Kenley Kristofferson

Composer. Teacher. Writer. Voice Actor.

BEAT ALL THE FINAL FANTASIES – FFX

Final_Fantasy_LogosI’m trying to remember exactly when I was playing Final Fantasy X  for the first time.  It came out when I was in Grade 10, though I first saw it when my cousin showed it to me at my grandmother’s house in Gimli, the town where I grew up.  But even still, I don’t think I started really playing it until I was university, which was about three years after its release.

Anyway, I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said, but let’s get down to it:

Final Fantasy X HD Remake (PS3)

Pros:

The customization was more fun than I remember, particularly making new weapons and the sphere grid.  Whenever I got a new weapon, I’d think “aw yeah!” except that all of the weapons were really the same, you’d just need to assign a few different abilities (though some had more slots, so okay, I get that).  It was really fun to just customize everyone infinitely, then compounding that with the real-time customization during battle and it became really fun.  The in-game subbing of people felt more strategic than before, which both a pro and a con, but more on that later.

This might be heresy to say, but I really liked the updated OST for the HD Remake, but I liked it because it wasn’t that different (which, in itself, is a heretical comment).  Honestly, so much of it felt like updated the samples and/or playing things live; in short, it’s not as different as purists would want you to believe.  There are some tracks like Besaid, which are pretty different between the original and the remake, but most of the music in the remake is just cleaner with better samples and recordings.  Seriously, it really, really holds up.

Cons:

Some of the magic was gone this time, and I don’t know what it was.  There was something about the storyline and the world that just didn’t hold up like I remember, which was upsetting.  Not that it was a bad game, it just wasn’t as magical as I remember.  Again, not to say it isn’t good, but something was different this time.  Maybe it’s because I’m older or I have a different understanding of the intersection of plot and design, but something resonated with me differently this time.  I cared less about the characters and the journey.  Maybe it was because I knew what was coming and how it was all going to end, but I don’t know.

I still liked the experience, but I’m not sure if I would go through it again, which contrasts my excitement for the FFVII remake that I can’t wait to explore.

Anyway, only four more FFs left now…

-K

Music Ed Monday – The Year of No

If-Things-Arent-Adding-Up-In-Your-Life-Start-Subtracting

A few years ago, two of my very good friends made a New Year’s Resolution to say yes to anyone invited them out to something, hoping to embark on some new adventures and live a little more.

“Want to go out for drinks?” Yes.

“Want to go snowboarding next weekend?” Yes.

“Want to come to the beach in fifteen minutes?” Yes. Yes. Yes.

And so on, and they had many wonderful excursions and made a ton of great memories.  They were tired, but it was worth it.

For any of you who know me personally, you know that every year of my life has been a “Year of Yes.” It doesn’t take much to get to me to come out, take a job, help out, or anything like that.  It’s usually good, but it takes away something that I recently discovered that I really enjoy: Leisure time.

This winter break, I didn’t work as hard as I needed to.  I just couldn’t.  I still got to the piano most days, sent away drafts, proofread scores, and sent/responded to emails, but I started this break so tired.  Not the tired from a weekend of partying, but the tired that comes from pushing yourself for months without a respite, which I often (read: always) do to myself.

930c66aa87575148b8ad0d28586f1d89This is the last year of that.  I’m still absolutely going to finish what I’ve started, but if new work comes my way that I’m not 110% thrilled about, I’m just not going to take it.  Am I still going to keep writing and taking some new work? Absolutely, but not all of it.  Not because I don’t like the extra money (because I really, really do), but because I rediscovered how much I like going on dates with my wife, hanging at friends’ houses, watching movies, playing video games, doing puzzles, reading books, unwinding at my parents’ house, going for coffee with my dad, and/or getting up in the morning and feeling like a functional human being.

“Wow, I’m feeling shaky and it’s only my second cup of coffee.” YES.  THAT’S BECAUSE YOU RESTED AND THEN YOU SLEPT.

“Wow, I can’t believe it’s 10:30 and my eyes are still open.”  LIKE A NORMAL PERSON.

This is connected to a much larger complex relationship that I have with my own productivity, self-esteem, and personal value, but that’s for a different post.

This is the year that I stop caring so much about how much work I’ve done and focus more on doing the things I want to do.  Also, because I didn’t slave away quite as hard this break, I got some of my best composing done in a long time.  There’s a big difference between “hitting the piano to work” and “hitting the piano to write,” and I was saying the former a whole lot more than the latter this year.  This is the year that changes.

