David Bergeaud Interview: Ratchet & Clank Maestro (August 2008)
David Bergeaud began his career as a motion picture composer during the '80s. The French-born musician eventually scored the pictures in motion from video games developed by Insomniac Games. In game music circles, his name is associated with Sony Computer Entertainment's Ratchet & Clank series, including the two most recent titles, Secret Agent Clank and Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest for Booty. His other works include Disruptor and the original Resistance: Fall of Man.
In a rare interview opportunity, Bergeaud took a moment to go behind-the-scenes with us by sharing about his past, present, and future, as well as presenting his vision on music and its direction in the gaming industry. This interview originally occurred at the site VGM Rush and has since been republished.
Interview Subject: David Bergeaud
Interviewer: François Bezeau
Editor: François Bezeau, Chris Greening
Coordination: François Bezeau
François: Can you first tell us what were the motivations that led you in the direction of music as a career? Were there any artists that served as models?
David Bergeaud: My parents are both artists. My mother was a singer, my father a stage director and choreographer, and many of my family members were in the arts or entertainment. I grew up while on tour surrounded by music, musicians, dancers, jugglers, performers and bohemian artists, so it's fair to say that this apple did not fall too far from the tree. When I was 13 I set out on my own and felt drawn to America and the alluring promises of Tinseltown. At 15, after bouncing around a couple of years, I landed (literally) in front of Grauman's Chinese theater with two suitcases, a few dollars to my name, and an irrational optimism which had me convinced that I would some day compose music for the movies.
François: You were born in France and now are a resident of Los Angeles. Through these changes in location, there is no doubt that your career was in evolution. Please tell us about the course of your musicianship and, if you have one, have you reached your goal yet?
David Bergeaud: At the risk of sounding like a fortune cookie "it's not about the destination, it's about the journey blah blah..." I still don't know what goal if any there is to reach — I strive daily to be a better musician and a better person. It is certain that the 40+ countries I have visited have left an indelible imprint on my being and therefore on my music. I am artistically very curious and always striving to try new things. Exploration is an ongoing motif is all areas of my life, artistically and otherwise. Obviously I am very comfortable with world music, but my European background also feeds my love of classical music, while the 20+ years spent in America account for my love of rock & roll and jazz. The electronica-loving-techie in me is to blame for all the synthesizers and computers I own and with which I spice things up.
François: Since the '80s, you have been composing for TV and films, but it was not until 1996 that you made a foray in the gaming industry. How has this introduction happened? Were you actively seeking to become a game composer or was this the result of some sort of luck?
David Bergeaud: In 1996, Ted Price — president of Insomniac games — asked me if I wanted to score a game (Disruptor) and I liked the challenge of trying my hand at a new medium. I had scored a lot of films and television, but had not had an opportunity to compose for a game. From the start our partnership was creatively stimulating. Ted has a unique ability to lead through inspiring his team rather than enforcing some singular vision, and there is a prevailing atmosphere of congenial collaboration within Insomniac which is very productive and inspired. So a couple of years later, when he approached me to do Ratchet & Clank, I welcomed the opportunity to join the team and create a musical tapestry for the world they were designing.
François: Is composing the score for a video game different than composing for a film? Do you prefer one over the other?
David Bergeaud: I can't say that I prefer any one task over another — I like them equally and value the differences inherent to each. In my personal approach, I focus on the primary use of the music as it pertains to each medium scored, whether it be commercials, video games, television, movies, live theater, etc... There is an inherent arc to each of these mediums that affects the spotting and content of each score. Even a 60 second commercial has an inherent arc which calls for a certain musical narrative.
Whereas a film score accompanies the narrative of the project, a game score tends to address the player's experiential perspective. One thing to keep in mind during gaming is that the player might get stuck in a level for 20 or 40 minutes, whereas a movie goer never finds themselves looping the same scene for 40 minutes. This completely affects the type of music and orchestration as well as the way a piece is constructed in each of these cases.
François: Talking more generally, how do you go at writing music? What are your inspirations? Also, how much creativity freedom do you have when working on a project at Insomniac Games?
