In Conversation with Rich Vreeland It Follows Composer

Composer Rich Vreeland, more commonly known by his nom de plume Disasterpeace, has been making music at a furious pace for the past decade-plus, standing as an early model in the digital age for producing and releasing music under one's own terms and growing as an artist in the public eye with each release; the digital-era musician must constantly look forward and allow for organic changes in style and tastes, as seemingly every note occurs under the public eye. Vreeland seems to have utterly embraced this concept wholeheartedly, not only for the ever-shifting tone and style of his music, but his involvement with exploring new media as worlds for his music to inhabit. Ever since his first MIDI-based score to a cell phone game, Vreeland has been working to let his music not only inhabit the worlds in which they're placed, but to actually shape them as well, pushing understanding of not only what can be done with music in games, but how the player themselves can become an author of the experience through their in-game choices as they influence where Vreeland's work goes.

Perhaps the strongest indicator of his willingness to experiment with the medium is the great leap that Vreeland has taken into the world of film with his brilliant score for David Robert Mitchell's film It Follows, released early in 2015. Vreeland was just coming off the success of his highly interactive score to 2012's platform game Fez when Mitchell, a fan of the musical work done in the Seumas McNally Grand Prize-winning game, approached the composer to score his upcoming horror film. Though the experience of scoring a full-length film was quite different than he was used to — going from nearly a limitless musical grid to working with the construct of visual linearity and permanence proved jarring — the work on It Follows is nothing short of astounding. Vreeland admits that the number of horror films that he has seen in his life can be counted on one hand, but when you watch It Follows the score plays like that of an enthusiast completely in his element.

Jeff sat down to chat with Vreeland about the constraints that working in film offers as well as the more freeing elements, as well as his artistic upbringing that started as early as middle school as the graphic design go-to for his fantasy wrestling league and what's in store for the future of his music, whether it be in the world of film or not. Read the full conversation below and check out our episode on It Follows in a couple of days.

The Bit Players: Just to start out, I wanted to know a little bit about you, like where did you grow up, did you have any siblings, what was your early life like, with regard to specifically music, but just in general as well?

Rich Vreeland: I grew up in Staten Island, New York. I grew up in a musical family; my mother played piano and sang, so we had a piano in the house for most of my childhood. My sister's been singing since she was very little, and my stepfather was the music director at our church, so I was surrounded by music for most of my childhood. You know, they would have band practice in the basement. My stepfather was also in a Beatles cover band, so there was a lot of Beatles in the house. So I was always surrounded by it, but I didn't get into music until high school.

The Bit Players: Was that a conscious rejection of music, or were you just not interested?

RV: No, it just hadn't occurred to me. My first real interests were sports, video games, computers and design, and like, visual design — drawing and making stuff. So that was kind of where I started as a pretty young person. At eleven or twelve, I started messing around with my mom's Macintosh — she is a graphic designer, so that was around and that was where I started with getting into being creative.

I would make fake newsletters for the street, and make up fake companies so that I could do logos. I used to screw around with Microsoft Word templates and make fake certificates and brochures, all kinds of stuff. That evolved into doing web design, and as a teenager I was big into doing fantasy wrestling, which is a very unique sort of thing.

The Bit Players: I've seen stuff like that, where, I don't know if it's the same kind of concept, but you get points for a well-delivered promo. I'm a huge wrestling buff, too, so I don't know if you saw me light up when you said that.

RV: [laughs] Yeah, I mean, growing up, I was obsessed with wrestling. I went through a pretty serious wrestling phase, and what was really cool about fantasy wrestling — or eWrestling, I guess is what they would call it — it wasn't like other fantasy sports; it wasn't about statistics or any of that other kind of stuff, but it was really about writing. So, I got to do a lot of writing — a lot of creative writing — as a young person.

The Bit Players: So, like, almost fan-fiction for wrestling, in a way?

RV: Yeah, it was like fan-fiction, but you create your own wrestler and you get to write about him or her.

The Bit Players: Oh man, I wish I had known about that when I was growing up.

RV: [laughs] I was super into it. I had all of this creative energy to do visual stuff, so I kind of became the graphics guy. So people would seek me out to make artwork for their wrestlers or visual material for wrestling events in eWrestling federations, logos. I did a lot of websites for eWrestling federations and stuff, so that was where I started being a freelancer. I mean, I was getting maybe twenty, thirty, forty, fifty bucks to do something.

The Bit Players: That's a hustle, though, when you're an eleven year-old. Did your love for creating music stem from that also? I know that a huge part of video games, and especially, I'm sure for you, is the audio component of it, so did you latch onto that and think, "Wow. That'd be kind of cool to get into that too?"

RV: Not immediately. I think playing games, I always really liked the music, and I'm sure I would hum it — hum the crap out of it. But it really didn't occur to me that I could make music for games until the opportunity was thrust in my direction.

