Jonne Valtonen Interview: Finnish Demoscene Musician (December 2008)
Finnish-born Jonne Valtonen became one of the most popular demoscene musicians during the Amiga years. He composed numerous electronic demos under the alias Purple Motion, including the acclaimed album Musicdisk. Since then, he has become a composer of professional game projects, ranging from Death Rally to Project S-11 to Stuntcar Extreme.
More recently, Valtonen has received much training in classical, contemporary, and cinematic composition and arrangement. Following some involvement in the Merregnon trilogy and various concerts, he was assigned the main arranger of Symphonic Shades. In this interview, he discusses his feelings about the concert and recollects his demoscene and game works. This interview originally occurred at the site VGM Rush and has since been republished.
Interview Subject: Jonne Valtonen
Interviewer: François Bezeau
Editor: François Bezeau, Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening, Thomas Boecker
François: Three months after the Symphonic Shades concert, how do you look back on the event? Do you have any favorite moments? Is there anything you would have done differently?
Jonne Valtonen: I do not think I would have done anything differently. I am still a bit exhausted from the whole process, since it took me about half a year to finish. I analyzed a lot of scores during that time and tried to make the music as efficient and interesting as possible. Of course you could improve pieces indefinitely, but I am very, very happy how everything turned out!
I think the most favorite moment for me was when at the rehearsals, the concertmaster walked past me and slapped my back and gave me this "alright" nod. Also the overwhelming applauds were really heart-warming and something I will never forget.
François: How did you feel about working with pieces from one of Europe's most popular VGM composers?
Jonne Valtonen: I was excited writing for a professional orchestra of very high quality. This is really a luxury! Of course I have arranged and orchestrated smaller amounts of pieces for the historic Leipzig concerts and PLAY! A Video Game Symphony, for example. But Symphonic Shades featured so much music, solely composed by one person: Chris Huelsbeck. I felt that I should try to bring the atmospheres of the original pieces stand out as much as possible.
I did add a lot that was not in the original music, and this was something I was afraid of. Just the fact that I would deviate too much from the original, but I am really glad that people understood the idea of bringing out the whole concept of the song instead of just strictly writing the notes of the original music.
François: It was announced that there will be another symphonic concert in 2009, to occur once again in Cologne. Will you be part of this event? If so, can you tell us a little on what to expect?
Jonne Valtonen: Yes, I have been asked to take the whole task. I am extremely flattered since it underlines that the orchestra liked the arrangements I did for Symphonic Shades. I think it is really going to be exciting! The general concept is absolutely great. I believe there will be more information coming soon.
François: Electronic and orchestral sound palettes make quite a contrast! What triggered your desire to study classical music?
Jonne Valtonen: I wanted to be better at my craft. I thought I was doing a good job before I got into this school, but when I got there...
I think I learned more in one year than what I had learned in the last five years by myself. Classical music (and the early music before that) is something where everything is originally from. How our instruments have evolved, how our aesthetics in music have evolved, why there has been restrictions, and why they have been broken. So basically I wanted to understand the history of Western music better.
François: This transition from electronic to orchestral music also occurred in game music, where many recent games try to emulate films down to their scores. What is your opinion on this modern trend?
Jonne Valtonen: If it works in the favor of the game then I do not have any objections. Of course this is very subjective...
I think it all comes down to whether the music brings the game out from the computer screen or not. I think orchestral music is a great way of archieving these 3D feelings and big emotions. When you consider the fact that one orchestra player has used their time intensively rehearsing and studying their instruments for decades before getting into a professional orchestra and then continuing to improve/rehearsing and always trying to get the best results of their instrument. Then you multiply this by 80-100...
François: Going back fifteen years, it would have been difficult to picture you behind such elaborated orchestral music, for you were composing electronic music as part of the European demoscene. It seems you have walked some distance in the world of music. But what made you take the first step?
Jonne Valtonen: I always dreamed of writing for an orchestra. The biggest impact was when I realized that the game soundtracks were slowly moving from tracked/MIDI pieces to full orchestral music and to more seriously made music. And by this I mean making harmonies that evolve, making efficient passages between different musical situations, making efficient orchestrations, etc.
So I have been studying composition and orchestration seriously for the last 5.5 years. I am not making this up if I say that I have been doing this 16 hours a day for the last five years. When I got to study classical (modern, etc.) composition in 2003, I had to catch up quite a bit. It was not that easy, coming from the pop music side of things. Naturally I did study composition on my own before, but what a difference it makes to be in a school where you have excellent teachers and everything is laid out pedagogically right!
François: What were your musical inspirations in your early days? And nowadays? Do you have a final destination in mind, a goal or dream to achieve?
Jonne Valtonen: Electronic music and tracked music, to be precise. Pop-electronic music done by Jan Hammer, Jean Michel Jarre, Enigma, Massive Attack, Portishead, Wendy Carlos, Mouse from Mars, Pink Floyd (although not so electronic). After I got into school I have been listening to a lot of modern classical music. I really love it even though it took me a while to appreciate it. Talking about pop, I have been listening to Tori Amos, Muse, Radiohead, Cardigans. Of course I like different movie soundtracks as well (Williams, etc.).
About the final destination. I just try to be as good as I am able to be. I think if I just can keep working with the thing I love, then I am living the biggest dream I can think of.
François: Future Crew won several prizes at competitions, having created some of the best and most memorable demos. Which would you consider as your top achievement? Also, were there any scene musicians whose works you admired?
Jonne Valtonen: I think of my mod/s3m tunes I like "when the heavens fall" the most. I think that is probably my top achievement. I believe that I was able to grab something from me to that piece, which I do not think I was able to do the same way with any of the other pieces that I did.
