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From the Archive: Jessica Curry's 'Dear Esther'

Nothing Concrete text
28 Apr 2021
29 min listen

On this week's edition we step into a deep and complex digital universe: we take down from our archive shelf a conversation with composer Jessica Curry. 

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmade:

Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. On this week's edition we step into a deep and complex digital universe: we take down from our archive shelf a conversation with composer Jessica Curry.

BE: You are transported to a desolate Hebridean Island, the lost shores of a dreamed coastline. Let's press play and experience Dear Esther.

Jessica Curry: Without wanting to sound too pretentious, it really is like a psycho-geographical journey. It's a journey of the mind. How do you write interactive fiction that can be enjoyed and appreciated and understood, when the player has control of that story?

BE: Back on the evening of the 14th of October 2016 you could have experienced this digital story construct come to life, with it being played or performed in front of you – narrated on the evening by Oliver Dimsdale, with a live performance of Jessica Curry's string-led score.

BE: In the year of the concert, I travelled by train to Brighton to the HQ of The Chinese Room, the immersive video game company which created Dear Esther. I spoke to composer Jessica Curry.

JC: Well, I was dragged into the world of video games very reluctantly by my husband, Dan, who was writing his PhD on what would happen if you took all gameplay out of a game. And that became Dear Esther. So, I was writing as a freelance composer at the time, not working in the world of video games at all. Dan asked me to write this completely – you know – music for a very theoretical project, which then turned out to be a massive critical and commercial hit, which then led us into the partnership with The Chinese Room, making a computer game company. And yeah, it's just been a crazy five years.

BE:I would imagine you had some apprehensions, because, I mean, the clichés of computer games are that the music is functional and not very interesting.

JC: Yeah. I mean, I hadn't played a video game since I was a child, unlike Dan, who's completely obsessed by first person shooters. So, it wasn't so much apprehension as just complete ignorance. And Dan and I had been collaborating a lot on other projects, we'd done a Second Life project with the Royal Opera House, we'd done sound walks together, we'd done a commission for the Wellcome Trust. So for me, it was just another form of collaboration with him really, and I wasn't so bothered about what the medium was, it was more about getting to work with him, and his beautiful words. And I think if I’d thought more about it, I probably wouldn't have done it. And because it wasn't for anything commercial, it wasn't like, oh, I've got to write the best music, or the most pressured music that there’s ever been, but it's just I'm going to write what I enjoy, something that really pours out of me. And I think in a way that’s what people responded to: that it wasn't with any commercial bent at all, it was just a passion project.

BE: Let's talk about the world. I mean, how would you describe it?

JC: Desolate! Lonely! Grief laden! Do come to the Barbican event, it's going to be very fun. It is, without wanting to sound too pretentious, it really is like a psycho-geographical journey. It's a journey of the mind. So, it's set on a remote Hebridean Island, but actually it's about the players’ experience as they find out what happened in this story. And it's kind of half ghost story, it's about hidden secrets, and just a man's thinking about his life and what he's done and what's happened to him. So it was very new at the time for video games to explore such deep themes, actually, and I think that's why it got such – the massive response that it did at the time, because no one else was doing it really.

BE: It’s interesting, because you call it a video game, but maybe isn't a video game. It's – I don't know – it’s a, what now would maybe be more described as a virtual reality experience.

JC: You can't say that because we've had years of being absolutely thrashed online about people asking, ‘is it a game?’ I mean, it started off a whole new academic discussion, really, about what is it art? Can videogames be art? Is it a game if it doesn't have any gameplay in it? So I'm now gonna bosh you over the head with your microphone to make that question stop, because we've been dealing with it for years. And Dan’s always really very black and white about it: if it, you know, uses video game technology, then it is a game. But, you know, obviously, there's much more greys to that black and white argument, but I just consider it to be a really beautiful piece of work, and again, I'm not so concerned about, is it a theatre piece? Is it a novel anymore? I think so much more cross-media stuff’s happening. I think people are getting more accepting of that kind of mishmash of genres. Mishmash isn't a word but…

BE: You mentioned Dan’s words and I think that's quite a nice thing to go into in Dear Esther. I mean, as you travel through this world, you hear this – what this story, which I suppose has just been sort of cut up, for a better phrase?

