Intrigued by the gorgeous and heartfelt compositions of Michelle Saddic, I contacted the incredibly talented composer to ask for an interview. We ended up having a great conversation, where she shared her thoughts about life experiences as inspiration, her detailed compositional process, difficulties coming up with inspiration where there is none, and playing card games.
How did your life with music begin? Do you have any formal training?
Michelle: Yeah, I have a lot of it! Music kinda runs in the family, so it was basically expected that I start learning piano at a young age. I was 8 when I started piano, and then I learned flute in 4th grade, then switched to horn, played a whole ton of instruments in high school, then I went to West Chester University, and I got my Bachelor’s in Music Education, and another one in Music Theory and Composition. And right now I’m studying at Pulse College, getting my Master’s degree in Composing for Film and Visual Media.
Yeah, awesome! So who are some of your main musical influences and inspirations?
Michelle: Film score… Alan Menken and Thomas Newman got me into it. I love John Williams’s music. Currently my favorite composer is James Newton Howard. And classically, my favorites are Debussy and Tchaikovsky. So it’s kind of a lot of people!
Okay, so what other sorts of things do you generally get inspired by outside of music?
Michelle: Get inspired, like for composing music, or just other things I like?
Composing or other things, whatever you want to talk about!
Michelle: I guess life experiences inspire me a lot. I started composing when I was going through some rough times, like family issues and stuff when I was younger—that’s when I started writing music to get my feelings out. And then being in relationships: being in love, falling out of love, writing about all of that. I’ve always liked to write stories, ever since I was in the single digits, and I have lots of stories that I’ve kept from those ages. A lot of times I’ll write music about those stories. I’m a church-goer, so I write music about my spirituality sometimes. I like to go outside… (laughs)
Connect with nature?
Michelle: Yeah, nature for sure. I’m in Dublin right now, so a lot of beautiful parks, the river, the beach, and all that.
Yeah! So what was the first piece of music you ever wrote? And what inspired that?
Michelle: I wrote a song when I was in elementary school, just a four-chord song… (laughs)
My first was four-chord too—it’s okay! (laughs)
Michelle: There’s nothing wrong with four-chord songs, you still write them sometimes, if that’s what comes out! But yeah, it was a four-chord song… I think that was when my parents were separating—it was a prayer kind of thing.
But then the first piece that I wrote, like without words or any of that, was in high school. It was about a story that I had written about a girl who lost her family and was trying to get her power back. I wrote it on piano, but I was in the pitched percussion ensemble at my school.
Oh hey, me too!
Michelle: You too? I played marimba! How about you?
The vibraphone was my favorite!
Michelle: I started on the vibraphone—I love it! So I arranged it for pitched percussion ensemble, and we played it in a competition at finals. I don’t think we placed, but it was the first performance of a piece that I had written, so it was really exciting!
Yeah, definitely! Awesome! So what programs or equipment do you use to make your music? Or is it mostly acoustic?
Michelle: No, it’s a mix of things… I mean, before I knew you could use computers, it was acoustic—just piano and voice. But then in high school I got introduced to Sibelius, so I’m a Sibelius user. I’ve used Finale a couple times, when I was student teaching in the schools, but typically I use Sibelius. But now, cause of the school I’m going to right now, I’ve been trained in Logic and Pro Tools. I use Kontakt a lot in Logic… I like Spit Fire samples. I usually make the sheet music in Sibelius, then make the mock-up in Logic. I’ve only done that process backwards one time, where I actually wrote it first in Logic. But then I do my mixing in Pro Tools.
Okay. So what’s your compositional process like? How do you usually go about writing a new piece of music, if there is a formula?
Michelle: Usually I start with an idea, and depending on how inspired I am, sometimes I’ll just be able to hum a melody. Sometimes I have to sit down at the piano and play for a little bit. And then I just come up with one good theme, or one good melody. Once I have that, I just… I usually take that and play around with it on the piano and come up with other themes that match with it. And then I got to Sibelius and just put my themes down—only my themes. And then I try to turn it into a structured piece. If I’m scoring a scene, or like… We had a video game assignment, which was to make loops. I’ll make a structure, and I’ll say okay, I have a hit point at this amount of seconds, or I know that I need to add another layer at this amount of seconds, or something like that. And I’ll pick my tempo, and then make markings on my score. So then I turn my one or two themes into a basic outline. Then I start adding the countermelodies and harmonies, and then I orchestrate.
Okay, awesome. So what sorts of aspirations do you have as a game composer? As in, what kinds of games would you want to write music for, and why?
Michelle: I’m pretty open-minded, in that regard, because I’m interested in a lot of different genres of music, so I don’t feel restricted in one type or another. I actually wasn’t allowed to have video games until I was in my teens, so I’m a little late to the video game world. (laughs)
Never too late!! (laughs)
Michelle: But we were allowed to have Game Boys, so I played a lot of Pokémon and a lot of Zelda, and all that—my neighbor had Zelda… Final Fantasy… And I played Prince of Persia on PC. So I guess I’m most accustomed to adventure games, so coming up with different themes for different levels and scenarios would be cool… But then you know, you have phone games, and games like Tetris, where you just need a loop in the background. Really, I’m open to anything. But then you have like Bioshock, where things are really involved, with the plot and different scenes, with really intense, really intelligent music. It’s a beautiful game, with really legitimate music! Our class actually Skyped with the composer Garry Schyman—he told us a little bit about it.
