Suspenseful, emotional, epic, heroic — Bill Brown has composed award-winning scores for hit video games, film, and TV with franchise names as large as Captain America, Wolfenstein, and CSI. Creating sound with everything from vintage instruments and synthesizers to a Millennium Falcon replica Rebel Bass, Bill seeks out the adventure of discovering the emotion, the feeling driving the score. Awaking from a dream, or dreaming while awake, Bill’s new album Dreamstate evokes the calming, meditative fantastical element of being entranced in dream. We sat down with Bill to learn about his journey into composing and in finding the musical direction for his new album.
What attracted you to music?
Music has always been like deep meditation for me, ever since I was a kid. All sense of time just disappears. There’s nothing else but the music and the inspiration driving it. I love that about it. Maybe it’s in my DNA. Is that a thing?
How did you get into composing for video games and movies?
A college roommate from Berklee introduced me to Scott Gershin at a company called Soundelux (which no longer exists). I hadn’t really considered scoring games up to that point, but the first two demos I composed there were for Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six and The Lost World: Trespasser. Both games were AAA hits right out of the gate. I didn’t even realize how incredible it all was until much later. I was having a blast coming in every day and writing all this big cinematic music for games. And after a while, I was scoring commercials and helping out with additional music on some films, along with writing and producing game soundtracks.
Then one day I got a call from a director I had worked with on one of those commercials and a TV film. He asked if I’d be interested in coming in to meet with the creator of CSI, Anthony Zuiker, to talk about scoring the next series in the franchise, CSI: NY. At that point, I hadn’t really considered scoring a TV series. What an incredible day that was. And what an incredible nine years scoring the show after that. You never know. Life is like a box of chocolates, right?
To be able to help tell the story, to move the narrative forward musically through the game was and is always an adventure.
Can you tell the story of the first film or game you scored and what you felt during that process?
The first game I started working on was The Lost World: Trespasser for DreamWorks Interactive. I used to play the alpha (pre-release) version of games as I worked on them. They would send me concept art, we’d talk about the game in detail, and then spend days and nights coming up with the direction together. To be able to help tell the story, to move the narrative forward musically through the game was and is always an adventure. Scoring has always been like that for me. We were listening to John Williams, of course, for that project and he was a big influence throughout—which was daunting. I was just starting to cut my chops orchestrally and hadn’t worked with a live orchestra up to that point. They said Spielberg said my demos sounded so good, and we wouldn’t need to go to record live.
I had been writing and recording with samplers and synths since I was a teenager, so I had a lot of experience at that point with them—maybe too much. It’s tough because you have to be good at demoing, but if the demo is too good, there is a chance the producers won’t be interested in spending the additional budget on recording live, which is unfortunate.
At the same time, Michael Giacchino was recording with a live orchestra for the other Lost World game they were creating in tandem with Trespasser, so it wasn’t in the cards for that one. But after that, I started to record with orchestras for the next games, and continued to, even recently with Captain America: Super Soldier. It’s always so much fun recording live. It was pretty rare in those days. It really takes everything to the next level.
There’s something in that transformation—in that discovery—that is probably why we do what we do as composers.
What is different to you about composing for games, film, TV, and your own albums? How do you decide what makes the cut for a personal project or album?
I approach all of them the same really. There are technical differences in creating for each medium, but the essence is the same. Connecting with the narrative, the characters, and with the team creating them and finding that thing musically that takes all of it to the next level—that moment when you find the theme or the sound is magical. When it happens, there’s this synchronicity that starts to happen where things start to fall into place across the project. The scene or the project has just elevated and become something else—something new. And discovering the next pieces of the puzzle can be so exciting. There’s something in that transformation—in that discovery—that is probably why we do what we do as composers. There are a lot of reasons, but that’s one of them.
Can you tell us about your new album? Where did the ideas come from?
I started thinking about Dreamstate early in 2017. One day I woke up from a dream and had this feeling, remembering the dream. The emotion felt so real. I’ve often had lucid dreams where I was working on a piece of music, but this was different. It was more about that emotion. I started wondering what that feeling might sound like musically. As I was searching for the sound that would become Dreamstate in the next weeks and months, I took a journey through my own experience of dreams. The album was a journey for me through many of my own emotions, and each of the tracks were inspired by dreams.
Creating the music had this calming, healing effect, and I started to wonder if it might have the same effect on the audience of the music later. Recording the album became this wonderful adventure, working with old and new friends, listening with them, recording here in the studio, recording with an orchestra, And sharing in the joy of creating it all. All of it was like being in a dream of sorts—a wonderful dream filled with this music and these people.
Is there another album in the works?
Yes. I shared lots of behind the scenes creating Dreamstate on my social media for more than a year. It will be interesting to see where the next one goes.
You can see and hear more about Bill Brown’s new album, Dreamstate, at dreamstateproject.com.