I was in college, doing graphic design stuff, and had only been writing music for about a year or two, but I was continuously getting more and more involved with it. I started posting my music on the Internet and stuff, and I was still kind of hovering around the eWrestling forums at this time. I was like seventeen or eighteen so I was kind of on the tail-end of it, but I was posting music everywhere. I was posting music there, on some of these old communities like GarageBand.com, which was unaffiliated to GarageBand the software, and SoundClick — do you remember that one? — so, what ended up happening was I posted some of my music, super early stuff — distorted guitars and drum-machine, very nu-metal, prog-metal type stuff — and someone was like, "Hey, I really like your music. I work for a company that makes cell phone games. Would you want to write some music for us?" And I was like, "Yeah! That's crazy, I never thought I could do that." And this was before smart phones, so I was asked to make MIDI files for cell phones, so they had this kind of simplistic sound.

The Bit Players: I guess that would also be in your riff-making wheelhouse, too. Is that just basically a single melody line that you're having to work with?

RV: Well, you know, since it's general MIDI, it can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. But, for me, very early on, I realized that trying to do recordings with guitar, drums, bass, all this kind of stuff, was really hard. It was really hard to get the production good and to get good takes. So pretty early on, I discovered tracking, using synthesizers to emulate those instruments and then using tablature software to write out guitar tab so that I could keep track of my ideas. And it also had MIDI playback, so that became my go-to piece of software to write music in the very beginning.

So the first couple of gigs that I did for cell phone games, it was all stuff that I wrote in guitar tab software and then just exported as MIDI files.

The Bit Players: Was guitar your first instrument?

RV: Yeah, it was guitar; that's why I got into guitar tab editors. Because I had all these ideas on guitar and I was getting frustrated with trying to record it straight. I got into the habit of coming up with a riff and then transcribing it into tablature, and then I would arrange around it with other MIDI instruments, like bass and drums and other things.

The Bit Players: I remember sitting in class in high school, writing guitar tablature on my graphing calculator to wile away the time, just messing around.

RV: [laughs] Wow.

The Bit Players: So was guitar-based music your first push as far as getting you past the point of casually listening and into playing?

RV: Yeah, it was a culmination because my first real exposure — my first real dive into music was playing guitar, so the music that I was really interested in at that time really reflected that. I was listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin, Rage Against the Machine, Tool &mdash lots of bands with very riff-oriented music, and lots of odd timing, so that became the foundation of a lot of my ideas.

The Bit Players: I can see that, because with It Follows, which is the work I'm most familiar with, it's got a very ambient overall tone, but there is a serious sense of melody — especially with the main title theme. That's an epic riff, you know?

RV: Yeah, it's kind of a Morricone-type of thing. That's what I was thinking of when I wrote it. What if Morricone did an evil western or something? [laughs]

The Bit Players: I actually think he kind of is; he's about to do that new Tarantino movie.

RV: Oh, right. Yeah, I'm excited about that.

The Bit Players: So when you first started playing, was it on your own? Did you ever get into any bands?

RV: I was never in a band band. I banded up with friends at times, and we called ourselves a band, but we didn't really play shows. I had a couple of friends who I used to jam with, but, really, it was like one winter that we jammed; it's one of my fondest collections of memories, but I haven't really jammed a whole lot since then. It's actually really hard to find people to jam with that you have good chemistry with, and when I went to Berklee College of Music, all of my jam experiences were a bunch of people — probably more than was needed in a single room — playing some kind of traditional song form, like a blues or something, so it wasn't really my thing.

I have one other jam experience that I recall really fondly, and that was when I was jamming with a reggae band playing Rhodes [laughs]. There is something about jamming that I really enjoy; just the give-and-take, the human aspect. So much of what I do is alone, so I think to be able to collaborate in real time, there's something really satisfying about that.

The Bit Players: Yeah, I agree. And you're right; you have to fall in with the right people. You know, the great bands seem like it's almost destined that they were to meet. It's almost not like they sought out to find a band, but they just sort of find each other.

RV: Yeah. It's not without a lot of hard work, but there's usually a seed there in the beginning where there's something special there.

Rich Vreeland

The Bit Players: So, going back to before you started to really make composing for video games your livelihood musically, can you remember a time when you interacted with music in a video game that opened your eyes to the fact that this was an entirely new type of artform? I should preface this by saying that my fellow hosts on the podcast are basically prodding me to drop Banjo Kazooie into the discussion.

RV: [laughs] Well, I mean, Banjo Kazooie — I actually know the composer, Grant Kirkhope.

The Bit Players: Oh, is that right? [laughs]

RV: He's a good guy. The music in that game is really good. But, Banjo Kazooie, to me, in a lot of ways, takes a lot of ideas from Super Mario 64. Not just in the game design but in the design of the music. There are certain things, where the music will change — the instrumentation will change based on whether you're underwater or not, and things like that, but I think for the most part there wasn't a whole lot of interactivity in that music. It was mostly just loops with that one feature or a few features like that that were interesting and a lot of good writing. Just good writing.

Growing up, I don't think I noticed a lot of game music that was doing really interesting things with form and structure. I think that's the strongest thing that sets music in games apart from other artforms or other forms of music. In a lot of ways, the closest thing to game music in terms of potential is some of the stuff that started happening in the fifties and sixties and the things that have come after that, you know, ideas with aleatoric music and music by chance — game music in the traditional sense: going back to, I think it was Mozart, who had designed a game around music where you rolled dice and the dice determined the order of the sections of the piece to be played, and there were hundreds of them. So I think the potential for music in games is really creating this feedback loop between what's happening in the game, the interactivity, the unpredictability, the non-linearity, all these kinds of things, tying music to that and how music can react to that, inform that, and change over time. With the exception of games like some of the LucasArts stuff in the early nineties, which was way ahead of its time; games like Monkey Island had really sophisticated music systems where the music was always changing and transitioning really smoothly from room to room — most of the music outside of that was loops. The large majority of it is loops.