JC: Well, there are three variations of Dan's narrative that can trigger as you go through the game. So you probably won't get the same, well, you definitely won't get the same experience when you play through the game again. And that was the beginning of an experiment for us, which ended up in our last game, Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, which is an open world game where you can experience the story in any way that you choose. So I think Esther was that early experiment of how far we could push that, and Rapture is so much more, not sophisticated, but just takes it so much further as a concept I think of how do you write interactive fiction that can be enjoyed and appreciated and understood, when the player has control of that story?

BE: And what did you react to? How did you write the music?

JC: Dan's words are always really inspirational. They're beautiful, and very poetic and very different. The island itself really spoke to me, because it is so remote, and it's so romantic. It's about his dead wife, it is a love letter to Esther. And I think most people that would listen to love my music would say that I have a very sort of romantic sensibility. It's very poetic, my music, it’s epic in scale, it allows you a lot of time and space to think and dream. So in a way, it was the perfect space for me to write music into. And it's just, there's just something so… that emptiness, that really spoke to me about one man's journey through his life and through his experiences. And I think as a composer, that's, you know, and then with Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, Dan said, I want you to write a love letter to the end of the world. I was like, Yeah, I love being married to this man! Because he has a large soul. And I really love that.

BE: Talk us a little bit through the process, I think it took two years to develop, so were you, sort of, given, sort of, sneak previews of sections and then then you wrote the music reacting to that?

JC: Well, it was actually really nice and again, very unusual for the games industry that it would be kind of cross fertilisation of inspiration, that Dan would give me a snippet of dialogue and I'd write some music. Or sometimes he'd say, I'm going to write something around these themes and so can you provide the music first, and I’ll right into the music. So it was kind of like sometimes the visuals were coming first, sometimes the music was coming first, and the artists would respond to that. And it was just lovely to have that holistic relationship where it's never a traditional master/slave relationship with the music, with the games in The Chinese Room, that sometimes the music is so at the forefront of what's happening, and sometimes it provides more of a traditional route through.

BE:  Yeah, I mean, looking through the, you know, when you experience the game, the music helps you kind of feel that you can go from one chapter to the other, I think.

JC:  Yeah, I think again, you're so bombarded in games as a whole – It's what they do really well, it’s that they kind of fire action at you all the time and you're changing action states, as we say in the industry all the time, so you're going from a combat state to oh-phew-relief state and everything, and then the music changes and what was really interesting about Dear Esther is actually it’s one psychic mood in a way, that pushes through the whole game. And it allowed me so much more freedom as a composer to just completely follow the mental state of that person without having to go, and now they're about to go into a fight, so come on, change the music – which just so often happens, and why music can often I think be quite weak in video games is because it is always the slave, it's always following. With films, you're always scoring at the actuality of what's going on and you can be really nuanced and if someone just turns their head or sighs in a certain way, the composer can score that. With video games you don't know where the player particularly is going to be, they may choose to go left at a point, and it triggers a completely different set of dialogue. So you're always providing a ‘wash’ in a way. And it was my determination as a game composer, to write strong music that gave a really authored experience to the player. It wasn't about those conventions of just this sort of very ambient, or kind of very expressive ‘this is what you have to feel right now’. I wanted to trust the player more than that, but be able still to give them very beautiful music. I don't think I answered your question there at all. Went off on my own little flight of fancy then!

BERecording the music, I mean, was that a normal procedure or again was that quite different?

