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INTERVIEW: Composer Lena Raine talks Celeste Soundtrack & working in Game Audio

INTERVIEW: Composer Lena Raine talks Celeste Soundtrack & working in Game Audio

February 5, 2018 | | 1 Comment Share thison Facebook INTERVIEW: Composer Lena Raine talks Celeste Soundtrack & working in Game Audioon Twitter

Celeste is a recently released indie game from Matt Makes Games that is available on multiple platforms. The game has been getting a lot of attention for its stunning visual design, and challenging gameplay. More important to us here at OSV is the game’s soundtrack. The music was composed by Lena Raine (aka Lena Chappelle, and Kuraine), and who has been working as a composer for over 11 years.

She recently took some time to talk to us about her musical background, her inspirations, and her experience working in game audio. Read on for our full interview.

What details can you share with us about your musical background?

I had a pretty early background in music thanks to being in choirs from age 6 thru college. I learned theory & sight-reading super young, so it was pretty natural for me to take a leaning towards music. My dad also worked as a violin player & composer, so he had a full recording studio in the basement that I frequently got to play around in & learn about reel-to-reel recording and synthesizers. After writing a ton of music throughout high school, I got accepted to attend Cornish College for a 4-year degree in music composition. It’s been nearly 12 years now since I graduated, but my college years gave me such a strong foundation in writing and I’m super grateful to my professors that pushed me to write for as many instruments as I could.

Can you tell us about some of your inspirations? Did the music of any of the games you played growing up provide any?

I grew up with so many games, from the usual assortment of NES and Genesis titles, and more RPGs on PS1 than I’d be able to list out. My personal favourite composers are the ones that lie in the cross-section of live instruments, folk, and synths that have informed my own style a lot: Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono series, Xenogears), Yuzo Koshiro (Streets of Rage), Hip/Chip Tanaka (Metroid, Earthbound), Yoko Shimomura (Parasite Eve, Legend of Mana), Shoji Meguro (Shin Megami Tensei, Persona), Keiichi Okabe (NieR series) and Disasterpeace (Fez, Hyper Light Drifter), to name a few!

Beyond games, my list of influences spans a pretty wide series of genres & sounds: Janelle Monae, Imogen Heap, Wednesday Campanella, Aivi & Surasshu, Moderat, Olafur Arnalds, Danger, Mannheim Steamroller, Thomas Newman, Gackt. I love music, is basically what I’m saying.

What can you tell us about your first game scoring experience?

I was straight out of college with a degree in music composition and hoping my music was at least strong enough to get me a gig. Turns out it wasn’t, because this was well before the growth of the indie game scene & none of the big studios really wanted to give an extremely inexperienced composer the light of day. Understandably! But an acquaintance I’d met through a network of fellow composers reached out & asked if I’d like to join a number of other new composers to write some additional tracks for a game he’d signed on to write. So myself and a few other up-and-comers got the opportunity to write for a game that, while not the most highly acclaimed thing in the world, actually got us some credited work to get our feet wet. I don’t really consider it my first scoring experience, since I was so hands-off, but it’s something pretty meaningful to me.

Generally speaking it’s a lot of the same sort of mentality I went into the B-Sides project with, which I’ll go into more detail in a bit. But I wanted to work with friends who were both indie vets as well as folks who have only scored a few games, or haven’t at all & wanted to get into it. There’s so many rad voices out there and including them in a project is such a good way to expose people to them.

On your website you mention that growing up you really enjoying telling stories and recorded them on stationary, or sung them onto reel to reel. What can you tell us about your craft, and how you approach a new project?

I mentioned the stationary or reel-to-reel mostly as examples of like, how eager I’ve been my whole life to tell stories. It’s often the core reason why I write music in the first place, to convey something to an audience that would otherwise be difficult to say in words. For new projects, I want to do my best to help the people I’m collaborating tell their story in all the ways available to them. It doesn’t always end up with a project that’s so personal, like Celeste, but I try to inject some part of myself into every project I participate in.

Are you able to tell us about your gear? What are you most essential pieces of audio equipment and do you favor a particular brand or software?

I live almost exclusively in a software world. The vast majority of my work is done in Ableton Live using VST instruments. Celeste in particular uses Native Instruments’ Massive, and Spitfire Audio’s Felt Piano, both tremendous instruments with lots of depth. In general, I love NI & Spitfire libraries. The other gear that makes it all work is my Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 audio interface, KORG nanokey2 MIDI controller for simple part entry, Nectar Panorama P4 keyboard for more complicated playing, and Tapco S5 studio monitors.

I’ve generally stuck to Massive for the past several projects so I can get extremely intimate with how it functions, but I also have a KORG monologue that I’m excited to play with for future projects.

Guild Wars 2 is another series that you have worked on extensively including Super Adventure Box, Living World, and Heart of Thorns. What can you share with us about that experience, and how it’s evolved over time?