But even in Super Mario World on Super Nintendo they were starting to do things like, when you're walking around there's music; when you jump on Yoshi, they add a little percussion track [laughs]; just little touches like that. Or in Yoshi's Island, on the map screen, depending on how much progress you've made in the world, they'll add more and more layers to the music. Just little touches to kind of give the player a little bit of dopamine, a little bit of feedback about their progress. So there were things happening, but I don't think I really noticed any of that stuff until I actually got into making music for games and realized there was all this potential to do stuff like that.

The Bit Players: I almost think that when you're playing games and you might not notice the music speaks to the way that the composer has integrated it into that world in such a seamless way. It's like you don't think twice about the music in a lot of ways — that's the atmosphere that you're in; that's just the music that plays in this world.

RV: Yeah, hopefully the music is really supporting the experience of playing and isn't drawing attention to itself in a negative way.

The Bit Players: Right. Do you find that that's something that's liberating when composing? That you have this open world — obviously you want to complement it in a way, but you're adding a new layer to it that's more interactive than the loop-driven work of the past.

RV: It's some of the most challenging work that I've had to do.

The Bit Players: I can imagine. It seems so intimidating; a blank canvas in the purest sense.

RV: And lately I've been experimenting with creating music systems that go way beyond using loops. I scored this game called Mini Metro, which is a game where you kind of build and manage a subway system in real time — no, faster than real time [laughs] — and there are no loops or recorded pieces of music in the game. It's all sample-based and procedural. So the music is evolving and growing in size based on the game data, based on the size of your subway system, the number of lines, the types of stations on each line, what the passengers are doing, are they getting off, are they getting on; all these little interactions have sounds attached to them. The sounds of the trains moving around have tonal sounds, and they're attached tonally to the line that they're on; each line has its own tonality. You could have four lines and line one is playing C, line two is playing E, line three is playing G, line four is playing B, and they're all going to have their own inherit rhythm that changes as that line changes. And then tapping into the data — what's the capacity of this station? How many passengers are in this station? The more full the station is, the louder the sounds that come out of that station will be; the emptier it is, the quieter it will be. Just all this kind of stuff, kind of creating a one-to-one analogy between what you're seeing when you're running the simulation and what's happening with a musical experience. So, yeah I spent about a year making that, and it's about 90% code.

The Bit Players: That almost sounds like you're in collaboration with the player in making the score.

RV: Absolutely. There's a sandbox — it's limited, and they can only go so far, but I've curated the experience so that it's never going to sound terrible. Hopefully [laughs]. But at the same time, their decisions and how they play the game will directly change the sound.

The Bit Players: That kind of brings me around to something I was interested to get your opinion on, regarding game composing and film composing and the composers themselves who are doing that work while "classical" or Western art music has kind of gone out of vogue with the common listener. There's hardly going to be any contemporary composers that scholars can look to in that world, so do you see this world that you are involved with kind of standing in? To me, game and film music would be the new artform that we could look to in the future the same way contemporary scholars look to opera. You mentioned Ennio Morricone; there's no reason for his name to be right alongside Beethoven's at some point.

RV: I don't know if it will replace the "classical" space — which isn't really an appropriate term, but I don't know what you would call it — but I think that space is in danger because it has less visibility and people seem to be, in general, more interested in popular culture, and I don't think that's part of popular culture, really. But there are still composers in that space that are doing really amazing work. You know, people like John Adams. I think it's great that there are other media, multimedia artforms like cinema and games that allow composers [pauses] it can be somewhat isolating work, but it's nice that there are different ways to collaborate with other creative people and I think there's something really nice about multimedia because it allows people of different media to come together to create something that's larger than themselves.

It's a slippery slope to get into talking about comparisons, like where you'd put Morricone versus somebody like Beethoven. It's almost an impossible thing to talk about because context is so important to that. Music is this chronological thing.

The Bit Players: I'm just always fascinating by thinking about, you know, in 200 years, what is going to last in the "music canon?" Obviously it's so different now because everything is preserved.

RV: It's hard, because history is being recorded, and things are continually changing at a more and more frequent pace, so there's an exponential curve to the history of music, I think.

I mean, the 20th Century is just crazy. Just the amount of stuff that has happened in the 20th and 21st Centuries. And there's so much more music being written everyday now than there was a couple hundred years ago; it's not even close. So, to think 200 years from now, what's going to be going on? That's almost unfathomable [laughs]. Hopefully we'll all be — well, you and I won't be alive, but —

The Bit Players: Hey man, we might be. Who knows what will happen?

RV: [laughs] Hopefully there's still a record of all this stuff in 200 years.

Rich Vreeland

The Bit Players: So when you were so entrenched in the video game world, how did you come across David Robert Mitchell and It Follows?

RV: He came across me; he played the game Fez that I scored in 2012 and liked it, and reached out to me. We kept in touch, and about a year and a half later we started working on the project together.