JC:  No, that was a normal kind of filmic procedure. I’d had a big gap from writing music and that's probably the most memorable thing for me that I'd had sort of four years off to raise my little boy. And Esther was the first project that I stepped back into. And so just remember the thrill actually, of being back in the recording studio, with live musicians. It's still my very favourite part of composing, you go through all the hell, and the bitterness often, you know, jealousy of other people, hatred, loneliness, general despair, really. And then you get into the studio, and you go, oh, god, this is gonna be awful. As you can see, I'm a very positive person. But you know, you have this moment where they're all sitting there, they're hardened musicians, they do this every day, you want it to be good. And you think are they going to start and it's just going to be noise? and then they start and it isn't just noise, and is what you hoped for, but it's also more than that. And that's what I remember from Dear Esther, I had cracking players, and they are the people who are going to be playing at Dear Esther live, which is amazing. To get the original gang back together – some of them played on the Rapture soundtrack as well. And it's so nice to have that original gang of people back together.

BE:  Let's talk about the concert. How on earth do you take something which is obviously a single-person experience and turn it into a shared experience?

JC:  I got in touch with Chris Sharp, a music programmer at the Barbican, and I said, look, I've got a bit of a crazy idea. And because there's quite a lot of snobbery about game music, especially in classical London, I thought he was gonna go, ‘go away madwoman’. But he was so sweet and accepting and curious, and I really loved that about him. So many people just went, ‘oh no, I've heard, you know, even if I don't know game music, I don't like it somehow’. Or it's not proper music. And Chris just had so much more of an open mind. So I knew it was the right people to partner with. And I said, ‘Look, I don't’ – he said, ‘Well, how many people do you think are going to come?’ I was like, ‘Ten? I don't know. Maybe nobody will come,’ and he still pushed ahead, and I really admired him for that, actually. And then after I'd pitched this idea, and he'd said yes, I thought, well, how am I actually going to pull this off? And I sat there with a piece of paper and thought, oh, my god, this is actually really, really complicated. Just in terms of how the conductor, who doesn't know the game, is going to cue the musiciansin , is going to cue the actor in – he needs to be cued somehow. How's that going to happen? So we've been working with Curve [Digital], who are our publishers for the console version of Dear Esther that's coming out later this month. They've had to make us a completely new build of the game that has those trigger cue points sort of visualised. So, the conductor will be looking at the monitor saying, ‘okay, now it's cue four’. Because of course, Dan, my husband, is going to play the game, live on stage. So this is what's different about it, is it's not like a film score where you think well, I know this happens at this point – Dan could also choose to go anywhere in the game at any point. So that's really scary for the conductor, for the players, and it is an experiment which I'm hoping is going to pay off. We have a rehearsal the day before the concert, and that will be to see, you know, hopefully that the technology is working, that the musicians understand the relationship between the screens and the conductor, and that everyone manages to come in at the right time. But it hasn't really been done before. Austin Wintory is doing it in America with ‘Journey’, but it is quite different to this. So, we are at the sort of vanguard of live game performances, and of course, game music is being performed around the world, but not through with a live playthrough of the game. So that's the challenge. I'll say challenge – I'll say the exciting bits of it.

BE: One of the other great things as well, I mean, again, unless you have a lot of money, you're not gonna be experiencing the game on a big screen. So yeah, we’re gonna have in Milton Court, we're gonna have the giant screen and the lights and we won’t have the smells, I don't think, but we're really gonna, may be immersed more than anyone's been before.

JC: Yeah, it's such an immersive game anyway, and I think it's such a beautiful game. And what was interesting to us, you know, we brought it out and PC, and like I said, we're just about to do the console version, so it's coming out for PlayStation and Xbox. And we thought this was five years ago, technology moves on so quickly in this industry, are we going to sit down and look at Dear Esther and go, oh god, it was good for its time, but it's dated. And that was a real concern for us. And actually, when we did sit down to play it again, Rob Briscoe’s visuals are still absolutely stunning, and pretty unparalleled. I think the cave section, seen on the big screen is going to be a real moment for people. And it's such a loved game. And there's so much excitement about the people who have booked their tickets. Because I think, because the game was so different and was so new, to be able to experience it with the live players, with the narrator, is going to be I hope – I came to see Philip Glass at the Barbican a few years ago, doing Beauty and the Beast – and it's one of those evenings, where you go, I was there, and it probably, it'll be repeated, but it'll never be quite the same as this, it’s one of those unique moments where you feel together with the rest of the audience. It doesn't happen every time you go and see something live, but sometimes – I've had it at the Proms as well – whether it's a collective feeling from the audience, where you exchange a look, and go, ‘I was here’. And that's what I hope this concert is going to be, one of those really special nights for people.