David Bergeaud: As I mentioned earlier, working with Insomniac is a very collaborative experience. I am given a lot of creative freedom within the framework of each project. At the onset of each project, I explore styles and develop some sketches which I submit to the creative team. We try out various instrumentation, styles, tempi, cultural references, etc. When we feel we have hit on something which accurately represents the musical pallet of the game I start applying the themes and colors throughout each level of the game.
As to my technique for composing, I don't have a single method. I am always trying to come up with new and fresh ways of crafting a composition. I find that as soon as something becomes too familiar and comfortable I tend to shake it up. This helps me keep things fresh and original. Sometimes I compose at the piano, while at other times I may begin by making a batch of odd loops. I can just as easily start a composition with a traditional chord/melody structure or begin with a bass line rif. Each of these methods triggers a different part of the creative brain and leads to a new domino effect.
François: The road to becoming a composer (or working in the music industry at all) is often long and difficult. Would you have any tips to share with people who might be aspiring to follow in your footsteps?
David Bergeaud: I always state the obvious, which is to seek out opportunities to write and collaborate with as many people and on as many diverse projects as possible. I have found that ours is a business of consistency and relationships built up over time. Enthusiasm and a positive attitude, a good sense of humor, and an "adaptable" ego are all things I find useful. There is always a risk of taking oneself too seriously and I always remind myself how fortunate I am to be "playing" music for a living.
François: Out of all the soundtracks you created, which would you consider your favorite(s) and why? On a smaller scale, which single track(s) are you most proud of?
David Bergeaud: I have composed over 8000 pieces of music to date so I have a hard time remembering my favorite single track. I guess that on a personal level the album project I am involved in with my wife is very close to my heart. It weaves many styles, instruments and colors that sum much of my artistic life and musical journey. Next to that would be Ratchet because of the creative freedom I have been given to compose over 800 cues, with styles ranging from bombastic epic orchestral themes to heavy beat-driven techno and screaming guitars, while going through opera, african, klesmer music, etc. But in the dozens of other projects there are individual creative moments that I remember as being very moving for one reason or another — maybe a great connection with a particular director or maybe an instrument that touched me.
François: Outside of your works, are there any game composers or soundtracks that you admire?
David Bergeaud: We live in a really incredible time when creativity abounds and there are many great composers and music makers out there. Technology has broken a lot of academic and socio-economic barriers and allowed an influx of fresh blood and new approaches to music making. It think that is why there is so much cultural and creative fusion going on in the arts. So while there are way too many talented composers for me to mention, if I had to pick a name out of a hat, it would be Michael Giacchino. I think he has a very original voice and I really like his creative choices — he's also a very nice and humble guy.
François: The are two ways to listen to game music: while playing the games (in context) and on a standalone basis. Going with the latter, do you think it might be possible for non-gamers to actually appreciate this kind of music. What elements would appeal more to them? How do you see game music compared to mainstream categories like pop, rock, and jazz, which is usually what most people listen to?
David Bergeaud: Well, to start with I have written pop, rock, jazz, classical, world, and every other kind of music for games, so I don't think it necessarily deserves its own category.
That being said, music composed for an audio visual medium such as cinema or video game has the potential to stand out on its own, but since it was likely not created with that purpose in mind, it has to "transcend" it's original medium, which is rare but possible. So I think that just like there are memorable film scores that have transcended the original movies for which they were composed and gone on to make their indelible mark on our cultural landscape, so too can game music.
François: With time, everything changes. In accordance to the evolution of game music, do you find that it is going in the right direction? Many Western games are trying to imitate films more and more, and their soundtracks are following this trend by adopting an ambient/atmospheric approach, often using an orchestral sound palette. This is frequently to the cost of originality and memorable themes. Do you agree with this and do you think it is encouraging?
David Bergeaud: Now, as to whether or not orchestral music comes at the expense of memorable themes, I would bet that most people can still hum a bar or two of Star Wars, Jaws, Indiana Jones, E.T., and most of John Williams' other orchestral themes. And as for originality I don't think that Ennio Morricone has ever been outdone while most of his scores are predominantly orchestral.
