2023 GRAMMYs: Discover the Venue, Channel, and Viewing Details

Stephanie Economou was absolutely convinced that she wouldn't emerge victorious at the GRAMMYs. In fact, she chose to sit toward the back of the auditorium, far away from the spotlight.

As a composer for video game soundtracks, Economou received a nomination for the inaugural Best Score Soundtrack For Video Games And Other Interactive Media award. Her remarkable score for "Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök" caught the attention of the gaming community and industry experts alike. The game itself is an impressive expansion of Ubisoft's popular action role-playing series, set in a historical backdrop.

Despite facing fierce competition from renowned composers in the video game industry like Austin Wintory for "Aliens: Fireteam Elite" and Bear McCreary for "Call of Duty Vanguard," Economou walked away with the prestigious golden gramophone.

The moment she was announced as the winner, Economou hurriedly made her way to the stage, although not without a twinge of self-doubt. "I was experiencing a lot of impostor syndrome," she confesses. "Being fairly new to this industry, I couldn't help but question whether I truly deserved this recognition."

It was Wintory, a highly respected figure in the industry, who reassured Economou. According to her recollection, he conveyed a powerful message: "You have every reason to be here. Your music is exceptional, and you represent something significant."

The soundtrack for "Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök" is not just remarkable in terms of quality; it is also immersive, evocative, and groundbreaking. Economou harnessed a diverse array of instruments, including synthesizers, lap harp, and viola da gamba, to create a captivating and transportive experience within the game's open-world environment. Drawing inspiration from neofolk, Nordic folk, and black metal, she pushed the boundaries of video game music.

Speaking to GRAMMY.com, Economou delved into her creative journey through the realm of film and television, discussed the numerous influences behind the "Dawn of Ragnarök" score, and expressed her hope that this new GRAMMY Award would bring the video game music community the recognition it truly deserves.

Please note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

I suppose there is a certain level of exclusivity within the video game scoring community, as there often is in various subcultures. Did winning this GRAMMY make you feel like that exclusivity is beginning to fade?

Without a doubt. Regardless of who won in this category, it would have been a monumental moment to celebrate. The fact that the Recording Academy has acknowledged video games as a distinct form of art and entertainment is already a significant achievement for all of us.

However, I believe there might be a shift happening, where younger and newer voices in the industry, like myself, are being embraced. We bring a different perspective and have something unique to contribute. I don't see it as a superiority or inferiority situation, but rather an appreciation for the diversity and fresh ideas we bring to the table.

As a composer, I represent a different facet of this industry. Sometimes people are drawn to that diversity and the fresh perspectives it offers.

Please share with us your early sources of inspiration and what attracted you to this medium.

Growing up, I immersed myself in playing the violin and piano. In college, I passionately pursued concert music. It wasn't until my time at New England Conservatory, a music-focused institution, that I scored my first short film.

There was something about it that just clicked with me. I found immense joy in the collaborative process, working alongside a filmmaker who constantly pushed me outside my comfort zone. My love for music began at a young age, with a particular fondness for orchestral music due to my school days. However, I also developed a strong passion for classic rock, punk, metal, and other genres. I have a highly eclectic range of influences, which made composing music that felt authentic to me all the more exhilarating.

What fascinated me most about film music and scoring for media was the opportunity to combine these diverse influences I grew up loving. It was like throwing them into a blender and seeing what would emerge.

Moreover, each project I worked on provided its own unique challenge. Sometimes I had to immerse myself in studying baroque music for a period drama, while other times, like in the case of "Assassin's Creed," I was asked to create a black metal score. I thrive on the challenges inherent in this line of work.

Stephanie Economou. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Can you share the progression of your career leading up to your involvement in "Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök"? Which games did you contribute to prior to this title?

My focus had primarily been on film and TV until recently. Video games were still relatively new to me.

However, when I moved to LA to pursue a career in the industry, I had the good fortune of working under the renowned composer, Harry Gregson-Williams. His impressive filmography includes projects such as Shrek, Chicken Run, The Equalizer, and Mulan. I had the privilege of being part of his team for six years, learning the ropes and contributing to his scores. It was with him that I gained my initial credits as an additional music writer.

