A composer of an array of enchantingly diverse compositions, and host of SmartGamePiano, Sydney Kjerstad is truly a unique-minded talent. I had the opportunity to speak with the friendly and humble composer, where we talked about creating compositional maps, creating a supportive musical community, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, and the joys of mixing different genres.
Thank you for doing this interview! Let’s get right into it. How did you first become interested in music in general and becoming a musician? Do you have any formal training?
Sydney: Yeah, I actually started really little. My grandparents bought my parents an upright piano, and so they threw us into lessons. And that’s really the starting point. I didn’t really get serious about it until high school, when I knew I wanted to pursue it. I got my Bachelor’s at Luther College, B.A. in Music and Arts, and then went to NYU and got a Masters in Scoring for Film and Multimedia.
Cool! So who are some of your main musical influences and inspirations?
Sydney: The first obvious one for me is the Final Fantasy composer, Nobuo Uematsu. That’s such a basic answer, you know… (laughs) But his music is really good, and it really resonated with me, especially as a kid, cause I played video games a lot as a kid, too. One day, I actually paid attention to the music, and I was like this is actually really good. So that was a big one… I played piano music all the time, so whenever I heard piano music in video games, I freaked out, like oh my gosh I can play that!
Yeah, okay. So what do you generally get inspired by, outside of musical sources, if there are any?
Sydney: Yeah, I enjoy reading, going outside, playing with animals… Sources for me are not so much like, a thing—like I see a river, and I’m like “Holy crap, a river.” It’s more of an experience, or a conversation… I experience something, and it leaves an impact. Maybe it makes me want to write music, maybe it doesn’t. It’s hard to think of extra-musical sources, cause music is my source.
(laughs) Yeah. So what programs and equipment do you use to make your music?
Sydney: One I use mostly is Logic X, the one I’m most comfortable with. I use EastWest library for a lot of sounds, Kontakt 5 for a lot of my other sounds—that’s a really great, accessible library. I also recently got into Cubase 8. And Pro Tools, but not too often, because I don’t usually deal with recorded music—I usually make my own sounds. So a little bit of Pro Tools, but Logic X is the one I mostly use.
So what’s your compositional process like? How do you usually go about writing a new piece of music, if there is a strategy?
Sydney: Not really… Usually it’s me just messing around at the piano, finding something I like. When I do that, I’ll put it onto Logic, see what other sounds I like. But when I do that, I really cut myself short. So what I do when I’m stuck is I’ll make a map. Like just a line… This instrument will come in here, maybe it’s not a sound, maybe a musical idea, change of signature… I have a really hard time with growth in music. It’s really easy to just come up with ideas and not develop those ideas. So for me, writing a map helps a lot.
Right, okay. So what was the first video game soundtrack you composed for? How did you get the position and what was the experience like?
Sydney: Sure, the first game I wrote for was Alternate Function IV, when I was at NYU. They have a school at Tisch called the NYU Game Center, where students can go and learn how to be game developers. So I went there, I bumped elbows, made some friends. One friend I made was Michael Consoli—we’re actually still good friends, we talk—and he wanted me to write music for his game Asterisk, which is unfortunately on hold. But while I was working on that, he came up with this really great April Fools joke game called Alternate Function IV, and I wrote a quick track for that. And it was called that because you were supposed to press “alt” and “f4” on your PC to guide your ships. But if you happen to push them at the same time, that’s the option for quit, so you’d quit out of the game. And he made me play it, and I fell for it! Like an idiot! Cause I’m a Mac user… (laughs) And he’s like “Write music for it!” I’m like “Fine! I will! I’m mad!” But I did.
(laughs) Awesome. So talk about Smart Game Piano. When did you start that, and why?
Sydney: I started that informally July last year, so July 2015. I was looking up random music jobs. This guy requested someone who could teach gospel music, who knew how to play piano, who could record their own voice and midi while they taught. And I was telling him that I grew up religious, but my real one true love is video game music. And he was like let’s do that instead, that’s way better! He’s still pursuing the gospel music, too… I’m partnering up with him for this website.
The basic idea is to make music accessible for people who can’t necessarily read sheet music, which is why we have the Synthesia file on the video, along with the hands. And by talking out loud, people understand okay, I do this finger here, or I do this chord here… It’s a really great way to teach, I think, especially for people who can’t afford the time or the money to have weekly lessons. It’s a really great way to create, maybe not a tight community, but a community where people can learn game music. The goal is to make a tighter community where people talk to each other and help each other out.
Yeah, that’s so cool!
Sydney: It’s a lot of fun!
Yeah. So what is the most recent compositional challenge you faced, and how did you get through it?
Sydney: I am fortunate enough to have started work on a documentary—I can’t give out too many details here. But the director is also a musician, so he knows what kind of sound he wants, which is awesome because he’s very specific. He told me he wants sounds like guitar feedback, and I’m like I have no idea how to do that. I know how to do that now, just don’t know how to make it sound good—it’s not perfect. There are so many videos on the internet, and I know a lot of guitar players. So that was a big one.
A less recent one that I really enjoyed was learning to write disco music for an animation. I never wrote disco music before, so I had no idea where to start. But that was a good lesson. In order to improve yourself as a composer, you have to write stuff you don’t listen to, you have to write stuff that you don’t normally write… I don’t write disco music, so today I’m gonna write disco music. I think more people should do that.
