Interview with Brendan Hogan

A multi-talented creative genius, Brendan Hogan has extensive knowledge and experience in the realms of both composition and sound design. I was absolutely floored by his company Impossible Acoustic’s 2016 Demo Reel, and their work on the stunning Native American platformer game “Never Alone“. In our interview, Brendan shared how he got into sound design, the brilliant story behind his team’s work on Never Alone, his breakdown of the idea of music as a universal language, and the idea of transparent music.

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Thanks for doing this interview! So how did your career in music start? Do you have any formal training, or do you play any instruments?

Brendan: I took a few lessons as a child then I went to school for music, at a community college, studied piano. Then I went to Evergreen state college, it’s like an alternative state college. You only take one 16-credit class every semester, and you design your own curriculum. I went to that for a couple years and did all sorts of crazy things, which was fun… But in retrospect, it was a very expensive way to have fun for a couple years. So then I had to go back to school later in life to get a degree in music engineering and electronic music production.

Interesting, so what was your very first composition, and what made you want to write music for the first time?

Brendan: Well I don’t know what my very first composition would be… I took piano lessons when I was a little kid, then quit for a long time, then started messing around with it again when I was 19. A friend and I decided we’d make an electronic music band, so we were like an electronic music duo. I played this one song for my friend, and she was like “This is really cool, but you might try putting some chords in there.” And I was like “Chords? What are chords?” She’s like “You know, when you’ve got more than one note happening at the same time.” And I was like “Oh whoa that’s awesome!”

So that’s kind of where I started, pretty basic, self taught, not knowing anything… And I just plinked around with electronic music for a long time. And when I was at Evergreen, I decided that I was interested in film composition. I’d been interested in it for a long time but I’d never had the confidence to really take it seriously or study it seriously. I didn’t know any film composers and this was before the type of online communities we have now and I just didn’t know how to go about learning other than applying to a composition program at a University, and I just didn’t have the confidence to make that plunge.

But I was a DJ at the college radio station, so I decided to make some radio dramas for the station so that I could make the score for them. That also ended up being how I really got into sound design. I wrote and recorded the radio dramas, made the music, and I was like oh now I need sound effects and this is actually really interesting as well.

But I still didn’t have the confidence to really take any of it seriously or apply myself in the way one needs to apply oneself to succeed. So I just kept dinking around at a hobbyist level for a long time. It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle and had a summer working at a really miserable job that I thought to myself, “Alright Brendan, time to get serious or give up.” So I went back to school and really took things seriously for the first time and made more progress in those two years than I had in the previous ten.

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“I thought to myself, ‘Alright Brendan, time to get serious or give up.’ So I went back to school and really took things seriously for the first time and made more progress in those two years than I had in the previous ten.”

So this was a full ten years after I started playing around with electronic music. It’s one of those things where I wish I had just gone for it at the age of 20, and I’d be a lot further along now.

So what or who are some of your main musical influences and inspirations?

Brendan: Hm… Yeah I don’t know, that’s a good question. It’s hard to point at a single influence. I’m a bit of a neophile so I like new and novel experiences. These days you have access to so much music. Growing up, it was so much more limited. My influences growing up were pretty limited—just whatever my parents had in their tape collection and what was on the radio.

I remember at one point, I was like I think I should listen to some jazz! I don’t know where I got that impulse from exactly. My parents never listened to jazz—I went through their entire record and cassette collection one day and couldn’t find any jazz so I’d go to the library… Different times, pre-internet… Had to go to the library and check out CDs or spend $20 for a single CD to hear new music.

When I started playing piano again, I focused on jazz. Then when I went to Evergreen I studied ethnomusicology and got really interested in the full range of music from all over the world. Then I went through a minimalism phase like John Cage, Phillip Glass, that sort of things. I read a lot of books about that, studied those people… I played in an avant garde band for a time—did the jam band thing for a while. I go through a lot of different phases and these days, it’s so easy to access all different kinds of music. I just like to soak up as many different influences as I can.

Yeah, cool, what did you play in the avant garde band?

Brendan: Well piano mostly is what I studied. But the avant garde band was more salon style, for ourselves; we didn’t really play concerts. Every Sunday, whoever wanted to show up would show up. There was a pile of instruments and gadgets and things, and everybody would grab whatever they could and rotate. If you had a guitar and you didn’t know how to play guitar, it didn’t matter, cause it was avant garde. (laughs) Just bang on it!

