An Interview with Jason Graves

Platforms: Sony PlayStation 3 | Microsoft Xbox 360 | PC

Joining the upper echelons of video-game composers, Jason Graves has made a name for himself thanks to his stunning soundtracks including those for the Dead Space franchise and the new reboot of Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider. The Digital Fix recently had the chance to pose Jason a few questions about his work, including constructing a unique instrument for the Tomb Raider soundtrack.


Resembling one of the makeshift Scavenger shrines in Tomb Raider, the Instrument was a collaboration between Graves and sculptor Matt McConnell.

TDF: You mention creating a specific sound for Tomb Raider in the form of ‘The Instrument.’ Can you describe it in greater detail?

JG: I was very interested in exploring the idea of new, never before heard sounds. “The Instrument” is the result of a fourteen month collaboration with a local metalsmith. The focal point is a large, round resonating chamber at the center with a protruding spike. This represents the scavengers – the main antagonists of the island. I can play it with a violin bow softly for an ethereal, flute like sustain. When I apply additional pressure, it squeals like a hurt animal and can sometimes even sound like electric guitar feedback. I also play it as a percussive effect during combat with rubber mallets or triangle beaters.

The colored glass bowls to the right are played by soft mallets and are, quite literally, the voice of the island. They are more in the background at the beginning of Lara’s journey and progressively come more to the forefront as the island plays a more important role in the story. There are only three bowls, so there are only three pitches. This makes them instantly recognizable because they never change pitch. It was wonderful to be able to say so much with a few taps on the bowls – I think they are one of the most effective sounds in the score.

The long, pointed pipes on the upper left represent the Oni – the last group of enemies encountered in the game. While all the pitches are intentionally untuned, they still have a very meditative quality about them and are played with either metal triangle beaters for combat or rubber mallets for more somber exploration.

Your scores are often built around a single defining character. How did this vary from Dead Space’s Isaac to reinventing an established character with Lara Croft?

I tend to focus on the story and emotion with any specific title. For Dead Space, the general emotion was terror, pure and simple. I approached it as an experimental search for the most abstract, and by my hypothesis, the scariest sounds. Tomb Raider is essentially a story about Lara’s rebirth and journey. I wanted the music to evolve and build as her character progresses through the game. Once she is “reborn” from the scavenger’s den at the beginning, the score starts quietly and grows as she grows as a character. It’s very thematically-based, whereas Dead Space was its antithesis.

Both Tomb Raider and Dead Space can be – superb as they are – hard to listen to at times, thanks to oppressive dissonance in the music. Is composing frantic, tense music difficult? Is it a relief when you can let go and compose for a happy or beautiful moment?

I developed a fairly thick skin for it early on, since there was simply so much music in the original Dead Space that had to be written and ALL of it was frantic and dissonant. But even then, I was approaching it more from an analytical standpoint, like Frankenstein piecing together a musical monster. Like anything else, the more you experience something the greater an appreciation you have for it. But it is also wonderful to be able to compose beautiful, tonal music. That’s actually what I would prefer to do more often, but games don’t have too many of those kinds of moments!

Dead Space definitely has the legacy of Alien on its shoulders, both in gameplay and music. What influenced you in scoring Dead Space? And did the Japanese mythology of Tomb Raider provide any further influence too?

I researched the music for Dead Space for three solid months before diving in and beginning composing. I was entrenched in the world of contemporary, 20th Century music studying aleatoric principles and 12 tone rows. The pioneering composers of the 1950s and ‘60s had an enormous influence on the direction of my score.

There wasn’t too much Japanese influence in the Tomb Raider score. I wanted to make sure the music didn’t sound too “National Geographic Travelogue” and intentionally avoided any obvious choices like Japanese flutes or Asian folk instruments. The custom-built “Instrument” I performed throughout the score is probably the closest aural clue that we’re on an island off the coast of Japan. I thought the bells and metal pipes struck the right balance of mystical jungle without sounding too cliché.

If there were one piece of music to select as your favorite from each of the franchises you’ve composed for, what would they be?

I would have to pick “Lacrimosa” from Dead Space 2 and “A Survivor Is Born” from Tomb Raider. I feel like both of those pieces musically sum up their respective franchises fairly well.

Dead Space and Tomb Raider are very organic in their sounds. Given the sci-fi genre and the prevalence of electronic instrumentation, why did you choose to pursue the orchestral route? Is there actually a great deal of electronic composition, albeit subtle in the mix?

Both of those scores are intentionally organic and non-electronic. The choice was entirely story-driven in both cases. I did have some electronics in early stages of the original Dead Space, but we agreed the music was empowering the player too much – we preferred the idea of immobilizing them through musical terror. There are some synths in the Zero-G sequences, but they are there for texture and vibe, not to comment too much on the fact that, “Hey! We’re on a space ship!” That would have been a little trite for my taste.

Tomb Raider was a lot more straightforward. Being stranded on a remote island goes hand in hand with organic, natural timbres. Adding “The Instrument” gave the score a unique, one-of-a-kind sound that was both organic yet unrecognizable.

If there were one genre or franchise you would love to compose for, what would it be?

I’m always drawn towards the mysticism and beauty of fantasy games. I would also love the opportunity to compose music for anything Naughty Dog develops. I think their storytelling and character development in games is second to none.

Finally, can you hint at what’s coming next?

There are five games I’m currently juggling, but of course I’m not allowed to say anything about them! I am allowed to talk about the two films I’m working on. One is a thriller with a hybrid, tense, textural score and the other is a racing movie that has a more rock-based sound to it. Add some horror, action and sci-fi from the games and I’m one happy composer. Variety is indeed the spice of life!

A huge thanks for taking the time to answer these questions! The track-by-track commentary [ed. - readable here] for the Tomb Raider OST was a fantastic insight into the make-up of the music.

So glad you enjoyed that! I simply LOVE doing things like that and jumped at the chance to explain some of the themes and intent behind the music.

The Dead Space soundtrack is published by EA Recordings and the Tomb Raider soundtrack is published by Sumthing Else Music Works and available to purchase at CD versions of the soundtracks are also available at all good retailers including Amazon.

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