SFCM students give a live performance of the 'Journey' video game soundtrack, with the game's award-winning composer Austin Wintory as guest conductor. Courtesy of San Francisco Conservatory of Music
SFCM students give a live performance of the 'Journey' video game soundtrack, with the game's award-winning composer Austin Wintory as guest conductor. (Courtesy of San Francisco Conservatory of Music)

In San Francisco, Video Games Are Classical Music's New Frontier

In San Francisco, Video Games Are Classical Music's New Frontier

It’s Friday night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and although classes are over, the building is still bustling with students squeezing in rehearsals before leaving campus for the weekend. As MaryClare Brzytwa, the Executive Director of Technology and Applied Composition, walks down the hall and past the recording studio, she overhears a booming 808 — not a violin or piano, as one might expect at a hundred-year-old classical music institution like this one.

Brzytwa opens the door to find Jose Soberanes hunched over a digital workstation in his bright orange beanie. Soberanes isn’t your stereotypical classical music student; for starters, his favorite artist is Travis Scott, the hit-making, psychedelic trap rapper. Since enrolling at the San Francisco Conservatory, he’s interned at Kanye West’s creative agency DONDA and done audio engineering for video games like The Walking Dead: A New Frontier and Minecraft Story Mode Season 2.

Soberanes is a second-year student in the conservatory’s innovative new program Technology and Applied Composition (TAC), which prepares students for careers in composition for video games, films, and other media. The new undergraduate major (and its adjacent one-year, post-grad professional studies diploma) has only existed at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) since 2015, when Brzytwa spearheaded it, and doesn’t even have a senior class yet. But its students have already produced cutting-edge, high-profile collaborations.

San Francisco Conservatory of Music student Jose Soberanes in the campus studio.
San Francisco Conservatory of Music student Jose Soberanes in the campus studio. (Kristina Bakrevski)

Case in point: Soberanes’ current project is an avant-garde, hip-hop-inspired score for the San Francisco Ballet in collaboration with fellow student Moya Violet. When Brzytwa enters, he pulls up an audio file to show off their progress. “[The TAC program] has definitely pushed me to be more experimental. I don’t know if it was on purpose,” he says, hitting play on a clip from his composition. A big wave of bass blasts through the speakers; hissing percussion transforms it into a club beat, which he then raps over.

Brzytwa laughs. “It definitely was on purpose,” she answers, visibly proud.

MaryClare Brzytwa, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's Associate Dean for New Media and Music Technology, conceptualized the conservatory's new Technology and Applied Composition program.
MaryClare Brzytwa, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's Associate Dean for New Media and Music Technology, conceptualized the conservatory's new Technology and Applied Composition program. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

With her breadth of musical experience and connections in Silicon Valley, Brzytwa has pushed the San Francisco Conservatory to modernize its curriculum — and the country’s other top classical music schools are still catching up. In the TAC program, technology isn’t solely to enhance more traditional modes of music-making. Instead, it carries the same weight as classical training, and students learn to apply high-level musicianship to the entertainment industry’s real-world demands. That’s not to say that the program is purely technical like at a trade school; instead, Brzytwa fosters an experimental approach on campus and encourages students to pursue creatively challenging projects — like Soberanes’ San Francisco Ballet piece.

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One could call TAC the perfect marriage of technology, classical musicianship, and experimentation. It’s a natural fit for classical musicians who want to write for video games and other applications in the Bay Area’s tech industry. And as its first cohort of undergrads prepares to enter the job market, the program has the potential to set a precedent for conservatories and music programs around the country.

 

'The [Gaming] Industry Needs More Help'

While technology plays a relatively small role at more traditional music schools like Julliard and the New England Conservatory, the San Francisco Conservatory’s Technology and Applied Composition program answers a growing need for composers who specialize in writing for media — and for the Bay Area in particular, that means video games. TAC students take many of the same courses one might expect from a classical composition major — like ear training and music theory — but they also study game audio, and do mock commissions for Sony and the Walt Disney Family Museum.

