Global Game Jam, 2017

So I live in Los Angeles now, and it’s fantastic. I’m three weeks in, and I’ve already met so many wonderful people!

This past weekend, I had one of the most fun, invigorating, and validating experiences of my life - and it started with a broken laptop.

The Global Game Jam (http://globalgamejam.org/) is an incredible event, boasting 701 jam sites that span most of the world. I signed up for the University of Southern California site a couple weeks in advance, and did some practice cues on my 8-year-old Macbook to prepare for the event. And then the night before the jam started, my laptop fell from a pretty considerable height. I froze in terror for a few mute moments, picked it up, and slumped into a chair with relief as I saw the device was functioning.

I arrived at the jam on Friday, excited to have some fun and make something. I met a bunch of wonderful people right away, and after the Extra Credits keynote address, we got right to work. When I went to turn on my laptop, it booted up like it usually did, but after a minute or so loading the OS, it shut off. After about 5 attempts to boot it, I feared that my GGJ experience had ended. My team already had another audio guy, so why would they want me to work remotely? Wouldn’t that be an inconvenience to the team and defeat the purpose of the jam?

The whole team was wonderfully supportive, however, and were open to me going home and composing there. So I forgot about the laptop that I couldn’t fix, made a plan with Camden (the other audio guy - he’s fantastic, here’s a link to his SoundCloud), and went home get a decent night's sleep. The next morning, I surprised myself with my productiveness, and finished all the music I planned to in time for lunch. I brought it to the team at USC, and they responded very positively to it. I then figured out a way to do sound effects on one of the school computers, and was able to stay at USC for the rest of the jam.

Our game, Bathoven, was just barely uploaded in time. Camden and I had numerous sound features that never made it into the build. But as the jammers went around, putting their little voting stickers on the sheets of paper for each game, we started noticing an accumulation of stickers on the “Best Sound” category. And when it came time to announce the winners, we were given Best Sound!

*Check out Bathoven here: https://wearebat.itch.io/bathoven*

This experience taught me a lot, and I share it here because I think there are some important lessons for fledgling artists within. First being that a good night’s sleep and a warm cup of tea can do wonders for productivity. Second is that things will always go wrong, and when they do it’s important to take a step back, collect yourself, and figure out: a) what still needs to be done, and b) how you can do it. And third, being part of a team is an amazing thing. It’s possibly the most valuable way to grow as a creative person, no matter what one’s vocation is. And it’s fun! I’ve already played a few rounds of Overwatch with some of my teammates from We Are Bat, and I look forward to showing them how truly derpy of an Overwatch player I am :)

I love you all - stay curious and make amazing things!

-Neil

Announcing: Guitar Jams!

Basking in the relaxation of a calm, snowy Saturday, having finished slaving over a bunch of parts for a Grade 3 concert band piece for the Libera Composers Association (find out more about that project here!!!), I came to an epiphany: my online presence doesn't really reflect the fact that I play guitar. So I thought of a fun way to remedy that!

The plan is to record a short guitar track at least twice a month, mix it quick, and upload it, all in a <2 hour session. I'm hoping that in the long run this will provide a library of samples in different styles to prove to the world that I do, indeed, play guitar. And it sounds fun!

Happy holidays everyone! I hope you all are having a magical time, wherever you are and whatever you're doing.

- Neil

Presenting: The Extraordinary Bit-Man (I made a game!)

Hi everyone, I hope you've all been doing well! I have an exciting little announcement...

I'm proud to present to you my first game: The Extraordinary Bit-Man. It's a short 2D platformer with a quirky, retro style. The player can jump over obstacles, use ninja stars and swords to dispatch of enemies, and collect coins for points. Defeat the boss to achieve eternal glory!

