Sound, Space, and Play: an interview with Jessica Curry

Early art for ‘Every­body’s Gone to the Rap­ture’
© The Chinese Room

Jes­sica Curry is an Eng­lish com­poser and co-dir­ector (together with Dan Pinch­beck) of video­game stu­dio The Chinese Room. Like many people, I first became famil­iar with her work through the award-win­ning soundtrack for the game Dear Esther, an exper­i­mental attempt to tell a ghost story in an inter­act­ive medium. I’ve writ­ten on some of the nar­rat­ive and spa­tial aspects of the game in issue #4 of Five out of Ten magazine, and fea­tured some of the music from the soundtrack in the com­pan­ion Cloud­scape for that art­icle, “Isol­a­tion”.

In the autumn of last year, the stu­di­o’s second game was released: Amne­sia: A Machine for Pigs. Where Dear Esther’s soundtrack was sparse, hanging some­where between ambi­ent and clas­sical, and reflect­ing the wind- and sea­swept air of the game’s Hebridean set­ting, A Machine for Pigs called for some­thing darker: dis­son­ant hor­ror tropes rub­bing shoulders with indus­trial screeches and Vic­torian song. You can hear some tracks from that album in the Novem­ber Cloud­scape.

Jes­sica is cur­rently work­ing on the soundtrack for the stu­di­o’s upcom­ing game Every­body’s Gone to the Rap­ture. In a recent email con­ver­sa­tion, we dis­cussed her back­ground, cur­rent works, and some thoughts on the rela­tion­ship between space, sound, and play.

[OS] What is your back­ground as a com­poser and musi­cian?

Jes­sica Curry

[JC] When I was four years old I star­ted play­ing the piano. I had an incred­ible teacher who was never wor­ried about grades or exams, she just wanted to instil a love of music in me, which she duly did. I star­ted com­pos­ing very soon after that and would spend hours pick­ing out melod­ies on the piano. I always wrote incred­ibly sad songs, even as a small child—a tra­di­tion which I can proudly say has been passed on to my son: at the age of five he penned a song entitled “My Half Sis­ter is Dead.” I then star­ted play­ing the cello and was involved in every musical activ­ity ima­gin­able. I was a total music nerd—madrigals, choir, orches­tra. string ensemble—I did the lot! I then decided that I wanted to read Eng­lish Lit­er­at­ure at Uni­ver­sity and that music would be my hobby. Although I really enjoyed it, I missed music hor­ribly, and after I gradu­ated my amaz­ing step-father slid an applic­a­tion for the National Film and Tele­vi­sion School in front of me. That moment changed my life and ever since then I’ve been cre­at­ing music. I’ve done everything—opera, install­a­tions, Requiems, games—and I can hon­estly say that I’ve loved every minute of it. Music gives my life pur­pose, reason and hope and I would be lost without it.

How do you relate music to space? Your piece “Fields Were the Essence of the Song” and your game soundtracks are all com­pos­i­tions that are inten­ded to go along with a (vir­tual) phys­ical move­ment of the listener.

The sit­ing of my work is always abso­lutely integ­ral to my cre­at­ive and com­pos­i­tional pro­cess. In 2011 I under­took a res­id­ency at Fab­rica Gal­lery which was very much about sound and space. Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet was sited at the gal­lery at the time, where each indi­vidual choral voice is heard from 40 high fidel­ity speak­ers. Here is a blog post which is very rel­ev­ant to the ques­tion you’ve posed.

Dur­ing that res­id­ency I led a sound walk around the city and that was a lovely exper­i­ence for every­one involved. We exist on a such a visual level and increas­ingly we all wear head­phones as we nav­ig­ate through spaces. This was about re-tun­ing in to the city, and listen­ing at a level of focus that almost never occurs in our daily lives. One par­ti­cipant wrote about his exper­i­ence, con­clud­ing:

At the final turn from the seafront back towards the gal­lery, we go into a dead-end, and under­ground car park for a hotel and casino, the sounds become full in echo and dark­ness, the smell of urine can­not be ignored, and I feel a sense of con­cern as to if we have gone the wrong way, such is the atmo­sphere down here. But then Jes­sica takes us back on a more or less quieter return (or is it my atten­tion?) and as we pass under some scaf­fold­ing oppos­ite Fab­rica, the worker above throws heavy bolt joints into a con­tainer and our right ear drums are seem­ingly shattered as if the filmic nature of the walks nar­rat­ive came to cli­max.”

Also dur­ing that year I was part of the “Adopt a Com­poser” scheme and I was placed with MUSARC, a choir formed of archi­tects who are inter­ested in the rela­tion­ship between archi­tec­ture and sound. That was a fas­cin­at­ing exper­i­ence for me and espe­cially since that year of focused listen­ing that ques­tion of how sound, space and form inter­act is always at the heart of how I work. Vir­tual space is even more excit­ing in a way as you get the oppor­tun­ity to tailor the exper­i­ence in such a bespoke and detailed way.