There was a pile of instruments and gadgets and things, and everybody would grab whatever they could and rotate. If you had a guitar and you didn’t know how to play guitar, it didn’t matter, cause it was avant garde. (laughs)

(laughs) Okay, so what programs and equipment do you use to make your music?

Brendan: Well way back in the beginning I started off with Impulse Tracker. I don’t know if anyone remembers that these days. Then I went to Ableton Live and used that for years. Since I’ve been in post-production, I’m pretty solidly the Pro Tools guy. I learned Reason in school, and Digital Performer, but since graduating it’s been pretty much Pro Tools, and Kontakt instruments. I’ve made a few commercially available Kontakt instruments.

Oh nice, what did you make?

Brendan: Violence and Fractured, they’re marketed through Vir2. They’re both following along the avant garde theme. Violence was a collection of about 80 virtual instruments, all made from a single violin. I bought some really cheap $300, made in China violin, and played it every way except the way it was meant to be played, and sampled that. So hitting it with mallets, playing with a guitar pick, hitting it with chopsticks.

So extended techniques!

Brendan: Extended techniques, yes, there you go! That makes it sound cooler. Extended violin techniques library. And then Fractured is the same idea, but with acoustic guitars. So like taking bobby pins, putting them across the strings, hitting the strings with mallets, bowing it. I made one instrument where I turned a bicycle upside, got the wheel spinning and wet, then held the guitar strings up against the spinning wheel and sampled the sound of that at different pitches. It sounds kinda like a hurdy-gurdy, like really unpredictable… I kept the imperfections in there, so if you turn the mod wheel up to like the highest speed, it’s really gritty, the pitch is all over the place, and the strings rattle.

Awesome!! So what was the first video game soundtrack you ever wrote? How did you get the position, and what was the experience like?

Brendan: Let’s see, was Never Alone the first one? It might have been! I started off, like I said, in post-production, a lot of film work, wrote a lot of short film scores, wrote one feature film score, but the film never got released, which is probably for the best. We really lucked out with Never Alone, because we hadn’t done that much video game work, sound design wise or music-wise.

But yeah, they just did a search online and put together a list of about six or seven different people. They then had us all do demos on a short sample of work. My business partner and I were really attracted to the project so we went all out for the demo. We drove up into the mountains to do field recording for snow samples, and we requested a meeting—I don’t think any of the others requested a meeting. We asked a lot of questions and ended up really vibing with the dev team and got a good sense of what they were after. Then the dev team took all the demos from the different people and did a blind test with everyone in the office.

They told us later that ours was the team favorite by far. I chalk that up to our taking the time to really understand what they were after as well as putting in the extra effort to collect original samples and just generally putting a lot of effort into getting the gig because we recognized what an amazing opportunity it was. They definitely took a chance on us, doing such a large game with two folks who had done very little game work, but it worked out. They were happy we had a great experience and we’ve since done a number of projects with that same team.

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“[We took] the time to really understand what they were after as well as putting in the extra effort … because we recognized what an amazing opportunity it was. They really took a chance on us, doing such a large game project with two folks who had done very little game work, but it worked out.”

Cool, so talk more about that game, Never Alone. How did you go about writing the different themes, and all the music?

Brendan: So there were a couple of challenges built into Never Alone. It’s a cultural game—that’s the whole idea. The way it came about is really interesting and cool actually, just to give you some background. Without getting too into it… The Cook Inlet Tribal Council in Alaska was looking for a way to invest their money. And they were like, we could invest it into the stock market, the normal ways, but we really want to invest it in something that is an expression of our culture. And so they came up with this idea of making a game, to express their culture and reach a larger audience, and also hopefully as a decent monetary investment, which is pretty amazing if you think about it. So they did that and hired a development team in Seattle to make it for them.

Because this was an expression of their culture there was a lot of back-and-forth… The team in Seattle was making the game, but they did a lot of research, a lot of interviews, they would make trips up to Alaska or fly people down, and the Council had input and approval on everything. Also, the head writer was a local guy, Ishmael Hope. So it was a very collaborative, intercultural process.