But what is encouraging is that game music is now a medium that can afford orchestras when and if there is a need for them. Now whether or not an orchestra score is called for in any game should be weighed by the creative intentions of the designers, producers, and the composer. If we're talking about an epic period action-adventure game, then I think that nothing will ever replace the power and nobility of eight french horns or 60 string players, but is it the right approach for an urban street fighting game? Probably not. Now pounding a hip-hop synth bass line during a car chase could appear to be derivative, but it's also culturally relevant, which enhances the experience of the player.
Having said that, the trend of game music "imitating" soundtracks as you point out closely follows a parallel evolution which is making games feel more three dimensional and more cinematic — something twenty years ago we all use to dream of (wouldn't it be cool to fly alongside Luke Skywalker and fight the imperial army?). Gaming has made that possible and the experience is made all the more believable because of the movie soundtrack that blasts along with the action.
But I also don't think that all games should or will try to emulate films. In fact, it's such a young medium with so many other things to offer that there is still plenty of room for fresh inventions and creative originality and that is why I am drawn to it.
François: During the '80s and early '90s, game music was unique mainly because of its sound, which usually came from limited chips. Nowadays, it comes in every kinds of sound, just like any other types of music. So, it might not be as unique as before on this basis, added to a change in composition styles in many cases. Certain fans are starting to lose interest in the new generation of music as they can't find anything special anymore. What do you think could be a solution for game music to retain a uniqueness? Should it really be different from other music categories?
David Bergeaud: While technical limitations can breed some form of originality I don't think we can look endearingly at the "good ol' days" of single chip monophonic 8 bit scores, like say Pac-Man, and long for those bye gone days. Originality comes in many forms regardless of the medium. In the end, though, composers are still beholden to the clients who hire them and it might be good to remember that composers who created music for monophonic sound chips did not do so as some grand show of originality; they were writing music with a technical limitation common to all games at the time. I would bet that, given the choice, most of them would have jumped at the opportunity to use the technology we have at our present disposal and which allows for unlimited choices. It's now up to all of us (and the designers) to push the envelope and create original content with it.
François: For the Ratchet & Clank series, you brought forth a blend of orchestral, electronic, and rock music. Game music not being a genre itself, do you think one way for it to remain original musically could be through the fusion of genres?
David Bergeaud: Fusion is one of the many key ingredients of our cultural evolution. You can hear moorish influences in Spanish flamenco, West African patterns in American blues, etc... Game music is another medium that allows mixing and matching various "flavors and spices". I like contrast in my compositions so, if a project calls for something obvious like a warm lush emotional string section, I usually try to layer it with something contrasting like a layer of cold impersonal electronic percussion. I like the friction that these layers create, so long as it doesn't start to become contrived.
François: In general game music fan communities, the most popular names are Uematsu, Mitsuda, Kondo, Yamaoka, etc. It seems all of them are Japanese. One might wonder why and question the quality of Western soundtracks. What are your thoughts on this?
David Bergeaud: I don't have many thoughts on this. I do not have a qualified perspective of the japanese vs western game music. I would venture to guess that video games got popular and embraced as adult entertainment in Japan much earlier than in the Occident. In the United States, it's still a very young medium and the jury is still out as to whether or not it will gain long lasting credibility as a valid art form or will remain in the realm of interactive entertainment.
I personally think that all new mediums go through growth spurts: at first a "glitzy" phase, then a technical perfecting phase, followed eventually by a luminary phase during which visionary artists will turn the medium upside down and make incredible art with it. Take Nicolas Clauss, for example. He is a French artist who makes 3D multimedia art using Macromedia Flash. He took a very campy medium, which has been around for about 10 years and is mainly used to decorate web pages and turned it into museum art. Pretty cool. Maybe some game designers are going to take us through some equally stimulating universe some day. I would sure love to score one of those creations.
François: Contrary to the market in Japan, Western games rarely get official soundtrack releases, which might explain a part of the lesser popularity of the West musically. This is slowly changing, with more and more albums being put out either in CD or downloadable digital formats. Has Insomniac ever considered a possible soundtrack release for any of the games you've worked on?
David Bergeaud: We have talked about doing an official release featuring some Ratcher & cues. We'll make sure to let you know if and when that happens.
