Finnish composer Petri Alanko was nominated for a BAFTA for his work on the 2010 game Alan Wake, and since then, his music for games such as the sequel, Alan Wake's American Nightmare, as well as Quantum Wake. His latest work is for the supernatural thriller game, Control. We were pleased to speak with him about his career and how music for video games has been receiving more critical appraisal in recent years...
STARBURST: Your website boasts ‘no missed deadlines since 1990’. How'd you come by that work ethic?
Petri Alanko: Well, I'd like to put it this way: I hate slackers myself, and the best way to tell a client you respect their work is to deliver your stuff on time. Back when I was doing daily pop, in the early 1990s, I ran into a bunch of both highly efficient individuals as well as a motley crew of incredible rock star wannabees who were stuck in their teenage years. Early on, I made the decision to join the posse who seemed to deliver time and time again. Also, it helps that my father has a tech/engineering background and my mom's really good with numbers and had an accounting company. Which means I'm really bad with mechanical stuff and even worse with money - but I try my best to be on time all the time.
Fortunately, my clientele is a set of seasoned pros and they are really sharp at getting everything done at their end well before a project lands into my hands. As soon as I get any information about a project, I start by doing what I call a ‘tool preparation’, be that hardware, sounds or the plugins and algorithms. Also, before putting down anything else, I'll do a lengthy planning session to hone out the concept and the details, so that when I start actually laying down the tracks/music, I'll start running through a bucket list. It is a process, to save time, to keep the schedules - and the budgets - and this process has been defined during the past many years. It seems the more years pass, the more effective I am… I hope.
What was the missed deadline that made you change your ways?
I'll take the project and the client into my grave with me, but it was outside the gaming business, naturally; the gaming companies usually are very, very efficient and seem to reach towards a much further away future than, say, ‘regular tech companies’. I’m much more selective on whom I work with these days. I believe the client benefits much, much more from a longer relationship, as the base work - and the foundation/legacy research - is done after the first gig, and you can start building what will become their future. I sometimes have said ‘no’ to a gig that doesn't really feel right for me - I mean, I'm not your average My Little Pony composer. Nothing against the brand, but, well, I dress mostly in black and have my NIN/Nitzer Ebb/Front 242 past, so… Heck, if a client hasn't done their homework and hasn't found out about Alan Wake, Quantum Break and now Control - not to mention my Lowland tracks and remixes - and asks for ‘cute melodies’, it'd be almost criminal from my side to do something just for the money - and slice off a part of my wellbeing whilst doing so. In short, I have never done, and never will do, anything solely for the money - but I'm not doing any freebies either.
That one's for the newcomers, too: never do a freebie. Your job will not become a foot in the doorway, you're just a stepping stone for the next freebie wannabee.
Aside from composing, what's your involvement with video games - are you a gamer, yourself?
Oh most definitely I am. I'm not exaggerating at all, and I tend to use games as an escape, to clear out the noise and the music in my head. Sometimes, when entering a project, I tend to ‘listen to radio’ in my head while thinking about the new project, the scenery, the environments etc., playing with the ideas inside my brain, and it really feels like listening to some soundtrack radio station, but with music I have never heard before. Sometimes I need to ‘visit’ something else to detach myself from the ideas and to let some fresh air in. I used to watch movies, but it requires a serious piece of entertainment to ‘attach’ to a movie, and it usually works only once or twice per movie, after that it's ‘worn out’. With games, due to their continuous dynamic state, it's different.
I tend to enjoy open-world games, and to some extent I'd love to think of myself as an expert: since PlayStation 1, it's been open-world and open-world only. Okay, some great tube/on rail runs as well - but even those need to have at least a feel of free choice in them. I've got quite a few consoles in my stack, more than I actually need or have time to deal with, and I've already made some space for the upcoming new consoles.
One thing is sure, though: I'll never ever use a PS VR visor again, not after I almost had a cardiac arrest during Resident Evil 7. Horribly good, even with mediocre graphics (of the visor that is).
In an interview with Roland, you said, “Sometimes, music leads, and sometimes it’s reacting to your actions.” For Control, which was the more dominant aspect?