This project has been entirely for educational purposes, so the game is free to download and play. I need to give a massive shout out to GamesPlusJames (@gamesplusjames on Twitter) - his tutorials are 90% of the reason I was able to finish this project, and they taught me most of what I know about Unity and C#. You can check out his YouTube channel here and learn about making games: https://www.youtube.com/user/gamesplusjames (you might recognize the art assets from Bit-Man - James made them for his 2D platformer tutorial series)

As I made Bit-Man in order to learn about game design, your feedback is incredibly helpful! Even if you aren't a gamer or don't feel comfortable giving me critical feedback, just tell me what was hard for you. Was there something that didn't make sense to you? Did you get stuck somewhere? You'd be surprised just how useful any random bit of information is for a game designer. So download it, play it, and let me know what you think in the comments below, on Facebook/Twitter, or at neilpquillen@gmail.com (even if all you have to say are mean things - I can take it)!

Lastly I'd like to thank my family and friends for their support and encouragement. The end of 2015 and start of 2016 have been a little rough for me, but with your help I was able to bounce back and complete a project I have been passionate about. I made a game! Woohoo!

Windows* Download

Mac** Download

*To open the windows version, right click on the .zip file and select "extract all" from the options menu. Next, double-click the new folder to open it, and then double-click on the .exe file to begin playing the game.

**To open the mac version, double-click on the .zip file to extract it, and then double-click on the application icon to begin playing the game.

Scoring Spotlight: Pazu's Trumpet

The NYU orchestral recording session was coming up, and I knew well ahead of time when it would be, where it would be, and the ensemble I was writing for (which cannot be said of all my other sessions at NYU). This gave me plenty of time to search for a clip that I loved, and would serve as a great demo, highlighting my abilities as a composer.

Narrowing it down to Miyazaki films was an easy choice. I'm a huge Studio Ghibli fan, and the films lend themselves to magical, showy orchestral music. Then I thought of all the fantastic scores by Joe Hisaishi, and decided to try and find a Miyazaki film more off the beaten path than films such as Spirited Away or Howl's Moving Castle. I hadn't seen Castle in the Sky, so I watched it, fell in love with it, and found this scene near the beginning of the film that offered a lot of interesting opportunities for music.

During the somewhat unnatural process of re-scoring scenes that we do so much at NYU, I found scoring clips that already had wonderful (or familiar) music unappealing and unnecessarily challenging. Although Hisaishi's score for this scene is beautiful and works quite well, I immediately saw a different way of structuring the music of the scene.

I attempted to make different choices than Hisaishi for as much of the scene as possible, so I started the cue in E Dorian, with a more neutral mood. This introductory music serves to set the scene while articulating Pazu's unwavering energy and curiosity. The melody is carried by the clarinet and piano, and supported by strings and winds.

Although I liked Hisaishi's idea of hitting (using music to accent an action) the moment when the birds turn and in the distance (00:21), I thought the gesture could be much more subtle. Instead of using a large orchestral swell, I had the distinct A major chord land on the turn. The harp diverges from its pattern for this chord, but otherwise it's a very soft hit.

The next section is the definitive trumpet melody. This was the main reason I chose this scene, as recreating the sound of a solo instrument that is represented in the film itself would be a fantastic challenge. I actually wrote at least three versions of this melody - all very different. I landed on this one after going back to score the beginning of the scene and working up to it.

I also refused to change tempos when I knew I'd have so little time to record two minutes of orchestra music, so I had to time the beginning of the melody to line up exactly while keeping the same pulse. It resulted in the strangest offbeat I've ever used to start a melody (which turned out to be quite fun). I saved the big swell that Hisaishi used on the birds turning for the middle of this melody, where the morning sun lights up the sky (00:48).

The scene then moves indoors to Sheeta as she wakes up. My goal for this section of the scene was to create a feeling of going indoors with the music - moving from the broad, full orchestral scoring of Pazu's trumpet melody to a timid, unsure mood as Sheeta wakes up in strange surroundings. I then give Sheeta her own melody, in response to Pazu's, featuring the oboe. Again I find myself humbled and honored by the power of giving players solo opportunities, as the oboist takes my breath away every time I hear that line (01:16).