When I told my wife, she just smiled and said “I’ll believe it when I see it.”  Me too, me too…

Music Ed Monday – …Because They’re Hard

The following is a story about how I finally did the thing that most people I grew up with did when they were twelve.

Legend-of-Zelda-Ocarina-of-Time-2

In the past sixteen years, I have started The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time four times.  The first time, I only got to the Goron Village and then I had to return my friend’s Nintendo 64 because it was 1998, after all.  The second and third times, I got to the Jabu Jabu fish and then quit for some reason.  The fourth time was this past year and I only got to the Forest Temple then couldn’t beat the boss (Phantom Ganon in the paintings, if you remember).

I posted about the fourth time a few months ago, and instead of letting my failure get the better of me, I persisted and was eventually victorious.  Continuing on from that success, I kept on playing and, three days ago, I beat it.

If you aren’t familiar with the core repertoire of video games, Ocarina of Time is a game that’s more like a rite of passage – anyone who is remotely into games, video game music, or game history has beaten it many years ago.  It’s regarded by almost everybody as the best Zelda game and by some as the best video game ever made.  It always felt like a black mark on my credibility because it would always come up, usually like “…[it’s] kind of like in Ocarina, when [x would happen]” and I’d have to tell them, then they’d exclaim “YOU’VE NEVER BEATEN OCARINA OF TIME?!?!?!?!

It’s one of those weird things that always stuck with me.  I always felt like it was so hard.  The dungeons felt unintuitive to me, the puzzle solutions didn’t make sense, and the side quests were so out of left field that I didn’t know how anyone could have figured them out (especially in the late 90s, when the wild west of the internet was a different place).

The turning point was when A Link Between Worlds came out, which takes place in the same world as the only other Zelda game I’d played, A Link to the Past.  The puzzles and dungeons were hard, but not impossible.  It was just hard enough that I could figure out the strategies on my own and start to build patterns.  The experience of playing through it made me fall in love with the series again, and perhaps as important, reminded me why other people loved it too.  It felt like I was starting to get it.

After newly acquiring a Nintendo 3DS, I downloaded Link’s Awakening from the eStore and started playing it.  Like Ocarina, it was incredibly challenging, but A Link Between Worlds gave me the skill set to decipher the same patterns and look for the same physical prompts.  While relying on walkthroughs a little more than I should have, I eventually beat Link’s Awakening and really enjoyed it.

When I came back to Ocarina (on the N64, not the 3DS), I came at it with renewed vigour.  I was at the beginning of the Fire Temple now and I started to see what I had to do.  I saw patterns in dungeon design that I didn’t see before (and that I’d made it that far in the game without seeing them is a testament to my knack of fumbling toward victory :P ) and, while I screamed at the TV a lot, at least I knew what to do.  I was still terrible with Z targeting, shooting a bow, and jumping in a straight line, but at least I knew what to practice.

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How I walk with an analog stick.

[Brief aside: I think this happens in teaching often.  We teach kids the steps, we don’t teach them to see the patterns.  While I start teaching chord theory in Grade 10 Jazz, there was a moment we were doing cadences in my Grade 12 Fundamentals of Music class where a student perked up all of a sudden and said “I totally just understand all of Grade 10 Jazz now.”  It took Classical cadences for her to figure out ii-Vs in Jazz, she just didn’t see the pattern before, until one day where she did.]

It’s the notion that playing Ocarina didn’t make me better at it (at least, not at first), I needed to play other Zelda games to practice.  This is why so many other kids were better at it than me: I played A Link to the Past, and they played the original, Link’s AdventureA Link to the Past, and maybe Link’s Awakening.  They just had more practice at the genre than me.

[Further aside: The more pieces kids play in band, the better they become at current and later pieces.  I mean, of course, right?]

Water-TempleI just needed to catch up.  What I love about the Zelda games is that the
only way to get through them is to get through them.  There are almost no shortcuts, easy way outs, or cheats – if you haven’t mastered certain skills, you just can’t go on.  You can read the walkthrough and know what you need to do, but it doesn’t matter unless you can actually do it.

[Yet another aside: Just because a student knows that measure 79 is just an Ab run, that doesn’t matter if they can’t do it when it counts.]