The Bay Area is home to video game giants like Sony Interactive Entertainment, Electronic Arts, and Ubisoft. It's also where you'll find smaller game audio companies like Bay Area Sound, which, incidentally, was co-founded by SFCM professor Clint Bajakian, a former composer and sound design supervisor at George Lucas’ (now-shuttered) video game company LucasArts. As tech companies vie to make gaming a mainstream form of entertainment — and court demographics outside of the stereotypical gamer bro — there’s a growing demand for composers who can create music that deepens games’ emotional content and makes their interactive aspects more sensory and vivid.

TAC student Thomas Soto demos a VR game for which fellow student Niko Korolog composed the soundtrack.
TAC student Thomas Soto demos a VR game for which fellow student Niko Korolog composed the soundtrack. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.)

Video game music has come a long way from the chiptune soundtracks of early Nintendo games like Super Mario Bros, which typically consisted of little more than a few loops of computer melody. Today, video game soundtracks have evolved to be as varied and complex as those in film. Popular adventure games like Star Wars: Battlefront II, for instance, build drama through epic orchestral arrangements. The Last Night, one of this year’s most anticipated indie games, immerses players in a futuristic cyberpunk world via '80s-inspired synthpop.

As games that prioritize storytelling over action continue to rise in popularity, music can play an even more crucial role in conveying their emotional content. For instance, one of the most critically acclaimed games of 2016, Firewatch (from San Francisco studio Campo Santo), tells the story of a Wyoming man who takes a job in the wilderness as his wife struggles with Alzheimer's. A somber, guitar-driven soundtrack of folk, country, and bluegrass underscores the game’s rural environment and wistful tone.

“The industry needs more help; the scope and the scale of a lot of these projects have gotten to be such that you can’t just have the audio person handle all the audio for a game,” says Jonathan Mayer, a visiting lecturer at SFCM who previously served as music director at Sony Playstation and currently works in sound design at Facebook. “Something as simple as getting a gig assisting a bigger-name composer — those jobs are really important and require a more technical knowledge because they’re helping more established composers bridge this gap right now.”

Jonathan Mayer, former music director at Sony Playstation, is a visiting lecturer at SFCM.
Jonathan Mayer, former music director at Sony Playstation, is a visiting lecturer at SFCM. (Kristina Bakrevski )

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics study, music director and composer jobs increased by 154 percent from 2004 to 2015, and are projected to grow by an additional 4.5 percent through 2022.

Part of that growth can be attributed to the gaming industry, which has sizably increased over the past decade with new games on the Apple App store and Facebook, as well as expansions in mainstream and indie studios. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the video game industry went from employing 80,000 people in 2007 to over 220,000 in 2017.

Clint Bajakian, whose composition and sound design credits include major game franchises like Star Wars, God of War, and Indiana Jones, has observed an explosion of audio jobs in the gaming industry over the course of his 26-year career. But he says most conservatories are still focused primarily on live performance, despite students’ growing interest in tech.

As Bajakian sees it, conservatories of music “can be wary of introducing new ways of technology, new ways of doing things, because they’re concerned that the tradition of excellence that goes back hundreds of years might be threatened.”

SFCM professor Clint Bajakian, a veteran composer who has done audio for game franchises like 'God of War' and 'Star Wars,' in a private lesson with a student.
SFCM professor Clint Bajakian, a veteran composer who has done audio for game franchises like 'God of War' and 'Star Wars,' in a private lesson with a student. (Kristina Bakrevski)

As a result, most conservatory graduates who aspire to work in video games and film have to learn on the job — which comes with limitations.

“Not many composers that I’ve worked with so far over the past couple decades could come to meeting with a game developer and speak the language of how the music is going to work in the game,” says Mayer. “So what TAC is doing that’s really smart is giving them more of a grounding in fundamental concepts and methodologies that will very easily transfer from format to format.”

“I think over time,” says Bajakian, “we will see more conservatories embracing this.”