Afterward, I ventured out on my own, and one of the noteworthy projects that helped me make an impact was a Netflix TV series called "Jupiter's Legacy." This show played a significant role in establishing my reputation with Netflix and capturing the attention of others who enjoyed the series.

Since then, I have worked on a wide range of projects, including documentaries, feature films, animations, and various other endeavors. Admittedly, I tend to forget the specific details of each project when asked, but they have all propelled me forward in my career.

That's when Ubisoft reached out to me. They were in search of a composer who hadn't previously collaborated with them, someone fresh to the gaming scene. They invited me to demo for the DLC "The Siege of Paris" for "Assassin's Creed Valhalla." It was my introduction to video game music.

Having successfully completed the demo, I was then approached to compose for the subsequent expansion, "Dawn of Ragnarök."

Could you outline some of the specific processes involved in creating music for video games? How does your approach and mindset differ when writing for games as compared to other mediums?

In film and TV, the stories are set and unchanging. Although edits may occur while I'm composing, the narrative remains linear. Video games, on the other hand, offer a nonlinear and interactive experience for players, making the music a vibrant and dynamic part of the gameplay. It's as if the music itself communicates with the players as they navigate through the game's story.

When crafting the music for a project like this, you're essentially acting as a designer as well. It's important to have an understanding that even though a track may only be three minutes long, the player could be immersed in that particular environment for an extended period of time.

They might stumble upon a dangerous or tense area, and it's crucial to create additional layers on top of a foundation that can be triggered at any moment, delivering that rush or sense of unease. There's also the possibility of a fight breaking out, and this is where modular building blocks come into play.

However, the main challenge when dealing with complex musical elements like this is ensuring that it doesn't become a monotonous loop. The music must possess structure and a theme, allowing for harmony and modulation. Each layer has the potential to play with tempo fundamentals, such as double time, half time, triplets, and subdivisions, all contributing to an intense and meticulously designed experience.

Composing something interactive and nonlinear requires a high level of awareness, which I find to be an exhilarating challenge. Nevertheless, entering the world of gaming was initially a steep learning curve for me.

The ultimate challenge lies in creating a truly musical piece that captivates the listener while simultaneously executing those specific technical elements.

How would you define your distinct style in the scores you create?

Pinpointing my signature style is something I struggle with, as I believe it constantly evolves. However, I do strive to infuse each piece with an element of edginess or a willingness to take risks.

I strongly dislike the notion of writing repetitive cues, even though it is sometimes inevitable. I thrive on projects that allow me to explore uncharted territories and push my boundaries.

The realm of video games is particularly conducive to taking those creative risks, and working with Ubisoft, they consistently encouraged me to push the limits, embrace experimentation, and defy expectations. I thoroughly enjoy playing around with the listener's expectations and redefining what is considered game music.

Can you elaborate on how you incorporated the foundation of black metal into the score of "Assassin's Creed Valhalla" — the raw production, tremolo picking, and symphonic grandeur?

The concept of black metal was actually suggested by one of the game developers early on in the process. Although I have always had an affinity for metal music, I had never delved specifically into the realm of black metal. So, I took the opportunity to delve into that genre.

My initial step was to collaborate with musicians who were well-versed in black metal. I discovered a band called Wilderun, led by guitarist Wayne Ingram, who became one of my primary collaborators. Through him, I was introduced to exceptional black metal and neo-folk artists, such as Heilung and Wolves in the Throne Room.

"Assassin's Creed Valhalla" also draws inspiration from Nordic folk, which I sought to incorporate into "Dawn of Ragnarok." Surprisingly, there is a significant overlap between Nordic folk and black metal. Despite their rustic and primal origins, they possess a cinematic quality. The blending of symphonic influences, distorted guitars, potent drums, blast beats, and growling vocals creates a cohesive sonic tapestry.