The Bit Players: How was that a different experience than your work with Fez and the games that came before that?

RV: It's different in a lot of ways. It's not just different scheduling, but also the culture of games versus the culture of film. The involvement is different. Pretty much everything about it except for capturing emotions and that kind of thing. Everything else is pretty much different.

Scoring a game like Fez, there's some pressure, but for the most part we were taking our time and giving it the time that it needed, and I had a year to score that game. I felt really comfortable with that amount of time. Everyday I would load up the latest version of the game and play it, and then I could go in myself, because the developer and I designed a tool for me to do all kinds of dynamic music stuff with it. So everyday I would go into the game and I'd say, "I want to do this today, or I want to do that, I want to make music that reacts to thunder in this area where there's thunder, or I want to create some music that's always slightly different — you know, it's made up of forty different little pieces of music that weave in and out of each other randomly — or music that changes based on time of day, or music that changes based on the altitude, or whatever." I could do all of these things on my own once the tool was created. I could just go in and do those things and edit the levels myself, and then the rest of the team would wake up the next day and play the game and suddenly hear the stuff that I did, and say, "Wow this is so cool; I've been in this level like 600 times over the last three years, and this is the first time I've heard music here."

There is a very intimate quality to working on games, especially independent games, where I feel like I'm completely in the loop, and we have a lot of time to do what we need to do, and I feel invested. If it's an independent game, I'm likely to keep a lot of my rights for the music or have revenue share — a really reasonable amount of revenue share, much more than you'd get on a film because there's far less people working on the game and generally they're not beholden to any outside funding if it's independent, although that is possible from time to time — so the legal stuff is really simple comparatively.

So that's the game side, and working on It Follows specifically, it feels like a rush all the time, and everything is urgent because there's so much money being spent everyday and there are a lot of people involved, so it's really about efficiency. There are a lot of parties involved, you know? I had to sign, like, three or four contracts with different companies, and keeping rights is not easy; it's tricky. Because the film got into Cannes Film Festival — and that's a big deal — in order to really take advantage of that opportunity for the film, I had to score the film in three weeks. If I didn't, I don't know what would've happened. There's like a locomotion that seems to exist with the creation and release of films where things have to happen at a certain time, otherwise it's not going to fall together in the right way. So it was stressful. But in a creative way, there were parts of it that were a little bit easier; it's less intellectual and for me it's more straightforward to score a film. You figure out the aesthetic and you just try stuff. You just write music and try stuff until it feels right. Obviously a game like Mini Metro, I would spend hours everyday just thinking about systems and thinking about these really high concept design analogies and stuff like that. And then I'd have to create systems in code, so it was a very different kind of process. In a lot of ways, it's the inverse to scoring a film.

The Bit Players: So It Follows was like a vacation for you.

RV: It was like a really stressful three-week vacation, yeah [laughs].

The Bit Players: So, I noticed, going back and checking out your video game work, and specifically Fez, a lot of the themes were resonating in the It Follows score. Specifically the track "Death" struck a chord as being one of the main themes from It Follows, and I read that the Cannes time constraints were a factor in throwing together a temp score. Can you tell me what changes ultimately came about from the temp score to the final version?

RV: Well, we kept a lot of the intention of the temp score, as far as what the temp score was achieving. The general timing of the temp score, how it was capturing a certain level of energy and emotion in the scenes, we used all of that because it was working really well. You know, just general tone, general emotion, general harmonic ideas, aesthetic: all of those things were taken into consideration when we were moving on from the temp score. That all being said, it's not like I was listening to the temp score, and then writing, and then listening and writing and going back and forth; it was more like I had a really solid understanding of what the temp score was doing; I'm going to forget it and just kind of remember the properties that were working and write something new with those in mind. So in a way, it was just a really nice foundation, a conceptual foundation for me to work from — especially given that I only had three weeks. The Fez cues were the same kind of thing; the "Death" cue is the inspiration for the title theme to It Follows. It was really about this simple harmonic progression and this sort of long, drawn-out, kind of eerie tone that "Death" had, and then everything else kind of fell into place around that.

The Bit Players: Man, when that title theme comes on, during the outer shot of the pool, right?

RV: Yeah, when they're walking to the pool.

The Bit Players: Oh, my god [laughs]. The theater was rumbling; it was perfect. One of my favorite parts of the whole experience was your score. It matched the tone of the film in so many ways; one of the most striking things about It Follows was this feeling that it was kind of lost in time. There were elements that seemed like — okay, is this film taking place in the eighties? — and then the character has this Kindle, kind of futuristic device, and the cars were modern, so it was cool how Mitchell removed time from the equation to kind of suspend you in the film, and I felt like the score did the same. On the one hand, the synths sound very analog and classic, but they were recorded all digitally, so you're using this modern-day, even future-minded technology, so the score and the film synthesized really well in that way. I was actually curious about your digital leanings, and how far they go; do you find that recording digitally and obviously releasing digitally free you in any way, or is a purely environmental stance?

