Features I by I 27.07.16

It Follows composer Disasterpeace on his intimate soundtrack for Hyper Light Drifter

Disasterpeace’s innovative scores for acclaimed indie game Fez and cult horror film It Follows are already considered modern classics, blending 8-bit nostalgia with John Carpenter’s synth-led doom. As Hyper Light Drifter makes its way to PS4 and Xbox One this week, Lewis Gordon talks to the American composer about his most intimate score to date.

Richard Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace, is cycling. I can hear the wind down the phone and it’s kind of jarring. This is a man, at least in my head, synonymous with decaying dystopia and tense horror paranoia, not cycling, wind in his hair, in sunny California. But duality lies at the core of the film and game composer’s recent output. Play a short section of Hyper Light Drifter and this becomes clear. Heart Machine’s new 2D action RPG for PS4 and Xbox One is a tranquil take on dystopia, an 8-bit picture-postcard of a broken world on the verge of an even greater disaster. It Follows, last year’s scariest supernatural horror by director David Robert Mitchell, infuses the comfortable idyll of suburban America with an inescapable sense of doom. Both works deal in sharp contrasts, and Vreeland wraps them in serene yet dread-laden textures, coaxing and unsettling in equal measure.

His roots, however, speak of a typical middle-class upbringing in America. Vreeland grew up in a musical household in Staten Island, New York. When his stepfather was the musical director at church, Vreeland would sneak down to the church basement to play drums. His parents also played video games on an NES throughout his childhood. “My parents would play Zelda before I was born,” he says. “Maybe that’s why I got into it – I heard it in the womb.”

It Follows is a soundtrack made by somebody who is an outsider”

If Vreeland’s early years were pretty normal, his initial foray into composition was anything but. During his teens he found a way into the world of e-wrestling – a competitive type of fantasy wrestling in which the participants create characters and storylines, and duke it out using dice and other staples of the tabletop role-playing genre. Vreeland started making intro music for the wrestlers, exchanging ideas with its devoted community of messageboard dwellers and postal buddies. It’s an underground pastime, even for a teenager – an outsider hobby. It’s an identity that’s stuck with him, particularly in relation to his work on It Follows.

“I didn’t have a lot of exposure to horror, just surface level pop culture stuff,” he explains. “It’s a soundtrack made by somebody who is kind of an outsider.” It’s that mentality, though, that makes the score special. Vreeland’s video game origins are plain to hear in It Follows. Take tracks like ‘Jay’ or ‘Detroit’, where the delicate melodies are coated in a chiptune aesthetic – they flutter before dissolving in on themselves. And that aesthetic was there before Vreeland had even begun to work the project. Mitchell had originally used Vreeland’s music for 2010’s acclaimed indie game Fez as his temp score, along with snippets from horror luminaries John Carpenter and Krzysztof Penderecki, and elements from composers like John Cage and Jonny Greenwood.

“I was channeling all of these outside influences into the soundtrack, and I think that objectively can make something different and really unique,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of film music that doesn’t do that. A lot of film music is extremely conservative and is just riding the coattails of what’s expected or things that came before it.”

Ironically, Vreeland’s score has also been admired for its ability to transmit the spirit of Carpenter’s work to a modern audience. There are certainly melodic and tonal comparisons to be made between Carpenter’s ‘Theme’ for Halloween and Vreeland’s ‘Title’ for It Follows, but Vreeland was working off an internal set of influences, too – in this case, the track ‘Death’ from his Fez soundtrack. Vreeland’s work is expansive, taking the work of his horror forebears down a twisted and unexpected route; ‘Heels’, for instance, pummels the listener with kicks before collapsing in on itself in a wash of decay and distortion.

“I love creating a sandbox for myself, like a limited ruleset”

Hyper Light Drifter, Vreeland’s latest project, takes a similarly expansionist approach, pushing the form of the 8-bit adventure into an amorphous new direction. Like It Follows, the work as a whole subverts and, to an extent, intellectualises a genre that might have been founded on baser pleasures. There’s complexity and ambiguity to be found in the game’s story and visual design. The challenge was creating a reactive soundtrack to assist in delivering that experience.

“You basically have a suite of looping assets that cover all of these different locales that are connected to each other but are slightly different. So you get this sense of traversal – of moving from space to space – and then this sense of progression, like you’re building towards something,” he explains. “But because the game is sort of non-linear, it proved to be much easier to think of those sections in the piece as vertical, where you’d crossfade between them based on where you are.”

It’s a system that is able to handle the game’s dramatic shifts from reflection to destruction, and always under the direction of player agency. The score follows suit, giving the player space to digest the action on screen. “I was definitely channeling ideas about impressionism,” he says. “Composers like Debussy and Ravel – the way they extend traditional harmony into different places.” That structure is married with contemporary sound design, too; ‘Chimera’, Hyper Light Drifter’s climactic track and one that accompanies the final boss fight, is a wall of crunching, distorted, industrial drones.

Method is crucial to the dexterity of Vreeland’s soundtrack work. “It’s all software,” he say. “I love creating a sandbox for myself, like a limited ruleset. I develop MIDI tools, these MIDI scripts that do crazy things, like procedurally generate any rhythmic or harmonic pattern you want.” Like the reactive audio systems of Hyper Light Drifter, there’s a complexity underneath that belies such an immediate and affecting impact on the player. But it’s the undiluted freedom that digital synthesizers offer that allows Vreeland to do this. “It feels like the frontier. You’re basically creating a new instrument from the ether. To me, synthesis is like musical painting. I can design the sound that I want.”

His forthcoming projects see him moving outside of an exclusively digital sphere. Vreeland is on board to score Mitchell’s next film, Under The Silver Lake, starring Andrew Garfield. It’s “not a horror film” and his music “won’t just be a synth score,” he says, explaining that he plans to add recorded material too. I’m reminded of Hyper Light Drifter and one of the rare moments when an acoustic instrument finds a way into the mix, on ‘Seeds Of The Crown’. If you come across a specific character in the game, a gently plucked guitar will wander over the underscore. Not everyone will experience it, but those that do will experience one of the game’s most generous and human encounters. For all the talk of systems and computer music, Vreeland’s music is capable of delivering moments of touching intimacy.

Lewis Gordon is on Twitter

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