Surfing on a Constantly Shifting Bed of Earthquaking Sand Dunes

You don’t get to just change one part of your life at once. That’s not what life is. Life is where you surf on a constantly shifting bed of earthquaking sand dunes and you try to grab what happiness you can as it floats by amidst the chaos. At this point, I can hardly go anywhere without running into a friendly face—whether it’s someone I know from the Internet, or someone from a video game music conference.

Written By

Michael Garrett Steele

Last week, I talked about going to a school that changed my life. The thing is, you don’t get to just change one part of your life at once. That’s not what life is. Life is where you surf on a constantly shifting bed of earthquaking sand dunes and you try to grab what happiness you can as it floats by amidst the chaos.

Or something.

Here’s the recap:

1. It starts with a bad job in Boston, and me hightailing it back to Arkansas to pursue music after a lifetime of pushing it away.

2. Then it moves to a grad school in Vermont that fundamentally, completely blew my existence apart and reassembled it in the best way possible.

Going back to undergrad was meant to refocus my attention towards music study. But after getting my second degree from my Arkansas alma mater, I sort of backslid a little bit on the creative front. I didn’t know much about recording. I’d grown a lot in my theory knowledge, but it wasn’t enough to compete in the modern media scoring landscape. I eventually just took a sales job for a tech company out of a need to stay afloat. That turned into an administrative job, contracted through the state.  Once again, I’d wandered away from music. But there was one upside to the gig. For exactly one week a month, I had an enormous pile of work to do. For the other three weeks, my job was to frantically look busy – and I wasn’t allowed to take work off of anybody else’s plate. It wasn’t great, but nobody tried to stab me at work, either. And after my first gig, working in inpatient psych, that was sort of my metric for what a “good job” looked like. I never got stabbed, and I never took work home with me. In my mind, it was sort of a dream gig for a grad student. I could research and listen quietly at my desk in the off weeks. And whatever else happened, I knew I’d get out on time to go home and write. And that wouldn’t be too bad, right?

But I was starting to get mired again. I felt depressed about not advancing any further musically. And ironically, that depression was about to pull me into chickening out of grad school. So, despite not having any prospects of my own lined up, I jumped at the chance to change things up when my wife Mae told me she’d landed a job in Austin, Texas. It was a job similar to the one she had—working in the marketing office of a small liberal arts school. But there was more room for advancement, and an exciting environment. We packed up and took off.

So everything was in chaos at once. When I traveled out for my first week-long grad school residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, we were subletting a one-bedroom apartment filled with cardboard boxes that we weren’t even bothering to unpack. While I was at school, I was dealing with all of the glorious chaos mentioned in my previous post—constant workshops, concerts, masterclasses, lectures, and more. But I was simultaneously fielding emails, texts, photos, and forms as my wife tried to find us a place to live.

When I came back, I started plugging along on my grad school work—and on our bills. I got work as a temp. That was a beautifully surreal stretch of time. Temping, I worked in a jewelry warehouse. I worked in a printing shop. I worked front desk jobs and go-fer gigs at an ad agency and a title company, and I directed traffic at football games. Whatever non-sequitur direction life took me on a given day, I came back home and tried to figure out new ways to write music. In the past, I’d always been a dots-on-lines person. But if I was going to be serious about scoring for media, I had to learn to write pieces that could exist self-contained in software.

I was going to be serious about scoring for media, I had to learn to write pieces that could exist self-contained in software.

A lot of modern composition happens in programs called digital audio workstations. (You can say DAW, if you’re short on time). There are a few of them (Logic, Cakewalk, ProTools, Reaper), but they share common functions as well as a lot of complexities that I was going to have to figure out.

As an undergrad, I did all of my film scoring work using sheet music. Frankly, it always went over better than I deserved. Scoring film demands precision. Programs like Logic will lay the movie out with the music under it, so that you can minutely adjust the way that every piece fits together. I didn’t have that. I had a stopwatch and a quick finger on the pause button of the films I was scoring. Somehow, it always worked out. I scored three student shorts that way. I’d write the music out on a student version of Finale from 2003, and I’d record it with my classmates. I blared a click track in my ear and became known for my wildly animated conducting. We recorded it all live, in classrooms that weren’t built for it at all, and we made it work as best we could. Looking back, I’m proud of what we did for a group of people feeling our way through the dark. We built a community around it. One director called the band my “army of kind strangers,” and the name stuck. It reminded me of how incredibly fortunate I was to be taking these steps, and working with these people.

But my experience was fairly limited. I’d never written music without a film to score, or at least a story to tell in my own mind. (The academics refer to that as “programmatic music.”) And I’d never really used a DAW. I struggled along at both. In grad school I was given assignments to analyze, understand, and rescore—everyone from Bernard Herrmann to Tan Dun. I used gosh-awful MIDI instruments because it’s what I could afford and I had to keep going. Meanwhile, I wrote a non-programmatic piece and realized it was maybe my most complete summation of everything I loved. It had late-Romantic French sax quartet schmaltz, as well as nods to Japanese video game score harmonies and Stax Records vibes. It also had a fully realized form. (Scoring gives you a lot of opportunities to weasel out of doing that.)

