4 years ago

Volume 24 Issue 3 - November 2018

  • Text
  • November
  • Toronto
  • Jazz
  • Theatre
  • Musical
  • Arts
  • Orchestra
  • Performing
  • Symphony
  • Bloor
Reluctant arranger! National Ballet Orchestra percussionist Kris Maddigan on creating the JUNO and BAFTA award-winning smash hit Cuphead video game soundtrack; Evergreen by name and by nature, quintessentially Canadian gamelan (Andrew Timar explains); violinist Angèle Dubeau on 20 years and 60 million streams; two children’s choirs where this month remembrance and living history must intersect. And much more, online in our kiosk now, and on the street commencing Thursday November 1.

Screen capture from

Screen capture from Cuphead The only style guidelines I was given were “1930s big band.” As the game expanded to include levels and world maps, I started to think outside of that one specific era and style, and we decided on ragtime for the platforming levels and numerous stylistic iterations of the main four-note theme for the world maps. In some cases (as in the shrines), they just said “Do whatever you like.” The most challenging part for me was trying to write in a highly derivative style while still maintaining my own identity. It was very important to us to approach the music in Cuphead with respect and a sense of history. And to understand and utilize the clichés that define a style while doing something new and original with them. For example, there are many firmly established conventions that define a Joplin-esque ragtime style. The question then became how do I write in that style without just blatantly ripping off those that came before, but while still using the devices I had no hand in creating? And maybe more importantly, how to do that in a way that honours the work of the great composers and musicians that came before? I always approached this project more from the standpoint of “What if the golden age of big bands and the golden age of video games coexisted side by side?” While a lot of it is pretty bonkers (it’s game music, it sort of has to be), we were very conscious to never let it descend into parody. We realized early on that this game had the potential to reach a demographic that has probably never been exposed to this type of music, so we had a responsibility to do it correctly. The sheer number of messages we get from people who have said that this was their first exposure to jazz music – and that it has opened a door to another world for them – has been very gratifying. How did the recording sessions go? I was extremely nervous before the first rehearsal. I wasn’t sure if some of the music was going to be completely unplayable, or whether there would be technical glitches – scores and parts getting exported incorrectly, wrong transpositions, etc). By the end of that rehearsal I knew that everything was going to be all right, and it was a great relief. I don’t think the musicians knew exactly what they were getting into, and when they showed up many of them were like “What’s up with these tempos!?” But they more than rose to the challenge and obviously played their asses off. I think you can really hear the synergy that exists between them. Many have been working together for decades, in bands like the Boss Brass. More than that, I think it sounds like they’re having fun, which was very important for this music. “Cuphead was a great experience. You don’t get a chance to play intense big band swing on video games very often (like never),” said Dave Dunlop, trumpet player on the soundtrack. “Kris’ writing was excellent for a relatively young man and the players really rose to the occasion, considering how difficult the music was.” How do you account for the popularity of the recording session videos? I feel the reason the behind-the-scenes videos have had such a great response is that people like seeing the process firsthand. There’s a visceral reaction to seeing real musicians at work, maybe for the same reason we go to concerts to see bands play the same songs that we already have on albums at home. What was John Herberman’s role in the recording? John Herberman was my mentor throughout the project, from first being a teacher and helping me parse through the composition process, to taking on the role of contractor for the sessions, and being the conductor of the band both in studio and at our first ever live show at the Kensington Market Jazz Festival. Without John’s experience and help the music would have been a shadow of what it eventually became. “Kris is a very smart man and we developed a really good working relationship,” said Herberman. “He did a ton of research into 1930s music. So although I have years of experience composing for big bands and was able to coach Kris on some technical things like voicings for horns, his understanding of the 30s music style really helped. “He entrusted me with a lot of responsibility for these sessions and that’s not easy to do. As well, working with the Moldenhauers was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a long time. They were very supportive and wanted to do the sessions right and make sure everyone was having fun. And that’s not how things usually go these days.” 10 | November 2018

I always approached this project more from the standpoint of “What if the golden age of big bands and the golden age of video games coexisted side by side?” At the Kensington Market Jazz Festival SPARE PARTS Who are your jazz-music heroes? Any particular influences for the music composed for Cuphead? Duke Ellington and Scott Joplin were by far my two biggest influences, but Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Fletcher Henderson also cast long shadows on the Cuphead music. Is it unusual to have a full band playing a game soundtrack? Isn’t it usually electronic/synth music? I think that using live musicians is certainly becoming more common, especially in AAA games, but on the indie side of things my impression is that it is typically too cost prohibitive. I certainly don’t know any other games that have used a live big band. An extra special shout-out goes to Jeremy Darby and Julian Decorte at Canterbury Music Company in Toronto. I cannot imagine having recorded this soundtrack anywhere else. And Jeremy spent months refining the mixes: getting just the right balance between clean instrument tones and a vintage sensibility. Are you a gamer? Growing up I was, but I pretty much stopped when I started my undergrad as there was just not enough time. I’m more of a casual gamer now, mainly just checking out games that are considered important that I should be familiar with, or games with acclaimed soundtracks so that I can keep up with what’s going on musically in the gaming world. Cathy Riches is a Toronto-based recovering singer and ink slinger who hasn’t played a video game since Pac-Man, and who thinks it’s better to carry a tune than a grudge. November 2018 | 11

Volumes 21-25 (2015-2020)

Volumes 16-20 (2010-2015)

Volumes 11-15 (2004-2010)

Volumes 6 - 10 (2000 - 2006)

Volumes 1-5 (1994-2000)