'Tomb Raider’s' one-of-a-kind music, born in Raleigh

dmenconi@newsobserver.comMarch 2, 2013 

— It’s an ordinary roll of chicken wire, just like you’d buy at a hardware store (which is, in fact, where it came from). But where most people would see something to enclose chickens, Jason Graves saw a music-making device. Placing it on a metal trashcan lid in his home studio, he took up a bow to demonstrate.

“You get a lot of vibration and reverb,” Graves said. “Doing it on the lid gives it a whole other level of resonance. And if you bow this just right –”

Graves paused to saw at it a bit.

“– you get this,” he continued, raising his voice to be heard over the mesmerizing drone of a metallic screech that sounded like…well, something you’d hear as a sound effect in a movie score. And that’s exactly how Graves used it on the soundtrack to “Tomb Raider,” a high-profile computer game that hits stores on Tuesday.

It’s been a 2-1/2-year odyssey to produce the 210 minutes of music in the game, which reboots the “Lara Croft” franchise that’s been around since the mid-1990s. The game’s theme is “A Survivor Is Born,” and Crystal Dynamics wanted something iconic to set it apart from previous incarnations. So the California-based game developer enlisted Graves, a Raleigh composer who has been doing game scores for more than a decade, most notably the award-winning soundtrack to the 2008 horror game “Dead Space.”

“Jason has done a lot of work on successful, award-winning games with 60-piece orchestras,” said Karl Stewart, global brand director for “Tomb Raider.” “But he was more excited about the intimacy of creating his own signature soundtrack to the game. He was a very big part of bringing it along, really helped cement the music as a signature of the game.”

Like 2005’s “Batman Begins,” which reset the “Batman” series of movies by reimagining the beginning of his story, “Tomb Raider” aims to remake the Lara Croft game series by going back to its title character’s origins. It finds the heroine stranded on an uncharted island in the Pacific, where she battles against tribes of castaways known as “scavengers.”

The game’s visual imagery features jagged, rickety shantytowns constructed by the scavengers. That inspired Graves to play scavenger himself to come up with matching sound effects within his orchestral compositions. He started looking for things to bang on, including the “trashcan orchestra” and his wife’s old violin, which he’d bang on in various ways.

“I’d use different kinds of mallets,” he said. “Anything to get interesting, different textures. Letting no parts go unused.”

Eventually, Graves decided he needed a broader sonic palette, which required venturing beyond his own backyard. But he didn’t have to go far.

A custom-built percussion instrument

Right down the street from Graves’ Boylan Heights house is the workshop of Matt McConnell, a sculptor who specializes in large-scale installations. After a series of visits to borrow pieces of metal for different percussion sounds, Graves had a brainstorm.

What if McConnell custom-built a percussion instrument especially for “Tomb Raider”? Something with a look as well as a sound that fit the environment of the game?

McConnell set to work experimenting. On a recent morning, he showed off some of the prototype parts he used to design it, including a series of steel-tube chimes of various lengths and textures. Taking up a handmade bow (designed to be similar to the bow Lara Croft uses to shoot arrows in the game), he demonstrated the sounds to be had from an overturned 5-gallon cooking pot with metal spikes of varying lengths welded in place.

“We needed a resonating chamber,” McConnell said. “My first test was a galvanized bucket, which was horrible and didn’t work at all. We also explored wooden blocks, which we’d suspend in a bucket and bang. But we abandoned wood pretty quickly and headed in this direction. I was building a bunch of things that were about physical texture and aggression balanced against the purity of the sound.”

Over about a year, McConnell tinkered with pieces, perfecting various sounds and tones as per Graves’ instructions. Graves would also give McConnell music to listen to while working on the instrument, to get in the proper mood.

“He’d hone in on something, bring it back and have me modify things,” McConnell said. “There were textural details and sound qualities he needed to reflect the scavengers, the island, the tools Lara used. How it all fit together sonically was something I didn’t understand. You can bang on anything. But take someone like Jason, who has amazing abilities and rhythm and can really play, and it’s something else. I just tap on things; he makes them sing.”

Orchestral melodies with an edge

Up the street, meanwhile, Graves was composing the “Tomb Raider” soundtrack, which he called “the next step” beyond the spooky music on “Dead Space.” The game has a lot of melodic orchestral themes, which Graves recorded on synthesizer. But the off-kilter percussion effects percolating throughout give it an edge, and McConnell’s creation was a key part of that.

What finally emerged was an 8-foot-tall piece of sonic sculpture simply dubbed “the instrument.” It looks vaguely tribal and ceremonial, equal parts hut, altar, wind chime and birdfeeder, surrounded by thin and naked tree branches. You can bow it or beat it to produce a startling array of sounds and tones, although not the sort you’d find in music books.

“Everything about the instrument’s sound was designed to be just a little bit off-key and not on-tone, to fit the game’s environment,” said McConnell. “There’s a direct link from character and environment straight to the instrument. Jason was always pushing me to be more aggressive in sound and texture. He had an idea of the quality of sound he wanted to go with the pictures, and the physical texture was a part of that.”

That matched the ambition of the game’s orchestral score, which is every bit as grand and cinematic as a major motion picture. Twenty pieces are being released as an original-soundtrack album, also out on Tuesday.

“Jason’s overture piece is 12 minutes long, and listening to it gives you the feel of the entire game from start to finish,” said Crystal Dynamics’ Stewart. “That sort of thing is done a lot in movies, but I’ve never seen it done in games before.”

Tuesday’s release day will also see the instrument being unveiled in its new home, the lobby of Crystal Dynamics’ California headquarters. It will be on display and available for visitors to bang around on.

There’s also an app, “The Final Hours of Tomb Raider,” which allows people to “play” the instrument on their mobile devices (also available Tuesday, on iTunes).

But the instrument is not something that will ever be physically mass-produced.

“I’d make another if Crystal Dynamics asked, but there’s no way to make it the same,” McConnell said.

“I could make the same shapes and proportions, it would look similar, but the sound would be different. You can’t really repeat the process. This was a sort of revolutionary integration of music and sculpture that previously had not existed for me.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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