Music on the frontier: An interview with WildStar composer Jeff Kurtenacker

Music on the frontier A talk with WildStar's Jeff Kurtenacker
A great soundtrack has the ability to raise the mundane to memorable and the wonderful to epic. It's hard to imagine films like Star Wars or Back to the Future without their iconic scores or video games like Super Mario Bros. and Final Fantasy without their catchy tunes. So I'm always keen to hear the soundtracks of up-and-coming MMOs because they give me an indication of how much care is being given to the overall quality of the project.

I'm doubly excited for WildStar's score because it's being composed by Jeff Kurtenacker. Kurtenacker produced one of my all-time favorite MMO soundtracks, Pirates of the Burning Sea, which is a playful, exuberant romp through the nautical soundscape. And so far from what we've heard of WildStar's score, we can expect much of the same when we make planetfall on Nexus.

On one drizzly afternoon in a country that you've never heard of, Kurtenacker met with us in a small pub to talk about the joys of creating the music that will soon be infecting the brains of thousands (millions?) of gamers worldwide. Read on, space-man or space-woman, and be astounded!

Music on the frontier A talk with WildStar's Jeff Kurtenacker
Massively: Greetings Jeff! Let's get to know you a little bit here. What are some of your musical inspirations?

Jeff Kurtenacker: I have so many composers and artists who inspire me, but at the top of the list is Alan Silvestri. His score to Back to the Future was so influential when I was a kid. I had never heard anything like that before, and it really made me want to get into film scoring. I am a huge fan of almost all of his scores and actually just recently got the chance to meet him and personally thank him for all his music and tell him what an impact it has had on me.

I'm inspired by a wide range of music such as J.S. Bach, Mussorgsky, John Powell, Thomas Newman, The Killers, Philip Glass, Danny Elfman, Dr. Luke, Bruce Hornsby, Hans Zimmer, Jerry Goldsmith, Beethoven... just so many! And if I could do just one track with Ke$ha, that would be amazing! How can I make that happen? A bunch of people just hit the back button and are now unfollowing me on Twitter. Haha... little else polarizes the music world like Ke$ha.

After you're done brushing your teeth with a bottle of Jack, tell us how would you describe WildStar's score.

That's a great question. I should probably come up with a term for it! Whatever it's called, it is an absolute blast to compose! It's basically this fusion of electronica/synth elements, guitars, and orchestra. I generally try to keep those three elements present in the score as much as I can. As a general rule, I'm trying to evoke the WildStar experience by using orchestra for epic adventure (and to that end, using French horns a lot to give off that deep space adventure vibe, which is a pretty classic sound), electronic elements like synths and loops to bring out the techy sci-fi part, and acoustic guitars to bring out that pioneering, frontier spirit. How those elements are balanced in the score depends on which area of the game I'm scoring and what sort of mood it calls for.

For instance, the first zone we ever showed, Northern Wilds, is a beautiful, majestic snowy landscape, and you need to survive and forge through the elements and the enemies. So that zone leans more on the orchestra to help depict the sense of adventure and survival, but there is still guitar and synth in there to convey the pioneering spirit and the exposed Eldan technology lying around, whereas Algoroc is a dusty, mining town with outlaws running around causing havoc, and you need to put an end to it, so there I rely on the acoustic guitar to provide the emotional drive for that zone.

What motifs do you fall back on?

I have a few different motifs I weave into the score. For example, I have a theme for the Eldan, so whenever you get near a part of the game that is heavy in Eldan lore or Eldan technology, I will weave in their theme. I also have themes for some other important world groups players will encounter on a regular basis, as well as themes for the planet Nexus, and of course I weave in the main WildStar theme to bring in that sense of bold, epic adventure and tie it all together.


Do the Exiles and Dominion have their own musical cues, and if so, what did you decide to do for them?

Yes, the Exiles and Dominion have their own musical themes. Playing around with their themes and incorporating them into other cues is really fun for me. I strived to make the theme for each faction reflect their lore. I wanted to musically articulate what drives them and what motivates their actions. Why are they on Nexus? So for the Dominion, I chose a theme that is powerful, regal, and gloriously dark. It feels oppressive. It is the sound of a dominating force expanding its empire. The Exiles have a different story, and so their theme is much different. It is heroic, determined, with a sense of longing; it comes from more of an emotional place. The Exile theme champions a team of unlikely heroes and tells the story of courage in the face of incredible odds.

What was the recording experience like?

It is difficult to put into words, actually. Overwhelming is probably the best word I can think of. I mean that in the best way possible. It is a dream come true to record with top-notch LA musicians in these world-class facilities like Warner Bros. and Sony. It is an emotional experience to hear my music being brought to life by such skilled players.

The first orchestra session I ever did was when we recorded the score to the three-minute animated announcement trailer released at Gamescom back in 2011. I was so nervous the night before the session. I got about one hour of sleep, and I remember feeling as if I was gonna yack about 10 minutes before the session started. Ten minutes later I took the podium, conducted the first few bars, and never looked back. All the nerves went away, and I was just locked into making the best music possible. My heart grew three sizes that day.