Beating Ocarina of Time was really incredibly hard for me, but it wasn’t impossible.  We can all do things that are hard; in fact, the best things we’ve ever done are probably the hardest things we’ve ever done.  As John F. Kennedy once said (in one of my favourite quotes ever):

“We don’t go to the moon and do the other things because they’re easy, we do them because they’re hard.”

However, the hardest things require the most work, but perhaps more importantly, the most practice.  As we keep plugging away at things, we grow and see more patterns, which make the next difficult things that are similar less difficult.  After Ocarina, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword will be easier.

In Music…

  • the more rhythm you read, the easier it becomes.
  • the more you sightread, the easier sightreading becomes.
  • the more keys you read in, the easier key becomes.
  • the more high range you play in, the easier high range passages become.
  • the more low range you play in, the easier low range passages become.
  • the more you practice listening for pitch, the easier playing in tune becomes.

It’s not always that it’s hard, just that it requires more practice :)

-K

Music Ed Monday – The Quest for Beer at the Orchestra

Back in Summer of 2015, I was asked by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra if I could do an arrangement of a pop song for a divisional choir and the orchestra.  Every other year, the River East Transcona School Division hires out the orchestra to play with their choir.  This was an enormous opportunity, so of course I said yes, then got it done on time and on budget (which is a super important part of composing).

Several months passed until, finally, it premiered last week.  In fact, it came up so quickly that it almost slipped by me.  Everything at my school has been so crazy that it’s taken a lot of time and effort to just keep all the plates spinning.  Between teaching and writing, there’s been a lot going on.

That morning, I asked about tickets and it was decided there would be some comps at the door.  I left school at 5:00, grabbed a sub, then headed down to the concert hall, where there were gaggles of kids everywhere, but a noticeable absence of tickets at the box office.  Someone let me inside and apologized profusely (the Winnipeg Centennial Concert Hall staff is exceptionally kind all the time) and I just smiled and said “so long as there’s beer, everything will be just fine.”  The clerk laughed and said there’s always beer at the concert hall.

But there wasn’t this time.  The divisional concert was a school event, so obviously there would be no beer.  Not the end of the world, but beer at the concert hall is just the best.  Really.

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Going to the symphony is less fancy than it used to be, but it’s still fancy.  There’s a formality when going to the biggest hall in the province to see the very best musicians we have play that night.  Even though they played my piece Morgun last year, I’ve always felt like I was never at that level.  I studied with the now-principal trombone of the ensemble and I was terrible.  I really clawed my way to the finish line of my music degree, which had an extra year of lessons because I failed the first year of euphonium.  Failed, not “got a C,” which might as well be a failure for lessons.  I literally failed the playing portion of music school.  For various other reasons, my university failures were the best thing that ever happened to me, but the sense of inadequacy followed me for my entire professional music career (and still does, from time to time).

When the WSO played my piece the first time, I felt like such an imposter.  I was some schmuck who got commissioned to write something, like a one time shot.  They certainly didn’t make me feel that way – they were amazing to me, but I had this narrative spinning in my head.  It was all old baggage from university.  When they asked me again, I couldn’t even believe it, but I knew deep down that I needed to accept the job.

winnipeg-symphony-orchestra-saskatoon_13045727548917

Back to last week:

My piece closed the night and the conductor of the orchestra, Julian Pellicano, thanked the parents and staff of the division, as well as the symphony, and introduced the piece.  He described the piece, then ended by saying that it was arranged by local, yet world-renowned composer Kenley Kristofferson which, while not exactly true, was cool because I was the only arranger he mentioned the entire night.

The orchestra and the choir killed it during their performance.  The kids were into it, the audience dug it, and the performers really nailed the piece.  It was so inspiring that, at the end of it, I thought that the only thing that could’ve made the night better was a beer.

A voice in the back of my mind told me that maybe, just maybe, they’d have beer backstage, but the voice in my mind was clear: You aren’t good enough to go backstage at the symphony.  But the more I thought about it rationally, the more I realized that I wrote the last tune of the night, this is the second time I arranged for the ensemble, and I knew so many performers through university or band camps or whatever.  And hey, the worst that could happen is nothing, right?