 

Modernizing the Conservatory Curriculum

On a recent afternoon, a dozen or so students gather at the San Francisco Conservatory’s Osher Salon, a versatile auditorium with high ceilings and good acoustics, for a class called Composition Workshop with Bajakian. Students and faculty casually refer to the project-based class as “the Sony project” because of the conservatory’s collaboration with the San Mateo-based tech giant.

At the beginning of the semester, students visit the Sony Interactive Entertainment headquarters to receive a mock commission to score a fictitious video game. When I sit in on a class in November, the semester is in its last few weeks, and it’s time for students to give each other feedback. Bajakian pulls up iTunes on the projector and plays a few of their compositions.

One, with a mischievous, violin- and flute-driven melody snaking through the beat of a bass drum, wouldn’t feel out of place in a Harry Potter movie. Another builds suspense with minor-key flute piercing through an ominous rumble of orchestral percussion that evokes storm clouds gathering on the horizon.

Bajakian opens the floor to the students, several of whom enthusiastically raise their hands to offer feedback to their classmates. The professor encourages the dialogue with validating comments and advice, drawing on music theory concepts when he tells a student to extend a certain instrumental part here or add a section there.

By the end of the semester in December, students will have returned to Sony to record their compositions in the company’s studios with a professional orchestra and the help of professional producers and engineers. “Being in that recording studio and grabbing the microphone, I feel like a leader,” says second-year student Qianqian Jin, who took Composition Workshop during the Spring 2017 semester.

TAC students at the Sony Playstation headquarters in San Mateo.
TAC students at the Sony Playstation headquarters in San Mateo. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music)

For Brzytwa, preparing students for jobs in the industry means assembling a classically trained faculty made up of working professionals. A young, sharp-witted university administrator, Brzytwa founded the Oberlin Conservatory’s Professional Development and Outreach Center prior to arriving at SFCM. In addition to Mayer and Bajakian, she recruited Dren McDonald, who has scored dozens of indie and big-budget games including Transformers: Age of Extinction and Gordon Ramsay Dash; and Matt Levine, who spent a decade as a composer at Sony.

“The majority of the faculty might have experience and training in classical music, but they’re not making their living or aspiring towards a career as a classical composer; they’re working composers in media, film, and the video game industry,” says Brzytwa. “They can really teach students how to incorporate electronic materials into a classical context in a way that I don’t think any other program offers in a serious way.”

SFCM students in class with Professor Matt Levine, a former composer at Sony.
SFCM students in class with Professor Matt Levine, a former composer at Sony. (Kristina Bakrevski)

The Sony project is only part of the TAC students’ dynamic course load: They take classes on music technology, audio engineering, game audio, and contemporary composition techniques, but their technological curriculum is backed by a robust musical one. In addition to music theory and ear training, they’re required to take courses like Composer at the Keyboard, where they learn piano fundamentals — no technology allowed.

The Sony project also isn’t the conservatory’s only collaboration with a major entertainment company. This academic year, second-year students scored a short fashion film as part of the Walt Disney Family Museum’s Teen Animation Festival, and third-year students collaborated with young filmmakers from the San Francisco Film Society.

“It creates a bridge for businesses to participate in the Bay Area arts culture," says Brzytwa.

While several other programs around the state offer training in music and tech, Brzytwa argues that what sets her program apart is its position in one of the country’s top-ten conservatories — and all the resources that come with that distinction. TAC students collaborate with their highly-skilled instrumentalist peers, for instance, and even record entire orchestras in SFCM’s concert hall, which connects to a 32-channel, analog recording console. When it’s time for them to graduate, they’ll enter the job market with a portfolio of professional-quality soundtrack work.

“That was an interesting opportunity that I haven’t seen done at any other school,” she says.

 

An Experimental Approach Pays Off

A common complaint in the indie game world is that mainstream game companies often treat music as an afterthought. Perhaps, then, SFCM’s close working relationships with tech giants like Sony have the potential to shift the industry towards more artistic and thought-provoking gaming experiences.

Isaac Cohen, an indie game developer whose VR works have been featured in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, says that an institution like SFCM formally embracing video games lends new legitimacy to the medium.

Daria Novo and Dren McDonald in the studio.
SFCM instructors Daria Novo and Dren McDonald in the studio.

“Gaming is such a wide field and, for so long, it’s been looked down upon; when people think of games they either think of Bejeweled and Candy Crush or Call of Duty,” he says. “That would be the equivalent of saying, ‘Oh movies, you know, Transformers and Blue's Clues.’ It’s a much wider range than that. … For something like classical music to recognize video games as a worthwhile art form — that’s what’s the most exciting to me.”

David Kanaga, a Berkeley-based composer and game developer known for his audio work on the award-winning indie games Dyad and Proteus, says that a program like TAC has the potential to inject the gaming industry with much-needed freshness. By teaching students to compose for games but also allowing them to experiment outside of industry pressures, it could push the medium forward artistically, he says.

“Some people don’t like the academia ivory tower kind of thing, but I like it when certain institutions set standards outside of the marketplace,” says Kanaga.

“Outside the marketplace” is a good way to describe Brzytwa’s passion for experimental music. She completed her undergraduate studies at Mills College — which has long been at the forefront of experimental music in the Bay Area — and makes avant-garde music that includes improvisation on flute. A hands-on, passionate educator, she’s known to do things like leave Pauline Oliveros CDs in her students’ practice spaces so that they “accidentally” find them and get inspired.

Her creative approach certainly manifests in students’ work. Qianqian Jin, for instance, has a background in traditional Chinese music and recently created a sample library of the Guzheng, a horizontal harp-like instrument, that producers can plug into software like Logic Pro and Ableton. And Kris Grant, who performs under the moniker Idea Unsound, makes hip-hop and jazz-inspired electronic music in the vein of Flying Lotus. After meeting in the TAC program, Jin and Grant composed a duet combining the Guzheng, keyboard, and electronics, which they performed at Electronic Music Week in Shanghai in October 2017.

Kristopher Grant and Qianqian Jin performing in Shanghai.
SFCM students Kristopher Grant and Qianqian Jin performing in Shanghai. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music)

While the stereotypical conservatory student might be someone whose parents sent them to piano lessons since before they could talk, SFCM’s TAC program has attracted a diverse student body from a variety of backgrounds. Fifty-three-year-old undergrad Ben Shirley, for instance, was homeless and living in Los Angeles’ Skid Row before turning his life around and enrolling in the program.

Professionals from different corners of the music industry often give guest lectures for TAC, which has led to some interesting opportunities for students. Veteran indie rock producer John Vanderslice, Call of Duty composer Wilbert Roget, and experimental producer Jon Leidecker — an expert on the history of electronic music and sampling — have all given small, intimate lectures on campus where they’ve answered students’ questions about making it in the industry.

Producer John Vanderslice giving a guest lecture at SFCM.
Producer John Vanderslice giving a guest lecture at SFCM. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

There's a networking aspect to guest lecturers as well. Omar Akrouche, a second-year student with a DIY punk background, landed an internship with Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone recording studio after meeting him at SFCM. And Daria Novo, a graduate of TAC’s post-graduate professional certification program, recently began working with Professor Dren McDonald at his game audio company, NerdTracks, and took a job at SFCM as a recording engineer and composition instructor.

Brzytwa says that her goal is to make students as versatile as possible, so that with their technical mastery and creative openness, they can apply themselves in a variety of music industry contexts.

“They could go into production, creative direction, engineering; they could be a music editor — all of that,” she says.

“I think the TAC program opens up a gate to let me know there are a lot of different markets, different industries out here,” says Jin. She says she wants to develop an electronic version of the Guzheng and tour as a live performer, but thanks to the program, she has also become passionate about seriously pursuing video game and film audio.

“I like being a person," she says, "who has the capacity to create a world."

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