Cool! So what’s the most recent compositional challenge you’ve faced, and how did you get through it?
Michelle: Recent compositional challenge… I guess the hardest thing is when you have an assignment or a gig, and you’re not really inspired by what they give you. That’s happened to me twice in the last year—one of them was a gig, and one of them was an assignment… Obviously I’m not gonna say what they were. (laughs) But I just thought both of them were kind of cheesy, but I had to pretend that they were really good, so that I could write music that complemented it, and didn’t sound as cheesy as I thought their projects were! (laughs) I think that’s the biggest challenge I’ve come upon lately… Coming up with inspiration where you have none.
“I guess the hardest thing is when you have an assignment or a gig, and you’re not really inspired by what they give you. … I think that’s the biggest challenge I’ve come upon lately… Coming up with inspiration where you have none.”
(laughs) Yeah. What is your favorite style of music to write in?
Michelle: Favorite style… Like I said before, I like Debussy and I like Tchaikovsky. So I guess somewhere in the middle… Debussy likes to use colors, and impressions, and motifs, whereas Tchaikovsky comes up with these great melodies and interesting harmonies. I like to do somewhere in the middle: I like to come up with things that people can remember, but also with harmonies that are surprising but beautiful and effective… So a mesh between romantic and impressionist is what I like to do.
Okay, so which piece of yours is the most different from any other piece you’ve done, and what did you learn from writing it?
Michelle: I have a piece that I actually haven’t put up on my website yet, but I should. It was kind of jazz, funk, impressionist… It was for vibraphone, bass, and piano. It’s probably the most different from anything else I had written, just because… It was jazz-funk, which is something I don’t really do a whole lot, even though I like jazz—I played in the jazz band. It was a rambling piece, that didn’t have a clear ABC like a lot of my other pieces do. It just started, and then it walked and developed, and then did its own thing, and then it ended.
“It was a rambling piece, that didn’t have a clear ABC like a lot of my other pieces do. It just started, and then it walked and developed, and then did its own thing, and then it ended.”
Michelle: Yeah! It had polymeter, so it was hard to tap your toe to, but it was still kinda cool.
(laughs) That reminds me, I went to a concert where a piece was in either 7/4 or 11/4—one of those. People were trying to clap, and they were like “What!?” (laughs) It was so funny!
Michelle: I went to a big luncheon once, and they had a live band. And the band was playing “Take Five”, but the drummer… Was playing in four. And the band couldn’t stay together!
Michelle: Some of me wanted to go up and say “Hey, the drummer is playing this in four…”
Oh, that’s painful!!
Michelle: I know!
I guess cause the drummer doesn’t usually get the music… But I mean, it’s in the title!!
Michelle: I know, that’s what I kept saying!
Oh wow… (laughs) Okay, so what sorts of activities or hobbies do you like to do outside of music and video games?
Michelle: I like reading, I like going for walks, I like shopping… Even if I don’t buy anything, just going out and looking at things is fun… Hang out with friends. I’m kind of an old lady, I like to play card games and board games.
Oh nice, me too! What’s your favorite card game?
Michelle: Probably Hearts.
Ah okay, nice. Yeah. Now I have a list of rapid-fire questions. Give short answers as quickly as possible! You ready?
Michelle: All right.
Favorite video game protagonist!
Michelle: The prince from Prince of Persia. I don’t remember his name—I haven’t played in years.
Favorite video game series!
Nice okay, favorite Pokémon!
Favorite character theme!
Michelle: Princess Leia… Or is this video game?
Well I was thinking video game, but that could work too! (laughs) Okay, favorite arcade game!
Me too! Favorite time signature!
Nice. Favorite battle theme!
Michelle: Uh… Pokémon!
Michelle: Oh man… The battle theme from the original ones—that’s what I grew up with.
The wild Pokémon? Or the trainer? Or the gym leader?
Michelle: The wild!
All right, if you could live in any video game world for a week, which one would you choose?
If you could befriend any video game antagonist, which one would you choose?
Michelle: Antagonist… Oh shoot… I don’t know… I’m thinking of all of them, and I don’t like them. I don’t know!
It’s okay if you don’t have one!
Michelle: (laughs) I don’t have any!
Okay, if you had to make a weapon out of any instrument, which one would you choose?
Michelle: A weapon! (laughs) A flute.
Nice! Okay awesome, end of rapid-fire questions. (laughs) So what are some of your future plans? What are you working on right now?
Michelle: Right now, I’m working on my thesis for my Master’s program. I have a friend who’s an artist, and she’s drawing some illustrations for a story that I’m coming up with. And I’m gonna write music for it, and we’re gonna put them together, and I’m putting in a little bit of sound design as well. And then I have to write a good paper about it. So that’s what I’m working on right now. And then I graduate in the fall, and then planning to move to LA, make some connections, and get started!
Yeah, sounds good! Awesome! Okay, well those are all the questions I have. Do you have any final thoughts?
Michelle: Nope. (laughs)
Cool, thank you so much!