Neal Acree: The key to inspiration

Interview Subject: Neal Acree (Right)
Interviewer: Alexander Kiryakov (Left)
Editor: Alexander Kiryakov

What plays an important role in the work — inspiration or discipline? If you need to write music in a short time — you sit down and write or necessarily need an inspiration and appropriate mood?

Neal: Great question. It depends a lot on the schedule. I prefer to take the time to find inspiration and sometimes I have that luxury, but usually I don’t. That’s not to say that inspiration doesn’t often show up right when I need it to, but I can’t always predict when it will. I can only assume that it will show up based on past experience. I think all creative people have the unreasonable fear that maybe some day the ideas will stop coming because ultimately we are aware that we do not control inspiration, only the circumstances in which it finds us.

Some of my best work has taken months to create and some of it was written in a few hours. When I was working on the Stargate TV series I learned how to write very quickly and rely on my craft to stay productive even when I wasn’t inspired. The problem is that you can’t necessarily schedule when inspiration will come because you don’t have any control over it. So you have to keep working, focussing on the details and the technical stuff until you find the right state of mind or more importantly stop trying to force it. The key to inspiration is a clear head and the trust that the idea will come when it’s ready. Often times inspiration shows up under the most intense deadlines and impossible conditions, right when you need it most, but the key is not to expect it and be to be prepared to move forward without it using craft and discipline.

How much time is spent on the creation of ended composition (from an idea to the end)?

Neal: Again, it depends on how much time I am given. Or, if I am working on multiple projects, how much time I am able to spend on each to get them all done in time. On some of the WoW cinematics I have spent several months or even the better part of a year from start to finish. Not necessarily working every day on them but a lot of time put in. There have been many times where I had to complete huge pieces in a day. The creative process, from the director, to the animators, to the composer is relatively fluid until the time comes when there will be musicians sitting on a stage waiting for music to play. Sometimes we come up with ideas the night before the final deadline and stay up all night to chase them.

On films, I usually get 4-5 weeks to complete 70-80 minutes of music. In TV it’s usually a week to create the 15-30 minute score. With games there is usually more time but the process is a lot more involved because of producing all the live music, something I have help with but that I am very involved in.

Describe, how occurs a process of writing a track, when you are the only author and also when the track is created in collaboration with another composer.

Neal: In regards to collaborations, there are a few different ways that happens. First, in the truest form of collaboration, someone will send me a basic idea and I will recreate it with my sounds and add to it as I see fit. Then I send it back and we go back and forth until the director (an impartial judge) is happy. The second (and possibly most common) way is when in the process of researching the music I want to write I find some previously established themes that I want to quote. In this case it is credited as a collaboration even though I didn’t work directly with the other composer. The last way (similar to the first) is where I write something for one purpose and someone else adapts it for something else. In the case of Blizzard music when you see multiple composers on a specific piece, it doesn’t necessarily mean we sat in the same room together an wrote something. We do have a lot of admiration for each other’s work and try whenever possible to create cohesive scores that are true to the games’ legacies.

Does it happen that, when working on the same project appear workpiece on next or some ideas?

Neal: If I understand the question correctly, this happens all the time. I am writing with one project in mind and an idea for another project comes up. I’ll put the idea down regardless but I have to decide based on how inspired I am by this new idea whether or not I should stop what I’m doing and start working on that (and I usually do). As I mentioned before, inspiration isn’t at our beck and call. It doesn’t necessarily show up when you want or how you want so you have to make the most of it when it does. I’ve written a lot of music while trying to write for something else entirely.

How easy goes «switching» from old and familiar universes, as WoW, to new and unknown, as the recent Revelation? As obtained, what each game sounds in their own way, so many years of work on games Blizzard, definitely should have left their mark.

Neal: To a certain extent, revisiting a familiar franchise is like visiting an old friend. Your conversations pick up right where you left them. The challenge lies in expanding upon those existing universes. Finding new musical directions to take without leaving the known completely behind. The biggest challenge is switching between these different worlds quickly and often which happens frequently in my world. It takes a bit of exploring and immersion to create a world as tonally different as Revelation but admittedly, the more I do it, the faster I am able to switch back to it. The key is intuition. Once you have your bearings (and this can only come through experience, research and immersion), then instinct is able to lead the way.

What distinguishes a creation of a soundtrack to a film and a game? Are there any radical differences among them or a soundtrack from the game in theory can be simply inserted into a movie?