RV: I think it's both. I think everyone has a slightly different relationship to creative tools. I can certainly see the value in having physical tools. There's something inspiring about playing with physical knobs and instruments — I love playing my piano, for instance — but for me, from just kind of wanting to have a clean space to work in and to be really portable so that I can really work from anywhere, having as much of my stuff on my laptop makes my life really, really easy. The technology is such that there are so many options on my computer that I can do, and you can really get so many different kinds of sounds out of it, and people are getting really good at modeling old analog gear. The trade-off to go back to analog gear or having a bunch of hardware is not really worth it for me based on my values and interests. I'm not an audiophile at all. At the same time, I do care a lot about the way that things sound, but the nuances between using an analog compressor versus not using an analog compressor — those kinds of things are just a bit above my own ability and as a proxy interest [laughs].

The Bit Players: And it's gotten to the point now, where this isn't even a question of audio fidelity or even truly sensing some difference between the two. It's the vinyl versus digital, film versus digital argument; everything has gotten so close together in quality. I heard this recent interview with Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, where he's a film purist; he shot all of the series on film, and someone showed him a digital clip and he couldn't even tell the difference.

RV: That's what I mean; most people can't tell the difference.

The Bit Players: It's more of a psychological difference.

RV: Vinyl is totally psychological, in my opinion. It's the act of holding a record, looking at the artwork, putting it on the turntable, putting the stylus down; there's a catharsis, a tradition to that, that people really like. That really easily becomes a conversation or kind of a shared experience, you know, you sit on the couch and listen to a record, and I think you have to work for those kinds of experiences when you're using digital technology because right out of the box, that's not the experience you're going to have. You have to cultivate that in a very specific way.

The Bit Players: But at the same time, you can record an entire album and it will be available to your fans instantaneously.

RV: Right, and that's one of the huge benefits of digital. It's just — it's easy. And, thinking about the future and moving forward, it's a lot less resource-intensive than mass-producing a bunch of PVC discs and then shipping them across the world [laughs].

The Bit Players: And for many of them to end up in the Urban Outfitters sale bin anyway. I'm a vinyl collector, and I totally agree that the experience is what draws me into it, and that it brought back something in music to me that I felt like had been lost with the disconnected way that I was communicating with music and listening to music; it had just become too easy to acquire and not know anything about.

RV: I think, in some ways, it's human nature that we have such easy access to music now that it's a lot harder [pauses] the thing about vinyl that's really good is that it kind of forces you to sit down with a record and listen to it front to back, one track at a time. It's enough of a nuisance to get up and switch the record that people tend to have more intimate experiences with music through vinyl. But I don't think that that's an inherit negative of digital music, I just think that because digital music is so accessible and so convenient that you need to be more actively thoughtful about how you're interacting with digital music, otherwise it's easy to fall into the habit of "gimme gimme gimme" and "I'm going to skip through every song."

The Bit Players: That's so true. And you know, maybe that's actually not even a disadvantage of digital music, but an advantage of it, that you're being asked more as a listener to actively engage with it, and it's not the inherently active engagement that vinyl is.

RV: Yeah, that's how I feel about it, completely.

The Bit Players: Do you read digitally? I started thinking about this, going down all of these rabbit holes, like, how far does this go?

RV: Yeah [laughs], I definitely started going into digital with reading too. It's easy enough that I can send pretty much anything to my Kindle really quickly, but the only thing that I keep is a little collection of graphic novels and stuff, because I don't feel that the technology is good enough to experience graphic novels digitally. I think the ideal, for me, is a color e-ink type of situation. I don't like the idea of an e-reader having a back-lit screen. Maybe it wouldn't be an issue if the software that ran those screens was more cognizant of our health and melatonin levels and stuff like that, especially at night. That's another thing that I take pretty seriously.

I've been using this app f.lux for a long time, which kind of matches the luminosity of your screen — it kind of mimics candlelight at night and kind of goes down with the sun. It's supposed to be easier on your eyes. Because, at night, I don't know if you've noticed this, but if you ever go camping or something, there are no streetlights around, you're not under fluorescent lights like you would be at your house, and it's really easy to get tired and fall asleep. I think staring at a screen, a bright blue light until eleven or twelve or whatever, it keeps you up and makes it harder to fall asleep.

The Bit Players: Oh yeah, they're destroying us, man.

RV: Yeah [laughs]. So that's why I like e-ink, because it's like a book, and there's no light coming from it. You can read a Kindle by candlelight; it's kind of strange, but it's one of my favorite things to do, reading my Kindle by candlelight [laughs].

It Follows OST

The Bit Players: One thing that I thought was so funny, doing preliminary research about the score to It Follows, is that the automatic assumption walking out of that theater is, "Man, this guy is really tapping into John Carpenter," and I read the Pitchfork review of the album, which even goes so far as to say the film "wouldn’t exist without John Carpenter’s movies, and neither would the score." And then I found out that you're not all that familiar with his work.

RV: Yeah, I'm not super familiar with his work. I haven't seen any of his films, so I don't know how his music functions in the context of his films. I think he has a real knack for creating these really simple, functional pieces of music, and I think we definitely tapped into some of the aesthetic ideas — we used some of his pieces in the temp score, but I don't even know how many. I think some of the themes that we used were inspired by it, this simple rhythmic, pulsing thing was something that we talked about as an idea. I'm the furthest thing from a student of horror. I can count the horror films that I've seen on one hand, in my whole life [laughs].

The Bit Players: And has that not changed since It Follows?