I wanted the music to be the same thing, but it didn’t quite work out that way. I felt strongly that music is one of the primary expressions of culture and if this game is going to be about this culture then someone of the culture should at least be involved in the music. This didn’t happen for a long time though. Making games is just so complicated, there’s so many other things on the development team’s mind. And this game had this whole cross-cultural challenge, and since we were contractors and not in the office every day, we were easy to forget about. But I kept asking and persisting and requesting to be hooked up with a musician from the area. It took a while but eventually they were able to make a connection and introduce me to a local professional musician with a touring band. He seemed like the perfect person to define the music for the game and we exchanged a few e-mails. He seemed really excited to be on the project. I was like look, you’re the expert, you write the music, let me know whatever I can do to help. And then he just fell off the face of the earth, stopped answering e-mails. (laughs)

Oh no!! (laughs)

Brendan: This all happened pretty late in the process so I had to push on without him… I hope it was nothing personal, I still wonder but I don’t think so. The experience of working with the locals up there was that their priorities were different from our priorities. In a good way really. Their priorities are community, family, hunting, business. Business is fourth, whereas our priorities are business first, right? Even at the expense of family and health which isn’t all that admirable if you think about it, but that’s the way our society works. So you know, if something in the family would come up, that was more important than this silly game we were making or if it was whaling season, or they needed to go out and hunt to provide food for their families, that was the priority. So I’m guessing it was something along those lines that pulled him away.

So then I was in this position of writing on my own. But I didn’t want to do you know, a white guy’s impression of native music—that seemed really insensitive and counter to the mission of the project as a whole. But the development team didn’t really want traditional music anyway. Once again, the whole project was to express this culture, but also to make it accessible to a wider audience. The team had done a lot of experiments with putting tribal music into the game but it just didn’t translate to a general non-tribal audience.

I didn’t want to do a white guy’s impression of native music—that seemed really insensitive and counter to the mission of the project as a whole.

People hear music differently. People say music is a universal language, but I actually disagree with that. In our culture, we’re raised on a diet of Western classical music and film music and so forth, which has its unique gestures and language that we take for granted. If you listen to gamelan music for example… We’re going to filter that through our own cultural programming and have a very different emotional impression to it than people who are raised with it and steeped in that musical language their whole life.

It’s the same way with the Alaskan native cultures and their music. The traditional music of the Inupiaq culture uses a lot of these big boomy and resonant frame drums. You and I, raised in and being a part of film music culture, we’re primed to hear those drums, and think power, danger, drama, excitement… But that wasn’t always the intention. To the Inupiaq and the other tribes in the area, a lot of the songs are like funky dance music! (laughs) People told me stories about people playing these drums, and everyone jumps to their feet and start grooving and gettin’ down and laughing and smiling. It’s a different musical language.

People hear music differently. People say music is a universal language, but I actually disagree with that.

I hope I’m not mischaracterizing anything. I apologize if I am. I’m far from an expert and that’s really the point I’m trying to make. I could have done more research but I felt strongly that this culture was so deep and rich that reading a few books over a few months just wasn’t going to cut it. That combined with the musical language gap I was talking about and my cultural liaison falling through all lead me to the conclusion that I would have to do something that was its own thing musically. Something that recognized the culture, but again was not just my bad impression of cultural music.

So the approach I ended up taking was to really focus on the landscape. The connection to the land is really important culturally, and is a big part of the game, so I tried to make the music an expression of the landscape. I did use some frame drums but I also used a lot of music concrete techniques, and a lot of sampling. My sampling and Kontakt instrument building experience really came in handy. We did a lot of field recordings out in the snow. And I used those and animal recordings from libraries and processed those and just kept messing with them until they sounded like music.

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“So the approach I ended up taking was to really focus on the landscape. … My sampling and Kontakt experience really came in handy. We did a lot of field recordings out in the snow. … I tried to limit my palate to things that could conceivably com from [Inupiaq] origins.”

I made a set of rules for myself. Traditionally, before Western contact the Inupiaq didn’t have any metal. It was all wood, bone, skin, things like that. So I tried to limit my palate to things that could conceivably come from those origins.