So I descended the stairs and slipped through the backstage door and into the hallway, where I hugged and shook hands with some of the RETSD teachers I knew and talked shop for a few minutes.  Then the VP of Artistic Operations stopped me (with a beer in his hand) and smiled as he congratulated me on tonight’s piece.  We talked more shop for a while, then told me about some potential new work on the horizon.  I couldn’t even believe he remembered my name, let alone (maybe) offering me new work! And as he said the next few words, a smile stretched across my face: “Why don’t you come into the green room for a beer?”

And I did and it was packed with both WSO and RETSD folk.  I saw the backstage manager and she remembered me from last year and so did the production manager.  Then Julian came up and we high-fived and laughed throughout the night.  Clearly, the story in my head was not the same as the story that was playing out in front of me, and only one of them can be true.  And guess what, it’s the one in front of you all the time.

Eric Whitacre (one of my favourite composers) once said to music students that “nobody ever asked about his GPA after he graduated,” the important thing is that he got there.  The older I get, the more true that it’s becoming.  We don’t all take the same road to get there sometimes.  Some roads are smoother, some roads have more ups than downs, while others have more downs than ups.  Some people got to practice traversing the road before they actually had to start the adventure and that’s okay too.  We don’t all get to the end the same way, but the important thing is that we get there.

And sometimes at the end, there’s a free beer in the green room.

-K

Music Ed Monday – Fine-Thanks-And-You (Part 1)

(This is part one of a two-part post.  The first part will introduce the topic, while the second will address some of the skills associated with what it looks like in a classroom, at least at a rudimentary level).

The CBC (our public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) ran a program this past year on its current events show about mindfulness in the classroom.  It portrayed various programs in Ontario who are adopting programs of self-awareness in students, but with a particular focus on emotional awareness.  The bit started with one of the show’s producers recounting his experience eating a square of chocolate with a Toronto-based mindfulness coach, framed around the idea of just “noticing” the chocolate.

– What does the wrapper look like?
– Is it shiny?
– How heavy is the chocolate?
– What does it smell like?
– What colour is it?
– (Notice and be aware of all of these things)

Then as he put it on his tongue, he received another set of questions/instructions:

– What is the first taste you notice?
– Is it melting? How is it melting?
– What are the first flavours you taste?

Then he bit down on the square:

– How much resistance is there against your teeth?
– Is it soft? Is it hard?
– Is it crunchy? Is it creamy?

And so forth.  This point may seem a bit laboured, but it’s relevant because I’ve eaten a lot (bold and italics) of chocolate in my life and my only question after the first square is usually “where is the next square,” followed by “what do you mean we’re out of chocolate?!” I would rarely notice anything about something I have a tremendous amount of experience with, which on the surface seems ridiculous, but I think that it happens everywhere and with the vast majority of people.

buddha-in-the-moment

The program aired during a week when my nephew was staying with me to attend basketball camp at the University of Manitoba.  When I came to pick him up, I’d ask how he was doing and he would always (5/5 times) answer with “Good, you?” That tells me that he’s mechanically responding with a socially acceptable “good” while being polite and asking me how I am as well (“you”).  Five out of five times; same tone, same vocal inflection.

The adult equivalent of this is “fine, thanks, and you?” which often blurs together as fine-thanks-and-you.  This breaks down as:

Fine – I’m alright; not bad, not great, but good enough that you probably won’t ask anymore about it.
Thanks – I’m being polite, look at how polite I’m being.
And You – I’m going to further my politeness by asking how you are.  I’m not really that interested, I just need to give the impression that I am long enough to talk about something else.

Part of this response is to give the illusion of strength to someone not terribly connected to you, like Frank the Mail Guy or Jane from Accounting.  Not that either of these people aren’t important, they just don’t need to know much more than fine-thanks-and-you about you.

But I think that the inherent problem is where you start really believing fine-thanks-and-you and you don’t actually know what’s going on with your own feelings either.  When you wake up, you’re more tired than you’ve ever been.  You’re quicker to anger.  Your neck and shoulders are always tight.  You’re drinking more.  It takes you hours to fall asleep and you can’t seem to figure out why.

Now imagine that there is a person who is more sensitive than you, less experienced, more tired, busier, and works in a highly competitive and judgemental environment.  Now we’re describing teenager and it has never been harder to be one.

In terms of trying to live up to impossible physical standards in a world where your social media accounts all demonstrate your passion for social justice while featuring photoshopped professional photography, it’s all been said.  There is pressure coming from all sides to be not only be perfect (which is impossible, by the way), but to actively share it.  The only thing more important than keeping it all together is the impression of keeping it all together.