RV: Well, people have sent me some films with interest in me working on them, so I've seen some of those [laughs]. So maybe the count has gone up like one or two, but it's still one hand.

The Bit Players: Yeah, I would imagine that you're being embraced by the horror community now.

RV: I think I have been. But I don't know how interested I am with working on horror films, to be honest.

The Bit Players: So was it more of a personal connection that you and David shared that got this happening?

RV: Well, there were a couple of things. I felt that where he was coming from was very unique. You know, [The Myth of the American Sleepover] has nothing to do with horror at all, and reading this script and getting the sense that the character interactions would be a bit similar to that film, but that it would also have this psychological quality, it seemed like it was going to be this really unique film. And it was also a horror film that I felt like had a heart. It wasn't just arbitrarily dark and twisted. I want the things I work on to have a heart, so I was attracted to that.

The Bit Players: So I know you jumped right back into games, but do you think that there's a future with film? Maybe not with these horror films that you're getting unsolicited copies of, but —

RV: [laughs] Well, all of the projects that I'm working on are projects that have been in development since before I started working on It Follows. So I haven't really taken on any new projects in about a year. But I have four games that I'm working on right now, and my intention is to wrap those up sometime next year and then take a sabbatical for a while and work on some personal music projects. But I would love to work on another film; it's just a matter of when and which one.

The Bit Players: Well at this point, I would imagine that you would fit right into the Tim Hecker, Oneohtrix Point Never, you know, art music world, that you could take this out on the road. Is that something that you've considered?

RV: Yeah, I played shows for about eight years as Disasterpeace, mostly doing guitar with backing tracks. I had a drummer for a few years, too, and that was kind of fun. I felt like it was good for a while, but I wanted to do something more, and live performance has never been my focus, and if I do it, I want it to be my focus. If I'm doing a one-off show here and there, I don't feel like the amount of time and energy I'm putting into it is worth it. I feel like I'd have to do a tour for the amount of time and energy I'd put into it to be worth it. It's something that I think about from time to time, but it's not something that I'm interested in right now; I'm more interested in writing and producing, and also I've been getting into creating music tools, like music software.

But one of the things that I intend to do during my sabbatical is to work on my personal album, and that stuff is definitely tourable. It could be done in a live setting.

The Bit Players: Is that material vastly different than the score and soundtrack work you've been doing?

RV: It has a lot of the same harmonic sensibilities, because I feel like I have a very specific palette, but people who have heard it have said it reminds them of Randy Newman. It's kind of through-composed, and lots of figures — almost riff-oriented piano music, but kind of dark. It's a product of my own limitations as a piano player [laughs], and it has vocals.

The Bit Players: That sounds really cool. And would that be released under your name or would that be Disasterpeace?

RV: It would probably be Disasterpeace. I've been using that name since I was eighteen, and I feel fortunate that I picked a name that, in my opinion, hasn't aged poorly. I think it could have been very easy to pick a really stupid name at the age of eighteen and then a couple years later, think, "Wow. I've got to get rid of this stupid name." So I'll probably roll with it forever.

Garden State “New Slang” Scene

Soundtracked is a regular column that focuses on the times where the perfect song was chosen to back the perfect scene, creating the perfect film moment. We will take a close look at the song itself, the context in which the filmmakers have decided to place it, and what the choice might mean for the film as a whole, or even the song outside of the world of the film. The moment a song and film synthesize in this way creates a singularly moving experience that in many ways exceeds either song or film as individual elements. Quite simply, it's the way that the sounds and images combine that we'll remember forever, and this column is meant to celebrate those magical moments.

Sam and Andrew's story begins with a song. In what has become an iconic moment in Zach Braff's directorial debut Garden State, the two are sitting in the otherwise empty waiting room of a neurologist. They are separated and flanked by rows of ambiguously blue chairs — the type of chair that can only hope the seated doesn't remain so long enough to spinally notice just how little the feeble cushion is doing, comfort-wise — and they exchange a quick glance at one another. Sam, played by Natalie Portman, is beheadphoned and aloof, Andrew (Braff) folded in on himself as he fills out the mandatory information sheet attached to a clipboard. After a bizarre conversation in which Sam is uncomfortably forward in her questioning, he asks simply, "What are you listening to?" and his and Sam's story truly begins. After taking off her over-ear headphones and explaining she's listening to the Shins, she grins and says, "You've got to hear this song. It'll change your life, I swear." It's a moment that's relatable in sentiment, if not in practice. We can all think of times when intrigue might have pushed us to ask what song was bobbing the guy's head next to us on the train or, in a sea of dead-eyed commuters on the way to work, what radio station was compelling the woman who just passed on the freeway to sing joyfully — on a Monday, of all days. We let those moments pass by because they likely won't change our lives, but for Andrew, Sam was right. It did.