Reacting, definitely. The integrators and audio programmers managed to pull together a marvelous AI rule set within WWise [3rd party music software that plays the music in-game], and, after seeing and scratching the surface of it, I'm willing to pray for that to become the present and the future of gameplay music - but with a twist. In my opinion, a full AI requires some human splicing here and there to seriously deliver, as emotions aren't mathematics. Having said that, the exploration/combat music system is doing a proper job based on the amount of opponents and their nature, as well as how your progress or health is being affected. But the cinematic/thematic music has a few leads here and there, for instance the leitmotif will basically reveal the outcome of the game, if you are aware. I wouldn't use a major chord unless there was a positive - or suitably positive - conclusion. All the themes I've ever composed seem to somehow connect to the protagonist and his/her fate as well as the conclusion of the story in question: Alan Wake's theme ends up ‘in the air’ - and he gets stuck in the deep. Quantum Break has an ‘outsider with a determination’ feel - and Jack is affected by the time disease, while sort-of-kicking into action just when the game ends… and now Control's theme leads to a major third interval, with a concentrating, self-confident feel after a very ambivalent descend, just like the six-note leitmotif does. The same applies to, actually, everything I've ever done.
So, in short, I'm basically a walking game plot spoiler, if you're listening carefully enough.
A lot of your work has been for games which are supernatural in nature. Are there any genres you'd like to explore which you haven't yet?
I'd love to score a psycho thriller, be that a movie or a game. Also, some deep sci-fi, or intelligent sci-fi, would be in my top list, and I've always loved to flirt with horror stuff, as, like someone once said, ‘caressing feels better after a slap and vice versa’. One thing is for sure though: it'll take some time before I'll ever do another project with modular synth only. There are a few cues for Control that were done on my modular almost solely, as a performance, and although the results were stellar sonically, the planning and the one-off style - and how you can actually never return to where you started from - is frightening due to the nature of gaming development cycles: maybe the cinematic you used the gear on had to be lengthened or shortened? That, too, had to be taken into account.
But yeah, I loved Interstellar, which, thanks to its math side, I'm willing to count as deep sci-fi, and I loved the movie's long cues. It reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I'm not sure if Alan Wake counts as a psycho thriller, but back in the day I found it really easy to draw something from my personal experiences - nothing supernatural there, not even close, but the environment and the setting was really pleasing for creating that uneasy twist and borderline horror here and there. As a Finn, I'd say "I let the forest speak", but it would probably sound too new age-ish. I've heard people speculating about an Alan Wake sequel pretty much on a yearly basis ever since Alan Wake was released, but… here's to hoping they one day will return to it. If so, I would love to compose some music for it.
You were nominated for a BAFTA for composing Alan Wake. Do you feel like game music is getting more notice and recognition these days?
Well, international organizations are already recognizing some aspects of gaming music, but it seems the press and the magazine publishers are lacking music specialists or even hobbyists - and that is even more serious here in Finland: I can't remember when music was mentioned in the local gaming news lately. Even in major gaming news the music is sometimes omitted or bypassed when reviewing the game, despite the quality of in-game music, which has, for years, been in stellar heights.
What surprised me thoroughly was some ‘normal music tech press’ magazines approaching me for an interview or some comments regarding some aspects not widely known among ‘regular’ musicians, and I found their questions to be rather intriguing, as the philosophical approach is different from gaming press. I wholeheartedly enjoyed an article in Sound On Sound, where Horizon Dawn Zero's composers were discussing the development of the music and the technical issues. I'd love to see more of that happen, as I enjoy hearing the thoughts of my colleagues.
Luckily, it's getting much better overall, and the journalists are very knowledgeable and most of the questions can be rather tricky (well, at least these have been). I feel we, as a group of enthusiasts, are approaching an era where game music is no longer game music, and at least I've been very careful in trying to achieve a stage where music works by itself, even without the mother product: the game. The same applies to every track I count as classics, such as Final Fantasy soundtrack and so on: it's a good piece of music, not "a good piece of game music", and that's important.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can share?
Yes, there will be stuff coming. Both as a performer and a composer. I guess the performer might strike first. We did have a nice little concert in Helsinki Arena almost a year ago; 9,000 people in the audience, some well over 130+ people on stage, a choir and a whole symphonic orchestra, and something like that would be nice to do again, but elsewhere. I also released a solo album We've Been Here Before under my Lowland moniker about a year or so ago, and that, too, will have a sequel one day.
Find out more at https://petrialanko.net/
Featute image: Ville_Juurikkala