“For me it was watching The Untouchables and hearing Ennio Morricone’s score,” Bobby Tahouri says, about what it was that made him want to become a film composer. “My father […]
“For me it was watching The Untouchables and hearing Ennio Morricone’s score,” Bobby Tahouri says, about what it was that made him want to become a film composer. “My father took me to see it – I was around 11 years old, a little too young – but I thought wow, this is amazing: that’s what I want to do. From that moment on I wanted to be a film composer.”
Though, as Tahouri himself notes, Star Wars is cited as a seminal film by many composers who suddenly realised – upon hearing the iconic John Williams score for the first time – that this was their calling, The Untouchables is certainly not a bad starting point by any means. Ennio Morricone’s Oscar-nominated score won several high profile awards and accolades – including a Grammy for Best Film Soundtrack and a BAFTA for Best Music.
Tahouri’s love of music started before that slightly premature viewing of The Untouchables, however. “As far back as I can remember, music has always been a part of my life and I gravitated towards playing the piano. We always had music playing in my house,” he says, noting that he harboured an early ambition to be a concert pianist, “but I wasn’t that talented! I was ok, but after realising how much work is involved with the discipline and dedication, taking lessons and practicing all day – I was always improvising on the piano as a kid, so composing came naturally; just the desire to write music.”
Having now worked on a number of high profile film, TV and video game projects, Tahouri’s desire to become a composer has clearly come to fruition. Everyone starts somewhere though – and Tahouri’s first film industry experience was working as an assistant to Emmy Award-winning composer Geoff Zanelli. “He took me under his wing, showed me everything – he was a great mentor. Thankfully when I started working for him, he became really busy – and that allowed me to help him out; first by being a programmer, creating drum patterns and synth sounds for his different projects, then that transitioned to me writing additional music for him when he got too busy. At the same time, I was very conscious of trying to establish friendships with filmmakers, trying to get myself out there to work on student films and whatever project I could. So while I was helping Geoff, I was also meeting directors and filmmakers and writing music as much as I could for their projects.”
Composing music for games seems to have naturally followed Tahouri’s film and TV work, seeing as he grew up playing video games. He confesses, however, that he struggles to find time to play these days due to other commitments. “I wish I could just lock myself in a room and play games! I go through phases where I’ll play games and then stop, because I’m so busy with work and family.”
Those work commitments include providing the soundtrack for the middle part of the rebooted Tomb Raider trilogy by Crystal Dynamics – Rise of the Tomb Raider, which arrived in 2015. It was a very different game to the first one in many respects, with a focus on survival in a harsh, frozen wilderness and a more measured, deliberate pace than 2013’s Tomb Raider. “With Rise, we treated it as the middle, darker part of the trilogy – the Empire Strikes Back of the series,” Tahouri reveals – an apt comparison, given the familial twists that occur in Rise – “and it definitely felt like a much slower pace than the first game, which was much more of a rollercoaster ride.” How did that initially come to pass? Tahouri tells me, “A good friend of mine went to GDC and met an audio engineer who happened to be looking for music and composers. My friend suggested that we connect and we did, which led to me working on Rise of the Tomb Raider.”
It was Tahouri’s work on Rise of the Tomb Raider which led Crystal Dynamics to ask him if he wanted to score their upcoming title, Marvel’s Avengers. “When I finished my work on Rise, Crystal Dynamics asked if I wanted to work on Avengers – and I said yes, of course! I had no idea they were working on it – video game developers are very good at keeping things hush hush. I had a good relationship working with [Audio Director] Jack Grillo on Rise of the Tomb Raider – we had the same sensibilities and same taste in music. Jack asked me if I wanted to work on Avengers, I said yes and here we are. That was back in 2016.”
It’s impossible to have grown up in the 80s and 90s without being aware of Marvel’s huge roster of superheroes, even if you aren’t overly familiar with the original comic books – which Tahouri admits he didn’t have a great deal of exposure to (“I have an older brother and he didn’t read comic books, so I blame him for not introducing them to me!”). Marvel’s characters were always part of the pop culture landscape in one way or another; my first exposure to Spider-Man, for example, was due to the animated series Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. The 70s Hulk TV show was my only experience of the angry green giant for a good few years. Tahouri recounts similar experiences to mine: “I have been aware of Marvel characters since I was a child. I remember watching The Incredible Hulk on TV, Spider-Man cartoons – and I’ve always thought the Marvel characters were so cool! So yes, Marvel characters have been a big part of my life.”