I got involved with Guild Wars 2 almost by accident. I was working as a designer at ArenaNet, and I’d written some original music for a Guitar Hero style mini-game for a holiday festival, and the audio team got in touch with me like oh wow you write music! I ended up writing an orchestral rendition of one of the mini-game tracks I wrote, which got the attention of the cinematics team & they ended up building the trailer around it! From there, I kept getting opportunities to be involved with the content I was designing for. I had a unique opportunity to both design content and also write the music to accompany it.

Eventually, with the game’s 1st expansion, I managed to work out a schedule with both the design & audio teams so that I was working on design Monday to Thursday, and dedicating my Fridays to writing music. Doing this, I was able to co-compose the Heart of Thorns soundtrack alongside Maclaine Diemer and our orchestrator Stan LePard. Unfortunately, I was away in Montreal working with Ubisoft during the soundtrack production for the 2nd expansion, Path of Fire, but now that I’m doing music full-time I’m extremely interested in working on more things with my friends at ArenaNet.

You’ve also released some stunning EPs and Singles under the name Kuraine including Singularity, Transference, and Dawn Ouroboros, can you tell us how these projects came to light?

When I started writing my own electronic music independent from game soundtracks, I really wanted to embody a specific style as an artist project. Singularity is an extremely personal album for me, and marked a departure from a lot of acoustic work I’d done previously. I labeled it as ‘witchstep’ on Bandcamp, mostly as a joke, but then it turned out it was actually a genre other albums had used! In general, I consider the Kuraine sound to be a bit like deep house mixed with IDM in places. I was also writing the hackmud soundtrack at the time, which very much was designed to emulate the electronic ‘hacker’ music sounds of the 90’s. It was a bit difficult to delineate which was for hackmud and which I wanted to release under Kuraine, but ultimately with some advice from my partner I assembled the final Singularity EP & its emotional arc. Transference was the one track that didn’t quite fit, so I released it separately as its own single.

I really want to release more Kuraine tracks soon, but I’m working on the soundtrack to my own self-directed game called ESC that I may release under the Kuraine name!

Celeste‘s soundtrack combines the sound of piano, and various electronic elements. Celeste is a game about climbing a mountain of the same name, but also the main character Madeline’s facing her own personal struggles during the climb. Can you tell us how those aspects influenced the music’s creation?

In a lot of ways, the piano is the core sound for Madeline as a person whereas the synths can represent aspects of her & the mountain that are roused by her ascent. The soundtrack in general plays a lot with dynamic mixing and track progression which let us take parts away or build up a track over the course of a chapter. By doing this, we can play with leitmotifs and thematic instruments in a way that just writing a through-composed piece can’t do on its own.

All of the main characters in Celeste have their own instrument: Madeline has the piano, Theo has guitar, and Mr. Oshiro has a theremin-like synth. (The old woman is an exception, since in a lot of ways she embodies the power of the mountain & is a fairly omnipresent figure). The most fun I had with this concept was in the Celestial Resort, where Oshiro is always surrounded by his little theremin swoops. Every time he’s on screen and talking, whether it’s playing his theme (Spirit of Hospitality), or bringing in a dynamic countermelody, that little sine wave is there to reflect him as a character. I even got a chance to write some “ghost foley” for all of Oshiro’s entrances & exits. I literally went through videos of all his movements & recorded little swoops to accompany his movement. It’s really cute.

Regarding the electronic elements, the best demonstration of this is probably in the track Anxiety where I tried my best to capture the feeling of (as the title implies) an anxiety attack. Madeline’s theme is this small, tenuous piano line that then gets completely engulfed in synths & as you’re battling to recover, the synths get more and more distant to reflect your return from the spiral.

The two longest tracks on the soundtrack album are “Resurrections” and “In the Mirror”. “Resurrections” progresses at first to my hear, out of focus, picks up steam with firm electronic sound and percussion, opens wider with a cold twisting hummable high toned melody, and then gets down to business bringing all the elements together. Can you tell us about this piece?

“Resurrections” has proven to be a fan favorite so far, which I was surprised by since it’s almost like a full suite of music by itself! I ended up combining 4-5 cues from the game that all take place in Chapter 2 into this track that tells a complete narrative arc in a way that tries to emulate the arc of the game itself.

The first two sections come from the exploration part of the level, which I’ll call “pre-mirror” and “post-mirror”. I really wanted to start with an othering sound, coming from the straight-forward melodic progression of First Steps. Because all of Resurrections takes place in a lucid dream sequence, my first goal was to make an etherial sound evocative of a space that didn’t seem quite real. For post-mirror, the game dives into its first encounter with the mystical nature of the mountain and kicks it up a notch to drive you along as you explore the new mechanics that’ve opened up.

The 3rd & 4th sections are Badeline’s theme (Madeline’s darker part of herself) which comes back a few times, as well as in the chase sequence. I wrote it literally as a minor inversion of Madeline’s theme. I’m always a fan of using convenient metaphors in music, and the major/minor relationship can be overdone, but it made for the perfect way of expressing Madeline as a person. Her theme, in its first iteration in First Steps, is primarily cheery. It verges into minor every now and then, but for the most part it stays put. Badeline’s theme is all minor. It’s the embodiment of her darker side. And then, when her theme is revisited for the Summit, the theme returns in an exact 50/50 split between major & minor tonalities. They’re working together.