And don’t get me wrong, I don’t escape it either and (probably) neither do you.  This is the world we live in now, but for the adults reading it, at least we don’t have to grow up in it.  And this is where mindfulness comes in.

Remember the chocolate from above? And the noticing? Let’s pair that with why we can’t seem to fall asleep at night and how hard it is to keep up with the Joneses on social media.  It all boils down to a lack of emotional awareness – you don’t actually know how you’re feeling.  It’s okay, that’s the world you’ve been brought up into, but now imagine a scenario where you would learn to manage your emotions when they’re at their most volatile.

Imagine you learned to emotionally aware at sixteen.  Imagine a world where you grew up learning to gain a handle on your emotions.  That’s what we’re talking about here.

start-where-you-areThankfully, I get to team teach with someone who beat this trend by about ten years.  Educational culture is just getting on the wagon of teaching mindfulness and emotional awareness and my teaching partner has already been doing it for about ten years.*

Sometimes, he’ll lead them in guided meditation, but not terribly often.  He’ll usually just ask “how are you doing in there today?” as a start, followed by something like “just notice the sensations in your body and how they relate to how you’re feeling.”  Not exactly that, but something like it.   It doesn’t have to be a full-on Buddhist meditation or three-hour kumbaya, it’s as easy as asking them how they’re feeling today and genuinely caring about the answer.

When I overhear that, I might think “I feel a tightness in my chest” (which usually means I’m anxious) or “my traps and neck are really tight” (meaning that I’m stressed) or that I feel no sensation and I’m just feeling good.  The difference is that I’m actually taking a second to acknowledge what I’m actually feeling in real time.  Not at the end of the day where I reflect, but I reflect in that moment, which is an important part of it.

I want to delve into some of the more day-to-day of it next week and what it looks like in my classroom, but I want to give some homework for the next seven days (because I’m a teacher, you know).

– In a distraction-free environment, notice how you’re feeling in a given moment; that is, draw attention to the sensations happening in your body and how they connect to your emotions.  You don’t have to do anything about it, just acknowledge that it’s there and don’t run away from it.  Acknowledge it, then keep acknowledging it.

That’s the start.  Let’s have a great week.
-K

Photo cred: http://www.personalexcellenceprogramme.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/buddha-in-the-moment.jpg

VGM Wednesday – “Demise of the Ritual” from Shadow of the Colossus

“Demise of the Ritual” from Shadow of the Colossus, by Ko Otani

Shadow of the Colossus is one of those games that I never, ever thought I would beat.  I don’t know why, but I had this fear of it, like I wasn’t very good or something.  I knew a ton of people who’d beaten it, but I never thought I’d be one of them…

… until one day I was.

I picked up the Ico/SOTC Remaster for PS3 and started playing it, getting to the third colossus and being unable to make the jump on the platform.  For those who’ve played, it’s this one:

3rdColossusJump

Ugh, so hard, except it’s not.  Once I learned the back jump control (R2 + looking back + triangle), it wasn’t hard at all.  I just didn’t understand the controls, which I needed to learn.  The game gave me a situation where I needed to figure it out so I could use it later on, which is just good game design.  Once I got it, I got it for the rest of the game.

Then I fought the colossus and fell into my old traps of thinking I couldn’t do it and that I wasn’t good enough to beat him.  How was I supposed to beat this game if I’m stuck on the third boss? There are thirteen more after this! So I kept running, falling off, and eventually dying.

But each time I died, I did a little better each time.  This is a concept that comes up in our classroom a lot: Failing better.  Every time I died, I was further along than I was before, and on the fourth round, I beat him and there was much rejoicing.  Then I fought the fourth one and beat it the first time, and the same with the fifth.  I was getting better.  I could do this.  As we say in the band room, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

I still died at times as the game progressed, but I was dying less and less and getting better at figuring the puzzle of beating each colossus.  The game got a lot more fun once I overcame my self-sabotage.  If I reframed my perception and my approach, the game (or, at least, the playing of it) was entirely different experience.  It was fun.  It was exhilarating.  There many times where Wander was literally holding on for dear life and I was right there with him.

Before I knew it, I was at the sixteenth and final colossus.  I had reached the end of a game I never thought I’d finish.