Garden State's inclusion was fateful for many reasons. The film finds Andrew at his psychological nadir, lithium-dependent and begrudgingly returning home for his just-passed mother's funeral. He was visiting the neurologist to get to the root of the headaches he had been having of late, the cause of which likely his recently having gone off of the medications he had been on for the majority of his life. He is presented as a detached and almost ghostly presence in the world around him, and the chance encounter with Sam snaps him back into the physical world from the second the slow acoustic crawl of the Shins' "New Slang" begins to bleed over the diegesis of the clinic as first one headphone slips over an ear, and then another. Braff's choice to place the song firmly in the forefront of the scene ultimately places great emphasis on the audience finding a forced connection with Andrew's psyche; the only stimuli the viewer receives in this brief moment are what Andrew himself receives: the sounds of the song, the sharp, focused gaze at Sam, centered in the frame. The juxtaposition of the song and Sam's face is perhaps the scene's strongest appeal; Portman plays the moment perfectly, wearing the grin of a person who hears the ghost strains of her favorite song in her head and tries to imagine them through new ears. Having the viewer quite literally go inside Andrew's head succeeds in placing greater emphasis on the moment as the catalyst for his and Sam's blossoming relationship, and, in turn, the film's events to come. It's an amplified experience using song that doesn't happen often in film to such profound effect, and as the song fades back into the background, continuing to lightly play from the headphones when he removes them from his ears and rests them around his neck, the viewer, as well as seemingly Andrew and Sam themselves, are aware that there has been a shift in the air.

When I was going through the list of candidates to start off this series of articles, many great choices came to my mind — and those will likely be selections going forward. The purpose of this column is to examine the ways that the film and the song work together to create a heightened experience or greater meaning both in- and outside of the world of the film, and there are myriad examples of this over the years. However, none made as much sense as the first selection than the Shins' "New Slang." It's certainly poignant and moving within the film itself, a representation of the lithium and detachment cloud clearing from Andrew's head, but outside of the film, it's just as important. There are few films as synonymously linked to their soundtracks than Garden State. It served as Braff's mixtape to the world and the world ate it up in droves. The album itself, the artists and songs within, practically became college freshperson listening primer after the disc's release; minivans everywhere encased parents rediscovering their love for "The Only Living Boy in New York;" it was in the CD rotation at pretty much every Borders in the world for a summer. The soundtrack won a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for Motion Pictures, Television, or Other Visual Media. It went platinum. Platinum. In 2004.

Moreover, the scene did more than change Andrew's life. It changed the lives of the Shins forever as well. The band went from relatively unknown indie darlings to luminaries of the genre, a household name in households that they never imagine infiltrating. Braff's savvy soundtrack curation "changed everything" for the Albuquerque band and bands like them going forward; Garden State practically became a genre all on its own. It's a beautiful moment for the film itself as well as the music itself, making it a perfect first inclusion to the Soundtracked series. It's a bold claim to make, that a song could change a life, but we see here that it's entirely plausible given the right moment.

The Communicative Power of Instrumental Music

After a full week of rigorous voting, page-making, bracket-designing, social media-ing, etc., it turns out that it was all pretty much a waste of time. Of course Star Wars was going to win. We could have saved so much time, just gone on Google, downloaded a still from the film, popped it up on the site with the title “Best Space Movie.” The results are the same.

“Let us share some thoughts, feelings, and meditate on life using the vehicle of universal music. Music is food for the soul.

I hope each of us finds something special in this short journey together.” – Anonymous

There are several ways to listen to music. There is, of course, the listener who simply hears the music as opposed to listening, which we are all guilty of at some point or another—thoughts can be incredibly clouding when it comes to actually trying to pay attention to something—but that’s neither here nor there. Some listeners act as a canvas for the broad brushstrokes of emotion to be painted upon; perhaps the listener doesn’t take in the full meaning or context of the song, but is moved by the tones with which it is performed. This is actually the closest definition to how I personally listen to music, though it wasn’t always that way. It took a specific song to pull me away from the other type of listening, where the only gateway into the songwriter’s head is the words they put into mine. There are, of course, many styles of music and individual songs where the lyrics tell the story, and the music itself is more like the train that story rides in on. At this point in my life, I am more interested in music that inspires me to feel something simply through those broad brushstrokes, that allows me to interpret its meaning through the emotions that the song simply brings with it. Instrumental music is what allows that type of interpretation the most, giving the listener the sounds but allowing them to write their own story built upon the emotions they elicit. For this reason, the various types of listening are all equally important; it’s sometimes necessary to take what the songwriter says and allow them to paint the picture for you, but at others you’re just given the paint, asked to turn your feelings into words.

I can vividly remember the first time instrumental music stirred me emotionally, painting a picture in my head that I’ll never forget. I was fresh out of high school, sitting in a community college classroom not unlike those that I was scratching and clawing my way out of only three months prior, in a Music Appreciation class. Up until that point the music that I had always taken to was the classic rock of my parents, Pink Floyd’s dark vision of the world being the sounds that spoke to me the loudest (which perhaps still remains to be true). I took the class not only because it was a requirement for my ill-fated Business Management major, but because I thought, “Hey. I appreciate music. Easy ‘A.’” Well, it was an easy ‘A;’ that part I had right. What I didn’t know was how little I had appreciated music until that point. An eighteen-year old kid in Athens, Georgia, I had hardly stepped foot out of the Southeast. However, when my professor played for the class a piece by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, I was suddenly transported to the edge of an unfamiliar river, the hilly terrain smattered with castles and ruins surrounding the winding waterway something not tied to my memories—I’ve never even seen a castle save for Hyrule’s[1], but something tells me that doesn’t count. The piece, composed in the late nineteenth century, was the second of six symphonic poems making up the orchestral ode to Smetana’s homeland called “Má Vlast,” the section of the piece that is meant to describe the Vltava River coursing through the country, beginning in two small springs and joining as a unified, surging body of water, making its way through the country, the sights and sounds of the people and places it passes by flitting through the composition. I could practically feel the water rushing over me, the sounds of the current splashing against the rocks below the majestic Vyšehrad. To feel the limitless potential of a simple melody as a transportive vessel, much like the descriptive words in a book, was a breakthrough for me. It was then that I truly learned how to listen to instrumental music.