I did end up cheating. Conceptual rules like that are a good starting point. I find limitations to be really helpful to spur creativity and innovation, but after a certain while you’re like all right, these constraints helped me get started, but now they’ve become artificially constraining. Ultimately the emotions of the music are the most important thing and it became clear that I need something to give the music more of a sole than what I could achieve with just my music concrete techniques.

So that’s when I incorporated piano into the palette and that ended up being a major driving force in the music. From the beginning the development team just wanted like Brian Eno piano music the whole time—I was the one pushing for all this other stuff. (laughs) So it came full circle and they got what they had asked for from the beginning. It broke all my nifty conceptual rules but it works, emotionally.

From the beginning the development team just wanted like Brian Eno piano music the whole time—I was the one pushing for all this other stuff. (laughs)

Yeah, that’s so interesting! So which composition of yours are you most proud of, and why? Either in that game, or anything you’ve ever written.

Brendan: Oh, anything I’ve ever written? Oh geez… You know, I’m a typical composer: the thing I’m most proud of is the last thing I wrote, the thing I just finished. I wrote some demo for a commercial project recently that I thought ended up really cool. So that’s probably my favorite thing right now.

The music for Never Alone is definitely one of the achievements I’m most proud of though. I’m really proud of what I did conceptually in terms of taking things in an interesting direction and creating something unique. I’m really happy with how the music works in the context of the game. Sometimes I think it doesn’t stand up that well outside of the game. Maybe that’s just my old self doubt creeping up again but then again maybe that’s an accomplishment.

The music was made for the game, to be in service to the game so maybe the fact that it doesn’t stand on it’s own is a testament to how interwoven it is with all the other elements in the game. That’s why I chose to make the sold separately soundtrack be more like a radio drama with sound effects and gameplay elements woven into it. The development team really pushed me for transparent music, and I think I achieved that. For the DLC levels that came later though I allowed the music to be more melodic and let the music stand out more than it does in Never Alone.

Okay, yeah what were you going to say about transparent music?

Brendan: This development team really liked this idea of transparent music, and that’s something I hear from film directors a lot too. A lot of composers really hate it because they want to write strongly melodic music and continue in this grand tradition of strongly melodic music and interwoven motifs, etc. and it rubs them the wrong way when directors want something minimalist that doesn’t stand out. There’s a trend to really shy away from being too Mickey Mouse-y. Some people hate being overtly manipulative. There’s this idea that traditional film music, like 90’s TV, it feels overly manipulative sometimes.

Like kinda melodramatic?

Brendan: Yeah, melodramatic. So people want, to varying degrees, something that we don’t notice. Something that’s transparent. Anyway, that’s a big discussion and there are a lot of ways you could look at that, but ultimately it depends on the needs of the project and the vision of the director.

There was one point in the process where I wrote this piece of music which I thought was extremely minimalist. I played it to the team, and the art director said, “When I listen this piece of music, I feel like something is happening. I don’t want to feel like anything’s happening.” (laughs)

(laughs) What? Okay…?

Brendan: So it was like, how do you make music that’s almost not music? Obviously in some places, that just was not appropriate. I was like all right, this is an emotional moment, it needs to have chords, a melody, it needs to be overtly musical… But there were other times where I think I did achieve that, to the point where it just blends into the soundscape. For example, if you play the game, there’s a village on a cliff with these wooden structures. And there’s music in there, but it really just blends into the wind. It sets the mood without you noticing that it’s actually music happening.

If you play [Never Alone], there’s a village on a cliff with these wooden structures. And there’s music in there, but it really just blends into the wind. It sets the mood without you noticing that it’s actually music happening.

Okay, interesting. So what’s one of the most powerful or memorable epiphanies, like a moment you had, in your compositional career, either alone or with other creative minds? Either on this project or anything you can think of?

Brendan: Oh gosh… Like I said, I do a lot of sound design work as well and in terms of my music, I made a decision a while ago to really try to merge the two disciplines. So I guess an epiphany would be just the power of sound to evoke emotion. We’re used to melody evoking emotion, but can you just have a single sound that can evoke emotion as well? Exploring the emotional power of sound design has been a goal of mine, and I feel like I’ve achieved that to various degrees, but I’m still working on that.

All right, so now I have a list of rapid-fire questions. They have to do with video game stuff. Are you ready?

Brendan: Mhm!