With the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, of course, Marvel is part of the zeitgeist like never before. The Avengers have become arguably the biggest movie characters in contemporary cinema, with billions of dollars in box office receipts under their belts. With the Crystal Dynamics game releasing just over a year after Endgame asserted its domination over the box office, comparisons between the game and films were understandably going to be unavoidable. “The goal was to have the game music stand on its own. People will inevitably make comparisons to the MCU films, but the music just needed to sound heroic and epic – as all these Marvel games and films need to. I wanted to create something memorable and iconic with the themes in the game.”
Interestingly, Tahouri reveals that he hadn’t even seen the Avengers films when he started work on the game. “I’d already helped Ramin Djawadi on [the score for the movie] Iron Man in 2008, but I had my first child in 2014 and there was a long period where I didn’t go to the movies, didn’t watch anything, because I was in parenting mode and really busy with work.” He doesn’t see this as a bad thing, however. “I didn’t want to be influenced by them; I think just being aware of the Marvel characters throughout my life was enough influence – seeing the storyline of the game was good enough.” He acknowledges that there are similarities, though of course without being aware of the movie scores, this is unintentional and more to do with the expectations of how a superhero-themed score should sound. “You have your typical sounds, an orchestra – brass, strings, percussion – something big and larger than life.”
Having played the Beta version of the game, it’s clear that this epic, heroic feel has been achieved. Was the music completed with a real orchestra? “Originally the game was supposed to come out in 2019 – the plan was to record with a big orchestra, but with all of the delays and COVID happening, we weren’t able to do that. So we remotely recorded a smaller string and brass ensemble in Nashville, then layered and combined their performance with my samples.”
It clearly hasn’t affected the big, orchestral feel – the score sounds suitably large in scope; as Tahouri says, “I take a lot of pride in programming and trying to make sounds in the box with samples sound like they’re being played at a big studio. Thankfully we did have live players and I’m really proud of how the score turned out.”
Another interesting aspect to the music, beyond the bigger themes, is the fact that each character has their personality reflected in the instruments used for their accompanying music. “It was Jack Grillo’s idea to have different instruments that represented each character. I wrote one Avengers theme and then with each character, I tried to focus on what instrument represents their personality or their superhero.”
Though the main Avengers characters are all represented, it’s newcomer Kamala Khan – aka Ms Marvel – who provided Tahouri with a real opportunity to put his own stamp on the character from a musical standpoint. A fan of the Avengers who has recently developed her own superpowers, Kamala is a very relatable character for most players who are fans of the Avengers themselves. “With Kamala, because she’s more of an internal character, I wanted to reflect that with electric piano – delays and long reverbs. I just went with my gut; just to reflect her internal headspace – being in her bedroom, feeling like an outsider, playing video games, focusing on all things Avengers because she’s a huge Avengers fan.”
The other, more familiar characters were also given the same care and attention to detail with their sections of the score. “For Iron Man, he’s a brash smartass – so we figured he’d be into 80s metal music and gave him guitar and bass. We gave Captain America trumpets – real Americana – and orchestral snare to give him a stately feel. Hulk got big brass and taiko drums, but also cello for Bruce Banner to calm down, be reflective and not turn into Hulk; a baroque type figure underneath. You’ll hear it during the combat scenes with Hulk – there’s a cello figure that comes out, trying to keep him calm but of course, it doesn’t work! Black Widow – she’s sneaky and stealthy, so I gave her an electronic bass pulse for the most part with low, dark synth tones. Then Thor – he’s like a rock star too! So I had to use guitar and of course with the hammer, metallic anvil sounds.”
The soundtrack is also being released by Mondo on wonderfully multi-coloured vinyl. Tahouri is understandably excited about this: “It’s my first vinyl release! I think this score represents who I am as a composer, all facets of what I think I can do: orchestral, big epic music as well as more intimate, melodic and tender music that I was able to write.”
Aside from ongoing plan for DLC that he will also be involved in, the bulk of Tahouri’s work on the Avengers score is of course finished for now. What’s next – would he like to work on more games? “I would love to – there is something in the works that I can’t talk about yet!” Are there any other game-related projects or series that he’d like to be involved in? “I would love to work on Halo or Call of Duty – I’m a big World War II buff so I’d love to work on a World War II game.”
It’s clear that working in games is something that Tahouri enjoys. “What I love about working on games is that there’s so many people involved that you connect with and you spend so many years working with them that it’s like a family. I worked with Crystal Dynamics on The Avengers for four years, so it feels good to finally reach the finish line and release something you can be proud of.” It won’t be long before gamers all over the world can experience Tahouri’s score in full for themselves, when Marvel’s Avengers releases on the 4th of September for PC, PlayStation 4 & Xbox One.
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