BE: We've come from the point of view of computer games, but I would say that there may be people out there who want to take a little bit of a risk, and you don't have to have ever played a computer game to enjoy the concert.

JC: Absolutely not, I would say do give it a go. It is such a beautiful looking game. And a lot of people said you know, it's a very beautiful interactive experience, it’s like the most wonderful film that you can play through. I think if you like post-classical music with great players, if you like beautiful images and a good story, then give it a try. I think we're really desperate to try and get non-games players to experience our games because they don't actually require much dexterity, which sounds silly but is a real barrier for lots of people. If you're not a you know, PlayStation console player, then it can be really, really hard if you're just mashing buttons and not getting anywhere. But our games are very simple. And this is where you just get back to, you know, sit back and enjoy it, so I hope it will bring the audiences in for us.

JC: I talk to my friends who don't play games and like a game with Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, which was the last game we made. People cannot believe how sucked in they are by the story and how absolutely exquisitely beautiful it is, and the production quality of the music. And I think we're just at the beginning of seeing hopefully those new audiences brought in for games like ours, because like I said, I didn't play games because I didn't think there was anything for me. And I think people who love good films and good stories should start to explore what is out there for them in the world of video games because I think they'd be really pleasantly surprised now actually.

BE: It's quite funny because I read a review of a film recently, which I can't remember the name of, but it was actually virtually they were saying it wasn't a film, it was a computer game. So, as you say, that boundary does keep lowering.

JC: No, absolutely. And I hope that continues because I just think, like I say, Dan and I worked together for a long time before this project, we were always looking for the perfect space for our collaborations. And for me, games is such an exciting… it's not a new industry, but it's still new enough to be able to put innovative, quality experiences into it that haven't been done before. And like I said, virtual reality for me is just the next step along the road of that. What games do so well is they make you feel like the centre of that journey, and it's unique to video games. I mean, I absolutely love film, I’m obsessed by film, but you are very passive, as an audience member, as a viewer. And I think with games, you're in the centre of the experience, you're controlling your destiny, it's a very powerful experience. And VR is going to be the next level of that, where you’re just completely immersed in that world. So there's lots of it, I'd say to creators as well, who are looking for exciting platforms, it's really worth having a look at the technology because there's so much exciting stuff going on.

BE: Even though you enjoy being in this world, you do step elsewhere.

