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Jukebox Heroes Extra: An interview with Inon Zur


Did you grow up watching Power Rangers? I didn't, but then again, I was slightly over the age demographic there. But it tickles me pink (ranger) that the guy who got his start doing background music for one of the cheesiest shows of all time ended up scoring many of the greatest video games of all time.

Israeli-born Inon Zur was hard at work in the film, TV, and video game industry in the '90s, but it wasn't until 2002's Icewind Dale II that his music and fame started to climb to a whole different level. Zur started winning awards left and right for his work on Dragon Age, Fallout 3, Prince of Persia, and Men of Valor, among other titles.

MMO players might not know it, Zur's deft hand is all over the place. He's composed several EverQuest and EverQuest II expansions, the now-defunct Exteel, last year's RIFT and most recently, TERA. As a driving force behind MMO music, Inon Zur has a unique perspective on what makes for a great audio experience.

Want to hear more? Us too. We have a great interview with Zur as well as a few select pieces of his works after the jump.

Massively: It must seem surreal sometimes just how well-known you've become in video game circles. How do you deal with the fame?

Inon Zur: For me it's all about connecting with people on an emotional level. I'm inspired the most when I'm able to connect with people through music. It gives me the greatest satisfaction and feeling of self-achievement, in a meaningful way, that I was able to make an emotional connection to someone with my music.

Was there an event or childhood influence that motivated you to become a composer?

This idea came to me very early during childhood; music just came quite natural from the age of three.

One of my first musical memories was my mother singing to me; I just came up with a harmony and started singing it. I was attracted to classical music in my early years and wanted to listen to records of symphonies, piano concertos, and more. I composed my own songs and studied the history of music as well as music theory along with composition and appreciation from a very early age. I found myself composing original music more than just practicing. I also learned guitar and French horn, but piano has always been my main instrument.

During my teens I realized that music is what I loved to do, and I kept on learning more and more, and composing more. So my goal then was to become a conductor and classical composer.

However, during my studies at the Music Academy of Tel Aviv, I understood that I needed to look for a different direction than what they were leading me toward. I was looking for communicative music that could speak to everybody, not just those at the highest level where only the affluent minority can enjoy classical music. Music is supposed to reach out to the majority of people and I felt that this elitist approach was not the right way for me. When I came to the U.S., I found a different approach to composing music for an audience that was widely accepted and allowed me to have a livelihood as a working musician and composer.

How do you derive inspiration for the projects you work on?

The story is always my first starting point and creative influence. We look at the characters and their motives, which affect the direction and tempo of the music. Also, we look at the way the game looks artistically. For example, RIFT looks different from all other MMORPGs because the colors and art styles have the feel of a different planet, whereas EverQuest is more earthy. In RIFT, the imagery looks a bit exaggerated, not standard compared to other titles in the genre; it has a unique blueprint that I reflect with different colors in the music.

How would you describe your music?

I think that my music always has a sense of drama. For me it's about storytelling and portraying dramatic events and going through emotions. I can write in many styles, but when I think about music and what it represents, to me it is like bursts of emotions, spontaneous emotions with lots of peaks and valleys, though mainly story-driven. In many cases, the stories inspire my music, which reflects the deeper feelings inside of a person. That is what I'm always trying to reach for -- to bring out those emotions.

You've composed for movie trailers, film scores, and video games. What are your favorite aspects of each avenue, and out of all of those, which do you find the most fulfilling?

Music is a tool and a means to project emotions and to tell a story. This is the role of music for all media. It is the fourth dimension, the element of the project that you don't see, but you feel it. I don't think I have a favorite medium to write for.

What I will say about games though is that they are often more "freeform" and open to expression, so you don't have to complete the musical picture without being locked to the screen; apart from the cinematics or cutscenes, you're not restrained by those boundaries. Instead you may have to describe the general feeling, create a piece of music that will cover multiple situations or that can be played for a long time, with variations. It's challenging in a different way because you need to capture a lot while avoiding repetition.

Out of all of the MMO soundtracks you've worked on, which is your favorite and why?

For me each project brings different types of challenges and enjoyment. Each and every game poses new opportunities so it's not just the game itself that appeals to me but also the musical challenges presented to me, which are always very motivating. For example, RIFT is great because the visuals stand out from other MMOs and we're able to experiment musically with different sounds such as processing ethnic instruments and new vocal styles. But I also enjoy composing for EverQuest because it is a classic RPG fantasy with regard to the visuals, story, and gameplay, so the music style can be more classical.

Let's narrow it down a tad: What's your favorite MMO piece of music that you composed?

It really is hard to choose since each project represents different challenges and I find enjoyment in all my projects. But when I'm creating new material, the more freedom I am given helps inspire me to come up with something that is more original. Therefore I can express myself in a way that I haven't before so I am not repeating myself.

Do you go back and listen to your music often or not so much?

Once I have completed a project, there is not always time to look back before I move on to my next project. But sometimes I do like to listen back so I can review and look for ways to improve the music. Other times, I might be walking down the street singing into my iPhone and I might go back to that melody later for ideas. I'm constantly staying in touch with my inner musical self and I feel like an antenna -- receptive to my surroundings.

What other composers and soundtracks are your personal favorites?

I enjoy the classical works of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Debussy and Beethoven and the film music of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Thomas Newman. I also like jazz including artists such as George Gershwin. I also keep my ears open to listen to new music.

Is it different to compose music for an MMO vs. other types of video games?

You have to think more long-term. Themes need to evolve because the world is ever-changing, and it is a continuous journey for the player. We're constantly trying to address the atmosphere of locations as well as the developing story, relationships and all the emotions we want the players to feel. MMOs require a lot more music.

When you tell stories to others about your job, what tales come up the most often?

I usually explain how my job as composer is to take the language of a project and give it a unique voice through music, creating a musical identity for the story.

How do you see the video game music genre changing, and what do you predict for the future?

I think the music is going in the same direction as the rest of the industry -- we're always looking for ways to be better and improve what we've done before. As the budgets for games increase, this gives us more opportunities to record with the best musicians at the best recording studios. Advanced technology will allow the music to react more seamlessly in games, further immersing the player in the experience.

Could you give us a little sneak peek on the topic you'll be discussing at PAX?

The panel will be sharing our different experiences and perspectives on scoring games and discussing what's involved when working on big titles.

Are there any future projects by Inon Zur that we should be on the lookout for?

I'm scoring several new projects, but I can't talk about them yet. I can mention the RIFT Original Soundtrack; it will be released by the label Sumthing Else Music Works in the near future. Outside of games, I just released my latest trailer music library "Eternal Hero." As for my upcoming projects, they will be announced on Facebook and my website.

Thanks for talking with us!

MMOs aren't just about looks; they also have great soundtracks that often go unnoticed. Heroes don't stand for that! Every other Tuesday, Jukebox Heroes will check out a game's soundtrack and feature the best tunes to share and discuss. Your DJ for the hour is Justin Olivetti, and the request line is open!

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