I really liked Jester's, Heatbeat's, Uncle Tom's, Dizzy's, Dr. Awesome's tracks. Too many to list, actually. All the oldies that sound great still.
François: In 2004, you released your first album: the demoscene-inspired Musicdisk. Personally, I found it was a brilliant work! How was it received in general? Do you have plans to release a second volume?
Jonne Valtonen: Thank you very much! It was sort of a conclusion for my scene work. I just wanted to have a good closure. And that was also a good reason spending all my money on synths. I took a copy of 1,000 units of it and now it is sold out. So I got my own money back and a good conclusion for the demoscene days, so yes, I am happy!
I do not have any current plans for volume 2. But one never knows, maybe in 10 years I get all nostalgic and start working again...
François: Timo Haanpää worked with you on several projects. Can you tell us a little about how you met and how he collaborates with you?
Jonne Valtonen: I was in a pop music school for a while in the early days where Timo was teaching guitar and studio related things. Eventually we just became friends. And suddenly we got a space for our own studio and started acquiring studio gear... We have been doing that for 10 years now, and there are still pre-amps and microphones to be purchased! Timo mixes almost all of my music/projects and plays usually all the guitar (electronic/classical) parts when needed. He is a really good guitarist and we have been playing together on several different bands.
François: Like many other scene people, you have eventually made a switch to the gaming industry. How different was it to work on commercial products? Did your demoscene background help you in any way? Did you have to modify the way you wrote music?
Jonne Valtonen: There were a lot of scene members forming game companies in vaguely the middle of the 90s. They knew me and my work, so they asked me to write music for their games.
In the beginning of the 90s, I was tied to this block form, the tracker edit window. I think this affected the way I was thinking music: in blocks. Today, because of my education, I am able to write out the music more quickly. As well as I think out the wholeness of the piece before I am writing it down. Now I tend to see music as a force that is gravitating towards something and mainly thinking the music as a whole entity.
I do not believe I ever would have understood how to do proper development, for example, when working with trackers. This is of course different for anyone, but I believe I was a bit trapped in the software restrictions back then.
François: How did friends and family that might not have been much into computers and video games react to your music and choice of career?
Jonne Valtonen: I think I really(!) did not consider this as a career opportunity till I was 24 or so. At first my parents did not believe in it too much, especially when there were no family members or relatives or anybody in my family that actually did anything else than what you would consider normal work. No arts or whatnot. They always supported me, though, even when I was doing this crazy beelb plop blb music!
François: Do you think game music can be enjoyable on its own? If so, what do you think is the key to achieve this? Is it possible for all types of project?
Jonne Valtonen: Why not. Of course a lot of the in game music that I have heard is more towards sound design, mixed music, and soundscapes, but I do not see why those would have not been enjoyable on their own either.
François: Out of all games you composed, which project did you enjoy the most?
Jonne Valtonen: I think working with Death Rally. It was my first real title that got published that featured only my music. It was an introduction of what things might be. That there might be some change of doing this a bit more professionally.
François: Some of these games had moderate success in terms of sales, yet none of them were blockbusters. Is working for a popular company on a huge title something you would like to do one day?
Jonne Valtonen: Of course, especially if that would mean that there would be more budget to work with an orchestra or whatnot. But this is something I do not really think too much about — what kind of success the game might or might not have when it is released. I just try to be as efficient and good as am able. I believe that all the possible fame and possible success comes from just working hard, doing the best you can every time, no matter the size of the project and trying to learn as much as possible of the craft you love.
François: It seems a number of game composers eventually left the industry to compose for films or pursue a musical career in the mainstream industry. You have worked on films and been part of rock bands, yet you still compose game music. What makes you come back to it every time?
Jonne Valtonen: If the project is interesting, then I go for it. Especially if I got to work with a live orchestra. I also like playing games a lot. Fallout 3 has seriously taken a lot of work hours from my schedule recently!
François: Do you have any tips to share with people who might aspire to work in the music industry similarly to you?
Jonne Valtonen: Just love of what you do and try to improve yourself as much as you can. Work. Study. Be brave. Being brave is something that I believe is the meaning of life anyway. Being brave enough to choose the path that you want, and not the one that is chosen for you or that might seem easy. You have only one life.
François: What should be expected from you in the near future?
Jonne Valtonen: Symphonic Fantasies is something that is officially confirmed. This year also I had the chance to work on a major Japanese PS3 title as an arranger, and I hope for an official announcement to be made soon. Besides, I have been working on a modern string orchestra piece and I am working on a modern puppet theatre opera (chamber), which hopefully will be performed in the spring.
Actually I have been trying to have a sort of a vacation. These last 5-6 years have been really intensive and basically I have not had any vacation or have not relaxed at all in this time. I think it has starting to show a bit, so I have been taking some time for myself recently. But work starts again right after Christmas and I will see if couple of deals go through and I would get some new game projects to work on.
François: Besides music, what are your other interests in life?
Jonne Valtonen: Walking in the nature is something I do quite often and which I really like. Sounds a bit of a clichéd, but I do not mind about it too much.
Now that I am thinking of it, almost everything in my life is connected to music more or less. I do read, play games and watch movies, but have not been doing it too much lately. The books seem to be always music theory, biography, orchestration books, orchestral scores! Fallout 3 is on heavy rotation at the moment, although I tend to listen to the musics on it more analytically, though...
François: Thank you for your time and kindness. Would you like to add anything else before we conclude?
Jonne Valtonen: Thank you for your great questions! The only thing I would like to add is that be brave and make the most of it. No extra lives around.