Malus-final-colossus

That’s where the music comes in.   Ko Otani’s score is absolutely gripping and I would finally hear “Demise of the Ritual” in the game environment.  A lot of the battle themes are moved around and reused, but not this one.  This one only happens during the last colossus and, in the spirit of honesty, I never thought I’d hear it while I was playing.

And hear it I did.  By the end of the nearly two-hour battle, I was humming all of the inside parts and singing some of the beautiful English Horn writing whenever it came up.  It’s a humbling experience to die five times on the final boss then win after hours of fighting, but I was failing better each time.  On my third attempt, I hadn’t even reached him yet and had no idea how to proceed.  It was one of those experiences where you just have no idea how you’ll ever succeed, where you collapse before you’re even close to the finish line.  And we’ve all been there, right? I’M SO TIRED AND IT’S ONLY TUESDAY!

But then you keep going.  You assess where you went wrong and what alternate solutions are.  You keep doing what you did right and changing what you did wrong.  If you don’t do something exactly correct, you practice until you get it, and that’s where video games shine:

If you can’t do it, you can’t move on.  There are no pity passes or half-marks, it’s pass/fail and that’s it*

In the end, I did it.  It was a gripping feeling to finally beat a game I didn’t think I could ever finish.  As weird as it sounds, sometimes I feel like a fraud or a phony for not beating games in the core repertoire.  Granted, there’s an argument that the need to finish games isn’t entirely necessary to experience them, but I try to finish things that I start.  I haven’t beaten Ocarina of Time yet, which is embarrassing, but I felt the same with it that I did with SOTC: I just can’t do it…

…except that I can, and taking down SOTC showed me that.  So  I guess I’d better get on that!

-K

PS: (I’m going to try to create some content again because that’s important)

* Mostly, not every single game has pass/fail, like that ridiculous option to skip parts you can’t beat in L.A. Noire, which is garbage.

Icelandic Folk Song Suite – PREMIERE!

The Winnipeg Wind Ensemble is premiering my new work, “Icelandic Folk Song Suite,” on May 3rd and 4th! Hope you can make it out!

The May 3rd premiere takes place at Gimli High School in my hometown of Gimli, MB, Canada.  They will be joined by the Gimli High School Senior Concert Band, which is really crazy because that’s the band I grew up in.  For me, it’s a day comprised of my musical upbringing – from concert band to composing.  I’m super grateful for everyone who’s making that day possible.

The May 4th premiere is in Jubilee Place at MBCI in Winnipeg, MB on Music Monday (which is also cool).  That building is such a terrific venue and we’re recording it that evening – again, so grateful for the WWE for recording it.  Full of grate.

Here’s the poster! Hope you can make it out!

-K

WWE2014_15_poster_WEB_HMPG

 

BEAT ALL THE FINAL FANTASIES: IX

Final_Fantasy_Logos3

[Some spoilers, but come on, the game came out fifteen years ago!]

I’ve really put this on the backburner, but I’m still slowly working through one of the most important series of my life.  I’ve put a lot of time and love into these stories, and it’s quite a bit different revisiting them as an adult – not better or worse, just different.

I was never really invested Final Fantasy IX, not like the other ones anyway.  It came out when I was in Grade 9, but I didn’t actually get around to it until the middle-to-end of Grade 12.  Rather than camping out in my room playing PlayStation (a friend’s PlayStation, actually), I was out with friends and all that.

That being said, I remember that I still enjoyed the experience of playing.  That’s not the same as just “enjoying the game,” though.  There are some games that I enjoyed being inside than actually getting through the narrative – Dragon Quest VIII, Shadow of the Colossus, Super Mario Galaxy, etc.

The experience was different this time – not better or worse, just different.  The Black Mage plot that dominates the first half of the game was more interesting and darker than I’d remembered.  Vivi’s identity crisis felt more real too; in fact, that was the most interesting part of the game to me.  I appreciated that Square changed gears from the angsty protagonists with the exuberant Zidane, but Vivi’s struggle for purpose and meaning was far more interesting than any of the other stories.

That being said, I was more aware of the writers’ efforts to give everyone a substantial story.  Steiner’s betrayal by Queen Brahne and his need to do right, Vivi’s identity quest, Garnet/Dagger to find herself away from labels and expectations… There was real planning there.

For me, the story really falls off the rails once Garland gets into the picture.  I appreciate the throwback (all of them in this game, actually), but the narrative really loses its focus.  Two worlds and clones and souls and… ugh.  Just too much.  The game is at its best when the story is focused and, in our case, that’s the beginning of the game.

