For most gamers, a video game is about reaching a new high score or beating a personal record. Jamie Christopherson ’97 is also preoccupied with score—but for him, this means creating the music and sounds that ultimately heighten the gaming experience.
On Friday, Jan. 31 in the Skinner Library. Christopherson gave a lecture and a tutorial drawn from his own experiences in scoring music.
While at Vassar, Christopherson spent his evenings playing funk, jazz and rock in Poughkeepsie. Now, Christopherson is an award-winning composer who has scored major works of film, television, commercials, trailers, video games and even theme parks.
Christopherson most recently worked on J.J. Abrams’ NBC show “Revolution.” His repertoire includes the best-selling video games “Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance,” “The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth,” “Lost Planet” (1 and 2), “Lineage II” and the films “The Crow: Wicked Prayer,” “Ghost Image” and “Inside Out.”
In order to get to where he is today, Christopherson had to work his way up from the bottom. Christopherson said, “[My first job] was with a huge company. They say that it’s better to be with a big company and start at the bottom than be with a small company and start at the top. Eventually I was doing music sound design, which is a really big way into the industry now.”
But before forging a path in the big leagues, Christopherson studied formal classical music theory, music history, counterpoint (the relationship between sounds that are independent and yet harmonious) and piano at Vassar. Aside from his formal academic training, he scored fellow students’ films and works of theater and took advantage of the Poughkeepsie music scene, playing gigs at local venues. “Life experiences are important,” said Christopherson. “That is what is so great about having a liberal arts education. You are getting experiences outside of the classroom. That helps with everything—draw on your life experiences instead of just thinking within the studio.”
This philosophy helped Christopherson maintain a signature sound—a requirement for successful composers. To keep his music fresh, he said, “We hire people to do musical sound design, which entails recording live music, slowing it down, reversing it, or coming up with something completely digital and trying to make it sound natural,” he explained.
Christopherson believes that pressure is also a motivator for generating new music. “I couldn’t write any music if I wasn’t on a deadline. Otherwise I’d just sit there and question myself. A lot of times you have to come up with an idea very fast, and you can’t second-guess yourself…It’s a tightrope balance of having just enough stress and not enough stress. It can bring out great things,” he said.
He also emphasized that retaining a positive attitude, thick skin and the ability to stay detached from their music are sure ways to help musicians in the long run. In the industry, producers and directors harshly criticize his music constantly. Having to change a measure or an entire score is just a part of the job.
John DeLeonardis ’16, a guitarist, valued Christopherson’s advice. “I loved that he started the lecture saying he realized he’d already done a lot of ‘cool things’ in his career, but he thought the really cool things have yet to come, as well as noting the importance of staying excited about each piece of work you’re doing,” wrote DeLeonardis in an emailed statement.
Even though Christopherson emphasized the importance of staying true to oneself as an artist, he also urged musicians to keep in mind the listeners of their scores, beyond producers and directors. “Every piece of music has to service the film and somehow get at the heart of what the film is saying without repeating itself,” said Christopherson. “There are certain genres like comedy where you’re just writing to supplement what’s on the screen, but there are other genres where you want to get under the skin of what the characters are feeling at that particular point or sometimes go against what the characters are feeling or what you are seeing on the screen.”
Ethan Goldstein ’17, a bassist in Vassar’s orchestra, took Christopherson’s advice as the impetus to reflect on his own style. “I’m a musician and I sometimes write my own music, but I never thought about having a signature sound. Jamie [Christopherson] really made me think about my own music and the way I want it to sound. Maybe someday people will hear the bass playing and think ‘that’s definitely a Goldstein.’”
For students worried about the level of risk often associated with a career in the music industry, Christopherson’s story was an uplifting one. “I thought it was great to hear the personal account and description of a ‘success story’ coming out of Vassar, and in a field I’m interested in,” DeLeonardis wrote. “Looking towards the future (beyond my immediate thinking about what classes I should be taking), I think his lecture made it evident how great it is to work doing what you love. You could see how much he liked what he is doing, and that was most important of all.”