As one of the most popular video game franchises in recent history, Final Fantasy has a dedicated network of fans and players around the world. Having recently written the original music for the soundtrack to new film Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, composer John Graham took time out of his busy schedule to chat to PopWrapped about inspirations, future projects and his advice for upcoming professionals in the industry.
PW: Please tell me a little about yourself.
John Graham: I grew up near the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia, spent some time in England, and was raised by impractical but idea-laden parents who were professors and loved books, language and stories. I’m arguably a story and images person first, and a musician second. The plot, costumes, imagery, acting and the lighting are at least as important to me as the music in a movie, so I really get just as excited about what everyone else is doing on the project as I am about my own role.
PW: You're an established composer, but when did you first realize you wanted to make that your career path?
JG: I have been making up music since I was a little boy, but grew up in a non-musical, academic family, which meant that, while I was exposed to ideas and taught about art and literature, music was something that seemed far from a practical reality. As a result, growing up, the idea of making a living at music seemed confined to the likes of Beethoven or Mozart -- great composers of long ago -- or guitar-based songs.
It wasn’t until I began studying at A-levels at the age of 17 that it dawned on me that you could write music, including orchestral music, for a living, and, even then, I assumed I’d spend my entire, short life working in a freezing garret with a single guttering candle – which isn’t too far from the truth when you’re getting started!
PW: Were there any particular composers or musicians you listened to that inspired you, and how have those inspirations/influences changed, if at all, over the years?
JG: When I was 14, we got our first stereo, along with three records that I played to death. Beethoven’s 3rd, one of the three, was a revelation compared with the rock bands or wind ensembles I’d heard up to that point.
The 3rd swept me into the idea of writing for orchestra, and I never really looked back. Later, I fell in love with many 20th century masters -- Berg, Stravinsky, of course, Debussy and Ravel, but that first encounter never left me.
On the other hand, as much as I love the orchestra, I also really like the energy and power of electric guitars, electronic sounds and the drumming from pop music. From the Sex Pistols to Sigur Rós to M83 to Beyoncé, I think that side of human feeling has to be a part of what we do in film. Plus, playing in bands was a great alternative to washing dishes to finance education!
As time goes on, I’m more than ever interested in the non-traditional/non-orchestral side of film music. People are coping constantly with the high and the low, the laughable and the tragic, often in the same day or even at the same time, and I think some of the contemporary ideas somehow get to those places in a less artificial, more convincing way.
PW: What is it about composing that you like so much, and, with that in mind, what are your thoughts on the music industry as a whole today?
JG: Well, I think we’re seeing composers like Johann Johannsson or James Newton Howard uncorking a range of new ideas and influences, but, overall, the main change, for the better, is that music for movies sounds less like “film music” and more like just “music.” We have pop, dance and electronica influences; folk influences from many cultures; less emphasis on traditional orchestral techniques such as modulations and the 19th century idea of musical development. There is increased focus, I think, on authenticity – emotional authenticity, geographic authenticity, and the power and drive of non-traditional sounds and techniques is part of that.
Some people deplore what they see as abandonment of the “proper” way of writing music. I guess that’s a complaint that’s been voiced probably in every era! But, even though I have some training in orchestral techniques, opening the doors to more intuitive, less-schooled writing is important, I think, to touch today’s audiences, many of whom have never attended a traditional opera or symphonic concert.
To many audience members, the tricks of the trade that served in the past come across as dusty and leaden, as irrelevant to their lives. I think people want to hear something that makes sense to them, that genuinely moves them and doesn’t feel like something they’re “supposed” to appreciate or that’s a musical turn of phrase they’ve already heard a thousand times.
PW: You've created the original music for Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV. What made you want to get involved, and have you played any of the games in the series?
JG: I have played the game. Plus, it sounds corny, but it’s just great to work with people who are supporting each other the way the team does at Square Enix.
As a composer, I think the aspect of the Final Fantasy world I like best is the differentiated characters and a clear aim for emotional authenticity. In too many stories, especially those with lots of action, you see homogenous good and bad characters -- all the good guys are more or less interchangeable and same for the opposition. In Kingsglaive, by contrast, the characters don’t all behave in lock-step or even behave correctly. There is betrayal and harsh disagreement; some of the good guys make errors or betray their duty. They may be motivated by a misguided sense of righting wrongs, but nevertheless, things don’t work out as envisioned, and there is real loss.
Similarly, the bad guys are not all mindlessly cruel, and they don’t all agree on everything. They have their own principles, their own reasons for their actions, and believe that they are operating in a valid way.
Music is at once indirect, since it doesn’t use words, and very direct because it goes right at emotions. It’s great to work on a story with all these contradictions and conflicts roiling around because they generate music almost by themselves.
PW: Who or what inspired your creation process for this project?
JG: Because music done well is emotionally authentic, I really like the fact that the writers and artists who created the world of Final Fantasy and Kingsglaive gave so much play to principles that are motivating the characters in the film. Loyalty, to take one example, works in a number of layers, and the characters are torn by contradicting senses of duty. Are you loyal to your ethnic group? To your oath as a soldier? To your family members? These are not easy to reconcile in the world of Kingsglaive, and that kind of dissonance invites music on a large scale with a lot of intensity. There’s a colossal clash of civilizations in the movie, and also of philosophies. That is great material to inspire powerful music.
PW: How do you think music impacts and affects video games and films?
JG: Music takes on shifting roles in film and games. Sometimes, it’s very much a backdrop as the characters take center stage. If the acting, lighting, story and dialogue are pushing exposition and narrative, the music should remain off to the side, so to speak. Sometimes music is analogous to the lighting, the scale of the scene, or the scale of loss and tragedy -- music can suggest scale and intensity, even if it isn’t all that loud or super “busy.” Every once in a while, though, it moves to the center and takes the main stage. I think that’s natural and sensible in a movie with the scale of Kingsglaive. I totally disagree with people who say the music shouldn’t be noticed -- of course it should -- just not all the time.
PW: If you could compose music for any film or TV show, which would it be and why?
JG: I think films like the Bourne series make some of the most exciting opportunities for music because they are highly kinetic, and, while the plot may be complex, often the dialogue is relatively limited and the music, action, lighting, and the actors meld together to create something exciting and very organic.
The same is often true of science fiction or fantasy stories; when you are asking for the audience to suspend disbelief to that extent, the music has to step forward and do a lot of work to constantly enclose the audience in an envelope of other-worldliness. So I like those genres a lot as well.
PW: Finally, do you have any other composition projects in the pipeline, and what advice would you give to anyone looking to make it as a composer?
JG: I have other stuff coming, but it’s not announced yet.
To answer your question about advice for those trying to make it as a composer, I guess one of the coolest things about music is that there is almost no end to it. I like to read scores, I like to perform in a choir, I like to hear what my buddies are into even if it’s not a style in which I ever intend to write. I think it’s important to keep seeding and fertilizing one’s music, so it never gets stale and you’re constantly stimulating that muscle.
For me, it’s often imagery, lighting, or even abstract ideas that draw the music out, so, if the question is “what makes you a good composer?”, I think the answer has to be to just live. Raise a child. Take care of someone ill or in distress. Paint a picture. I believe that to write something that authentically touches others you have to have something real inside, so whatever fans that flame is good.
For more information on John Graham, visit his website.