What is really interesting is that people somehow don’t need to be told these things to feel what the music is meant to make them feel. It has recently been discovered that musical moods can communicate a lot more than we previously thought. A study in 2009 conducted by Thomas Fritz of the Max-Planck-Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences tested the reactions in both Western listeners and a portion of native African population known as the Mafa where they were played Western pop music and asked to identify what feelings the shifts in tone or rhythm were brought on. The Mafa subjects were able to discern the different emotions meant to be conveyed through the music, whether it be feelings of happiness, sadness, or fear, above chance. The study was a breakthrough in forwarding the thought that music might be the world’s only universal language. Though no ideas or emotions are expressed explicitly through music, the reactions that are invoked within listeners are nearly universal.

The most obvious, and perhaps purest, form of emotional expression brought on through music is, of course, dancing. We hardly need to be told twice when a roiling four-on-the-floor beat thunders through a PA system that it is time to flail our bodies around in whatever semblance of rhythmic dancing we can conjure up. The urge to dance hasn’t always been merely a response to earth-shattering bass, however. In many cultures dance and the music that propels it is a means of communicating in the deepest sense of the word, connecting not only physically, but spiritually as well. Dance music extends as far back as written records exist, and particularly in African culture, dance was the primary means of communicating through music. Many tribes in Africa still practice the art of dance as a means to connect with a higher power, to share their joy of living and give thanks. Chuck Davis, the founder of the Dance Africa festival, understands the power of music in celebrating what it means to be alive, stating, “Dance is life. Dance is spirit. It’s in everything we do, and that’s particularly true of African dance.”

Artists are no strangers to the concept of communicating through more than words[2]. In a 2001 interview with Jambase, Sound Tribe Sector 9’s drummer Zach Velmer spoke on his band’s intentions on moving people spiritually with their instrumental performances, saying, “What we’re trying to do is just keep truth. Keep truth of our intentions and share with these people. Make these people go home and take the inspiration and the love and the fun-ness (if that’s a word) home and do their art. That’s what we promote - Time Is Art. Once we get all these people doing their art, then it’s just off the hook. Then it’s just a carnival, a celebration of life – love in full effect. That’s what it’s all about.” Velmer touched upon very early in Sound Tribe Sector 9’s career what they believe they had the power of communicating to a crowd without ever picking up a microphone. It speaks to the uplifting nature of their music that a room full of people at completely different stages of their lives can go home from a show with a unified idea and energy, that they can be driven to the same goal. Besides instilling the obvious urge to dance until you’re practically slipping in your collected sweat on the ground, Sound Tribe Sector 9 seeks to enlighten their audience and push them to create their art and participate in whatever way they can.

One of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time, J Dilla’s Donuts, also happens to be one of the greatest purveyors of the concept of eliciting feeling simply through strong emotional undertones in the music. Dilla was wheelchair-bound, slicing up samples from his hospital bed, doing everything he could to get Donuts to the public and deliver his last messages as lupus took its final toll on his body. Though not instrumental in the traditional sense, Donuts sees Dilla cut vocal samples in such a way that the record plays like his goodbye to the world, and as a whole the cyclical nature of life. The circumstances behind the recording of Donuts are what make those messages so profound. Dilla’s illness had forced his hand in a way, leaving music as his only form of communication. As The Roots’ Questlove put in back in February, “If you analyze everything that’s said on Donuts—from ‘Workinonit,’ (where the sample says I’m still working—’cause that’s the thing, he was confined to a wheelchair, he really couldn’t talk, he was half his weight. To see him would freak you out and frighten you. And then he’d press play and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute!’ And that’s when it hits you, like, ‘Oh, OK, the brain and the creativity inside him are still the same even though the physicality is different.’” Perhaps never before have emotion and communication been so importantly tied together in music.

Music and communication have always gone hand in hand. There are of course ways that messages can only be conveyed through lyrical interpretations, but I find that some of the most intense and enriching emotional experiences have come through purely instrumental movements. From the very first time that my mind stepped foot on the shores of the Vyšehrad, a river I have never, probably will never truly step foot on the shores of, I have found that communication is a completely different concept than words.

1. Not so coincidentally, if I hear any six-note motif I learned long ago on my Ocarina as a fresh-faced Link (or as I always named him, Bojangle) while playing Legend Of Zelda: The Ocarina Of Time on my Nintendo 64, I am immediately taken to the corresponding area. Whether it be the slow, country twang of “Epona’s Song” reminding me of the first time young Bojangle met his soon-to-be mare or bottled his first batch of Lon Lon Milk, or how “Saria’s Song” lit my way through the labyrinth of the Lost Woods, those songs are deeply connected to memory, and to feelings.

2. Even Extreme!