Neal: There are some technical differences in terms of how the music is created and synchronized with the final product but from a creative standpoint film and game music isn’t that different in my opinion. With film, you are synchronizing the music precisely with the visuals and the art form is the marriage of the two. With games, you either have triggered music that plays at specific moments or even random ones, or you have interactive music that adapts to the gameplay using different layers in the music. Most of what I do is the first kind, music that plays in a zone or at a specific moment in a game. Compositionally this form leaves a little more room to think musically and develop an idea on it’s own. You are still writing music to an idea and still telling a story, but the way it is experienced is slightly different.

Have you someday sung? If yes, your voice is present in some composition?

Neal: The closest I’ve ever come to singing on one of my pieces was doing some rap background vocals on a dance piece I did once. I’ve done a little singing over the years but it’s not really my strongest skill. I’ve been lucky to have been able to have professionals do the singing for me.

What is the most unusual sound for the modernization you was fun pick up and record? For example: The sound of opening of cans soda.

Neal: There was a movie I did called «Throttle» or «No Way Up» in Europe that was a thriller about a killer truck set in a parking garage. I used the sounds of car crashes, door slams and lots of affected ambient sounds like that. I will sometimes drinking glass or other things to get weird sounds out of my guitar. I also occasionally put the sounds of people screaming or breathing in the music but usually in a way that is more felt than heard.

Do you have any favorite composer (besides an obvious god of movie music, John Williams), writing music for movies or games?

Neal: I’ll give you my top 10: John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Elliot Goldenthal, Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, Howard Shore, Alan Silvestri, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Tan Dun. I don’t listen to a lot of game music but when I do, Russell Brower, Derek Duke, Glenn Stafford and Jason Hayes are my favorites.

With whom would you like to work together on writing music?

Neal: Though I have thoroughly enjoyed working on teams over the years, composing has in itself always been a fairly solitary job for me. I started out working a lot with Joel Goldsmith and I’ve enjoyed writing with Derek Duke and the other Blizzard composers but I don’t know if I specifically have anyone I’d like to write with. That being said, I do enjoy creative collaboration and welcome any opportunity to work with new people.

You usually record their works with one orchestra or you are in a constant search?

Neal: I’ve probably recorded more music with the Northwest Sinfonia and Chorus in Seattle, Washington than anywhere else but there are so many amazing groups around the world and especially in Los Angeles. I think more than anything Blizzard has been interested in the sound of different studios. Each one has slightly different characteristics than the next. Personally, I prefer working with people I have a lot of experience with. The more familiar you are with a group, the more you know what to expect from the experience and how best to communicate with the players. Because ultimately we are all just people making music.

Call your favorite musical instrument (except guitars)?

Neal: Cello. It has a very wide range and can be very expressive. But I am also very fond of the cimbasso and piccolo which are on the extreme opposite ranges of the orchestra. Both are very impactful in their own way.

What music do you prefer listening to lately? Maybe you opened for self some new artist or team, whose music heaves into your soul?

Neal: I listen to a really wide range of stuff. My go-to is usually 80s synth pop but I do enjoy listening to new stuff as well. Whatever it is, it’s usually the opposite of the kind of music I’m working on at the time, unless I’m looking for some inspiration.

How do you feel about the free placement of your music, released on CD or posted to iTunes, on some site / resource ?

Neal: Do you mean music that is normally for sale but that is uploaded to YouTube or torrent sites? On one hand, I do appreciate the fact that the music is being shared and reaching people that it it would not normally reach but on the other hand it is frustrating to see music that we worked so hard on and that so much money was spent on being given away. It makes it harder and harder to release albums at all and nowadays the only reason we do is so the music will get heard.

Do you have some hobbies / interests besides music?

Neal: I usually don’t have a lot of free time but when I do I usually like to stay creative. I have a side project called Muzique Creations where I make sculptures out of musical instruments. I also like to draw and write. Lately I’ve been really enjoying building and painting Star Wars studio scale models.

A question of Russia. When will we see you visiting us?

Neal: I’m hoping to visit for the Russian launch of Revelation Online. Not sure yet if or when that will happen but I’d certainly love to visit.

What can you wish to Russian fans of your creativity?

Neal: Thank you so much for all of your support. Thank you for the artwork and the kind words you’ve left in comments. It means the world to me to know that people around the world are listening to our music and are fans of what we do. It makes me work harder to try to give the best of myself to the music because I know how much it means to you.

A last question. As you such an idea, hold a contest jointly with my club, what do you feel about it?

Neal: That sounds great! I love the idea.

Jule 23, 2016.