I've learned a lot since then. Experience is the best teacher, I guess. The great thing is I have an amazing team around me who are there to support me and ensure we are getting great stuff. From Charley Lanusse, Carbine's Audio Director (his role is critical to mine, and he falls more in line with a music producer most of the time), to Nick Baxter, our mix engineer, to Dan Savant, our contractor who helps us get the musicians and book recording stages, we are all dedicated to making sure the WildStar score is 100% awesome for your gaming pleasure and that the production value is top-notch.

How long did it take you to create the music for the game?

Well, it hasn't all been written yet, but I have been writing and recording for about a year and a half. There is a lot of music in this game. I still have a lot more to write, so I'll be busy from now until launch.

How was composing the music for WildStar in comparison to your previous work on Pirates of the Burning Sea?

Two very different experiences, actually. On PotBS I was contracted to score that game with co-composer Adam Gubman, and we were pretty disconnected from the actual development process, which is pretty common for off-site contractors. I've been a contract composer for a lot of video games; my work starts up as the development process is coming to a close. But on WildStar, being on staff and working with this great team on a daily basis, I get to be involved and part of the dev process. If I have a question on lore, I can walk down the hall and ask someone. Or art, or content. It's great! Not only is it nice to be in on daily discussions about the creation of the game, but it is also really helpful to be around the team every day. I find it really helps my creativity toward the game and keeps me connected and inspired.

Another difference is just the approach. On Pirates, I had to compose music that fit into a pre-conceived box. We had four different styles on Pirates: Pirate music, Spanish music, French music, and British music. So when I was writing British port music, I had to keep asking myself, "Does this sound like 18th century British music?" Same with the other styles. I was writing to fit a genre. The great thing about WildStar is I got to define the musical landscape. It is a completely foreign universe and a completely new IP, so there is absolutely zero pre-conceived notion from the devs or the fans about what it should sound like. For me, that has been a lot of fun and creatively rewarding.


Did you play the game or watch much of it to derive inspiration for the music? If not, were you given concept art or descriptions? How does that process work?

I'm definitely inspired by the look and feel of the game. We have a studio filled with extremely talented artists, animators, designers, lore writers, and content creators. So from the moment I walk into a zone in our game, I get a vibe. I explore the zone and talk to team members and really get a feel for what the player will be expected to do here, and it helps me dial in the mood and emotional tone for the zone music.

How many minutes of music have you recorded so far, and is the soundtrack complete at this point?

Hmmmmm... I'm actually not entirely sure how many minutes I have recorded. I would estimate that between orchestral and non-orchestral music I have about 150-180 minutes of music so far. But no, the soundtrack is not even close to being done, which is great because I'm having way too much fun for it to be over yet! My heart still has more sizes to grow.

How does one incorporate both sci-fi and western into a score?

Well, it's interesting.... I think it works great because we are dealing with two kinds of frontiers. The deep, unknown, vastness of space and all the cool futuristic gadgetry and that lawless, pioneering adventure of the unknown wilderness. Two different worlds, but they blend so well together. It took some trial and error at the beginning. The piece Justice Doesn't Always Wear a Badge was one of the first pieces I ever wrote for the game, and it took a while to find something that worked, but once I found it, I got really excited! I was like, "I don't know what this is, but I love this sound!"

As I mentioned, that blend of orchestra, electronica, and guitar is really important in WildStar, but the further I got into the score for the game, the more I realized that dusty outlaw sci-fi sound isn't appropriate for every zone; we just have such a vast and diverse world. So while it is a great sound and it fits great for Algoroc and other zones in our game, the entire score doesn't lean as far western as the song Justice does. But what I did find was blending in acoustic guitar into lots of cues in the score kept us grounded in that frontier/pioneering spirit, which is really important to our game. I even add in banjo and mandolin at times. This idea of how to blend it all together is really a fun puzzle to solve, and I'm thrilled with the results we're getting. I'm using some stylistic spaghetti western-ish idioms, and they just fit really well with a cool, edgy drum loop and some running strings and bold brass blazing a trail. It just works. Again, it took some trial and error, but now that sound really defines the WildStar experience.

What's your favorite memory from this project?

That is difficult because I have honestly had so many great memories and have met so many great friends. But I would say a highlight for me was being able to record the main theme at Sony Scoring Stage with a huge orchestra. It was just a powerful and legendary experience! I was honestly a little star struck by whom we had in our orchestra that day, and the fact that these legendary players would take a moment to tell me they love the music? It doesn't get much more gratifying than that.

Are you able to pick a personal favorite track, and if so, what is it?

Yikes, it is near impossible for me to pick. It honestly depends on the day and my mood. I'm really connected to many of the themes. It truly is like asking me to pick my favorite child. One of my favorite cues is the main theme, which no one has heard yet, but I think it really blends together everything we love about the WildStar universe and takes you on this epic journey.

Thanks Jeff! We look forward to hearing the entire soundtrack some day soon!

When readers want the scoop on a launch or a patch (or even a brewing fiasco), Massively goes right to the source to interview the developers themselves. Be they John Smedley or Chris Roberts or anyone in between, we ask the devs the hard questions. Of course, whether they tell us the truth or not is up to them!
This article was originally published on Massively.