Yeah, outside of your comfort zone.
Sydney: Yeah, it was disco mixed with Japanese sounds. That’s gonna sound weird out of context… It was sumo wrestlers discoing with a piece of sushi—very strange. (laughs) But it was a lot of fun!
So what did you learn from writing that piece?
Sydney: Oh man… I still struggle with this. Learning how to still having an individual voice while setting to a particular style. Cause disco is its own thing. It’s very apparent when it’s disco. But how do you make it not the tropey… What you think of, like “YMCA”, “Stayin’ Alive”… How do you make it similar and in the same realm of that, but not an exact copy of that?
Yeah, keeping your own voice. So what is your favorite style of music to write in?
Sydney: Oh, that’s so hard… Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of CocoRosie, and Kikuo. CocoRosie is a duo of sisters who write folk, opera, rap, pop music… They’re wonderful, they’re great—if you don’t listen to them, I’m recommend it. And Kikuo is an electronic artist who is wonderful at mixing electronic sounds with orchestral, jazz, piano… Anything that’s like a hybrid, I really, really enjoy. I’m not great at it yet, but I enjoy making a hybrid. Mostly electronic stuff… I’m not much of a performer, so anything I can make and push the play button later—I enjoy that!
(laughs) Yeah, definitely. So what sorts of activities and hobbies do you like to do outside of video games and music?
Sydney: I mean, I play a lot of video games… (laughs) I like to read. I discovered Jane Austen this year, so that was really fun. I like to work out and go to the gym with my boyfriend. I like to ride bikes, go hiking… I also really enjoy watching documentaries. I also just love animals… I love to lay on the floor and torture whatever animal that’s in the room with me, just play with it. A cat or a dog…
Do you have any pets?
Sydney: My roommate’s cat. I adopted her. (laughs)
(laughs) What’s a good documentary you’ve seen recently?
Sydney: Oh my gosh, The Champions! It was about… Michael Vick, that football player who was also in dog fighting… And it’s a documentary about what happened to these dogs after they were rescued. And you follow certain dogs through rehabilitation, and it just makes you feel feelings, and it’s so great! I’d recommend it!!
Okay, so now I have a list of rapid-fire questions! Give short answers as quickly as possible! You ready?
Sydney: Okay, I’ll try!
Okay, favorite video game protagonist!
Sydney: …Sh*t! (laughs) Probably Yuna from FFX, she’s a champ!
Favorite video game series!
Sydney: Pokémon, easily.
Yes!! Favorite arcade game!
Sydney: Soulcalibur II!
Okay, favorite character theme!
Sydney: Midna’s Lament from Twilight Princess, that’s a really good one.
Oh, I haven’t finished Twilight Princess yet!
Sydney: It’s good, very fun!
Yeah. Favorite time signature!
Nice! Favorite battle theme!
Sydney: Oh! Recently, in Fire Emblem Fates, I think it was called… da da DA da da, da da DA da…
Oh my gosh!! It’s the… Uh… dudadu, DA-da-DA-da dudadu DA-duh… That one!?
Sydney: Yes!! (laughs) That one! I love how it switches from strings, to drums, if you switch in and out.
Yes!!! Oh my gosh! That’s the one that stood out to me, too!
Sydney: I’m glad you know what I’m talking about!
(laughs) Yeah! How about favorite Pokémon?
Sydney: Oh, Vaporean, easily. (takes out Vaporean plushie)
Oh my gosh!! (giggles) How convenient!
Sydney: I know! I just have this thing staring at me—it’s so cute, I love you!!
That’s so cute!! If you could live in any video game world for a week, which world would you choose?
Sydney: I’ve thought about this so much. Probably Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced, for the Gameboy Advance. It has this really cool job system, and leveling up system. That one was really fun… That one or Minecraft.
Okay, nice. If you could befriend any video game antagonist, who would it be?
Sydney: Antagonist… Probably just Blue from Pokémon Red and Blue. Like… You’re probably great, but you suck in the game. (laughs)
(laughs) Yeah. If you had to make a weapon out of any instrument, which instrument would you choose?
Sydney: Oh my god, a trombone. You have it up here, and just fire things and pull things in with the slide.
(laughs) Okay, end of rapid-fire questions.
Sydney: Okay, that was fun!
So what are some of your future plans? What are you working on right now?
Sydney: Smart Game Piano is still going strong. We got 4,000 subscribers recently, so we’re gonna keep on going.
Wow, congrats! That’s awesome!
Sydney: Thank you! I enjoy freelancing a lot… I’m working on this documentary, and I’m hoping to freelance some more video game stuff. And I’m gonna move to Colorado! I’m in upstate New York right now. But I really, really hate the east coast, so… I’m gonna move back to where all the hippies are. And gonna be closer to Seattle and California, where a lot of great game stuff is happening. There’s actually some game stuff happening in Colorado too. It’s small, so I’m gonna try to make friends with people there, see if I can’t be part of a small team there.
Yeah. Okay, awesome! Cool, so that’s all I have. Do you have any final thoughts, parting words?
Sydney: If you’re a composer and you like video game music… Cool! There’s a lot of us! I think it’s really cool what you’re doing, trying to get more people to talk about this. And your blog is very good! So I’m gonna get more of us talking together, more of a community.
Yeah, yeah, awesome! Thank you!