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How it began

I can trace the starting points of various aspects of my musicianship to different events in my life; today, I'd like to talk about them.


Greyscale image of me composing on a keyboard
I couldn't find a better picture to illustrate this post, so here is a shot of me composing for the penultimate 21 Days of VGM, back in the first lockdown in 2020.

Playing by ear

The drum was the first instrument that I ever consciously played by ear; I could only do so on a toy drum that my grandparents gifted me, as I would never be able to safely access a drum until I reached the age of 21, when I purchased my first bodhrán. (Yes, my mother's final gift to me before her death was an electric kit, a Yamaha DTXPress IV, which I loved playing, but no, I wasn't safe playing it at all because of my father's hostility to even the mere idea of me playing drums.)


The first time I ever played something back by ear, I was simplifying a groove that was originally played on a kit. I was three years old. This experience would mark me forever.


The first time I ever consciously played something by ear on the piano, I was 7 years old and preparing for my Grade 2 piano exam. The way I played the chords and melodies was simplistic perhaps, but I was glad to come close to what I was hearing, in terms of tonality. There was one song I picked up by ear that made me confident that I could play by ear, and it was Colours of the Wind -- yes, that beautiful song in that problematic Disney film, Pocahontas. The film version of the song was done with a detune, so I can say that it is sorta kinda in D major, but not quite. I ended up playing that song in D major, with my left hand playing typical beginner's broken chords.


Composition

My first exercise in composition was given to me when I was 10 years old. I attended Yamaha Music School and underwent their exam syllabus for a time.


One of the apparent prerequisites for their Junior Special Advanced Course, which I was a part of, was that students needed to be introduced to composition. I had never done anything like it. Their method for introducing us to composition, in hindsight, is congruent with what a lot of composers I know would say -- that they borrow elements from pieces they like, and make these bits and pieces their very own.


I hated the initial experience. I felt like I was going into this composition exercise kicking and screaming. The only real thing I knew, at the time, was that I loved the jazz pieces I was studying above all other pieces in the syllabus. My teacher then encouraged me to borrow the feel of it for my eventual original piece. I daresay that she practically held my hand through that process.


We would be professionally recorded -- for many, if not for all of us, this was our first instance of ever being professionally recorded. The school I attended was the headquarters of all Yamaha Music School branches where I grew up, so we had the added bonus of having our pieces recorded on a grand piano, in an auditorium -- that was a surreal experience. Our pieces would be listened to and graded based on their creativity, via star system. My half-hearted attempt at this piece scored me 3 stars out of 5, which I was happy to have seen the back end of. Unfortunately, that recording is lost now -- but I remember how that piece goes, and at some point, I ought to play it again.


I never touched composition on my own initiative again until I was 13 years old, at which point I recalled this foundation in composition that was given to me just three years prior. I didn't want this knowledge to go to waste, so I decided to apply what was taught to me and come up with a number of songs. As is the case with my first ever composition attempt, many of these songs are now lost. All of us who recorded that composition exercise had a CD with all our recordings in an anthology, which was nice -- but that CD is lost forever, unfortunately.


It was a privilege, for sure -- one that I didn't realise was a privilege until years down the line. Learning the piano was a privilege, recording in this way was a privilege.


Video game music

The first time I ever composed for a video game, it was on Newgrounds in 2012, and it was for one of the last few in-house game jams on Newgrounds of that decade. I remember feeling elation from that experience -- I scored a game!


The game jam entry in question was called Dropping Loads in a Cave. (This game cannot be played without Ruffle support. Ruffle is a browser extension, developed by a good few Newgrounds members, among others, which bypasses the security vulnerabilities of the .SWF file extension, and allows Flash files to play normally and safely.)


At the time, I had a laptop, my very first one. It ran Windows 7, and it was something I got for my law studies. By the time I had begun scoring that game, the computer had begun to occasionally overheat and shut off -- its days were numbered.


I was lucky to have ended up in a team that 1) finished their game and 2) managed to iron out any bugs in the process. Many were not so lucky. Unfortunately, we did not place. In-house Newgrounds jams would end by 2013, and reprise again with the advent of Ruffle, which came into being at the start of this decade.


I think, what makes me favour games and experiences like this over, say, mods for hugely popular games like Geometry Dash or Friday Night Funkin', is that I can truly say that this soundtrack was mine, purpose-written for a game that stands on its own, however small.


This is an experience that would prove invaluable for any of us in game audio, especially in video game music, to the point that to this day, we still recommend that people partake in game jams to build up their portfolio. There's an entire calendar of them out there that is routinely updated. And, it helps us to build up "our sound," whatever that sound might end up being. We're not trying to copy someone else, unless the developer has certain musical references in mind. And I feel that this first experience scoring a game has put me in a fortunate position, for it makes me remember what it means to be a video game composer.


I get that for a subset of the VGM community, doing mods or copying others' work can be as rewarding of an experience as scoring an original. But this certainly isn't the case for me. And even among people who write music for mods or video game covers or who attempt to replicate other people's work, we do well to inject something of ourselves into it. The thing we're here to offer, as video game scorers, is our own musical signature. And it should be nurtured as best as it can.


And that's one thing I am grateful for, that it seems to have been the case with me so far. Friends of mine have told me that regardless of what genre I write in, or what language I write in, there's something of my musical signature, a common thread that runs through everything I write. It all sounds like me.

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