Discover the secrets behind the creation process of the music from Celeste, which stole hearts of millions of gamers last year. Lena Raine talks about her first memories related to composing songs and her love for Japanese productions.
Lena Raine talks about her first memories related to composing songs.
gamemusic.net: Do you recall what was your first memory in connection with music in general?
Lena Raine: Music has always been a part of my life, since before I can even really remember much. Since my dad is a musician, and my mom is a dancer, there was always music in the house. From my dad playing violin, to a large collection of records my parents would play, there was always some sort of music going on.
I had any real interest in composing as a career. – Lena Raine
I don’t remember it at all since it was before I was a year old, but apparently the first movie I ever went to see (when I was a very small baby) was Stop Making Sense by Talking Heads. My parents took me along, and I apparently just bounced around to the music while staring back at the film projector.
gamemusic.net: When you became interested in composing music?
Lena Raine: Because my dad had a recording studio in the basement, I was recording my own improvised music from a really young age, before I had any real interest in composing as a career. Because I had the tools available to me, it was just a part of my life. So when I got really into video game soundtracks as a pre-teen, it seemed natural that I’d want to try and recreate the music and do covers of it.
From there, I kept playing with the kind of sounds I loved from games to write my own original music. There were a lot of moments where I doubted my ability to write original music, since I spent so long feeling like everything I wrote was just another version of what had already been written, but I kept at it over years until I finally began to hear myself in the music.
gamemusic.net: What was the impulse for you based on which you connected your professional life with music for good?
Lena Raine: I was already writing original albums in high school, but when I was on the verge of graduating I had to make a decision on what career I wanted to work towards. It’s funny to think back on it now, but I actually was seriously considering becoming an artist & animator because of my love for animation.
I love being able to hear the instruments I’m writing for, even if they’re going to be performed by someone else later. – Lena Raine
I had been accepted to a pretty low-bar art school, but when I applied to Cornish, where I eventually attended for music composition, I got such a good vibe from the school and the professors there that I made the decision to focus on music instead.
gamemusic.net: What methods do you use in order to make the composing process easier for you?
Lena Raine: So much of how I write music now comes from improvisation and iteration, that being able to write and record and listen back simultaneously is invaluable to me. I love being able to hear the instruments I’m writing for, even if they’re going to be performed by someone else later.
gamemusic.net: What games do you consider as a great examples of well composed OST?
Lena Raine: I have such an extensive list of favorites, it’s so hard to talk about just a few! I’ll point out a few that I think are amazing in their own respective ways:
NieR Automata by MONACA & headed up by Keiichi Okabe is one of the rare examples of a soundtrack that is not just brilliantly composed, but also so well-suited to the interactivity of the medium. The composition is super solid, but then it also shifts and morphs to the gameplay in ways that bring out new emotions to playing through the game.
As a personal favorite, the Chrono Cross soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda is a perfect example of taking an aesthetic. – Lena Raine
In a weird counterpoint, the Drakengard soundtrack by Takayuki Aihara is a soundtrack that is very difficult to listen to, yet perfectly mirrors the agony represented by the themes of the game. It is extremely avant-garde for the conventions of game scoring, utilizing weird looped phrases from orchestral recordings, in some cases towards the end of the game in ways that sound completely unlike orchestral music anymore to the point of electronic noise. The Silent Hill series by Akira Yamaoka does a similar job for its horror settings, using noise and ambient progressions to unsettle while still having catchy tunes. They’re just very uncomfortably catchy.
As a personal favorite, the Chrono Cross soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda is a perfect example of taking an aesthetic, in this case an intimate island setting, and scoring the game with primarily solo instruments and Gaelic inspirations to create a beautifully intimate score that can also be at times epic and deeply emotional.
gamemusic.net: Can you tell us in a few words how your career as a game music composer started?
Lena Raine: I had the unique opportunity to work as a game designer on Guild Wars 2 towards the start of my career in games, which somehow also lead into designing content for a holiday event that needed some original music to function. Because the game setting didn’t have many original holiday pieces, I decided to write some of my own. When the audio team got wind of my compositions, they reached out and were like oh hey you can write music! And we talked back and forth until the music I was writing eventually found its way into a trailer, and then the game itself, and they kept wanting to work with me!
Working remotely with orchestras in Budapest and Germany were amazing experiences. – Lena Raine
gamemusic.net: You had an opportunity to compose music to Guild Wars 2: Heat of Thorns. How this work influenced you as a composer?
Lena Raine: It’s honestly purely coincidental that my first big title in the industry was a AAA MMORPG in as large a franchise as Guild Wars. Oddly enough, this didn’t actually lead me in any new directions as far as jobs that were offered to me, but it did afford me the chance to write a lot of music for live orchestra over the years I worked on it. Working remotely with orchestras in Budapest and Germany were amazing experiences, and really built up my own skills as a composer for those sorts of ensembles when I had been used to writing for far fewer players.
gamemusic.net: You can now tell that the independent games’ OST are becoming more popular over the sometimes very average OST of the high budget games. Do you also observe this phenomen and if yes, what do you think is the reason for that?