Regard­ing sound/music/space: can you give a con­crete example of how to tailor sound to space? What effects do you hope to evoke in the listerner/traveller when adding a spe­cific spa­tial and dir­ec­tional dimen­sion to music?

A scene from ‘Dear Esther’

One of the things that I have been very inter­ested in in the past is pos­i­tion­ing of play­ers and sing­ers. I think this is some­thing that isn’t so thought about in live per­form­ance as there is a set way of doing it that rarely gets chal­lenged. Dur­ing the Requiem some pieces were played from another room in the under­ground space and this gave those moments an incred­ible eeri­ness. We are so used to being able to loc­ate sound and set a visual on it, which com­pletely changes the way we exper­i­ence sound. Some­thing as simple as play­ing the music in another space was incred­ibly effect­ive. I think what I hope to add most is a layer of atten­tion. Like I said, it’s really easy to be very lazy when it comes to listen­ing, or semi-listen­ing. With subtle and unex­pec­ted place­ment you can really engage your audi­ence and ask them for their full atten­tion.

How do you tailor your com­pos­i­tions to the con­tent of the game you’re work­ing on? Do you design along with Dan [Pinch­beck]?

Dan and I work in a really lovely and organic way. Some­times the music comes first and he will write to that and some­times he will give me some key words and images so that I can write some ini­tial music. I think that in this way you get much deeper rela­tion­ship and I think that’s why people respond to our col­lab­or­at­ive efforts so strongly. For me it’s all about find­ing an authen­tic world, so for A Machine for Pigs the fact that the game was set in Vic­torian Eng­land was abso­lutely key. I com­posed Ger­man Lieder, used instru­ments of the time such as the Glass Armon­ica and even penned a music hall num­ber for the game, which was a huge amount of fun. For Dear Esther it was all about identi­fy­ing with the sparse and lonely feel of the island, hence the lack of vibrato from the strings in the OST. I really wanted to give the music that Hebridean feel.

Every­body’s Gone to the Rap­ture is set in the 1980’s so that is set­ting won­der­ful chal­lenges and explor­a­tions all of its own! I’m at the very early stages of com­pos­ing for Rap­ture and it’s very much a case of try­ing things out right now. It’s the excit­ing and scary part! I’m exper­i­ment­ing with integ­rat­ing that period into the sound world that I’m cre­at­ing. It’s a com­pletely new dir­ec­tion for me so it’ll be inter­est­ing to see how that pans out. I can’t really say much more right now as my mum passed down a super­sti­tion that if you talk about things before they’re fin­ished then you talk them out of your sys­tem rather than write it.

How do you feel about responsive/interactive music design in games or oth­er­wise? Is this some­thing you have done or would like to do? How do/would you approach it?

Rap­ture is my first real attempt to write a prop­erly inter­act­ive music score and it throws up so many chal­lenges. I’m find­ing in tough to keep the musical strength of the pieces whilst allow­ing them to be flex­ible enough to be chopped and changed depend­ing on the play­er’s actions. I have got the bit firmly between my teeth now and I am determ­ined to find that sweet spot between the two. It is incred­ibly hard though and is age­ing me a little more each day.

What about rescor­ing older works? Philip Glass, for example, made a new score for the 1939 film ver­sion of Drac­ula. If you could rescore any ‘clas­sic’ game, which one would you pick, and how would you go about it?

One of my favour­ite ever musical moments was see­ing and hear­ing Philip Glass’s re-scor­ing of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête at the Bar­bican. People in the audi­ence were cry­ing and it was just an incred­ibly emo­tional and beau­ti­ful even­ing. I think if I could re-score any game it would prob­ably be Pong. That may seem like an odd choice but I think you could make an entran­cing and hyp­not­ising experience—it would be fas­cin­at­ing for me to see how much mean­ing and pathos one could infuse into such simple and repet­it­ive visu­als. Per­son­ally I think you could sug­gest a whole nar­rat­ive and journey—I am quite temp­ted to give it a go now Oscar!

Inter­est­ing choice! If you had to take this thought exper­i­ment a bit fur­ther, how would you score the (com­pet­it­ive?) nar­rat­ive of Pong? What if the play­ers did­n’t move their bats at all, with the ball just flit­ting and boun­cing about?

I would­n’t engage with the com­pet­it­ive nar­rat­ive or indeed any aspect of the nar­rat­ive at all. I would make it com­pletely med­it­at­ive and repet­it­ive. It would be a hymn to min­im­al­ism. The ball could flit and bounce as it likes!

Jes­sica’s per­sonal port­fo­lio web­site is cur­rently under con­struc­tion, but you can listen to and buy her music on Band­camp.