As much as I’m ragging on it, there are many great elements.  The Ability system is really fun and is a dynamic way to buff up your characters.  All of the characters fight in a radically different way, like an early FF game and I love that.  I love the twists on the original classes too – put a racket on Dagger and she can actually do some damage, the Eiko/Dagger double summoner party is pretty great, extra magic on a Freya as a dragoon, Sword Magic between Steiner and Vivi… and the list goes on.

I also liked the soundtrack better this time around.  I wasn’t crazy about the renaissance flare of the game’s aesthetic on my first playthrough, but I really liked it now.  Even some of the smaller pieces that we only hear once stand on their own better than I remember, like “Border Village Dali”

I also appreciate how Uematsu builds thematically on character themes, which isn’t something that he always did.  For example, “Steiner’s Theme” and “Steiner’s Stealth” use his thematic material, even though he’s not the main protagonist, or “Vivi’s Theme” and “Fleeting Life” for Vivi.  Even all of the Freya/Burmecia thematic material shares the three-against-two ostinato – there’s just such care given to thematic material in the game.   Strangely, “Zidane’s Theme” in the OST isn’t really one that I equate with him, but more with exciting situations.  The narrative doesn’t do a great job of linking them together.

Particular favourites:

“Ambush Attack” (often with Black Waltzes; 4/4 + 5/4 never sounded so good!)

“Assault of the Silver Dragons” (really, only because it’s the FF8 sound library, which it very clearly and jarringly is)

“The Dark Messenger” (final boss theme, the fifth of Kuja’s thematic pieces in the score)

My cousin’s husband summed it up best when we were talking about this a few months back.  He said “I enjoyed FFVIII more than I remember, and FFIX less” and I feel about the same.  It was still a good experience, but I was quite done with it near the end.  Definitely worth the playthrough, maybe not a second one, though.

(What now? Do I finally have to beat FFII? I just don’t want to…)

-K

Sabbatical Roundup – Highlights

Today is the last day of my sabbatical.  Who would’ve thought 150 days would blow by so quickly?

It’s been a very productive five months, though, and I thought that I’d share some of my favourite events and projects from my sabbatical time.

1) Premiering Morgun with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

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There is something very surreal about getting to work with some of the best musicians in your community.  Writing something for the WSO has always been something of an unattainable goal in my musical life.  I always sensed that they were on a different level than I am (and they really are), but a select few people with the right connections took a risk on me and, before I knew it, I had the commission – paid for and all.

While the premiere was amazing, I’ll never forget the moment that they started rehearsing it.  Both the conductor and the ensemble were in plain clothes and only Matthew Patton (composer and curator of the Winnipeg New Music Festival, which all of you should attend), Peter Johnson (editor of the Lögberg Heimskringla newspaper), Vikingur Ólafsson (the amazing Icelandic pianist with whom I had the privilege of sharing the concert) and I were in the hall.  When the strings started stacking the harmony through those opening measures, there was a feeling of awe and beauty like I’ve never felt before.

I’ll write more about the experience later on because there’s just so much to say.  It is quite surprising where music takes you.  Here are some pictures from the premiere!

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2) Meeting Maddy’s Mom

During the summer, I was asked to write a piece to commemorate the life of Madison Fleming, a 10th-grader from Olds, AB who had died suddenly just after school had been dismissed for the summer.  While the research was emotional, I was hardly prepared to walk into this girl’s home and sit with her Mom, Pam.

I wrote about the experience in Olds in an earlier post, but I didn’t write about meeting Pam – I’m not sure why, I just didn’t.  Her house was beautiful and well-kept and she greeted us at the door.  She had a friend with her and they were clearly talking about Maddy before Karri (the band teacher and commissioner) and I arrived, but she still smiled as she led us inside.

While looking at pictures and hearing stories, it was clear that the family was so happy and fulfilled before Maddy died.  While she was a fighter, she had her whole family behind her and they cherished every moment.  When you see pictures of the family at the lake or at her baseball game, there was a sense that no time was ever wasted, but instead was genuinely spent together.

Pam is a profoundly kind person and you know as soon as you see her.  She just brings an energy of warmth wherever she goes and I think about her family often.  It is quite surprising where music takes you.  #Kindnessmatters

3) Banff!