JC: I did a talk last year at GDC, which is the big Game Developers Conference. And I think it was called something like, ‘My Extremely Interesting But Desperately Unstrategic Career’. And I think if I'd have chosen to go down one path, I would have been really, really successful. Like now I'm getting offered a lot of work in the game industry, but not on projects that particularly excite me. But if I was just commercially minded, I could go down that route. But like I said before, with Dan, I've always just wanted to do projects that thrill me and excite me and I feel passionate about and the medium is genuinely unimportant. So with the brass and choral commission, the Durham Brass Trust got in touch and said, Would you like to work with the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy? I said, ‘oh, all right, then, if I have to! What a drag!’ You know, I mean, what an opportunity, you're never going to turn that down because she's one of my favourite poets, she's extraordinarily talented, and again, it had this, I think all the projects that I've done, are reigned together by the fact I love stories. I read English Literature first, that was my first degree, before I went to the National Film and Television school. And I've always loved hidden stories, secrets. And Carol Ann Duffy took letters home from the First World War, which were obviously just unbearably tragic and extremely moving. And then she wrote poems that were inspired by those letters. And I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to write music for those words. And the concert happened in July, and it was so – it was one of the most extraordinary experiences. Again, a collectively powerful experience – there were lots of veterans there. It was a community choir of over 100 singers, 50 brass band players, and both of those things for me, that's why I said yes to the project as well, because those musicians are really rooted in the community choirs. Brass bands, they're about normal people who can make music and there's something really strong and powerful conceptually about that, for me, just saying. I's not an elitist form, actually, everyone can do this and traditionally has been, especially with brass bands, a kind of very working class thing that people can do. I always just do it as a crazy range of projects. I've got some concerts coming up in London, just before the Barbican actually, I've got a commission for the London Gay Men's Choir, working with the psychoanalyst Susie Orbach – another extraordinary and random experience where it's called Shame Chorus and each choir member [was] interviewed by Susie on the subject of shame. And then I got an anonymous interview from one of the choir members and got to write the lyrics and the music based on that. And it's really funny, I was listening to it this morning before you came and it made me cry, which doesn't happen very often anymore, because I'm a seasoned, hardened old pro who doesn't feel emotion. But because it was again, it was someone's real life and that's tied in for me like the Durham Hymns project with Carol Ann Duffy. You have a responsibility to those people I think, when it's real people, whether they're dead or alive. That's really extraordinary as a project and I cannot wait to hear it, I've not heard it yet. And then I've got the BBC singers coming up in October, singing some of the Rapture music, which is really interesting for me, because it's about starting to form this relationship with classical performers and organisations, like with the Barbican, going there’s some really interesting things happening here. And they were really open to singing a piece from Rapture. So that's happening at [St. Giles’} Cripplegate. So these things are slowly moving. So yeah, a really random bunch of stuff – I've been writing a madrigal this morning, for a Glasgow group called The Madrigirls who’ve asked me to write a Christmas piece for them. So it's really eclectic, but I wouldn't – I know it's a bit crazy – but I genuinely wouldn't have it any other way, I think I'd get so bored: just saying I'm a game composer, or I'm a film composer, I'm a classical composer. And again, it kind of goes back to what we were talking about before about those breakdowns, I think. And if you look at people's careers now, they're doing opera, they're doing TV – look at Max Richter, he's doing all kinds of interesting projects. He's doing ballet. And it doesn't have to be that I'm this one thing anymore, and I just want to do keep doing those projects that wake me up in the middle of the night going, ‘I've got a great idea, I want to do it’.

BE: But first of all, one more journey into the world of Dear Esther.

JC: I am really looking forward to it. I have to say I don’t want to admit to my nerves on tape. But it is going to be I think, an extraordinary rush that night. And I think it's going to have that feeling of lightness about it, and I hope that that is a communally wonderful experience. But we shall see. At the moment I've got a wonderful chap called Laurence Bush. He's Brighton-based because I'm very old and not very au fait with technical stuff anymore, he's very young and hip and very on it, and he's helping me with the really hardcore technical requirements. But I have to say, and I'm not just saying this, because I'm being interviewed by the Barbican, it has been a wonderful experience, with Barbican and working with Natasha who’s producing the show. And you work with a lot of really, really bad people – naming no names, but you do. You know, you get let down and people are inefficient – it has been a wonderfully smooth experience so far. So I'm looking forward to it, it's a great venue. I think it's a really fitting place to have the concert, so I think it is going to be a special night. And I wonder if it will create more performances of it, I actually I don't know if this is going to be a one-off thing, or if then people will say, let's do it in other places. So that's really exciting for me as well as, would it take on a life of its own? I mean, I have to say, I didn't ask my husband Dan, who is going to be playing the game on stage. I just pitched it to the Barbican without asking him and then a month ago went, ‘Dan, how do you feel about being in front of about 650 people playing the game live on stage? Oh, yes. And there'll be some musicians and there'll be a narrator as well.’ And he gave me one of those looks that only married couples can give each other What have you done to me, I love you, but at this moment I could cheerfully strangle you. So, because that's a really big responsibility for him: he is the author of the evening really. So no pressure Dan, we'll see how it goes.

BE: Like reading a hard to put down novel, a film with a world so strange it's hard to look away, Dear Esther to me was a compelling live experience and has now led to many more. Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. Here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts, with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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