To close it out, there’s an “ominous” loop that’s played a few time during unsettling moments, followed by one of the cinematic cues I decided to keep in the score because of how well it segues into the next track, Awake.

“In The Mirror” opens with a some Blade Runner flavour, and features the sounds of whispering voices and breathing sounds that seem to be clipped before you can really hear what they’re saying. Is that your voice? What can you tell us about this piece.

“In the Mirror” is probably one of the weirdest & most difficult tracks I’ve written. Like a number of the tracks on the OST, it contains multiple cues strung together to emulate the experience of playing the game. The initial synth-heavy section begins as soon as Madeline enters the mirror and discovers the weird cosmic horrors within. Every time I brought out the huge 80’s synth sound that was absolutely popularized by Vangelis and Blade Runner, I wanted to make sure it was for a particularly othering moment: the gondola, the mirror, starjump. All of them are major hurdles that Madeline has to overcome on her ascent.

As the track transitions to the main BGM, however, you might notice that the music is literally reversed from the previous track, “Quiet and Falling”. I took those tracks and created their mirror selves, only adding a bit of reverb to make them feel even more distant.

On top of those layers, you’re absolutely right: I literally took my field recorder into a closet and just sort of…tried to embody Madeline & her thought process & improvised something she might think to herself whilst trying to find her way forward. And, of course, it was then reversed since everything she’s hearing is within the mirror.

But then, as Madeline gets closer and closer to the exit, something fun happens. I took the reversed version of Quiet and Falling, and then started to play parts on top of it that aren’t reversed. And then layer in the big synth parts from earlier. And with everything piled on top, it transforms as you travel, from a purely reversed track, to a track that’s now built back up, playing forwards & triumphant.

Do you have a favorite song on the Celeste soundtrack?

I think my favourite is probably “My Dearest Friends”, the song that accompanies the credits roll when calling it from the menu. It doesn’t have much narrative significance, but I was just noodling around on the keyboard while trying to figure out the Celestial Resort bgm and started playing this really mellow and satisfying jazz progression. I recorded it and sent it to the team. We all agreed it wasn’t quite the vibe for Celestial Resort, but we threw it into the credits to see how it felt. I immediately got all kinds of flashbacks to the warm major 7th feelings I get while watching the end credits to Steven Universe. But I was a little worried it was too derivative at first. I’m friends with Aivi & Surasshu, the composers behind that amazing soundtrack, so I sent the track over to Aivi to see what she thought, and her glowing response was everything I needed to keep going & expand it out into a full piece. It’s a little nugget of music that feels extremely me, and I think it’s the perfect end-cap to the soundtrack.

What can you tell me about the Celeste B-Sides? How did you select which tracks were remixed?

Earlier in development, the B-Sides were literally called Remix levels. I was scheduling out my time & realising that doing just the full story progression’s soundtrack was already so much, and we had these harder levels that absolutely needed their own vibe to them, so I thought the best way to approach it would be to literally do remixes for those levels. I ran it by Matt & the team, and they loved the idea, so I went ahead with it!

As far as choosing remixers, I reached out to my friends & acquaintances that I thought would suit the game’s vibe super well. Ultimately I wanted to feature a mix of industry vets, as well as up-and-comers that either hadn’t done a lot of game work yet, or wanted to get into games. Surprisingly, all of them said yes! One did unfortunately drop out due to scheduling conflicts, so I ended up filling the gap on Summit, but as Kuraine to keep the remix from sounding too much like more of the same.

Another game that you’re attached to is Date or Die, which sounds like an intriguing visual novel game. Are you able to tell us anything about how you’re approaching the music on this project?

I’m actually co-composing this soundtrack alongside Christa Lee, one of the B-Side remixers. She’s been taking the lead so far, and has an extremely rad style that’s like jazz fusion crossed with FM synth tunes. We’re doing a lot of fun experimentation on this project, so I’ll be playing around with some analog synths & even more esoteric things like heavily autotuned vocals. Definitely keep an ear out for it!

Are you working on any other musical projects at the moment?

Like I mentioned above, I’m writing the soundtrack to my upcoming interactive novel ESC. It’s a bit of a sci-fi hybrid that I’m calling dreampunk & takes place in the near future within an online roleplaying community meant to emulate the text-based MUCKs of the 90s. I’m writing a very ambient soundtrack with punctuations of IDM-inspired weird shit. It should be fun!

Beyond that, I’m also involved in a few NDA’d projects I can’t talk about yet, but I’m going to be revisiting my chamber music days and recording a bunch of live instruments, and I literally can’t wait to share more! Thanks so much for the great questions!

OSV would like to thank Lena Raine for taking the time to talk to us about her music. For updates on her latest efforts you can visit her website, follow her on twitter. You can purchase her music on bandcamp. Check back with OSV for news on the composer’s future projects and releases.

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