It took me a few weeks to really realize how transformative my time at the Banff Centre really was.  I worked so hard, I was exhausted, I was bitchy in the middle of it, but it was so worth it.  I met some incredible human beings, some wonderful musicians, and I got to work full-time on music for an ensemble for which I’d never written before.

Some of the people I got to meet:

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Sammy, Kelsey, Abby and Neil

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These lovely ladies, Kelsey and Jodi

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Here’s Abby, Jodi and Kenna, as well as Team Australia (Jessica and Xina, who are some of my very favourites)

And so many others too! Including the wonderful Sarah Slean, who is also one of my very, very favourite human beings.

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And here’s where we were…

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4) The Release of Horus Heresy: Drop Assault

I’ve worked on very few contracts/commissions that actually scare me – DuckTales: Scrooge’s Loot, The Matters of Kindness – but Drop Assault was definitely one of them.

I play Dungeons & Dragons with someone who is very serious about the Warhammer 40K universe, but particularly the Horus Heresy origin story of it.  When I found out that Complex Games had gotten the rights to make a game set in that universe, I was hoping that I could write for it and, thankfully, I was the guy.

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The advance for the contract was almost-entirely spent on upgrading my instrument libraries.  I knew that what I had wasn’t good enough for a game of that scope and depth, so I took inventory of what I needed and went up from there.

That being said, I’m super proud of the game and I’m quite pleased with the score.  We worked really hard on it and it took many resubmissions to get it right, but we definitely got it.  You can pick it up here if you want to check it out!

5) Finishing the “Icelandic Folk Song Suite”

It was the hardest thing I ever wrote – and by “hardest,” I mean the most technically complicated and harmonically complex.  It’s Level 5 (second hardest level in Concert Band music), four movements and eleven minutes long.  I had it kicking around in my head for about a year, but I knew that I had to get it down, I just needed the time…

And it took about six solid months.  Granted, I didn’t work on it every day, but it was always there writing itself in my head as I was doing other things.

It premieres on May 4th, 2015 by the Winnipeg Wind Ensemble.  Going to be a wild good time!

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There is so much more I could write about (getting published in The Teacher, for example), but there’s something to be said for just having the time and energy to do things right.  Not to be rushed to finish a commission or a game contract, but just having the time to make it as great as it can be.

I am so grateful to my school and school division for allowing me to take one semester to write.

Now back to the classroom :)

-K

 

Horus Heresy: Drop Assault Released!

Long live the emperor, Drop Assault is released for iOS today.  You can pick it up here.

horusheresyiconPut together by the teams at Complex Games and Crooz, this Clash-of-Clans-style mobile game has been such a great experience for me.  I’ve always wanted to work on a dark and gritty game with an epic orchestral score and I finally got to do it with this game.

And what a game it is.  The controls are tight, there’s so much care and detail in the environment and so much attention to the Warhammer 40,000 lore.  The graphics are really clean (but certainly not lacking in detail) and the animations are really smooth.  There are no rough edges anywhere in the experience.

Here’s the trailer, to get you started:

Musically, it was a really big job, even though it was only 8 minutes or so. Because of the grandness of the universe, the score demanded a breadth that I don’t think is found in most mobile games.  That’s not to say that it sounds as grand as film music, which I like on its own, but this score still needed to feel like it was for a game and I tried to keep that at the front of my mind and the edge of my pencil.  Movie universes are nice, but there’s a depth that’s lost because of the forced progression of the narrative and scene structure – you can’t just hang out in a movie scene like you can in a game.  The music of Drop Assault still has the structure and design of a game soundtrack and that’s super important to me.

The music is mostly orchestral, but featuring extended percussion like a tom ensemble, taiko drums, shakers or tam and gong.  Because the universe is so mechanical, I had the urge to put chains and gears in it, but I thought it might be overkill with the SFX (which are awesome, btw).  In many of the big pieces, the low strings drive the ostinato, so finding the right string ensemble was key.  The one that I ended up using has 24 sampled celli and 8 sampled double basses, which is about two-to-three times a normal orchestral low string section.  That’s not to say that there still isn’t ample non-string writing – there’s a lot of epic brass and moving woodwind lines too.  This game is one of those few times where I really wanted to use every spice in the spice rack.

I talk about the music further in this developer diary entry from Complex Games:

I’m really proud of this game (and its music, to be honest) and I hope that you all pick it up and give it a go!

-K

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