Composer Marc Canham Entices, Teaches and Thrills

By Alice O’Neill

In a private phone interview from Oxfordshire, England, Marc Canham revealed how he composed music for the new hit video game, inFamous: Second Son. And he gleefully exposed some of the secret sources of his mesmerizing musical sounds.

Info you should know: Canham’s brilliantly scored Sony Entertainment’s inFamous: Second Son, exclusively on Playstation 4, is in stores now. Currently the #1 game in the UK, the game is quickly gaining fans in the U.S. and beyond. Also contributing to the soundtrack are composers Brain (You know him as the Guns N’ Roses drummer) and Nathan Johnson (film compositions for Looper, and Don Jon).

What Players Can Expect

Composer Marc Canham. Photo used by permission.

Composer Marc Canham. Photo used by permission.

The game is set in Seattle, seven years after the ending of inFamous 2. Players control Deslin Rowe, a local 24 year-old slacker graffiti artist. After an encounter with a “Conduit” (someone with supernatural powers), Deslin becomes one himself, and begins to use his powers to fight the Department of Unified Protection, a government organization out to destroy all Conduits.

Sounds Of Second Son

For the sheer fun of discovering Canham’s musical soul, go listen to some of his work. The inFamous: Second Son soundtrack is on Sumthing Else Music Works. Hear a free sample at sumthing.com

What you’ll hear is proof that Canham is at the top of his craft and art. A composer of music for both films and video games, he is at home discussing music with anyone with an interest to listen, from music students to professional musicians and composers. As an ex-English literature teacher I found an apt analogy in listening to Canham. Just as Shakespeare intended his plays to appeal to the groundlings as well as the professors of literature, so too Canham intends to entertain gamers and listeners of all degrees of knowledge and appreciation. In terms of musical education I’m a groundling. But Canham nourished my musical soul.

Film Music Favorites

“People know about film music because film music has been around for over seventy years,” Canham told me. “So, they have their favorites. Soundtracks are becoming very important to people’s lives. Think of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman. Out of Africa, composed by John Barry. That and other film music is actually being played at people’s weddings,” Canham added. He believes that “games music is sort of catching onto the coattails of film music a little bit and becoming an established art form inside the gaming industry.” He reminded me that it’s only been about 15 or 20 years that people have music they’ll play for themselves and compare to their film school experience or albums they listen to at home. That’s video game music.

Golden Age of Games Scoring

Canham explained that we’re in kind of a golden age of games scoring, where funds and resources are being made available to make music for these scores. “And,” he added, “this music is attaching itself to a whole new generation. I explain to people that I got into music because I loved listening to the James Bond soundtracks. Now people say, ‘I love the music of Call of Duty or Uncharted or Journey’ – all video games.” Canham agrees that video games as a genre represents a flourishing new area of music soundtracks. “People are starting to get more and more into it,” he told me, “which is so exciting to see it evolve.“

“With the right music accompanying it the game comes across in its best possible light,” Canham told me. “The game isn’t an excuse for me to put music on top of everything; the game is an excuse to put music within it—to make all the emotive moments be even more emotive.”

How Music Enhances Video Games

He explained by giving me a vivid example. “A good test is when people come into my studio,” he said. “These are people who are in the profession, have a technical understanding of music. I’ll play them a five-minute scene with the music off and ask them what they think. So all they hear is the dialogue and the sound effects. And they’ll give me some answers. Then I’ll play the same five-minute scene with the music on. The conversation will be ten times as long because they’ll be attached emotionally. And the attachment is far, far greater and deeper, thanks to the music! That’s the difference. “

Canham said he likes the phrase “composers are the servants to the film, or game.” Always he feels it’s his job to serve the emotional component.

I explained that as a non-musician I still have a great appreciation of classical music. My question: “Isn’t all music grounded in classical composition?”

Good Music Shares From Other Music

Canham answered as if explaining his favorite subject to an avid student. “Music is all about taking what’s happened before and interpreting it in new ways. That’s how music evolves,” he said. “You very rarely get a sudden moment in time where a new kind of music hits your ears. It’s all about this metamorphosis of sound, over centuries, really. So, medieval music through to baroque, to modern classical, to electronica—they all hold hands in some way.” A brief pause and he added, “Good music is good music. It all shares something from what’s gone before. That’s one of the lovely things about music. It’s not a bad thing to say that you’re influenced by someone. The classical composers were very open about being influenced to the point where they would take a small part of somebody else’s music and play on it to create a whole new piece of music. And sometimes that new piece of music would be far more popular than the original, where it came from.”