Meanwhile, my wife was getting to know her co-workers. Completely coincidentally, one of her new friends at the marketing office, Lauren, was heavily involved with Austin’s surprisingly robust video game music scene.

Playing video game music on guitars is like playing Charlie Parker melodies on a trombone.

When I say that, I don’t mean “composers who write music for video games,” though there is certainly a healthy number of those, many of whom I’m delighted to now call my friends. But in this case, I mean “rock bands who plug guitars into giant amps in bars and play video game music.” If you’ve never seen this happen, it’s incredible. Most of this music was written for computer playback. As the composers were writing wild arpeggios in parallel 3rds and 6ths, they weren’t actually counting on human hands ever playing this music. But people do it. They go to the woodshed and they learn these impossible melodies the way an aspiring sax player will work over a Charlie Parker solo. But at least Parker knew what suited his hands. This is like playing Parker melodies on a trombone.

The Video Games Live orchestra, which features a few of my buds

Our friend Lauren’s band is called The Returners. They’re not the only band that does this in Austin. There’s also Gimmick!, Descendants of Erdrick, and a few others here and there. If you live in a city of any size at all, there’s probably at least one band doing this near you. (Or a string quartet, or a group of improvisatory jazz and new music nerds.) But it’s pretty unusual to have a whole web of them like we do in Austin.

Every now and then, The Returners would need a vocalist for a piece, and I’d get to join them onstage. We played everything from writers’ retreats to bars to enormous video game conventions. But as fun as it was, it was just a portent of what we were about to get into.

One day, Lauren sent me a message. Her friend Sebastian was doing a large-scale, licensed tribute album to a landmark Final Fantasy game. She wondered if I wanted to put a track together. I’d never done much arrangement, but I jumped at the chance. Older video game scores are ripe for re-interpretation. There are some fantastic musical ideas happening, but owing to the restrictions of the technology, there’s a lot of room to arrange and interpret. Some tracks are clearly emulating an orchestra or a jazz band. Some are more of a Rorschach test. All of them feed into a cover music scene infused with a vibrant, buzzing, anarchic fervor for a broad body of often-haunting, widely overlooked music. For my part of the album, I took one of the most gorgeous, haunting melodies that Nobuo Uematsu ever wrote, and turned it into a gleefully shambling P.D.Q. Bach-esque monstrosity full of Otamatone, whistling, and bassoon reeds.

In case you’re curious to hear an Otamatone, this is Mklachu’s Otamatone cover of “Rainbow Road” from the console game Mario Kart: Double Dash!

It was a blast, and the album took off in a way we weren’t expecting. That tribute album blossomed into a full-on record label called Materia Collective. They continue to release community-driven tribute albums on a regular basis, but they also put out original game scores now as well. It was a blast to get in on the ground floor. But most important (at least for me) are the friendships I’ve made through the organization and the scene at large. That’s grown to include not only performers, but composers, as well. Like any scene, there’s a lot of overlap in roles. It’s not at all uncommon for people to become favored session musicians for scoring after making a name for themselves as fan arrangers and performers.

My most recent track for Materia includes a trumpet player from Chicago, a bassist from Connecticut, a guitar player from Portugal, and a flutist from Brazil. (Many of them are composers to some extent in their own rights.) At this point, I can hardly go anywhere without running into a friendly face—whether it’s someone I know from the Internet, or someone from a video game music conference. (I’ve been to two of them and can still scarcely believe such a wondrously niche thing exists on the scale that it does.) That interconnectedness is perhaps what defines the scene.

In fact, it led me around the world and right back home. Several of my closest friends from the group are actually people from right here in Austin! They’ve become confidants, friends, and frequent collaborators. Some of my favorite music and greatest opportunities have spun out of it.

Stephen Robert Froebe, Brian Diamond, and Michael Garrett Steele

Stephen Robert Froeber, Brian Diamond, and myself at a game music festival. Froeber is currently in Germany and Diamond is an Irishman living in Scotland. We met up in National Harbor, Maryland.

The larger my world gets, the smaller it is.

Our ability to write and record music around the globe relies on our ability to produce and deliver polished recordings, wherever we may be. Between my newfound technical acumen and the increasingly confident voice for orchestration I picked up at VCFA, I have been able to find—and have become an effective member of—a community of people as wildly committed to my most esoteric passion as I am. And the more I enmesh myself into all of my various spheres, the more they start overlapping. One of my VCFA friends is from Toronto. I asked him once, as a joke, whether he knew a game music friend who leads a jazz band in Toronto. It turned out he did. A Chicago VGM friend and a Chicago VCFA friend went to school together. And so it goes. The larger my world gets, the smaller it is. These convergences and connections are endlessly beautiful to me, and I feel more at home in more places than I ever dreamed that I would. I’ve even gotten to be the person to *make* those connections once or twice.

Both of these musical worlds thrive on connection. VCFA, with its emphasis on distance learning with modern tools, and the video game music community, made of far-flung, passionate devotees who grew up embracing technology. In the end, I owe just about everything I have to these groups of people, and the connections that I’ve made among them.