Okay, who’s your favorite video game protagonist?

Brendan: Video game protagonist? Oh geez you’re like testing my gamer cred, aren’t you… (laughs) None of my favorite games have your typical protagonist…

That’s okay! How about favorite animal or mystical creature in a game.

Brendan: The arctic fox, from Never Alone!

Okay, favorite time signature.

Brendan: For some reason, 5/4 popped into my mind… But I’m not as anti-4/4 as I was in my more avant garde days.

Okay, favorite video game series.

Brendan: Series… Hm well all my favorite games are one-shots. I tend to like things that break the rules in some way or other, that stand out and are non-traditional.

Okay, cool. How about favorite church mode?

Brendan: Lydian!

All right, if you could befriend any video game antagonist, who would you choose?

Brendan: Befriend a video game antagonist… The lost boys from Limbo? They seem like they need some love.

Okay, if you could make an entire video game world inside an instrument, which instrument would you choose?

Brendan: Hm… Interesting. Have you seen those photographs of the inside of guitars? Someone took these photographs that makes the inside of a guitar look like a cathedral, so let’s go with guitar.

Oh whoa!! Okay, how about if you had to make a weapon out of an instrument to fight with, in an RPG, which would you choose?

Brendan: Oh no, that’s sacrilegious! You can’t use an instrument as a weapon, I refuse!

(laughs) Okay, end of rapid-fire questions. So what are some of your future plans? What are you working on at the moment?

Brendan: We are working on… So when I say “we”, my business partner is Jamie Hunsdale. He’s mainly a foley artist—that’s his specialty. But he’s a very good sound designer and voice actor and engineer as well. We’re working on an indie feature film right now. We’re also working on this other game with the Never Alone team, but I can’t say much about that other than it’s a year-long production cycle. They brought us on at the beginning, which is awesome—so we’re really part of the development process on that.

We’re also working with this company called Novel Effect, which is kind of a game, kind of just interactive new media or augmented reality. It’s really a new thing. It’s an app for iPhone or iPad. You turn it on, but then you put it down and you don’t look at the screen. And then you read a children’s book. It has voice recognition, that listens to you reading the book, and triggers sound effects and music as you read.

WHOA!! That’s SO cool!!! Oh my gosh!

Brendan: Right?? And you can start thinking about the applications of that… That’s been a really fun challenge, I should have talked about that for some of your other questions. So I’ve written some music for those things, and done sound design. It has be interactive music, because you don’t know how long people are gonna be hanging out on the page. I have a son, so I read to him. We’re reading along, and he wants to hang out on a page, and ask about this, or go back pages… So the music has to be written in a way that it can move, and keep the narrative flowing, but if you stop on a page, it can loop in a seamless way.

Oh wow, that’s really interesting!

Brendan: And then we’re doing some Virtual Reality work as well. Just finished a short, really fun and silly VR 360 video piece which played at Lumisphere Festival. We ended up hiring another composer to work on that, because I was busy. We do that sometimes, too; we’re a company. So if we get a music gig, and I feel like I’m suited for it, then I’ll do it. But if I feel like there’s people who can do it better than I do, we hire them. Serving the project and doing what’s best for the project is the important thing.

And this is your company Impossible Acoustic?

Brendan: Yeah, that’s right.

How did you come up with that name?

Brendan: That came out of the sample libraries actually. When I first got out of school, I was really into sampling, and just the idea that you can take an instrument and make it do things digitally that it couldn’t do physically. So what is acoustically impossible becomes possible in the digital realm. So that’s where Impossible Acoustic came from.

That extended into our sound design. My partner like I said is a foley artist, so his focus is more on the real world and physical performance of sound, and my focus is taking that into the digital world and making it do things that would be otherwise impossible.

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“My partner like I said is a foley artist, so his focus is more on the real world and physical performance of sound, and my focus is taking that into the digital world and making it do things that would be otherwise impossible.”

All right, awesome! Well that’s all the questions I have; do you have any final thoughts?

Brendan: No, thank you for the opportunity!

Great, this was really fascinating, thank you so much! Have a good day!

Check out Brendan’s personal website here, and the website of Impossible Acoustic here. Read a blog post on Brendan’s website with more details about his experience working on Never Alone here.

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