Lena Raine: I think independent games have the opportunity to take a lot more risks than AAA games, especially when it comes to music. There’s a trend, which has recently been changing here and there, but the larger a game is, the more expectations there are from the people funding them that they must compete with the highest tiers of all media. In most cases, big action blockbuster films.
Because bombastic orchestral music is such a highlight of these films, that has become the bar that many large games are held to. Unfortunately, that means that there’s less chances to take risks and do something a bit different for the sake of exploring what might truly suit the game. As a result, indie games stand out in the ways that they’re hiring composers and bands that have very distinct aesthetics to them, ones that push at the boundaries of what we might expect from a game soundtrack. I think it’s brilliant, and I want to keep exploring ways to subvert peoples’ expectations.
gamemusic.net: How does the massive popularity of the Celeste influenced you as a composer? Did anything changed in your life?
Lena Raine: In a lot of ways, Celeste paved the way for the entire rest of my career. When I left my full-time job to finish the Celeste soundtrack, I had no idea if I could even make it as an independent composer. Due to the access and acclaim that the soundtrack has granted me, I’ve been able to seek after (and be sought after) by some really unique opportunities, and I know for a fact that I’ll be able to keep doing this career for years to come. I’m really thankful for that.
I had no idea if I could even make it as an independent composer. – Lena Raine
gamemusic.net: How does the first sketches of the tracks to Celeste looked like? Did you had at the end of your work to resign from the part of your ideas?
Lena Raine: Honestly, a lot of the work that went into Celeste was simply building out the pieces to become as dynamic as they were for the game. The music didn’t change much over the course of development, in terms of sounds or style. The synths and piano I used to sketch with, often became the final sounds.
However, the ways in which the music expanded over time or changed over the course of a level were all things that I went through and bolstered the original track with, if it wasn’t already considered part of the piece. For example, the track for Reflection actually started as its 3rd intensity level, written as a fully rhythmic and emotional track. When I knew I wanted to develop it over the course of the levels, I had to find ways to pare it back, to make it less intense and more ambient, which is how it worked its way back to the very first layers.
gamemusic.net: From the very beginning you know how does the music to Celeste should sound like or did you had another ideas for it? Can you tell us something more about it?
Lena Raine: The very first idea I had for Celeste was way more focused around the 8-bit retro aesthetic. Originally, I didn’t have any piano in the track I was writing for First Steps. It was just a straight-ahead synth tune, very up-beat and poppy, in the way a track for the Kirby series might sound. When I delivered that idea, the very first reaction was that it didn’t quite fit the pace of the game. So I pared it back, slowed down the tempo, and added in some slowly descending piano, which became the first sounds of First Steps. From there, I knew where the aesthetic of the game was, and there were very few changes after that once I had figured out the vibe of the game.
gamemusic.net: In the music to Celeste you can tell that there’s a lot of 8-bit era nostalgia. How did you coped with the hardware limitations?
Lena Raine: Honestly, the entire reason why the Celeste sound works is that I didn’t have any hardware limitations. When writing chiptune or things for 8-bit systems, there’s so many things to consider: limited voice count, limited possible sounds, etc. While Celeste was absolutely inspired by the limitations of that era, the ways in which I strayed from all of those limitations are what make it far less “8-bit” or “chiptune” in my mind, and more reflective of the kind of music you can write now while inspired by what came before.
gamemusic.net: What was the hardest part for you when you was composing the music to Celeste?
Lena Raine: The hardest part, I think was continuing to keep things fresh over the course of the game. This was helped by the amazing variety to the levels and mechanics that the designers came up with, but especially towards the end I was worried I might be writing myself into a corner with no real ways to expand the musical aesthetic beyond the synths and piano I had already explored. This was even more difficult when approaching the prospect of writing music for Chapter 9, our upcoming DLC chapter for Celeste. And so I tried my best to come up with
gamemusic.net: We are aware that you would like to compose an OST to the Japan RPG – why this genre of games and do you think about any particular game series?
Lena Raine: I pretty much grew up with JRPG soundtracks. They were, and continue to be, some of my favorite games to play, and by virtue of their lineage they’ve also attracted some of the most talented composers to write for them. As a result, they’re also the lifeblood of my musical aesthetics, and so I think it’s only natural that I’d have the inclinations to write for one some day. Just recently I had the wonderful opportunity to finally visit Japan for the first time, and meet several of my biggest inspirations, which was more than I could ever wish for. I hope that I can continue those friendships and see what the future has in store.
gamemusic.net: What would be your advice for the young composers?
Lena Raine: Write what you’re passionate about. If you don’t want to chase after the latest big sound that’s becoming popular, then it’s entirely possible to chase after the sound that you want. It might take longer to get to a place that you want to go, or get hired for the jobs that you want, but it’s entirely possible to be the kind of composer you want to be.
You never know when it will be exactly what someone wants, and chances are with all the tastes in the world. – Lena Raine
Keep writing, keep putting things out there, keep standing up for your work and letting the public hear it. You never know when it will be exactly what someone wants, and chances are with all the tastes in the world, there are hundreds of thousands of people out there that want more of what you specifically do. It’s always a struggle to be heard, and to find that audience, but it’s out there!