynamic.