Interview with Julia Okruso, creator of the Skyrim Symphony
Today is a change of pace from our normal interviews, because instead of interviewing a game designer, I am interviewing a composer. Julia Okruso is working on a project very near and dear to my heart. In fact, she is working on a project very close to any dovahkiin’s heart; she is composing a symphony based on the popular video game Skyrim.
Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and about your work as a performer and composer?
I have been playing the violin since I was 6 years old - I was born in a family of musicians in Vilnius, Lithuania, and music became a big part of my life at a very early age. As a violinist, I have traveled across Europe and the US, touring with various ensembles and taking part in concerts, competitions and music festivals. Currently I live in Boston and perform as a violinist with the New England String Quartet. I started composing in 2011, after performing with the Video Game Orchestra at Boston Symphony Hall - I fell in love with video game and film soundtracks and began writing my own fantasy and cinematic music for violin and orchestra. In 2013 with the help of Kickstarter backers I released my first album “Legends: Fantasy Violin” which later was orchestrated for symphony orchestra, performed live, and presented at FantasyCon shows. I began collaborating with visual media producers, and in 2014, as a member of the New England String Quartet, I recorded soundtracks for Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons online video games (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment). I am involved in a number of musical projects featuring different styles and applications, including soundtracks, classical concerts, new academic music premieres and recordings.
That is so cool that music actually brought you into gaming. I often hear from gamers that game soundtracks bring them to a new type of music. What is the first game you played? Do you have a favourite game soundtrack?
The first games I played were Counter Strike, Halo 3, and Bioshock. When I discovered Skyrim it became my favorite game, and I love the soundtrack by Jeremy Soule - it’s definitely my favorite game soundtrack so far, although I also love music in Bioshock 2, and the Halo theme song has been a huge inspiration for years!
Right now you are Kickstarting a project to create a symphony based off the game Skyrim. Could you tell us more about that? What made you decide to make music based off a game?
When I first played Skyrim, I felt enormous gratitude to the creators of this game for putting so much talent and thought into developing a world of fantasy with such incredible gaming aesthetics and profound mythology. I loved Skyrim for its beauty, freedom, and imagination. I loved the complexity of the production and science that went into putting this giant living world on a small game disc. I wanted to write a piece of music that would reflect my journey in Skyrim and my admiration for Dragonborn's power and missions. I felt that this piece of music would call for expansive instrumentation and timing to express both external and internal realities of being immersed in the world of fantasy - and I decided to write a symphony.
When I was listening to the music in your Kickstarter video, I really got the feeling of being on the top of a mountain in Tamriel and looking over this amazing game landscape. Is there one part of the game or the setting in particular that inspired the symphony you are writing?
There are a number of places that inspired me when writing the symphony - it’s a 35-minute work in four movements, and each movement reflects on a different scenery and atmosphere. During the course of the Kickstarter campaign, I will be giving more detailed narration for some of these landscapes, while other scenes are intended for the listener to engage their own experience in Skyrim and imagination. One of my main artistic objectives when writing this symphony was to express the flow of Dragonborn’s perceptions and feelings as well, and embed these processes in the texture of Skyrim’s scenery.
One of the tensest moments for me in Skyrim is when I hear the combat music playing, but I can't see my foe yet. It is something in the music that conveys a sense of urgency and even fear to me. Will you also be exploring the more tense, sometimes brutal, side of Skyrim in your work as well?
Absolutely - as I was trying to reflect the flow of the game in the musical texture, I have specific places within the development where this tension and darkness is recreated - sometimes even using the signature rhythm of Skyrim to prepare the harmonies building the darker, dramatic scenes within the symphony.
I must admit, I am a complete musical novice. To write an entire symphony seems amazingly complex. Could you give us a small look into what your creative process is for something like this?
The process of writing the symphony was influenced by my performing experiences—work in the orchestras where I get to play the symphonies of great composers. I have experienced symphony from the point of performance, and it was this internal exploration that taught me how material can be developed to convey the intended artistic effects. I also wanted to explore the management of time within a large symphonic work—I wanted to unfold the musical material with timing that would be familiar to the flow of the game itself. I also wanted to employ a musical form that could internalize the image of Dragonborn and the meaning of his presence in Skyrim. In my mind, the stylistics of Skyrim and the powers and choices of Dragonborn project an image of great and legendary organization, and as a musician, I connected this image with the musical architecture of a symphony. I was inspired specifically by the traditionally established symphony form, and I felt that an older model of musical organization would convey and support the atmosphere of Skyrim. A prominent part of the symphony, the sonata form is a large musical structure that became universal in the late 18th century. This form is centered around a tonal and thematic conflict between two subjects that are presented in the exposition part of the sonata form, elaborated and contrasted in the development, and resolved harmonically and thematically in the recapitulation. I felt that the sonata form would create a great structure for presentation of Dragonborn in the first movement, and that it would lay the proper stylistic foundation for the entire work. The construction of the symphony is based on Allegro-Adagio-Scherzo-Finale movement layout, and each of the four movements features different atmosphere and characters that are united through instrumental and vocal motives, rhythm, and musical references.
I have to ask, from one Skyrim fan to another - what was the first character you played?
I am a Nord, and I practice mostly enchanting, conjuration, destruction, speech, and alchemy.
Do you have any future plans for musical compositions after this one? Are there any other games you'd like to make music for?
I have also been working on sketches for a new album for violin and orchestra featuring fantasy styles from around the world - the idea came to me recently while working on a Chinese fantasy track for the Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate wuxia game. I feel that there is so much to explore and discover, and I would love to make music for fantasy games. I am always learning and exploring new musical genres and technologies, and I am looking forward to new projects and ideas.
Liz Chaipraditkul is a writer and game developer. She is the owner of Angry Hamster Publishing, a company that develops and publishes tabletop role playing games. She dabbles in illustration and other crafts, but her true love is writing. You can read more of her personal ramblings on her blog epicxcloth.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter as @epicxcloth.