“And we do that today,” Canham explained. “That’s how we operate as human beings. And music operates on a very human level, so it’s no surprise that this goes on. So, yes, I’m heavily influenced by classical music.”

If you listen to Canham’s soundtracks (films and games) you see that he has a voice, a style that people can identify. “Well, that’s my aim, at least,” he says.

Canham’s Style

“I will take interesting bits of world music – like from Africa, interesting classical pieces from centuries ago, from the modern classical movement (started in the 30s, 40s and 50s—which sounds very different from music a hundred years before that). Then I try to put it in a big cauldron, and hope something pleasant comes out the other side. It’s a bit like cooking, I find,” he says with a laugh. “The more interesting the ingredients I can put together and deliver a delicious pitch, the more proud I am with the end.”

I asked Canham to speak to gamers, those who recognize him and his prodigious output of games music. What about inFamous: Second Son?

Canham explained, “The lovely thing about inFamous: Second Son is I had the chance to really experiment for quite a long period at the beginning of the project, trying to create this collision of influences.”

Collision Of Influences

He said his team went out to multi-story car parks to get reverb effects. “We went and destroyed mail boxes, and cars, and we took some of those sounds and we went into a studio where we had a drum kit made out of all sorts of things you’d never see on a traditional drum kit. There was an oil can, pots and pans, bits of machinery. So we recorded those.”

And then they had a great cellist perform for their recording, Martin Tillman, who played on many of Hans Zimmer soundtracks. “He put his cello through amazing effects units that had delays, and echoes and reverbs,” Canham said. “This amazingly classically-trained cellist created strange, weird, other-worldly sounds with this cello that you wouldn’t necessarily think were coming from a cello. Then we had a traditional drummer come and play on a drum kit. And a traditional guitarist came in and played. And then back in my studio here in the U.K. I recorded my synthesizer, my acoustic guitars, and some strange instruments I picked up from around the world.”

“And so, inFamous: Second Son is a very eclectic mix of sounds,” he said. “My objective was to try and create something that is challenging in the right way that makes sense as music, but also that is very interesting for the listeners because every time they listen to it they’ll hear something different. Reactions are like ‘What’s that sound?’ and ‘Never heard a sound like that before.’ So, Second Son is a real melting pot of centuries of musical ideas, all colliding in one go, which is quite an interesting concept, I think, for a project.”

I wondered, even in the midst of such extraordinary creativity, if there was ever a head-scratching moment– anything that gave him a great challenge?

Head-Scratching Moment

Canham laughed, remembering. “We were very conscious of the fact that we did not want it to sound like a grunge sound from Seattle,” he began, “but we wanted it to feel like Seattle. We wanted the attitude. But we didn’t want it to sound like Nirvana. So we thought how do you distill the attitude of Seattle out and then drop it into a different melting pot of musical styles.” He paused, and quickly added, “And yet still retain that slightly imperfect, slightly rusty-around-the-edges effect? Getting that right was the hardest thing.”

I mused aloud, “And you’re happy with the outcome?”

Canham exclaimed, “I’m extremely happy with the outcome. It’s always nice – you tend to have a few months after the project is finished—you’ve handed in your cues, and development theme at PlayStation. Now, you get busy sort of trying to fit it into the game because obviously it’s interactive which is very different from the linear medium of film. There is still work to do.”

PlayStation’s Task

“The PlayStation people have a task after I finish,” he said, “which is to mold it into the game so that it reacts to the players’ emotions and movements. So, yeah, I had two months away from the score, pretty much, and then I had to listen to it again last week, when the soundtrack came out. And I was so proud. It just sounded so fresh. It didn’t sound like anything else and that’s a good thing to have about your music. I could hear its influences, but it sounded like its own thing. So if you heard it [apart from playing the game] you wouldn’t know it was Second Son.”

“Sometimes,” Canham continued, “in video games and in films, a lot of the time a very ‘wallpaper-esque’ music is used to basically make you feel the emotion. Whereas, Second Son feels very crafted and purposely very well-thought-out. And at PlayStation they are willing to push the boundaries and do new things. They understand when they have an opportunity to do very creative, new and challenging music. And this is one of those projects.”

Parents’ Criticism

I wondered about parents’ criticism that video games are too violent–detrimental to teenagers. I said I’d heard such comments.