The cue is resolved in an orchestral tutti (everyone playing), where the music from the very beginning of the scene is revisited with much fuller instrumentation. The liveliness of this finale serves to paint Pazu's jovial personality with music, as the introduction did, but with the sense of resolution that comes with our heroine starting to understand that she is safe.

Thanks so much for reading! I'd love to hear what you all think about the clip, or any questions you might have about anything at all.

I hope this post finds all of you well,

Neil

For Iona

I have a new niece! Well, she's almost two months old now, but it's never too late to talk about really special things. My sister Melissa's baby girl, Iona Maxcine Brown, was born on Oct. 13th at 12:57 a.m.

After the strings establish the theme in G major, the oboe picks it up in a new key, supported by the clarinets (0:30). The harp doubles them in order to make the attack of each individual note stronger, and to highlight the contrast between the two sections.

 

The moment I was most satisfied with in this piece is the most simple moment - right after the big tutti. The orchestra fades and a solo violin repeats the last phrase of the tune with the harp (0:54). The violinist nailed the line, and it created a very special, intimate moment in the room when we reached that part in every take. This piece convinced me of the power that contrast creates in music. Sometimes one violin can say more than an entire orchestra.

I also had a recording session with an NYU orchestra the week before as part of my Advanced Orchestration class, and since I knew the event of Iona's birth was just over the horizon, I decided to write a piece for her.

"For Iona" is scored for double woodwinds, two horns, harp, and strings. I wanted to write a melody that was simple, but one that grew. I also wanted to slightly reference my family's Irish roots. Perhaps the chords sound a little more English than Irish, but we're all Americans so details are details are details.

There are a couple key moments in the piece that are worth highlighting:

Originally, during the big tutti (everyone plays) moment of this piece (0:44), I wrote the melody in octaves in the violins. While this is a common, "tried-and-true" technique, it wasn't giving the passage the magic it needed. It felt safe in a dull way. I chose to use a tremolo technique in the violins to pull the melody forward while giving it a delicate, fluttering texture.

Congratulations Melissa and Eric Brown! I can't wait to meet you Iona :)

I'd love to hear what you think - come to my Facebook page and send me a message! And if you are a music nerd like me and want to see the score, just ask!

Jennifer Higdon and karma

I had a discussion the other day over Facebook (is there any other kind of discussion?) about an article that was posted on New Music Box. It was a seemingly pointless article in which the author laments the difficulties his students will face as they choose a college path. The article didn't interest me that much. What did interest me however was a comment by THE Jennifer Higdon, which I found more valuable than the article itself:

"In order to change the world, a certain inner strength is a likely presence. If these students have that strength, any bump or adjustments in an academic path will not deter them. Excellent learning at all levels is about learning how to learn (and how to problem solve). You sound like you’re worried about career success, as opposed to actual growth and learning. These students will do what every student has done throughout time…they will make a choice, follow a path, and continue their growth, according to their own inner strengths. I attended a state university, a conservatory and an IVY League…I learned different things from all three. It’s not really possible to say that one is better than the other…they’re just different."

I think it's so easy to get really hung up on decisions like this. I see myself and many people that are close to me treating professional decisions like they will dissolve into nothing the moment they make the "wrong" choice, which as Hidgon points out, usually doesn't even exist. While I do agree that finding an environment that suits oneself as a creative individual is not something to be taken lightly, it is also not the end of the world.

A motto I've developed recently is that what we do each moment shapes the next moment. If a young composer works hard to create opportunities for themselves, then they will find that more opportunities appear for them. This can happen at Juilliard, or at a liberal arts college in the corner of Iowa. I think life can be very karmic. There are things we can't control, but there is a lot we can, and most of that boils down to how we manage ourselves, and how we interact with others.

Good luck to all you creative people!

http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/what-lies-ahead-for-teenage-composers/