François: What can you tell about Niels Bye Nielsen, who is credited with "Additional Music" alongside you in four of the games you composed for? To what degree was his involvement?
David Bergeaud: Niels is a wonderful collaborator who has worked with me on numerous projects for the past 10 years. We bounce a lot of ideas back and forth. In this and many other capacities, he wears countless creative hats. He is a gifted composer, programmer, orchestrator, and one of the nicest guys around. He is also a killer guitar player which can be picked out on many Ratchet cues.
Niels is a close collaborator whose role exceeds that of his original position of assistant or guitar player and, as such, deservedly has been credited with "additional music by Niels Bye Nielsen" on various projects he works on for me. However, identifying individual selections from the 900+ cues that make up the collective Ratchet & Clank soundtracks would be impossible.
François: Under the pseudonym KOR, you produced albums for several artists, such as Renfey. How do you like this activity, which, on one hand, could be considered as being somewhat less "creative" since it doesn't involve as much direct composing, yet, on the other, still definitely requiring ingenuity. It is also part of the mainstream industry, which film and game music are usually alien to; do you have any difficulties switching from one to the other?
I like variety and I have yet to find something "less creative" in the process of making music. There are many aspects to producing I really enjoy equally to composing. Plus I have composed so much music that it's nice to listen to other artists and help them bring it to light in the best possible way. I like producing music because it's requires a completely different set of skills and because it can be much more collaborative than composing. Producing a singer in particular is an intense and profoundly creative experience which calls for a lot of human connectedness and psychology. Recording a rock band is more like wrangling and focussing all that kinetic creative juice into a concise recording. Sometimes while producing, the act of detaching oneself from the composition allows a kind of removed clarity which I find useful in my own compositions too.
François: It is noted that you also act as a guitarist and keyboardist in Renfrey's live performances. Is this something you'd like to do more — performing under a spotlight rather than the dim one of the lonely studio? Also, how many instruments can you play, and if you can choose, which would be your favorite?
David Bergeaud: I own a ridiculously huge instrument collection (over 200) and I have at one time "made some sound" with each one of them. I hardly think of myself as an kumbus player, but give me one and I'll sample it, bow it, pluck it, etc. I always say that, after the pencil, my main instrument is the computer, but I love playing guitar, saz, kamantche, dobro, oud, and a host of other (mainly plucked and bowed) instruments. I regularly hunt down new instruments and try to incorporate them in my scores to give them a unique flair. I am presently recording a score and have in my recording booth a medieval psaltery, a West African ngoni, a mandolin, a xylophone, a few guitars, and a battery of kitchen utensils (which my wife is probably looking for!). Who knows what I will pull out next week...
But there is nothing like the thrill of playing live music. Playing in a band like Renfey's is a live wire act without a net, no second takes, instant audience reaction. And the evolution of her music has inspired us to introduce some unique combinations of instruments which are a challenge live on stage — until recently I had never thought I would perform a solo on a Turkish yayli tanbur — but it's exhilarating and it gets me away from computer screens, plus it's great to be in a rock band with my wife, something not a lot of couples get to experience together.
François: Besides music, what are your other interests in life? Do you play video games in your free time?
David Bergeaud: Anything counter-cultured, anything inspired, anything genuine. I love all the arts. In the spare time I no longer have I use to paint and write poetry. Something I hope to explore again someday. I spend too much of my time in front of a screen to play video games leisurely. But believe it or not I spend much of my free time making music, which means I am truly fortunate because I love what I do. I also love cooking with friends.
François: What can be expected from you in times to come? Are games still part of your plans?
David Bergeaud: I am fascinated by music and art so chances are I will continue to do as much of it as I possibly can. Yes there are more game scores coming and a new Renfey album in the works.
François: Thank you again for your time and kindness. Would you like to add anything else before we conclude?
David Bergeaud: Simply thank you to all the people who listen to the music we make and to the fans who take the time to write me and send their compliments. There are innumerable late nights behind each score I compose and knowing that the music touches people ultimately makes the effort worthwhile. So mainly I want to express gratitude for the unique alchemy that takes place between artists and audience, creators and fans without which none of what I do would have much meaning.
- Info about David Bergeaud