Canham Answers Criticism

Canham was ready to take that on. “The thing you have to be cautious with is that the games don’t take over your life,” he said. “You wouldn’t stay in a room for 24 hours, nonstop, and watch films. So, it’s not healthy to do the same thing with video games. I lean toward the very narrative-driven story type games, rather than games that really don’t have much of a purpose to them. I like a story. I like films that have a great narrative that moves me, and therefore, I like games that do a similar thing.”

Games Are Mentally Nourishing

“There are some fantastically engaging, entertaining, thought-provoking games out there,” he said, “ which will deliver to the gamer as much as a great film will, in terms of mental nourishment. It’s not a bad thing to play games,” he said, quite definitively. “You can’t do broad strokes like that. The same thing happened with rap music. It went through a phase where it was just considered bad. The advisory warnings on the boxes were essentially health warnings for children.” Laughs.

My question: “So, that’s no longer the case?”

“Exactly,” he said. “Similarly, games have overcome negative assertions. The fact is that skills involved in making these games are very high end,” Canham explained. “And from the artists to the more technologically minded programmers, to the audio people who I often work with, I absolutely believe that a game can offer a helluva lot to an individual. I just think variety is the spice of life. Gamers get a bit of flack, unnecessarily, because in truth, they are engaging their creative side of their minds in playing the game.”

Most Video Game Players Are Very Verbal And Creative

Canham talked about his wife, a clinical psychologist who specializes in child psychology. “While she doesn’t have clients who suffer from playing too much of video games, she is aware of the popularity of games,” he explained, adding that “she said in the vast majority of the cases kids who play these games have extraordinary imaginations. They’re very verbal and can introduce interesting areas to a conversation. Invariably, they are very creative. So it’s not like video games stunt your growth. There’s a very positive side to the video games.”

I wondered what games, other than his own, did Canham like.

Journey Had An Impact

“The last game that had an impact on me, and took me to that place (like a film can) was the game Journey,” he said. “That was a beautiful example of art, music and storytelling and imagination all happening at the same time, in such a charming way. Fantastic. The music is by Austin Wintory. “

“Second Son was a divergence for me,” Canham told me. “I tend to write slightly more cerebral music and there are many elements of that within Second Son. There’s also an element of sort of a dangerous feel to it as well, sort of an industrial edge to it. Whereas, the music I scored previously, has had a far more cerebral feel to it, very much like Austin Wintory’s score. So, for example, projects like The Secret World or Far Cry 2 (films he scored), have a slightly more subtle effect where they sort of seep into your soul. Elements of Second Son have to be a little bit more brash and instant. But the Journey soundtrack reminded me of things that I do but it’s altogether another person’s instinctive and different take on that approach. I found the soundtrack of that absolutely mesmerizing.”

I wanted to know what Canham’s “sound” was called. Does it have a name?

Canham’s Own Sound And The Industrial Soap Cutter

“It has a name that people use,” he told me, “but it’s a little strange. They call it ‘found sound’.”

By way of an explanation, Canham told me about a recent experience. “I found this weird contraption which turned out to be an industrial soap cutter,” he said, remembering that it had strings with a metallic chime effect. So, he bought it and took it back to his studio.

“I put microphones in front of this big contraption to record as I started playing it,” he told me, excitement in his voice. “I played it with my fingers, with mallets, rubber sticks, bamboo sticks—anything I could find—kids toys. The sounds were fantastic!” The upshot was that Canham loaded the sounds onto his computer software where he could put it across the keyboard, so that when he played his keyboard he was actually playing all the sounds he’d recorded from the soap cutter. “I have the world’s first soap cutter instrument,” he said, laughter bubbling up in perverse pride.

Canham’s Latest Film Compositions

Canham’s music for the film, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, is perfectly in sync with, and runs the gamut of, human emotions. Now available on DVD, the film is worth watching as a taut exercise in psychological manipulation. And Canham’s music is well worth a listen on its own.

Also, watch for the release of Canham’s recently scored Final Girl, a drama-thriller starring Abigail Breslin (grown up but still recognizable as the girl in Little Miss Sunshine), Wes Bentley (Hunger Games) and Francesca Eastwood (Clint’s daughter).

After spending time with Canham and marveling at his knowledge, skill and enthusiasm for his subject, I suggest that he hit the college speakers’ circuit and give student audiences a thrill.

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