However, achieving the right balance of each stylistic influence presented its own challenge. Fine-tuning the black metal elements and ensuring the solo performances were exceptional required meticulous attention and a dedicated effort to truly capture the essence.

It was an absolute blast! I never could have imagined that I would have the opportunity to compose a black-metal influenced score, but the best part was definitely collaborating with these talented musicians. It was truly an extraordinary and fruitful experience.

Could you tell me about the other artists you worked with on this soundtrack?

One of the soloists, Ari Mason, was absolutely incredible. She not only provided her powerful vocals but also brought a fresh Nordic folk, neofolk energy to the entire score, which added an amazing touch.

I also had the chance to experiment with a tagelharpa, which was quite challenging to play but it added a cool element to the overall sound. Since I like to collect instruments based on the projects I work on, I also recorded with a lap harp and various other string instruments.

We also incorporated some synths into the score because, as you may know, black metal and neofolk have a uniquely ambient and textural quality. So, alongside the intense black-metal moments, we made sure to include carefully curated atmospheric elements as well. This is something that I often incorporate into my music, regardless of the style.

Before diving into black metal, what were some other significant influences that shaped your musical style?

Growing up, I was deeply influenced by bands like System of a Down. "Toxicity" is still one of my all-time favorite albums, and I find myself listening to it frequently. While working on this project, there were times when my music veered slightly towards the System of a Down sound, but Ubisoft kindly reminded me to stay true to the black-metal genre.

Another band that had a profound impact on me is Pink Floyd. They are my favorite band of all time, and "Animals" is my favorite album. When I listen to their music, I can't help but notice certain similarities or inspirations that have subtly made their way into my own compositions. I also have a soft spot for bands like Blink-182, as they remind me of my joyful childhood. In terms of recent artists, I have been listening to Patrick Watson and Father John Misty.

I make it a point to constantly explore new music whenever I can. Admittedly, this was a struggle for me initially because being immersed in music all day can sometimes be overwhelming. However, now, every morning when I enter the studio, I make a habit of going on YouTube and discovering new, unfamiliar artists. I find it to be an incredibly inspiring way to kickstart my day.

Photo credit: Claus Morgenstern

After winning this prestigious GRAMMY award, what are your future creative aspirations?

Now that I hold this esteemed GRAMMY trophy, I find myself yearning to embark on new and exciting artistic endeavors. My heart desires to continue collaborating with the immensely talented individuals in the video game realm while also exploring further opportunities in the realms of film and television. I am constantly drawn towards working with storytellers who possess a unique perspective and demonstrate unwavering innovation. These are the individuals who require music that transcends boundaries and transports viewers and audiences to uncharted dimensions of perception.

I firmly believe that games provide the most direct route for listeners to immerse themselves in this captivating realm. In my eyes, it is all art, interconnected and interwoven, each form contributing to the greater tapestry of creativity.

Can you shed light on the subculture of video game composers and their experiences? Can you propose any improvements?

The video game industry has witnessed its fair share of stories revolving around toxic work environments, particularly with regards to the treatment of women. However, it brings me great joy to share that, as a female composer in the realm of video game music, I have personally encountered tremendous support from the game companies I have collaborated with. They have fostered an environment that brims with encouragement and has allowed me to craft my music with a sense of profound fulfillment. Additionally, the video game composing community has proven to be an exceptionally welcoming and inclusive group of individuals.

I am truly grateful to be part of this community of composers who devote themselves to their craft, diligently focusing on their work. I genuinely believe that the world of video games exhibits a broader diversity of voices compared to that of film and television. Game companies are displaying a stronger inclination towards hiring women composers, and video game composers, as a collective, embrace diversity and inclusivity.

My presence in this world has been met with unwavering support from my fellow artists. Thus, at present, I can only express positivity about my experiences. However, perhaps in a decade's time, I will be able to share more tales.

Do you believe that the introduction of this GRAMMY category will elevate the status of video game music?

I fervently hope so, my friend. It is truly astonishing that recognizing video game music as a distinct entity has taken such a significant amount of time.

In conversations with individuals who do not identify as avid gamers or do not fully comprehend the immersive and exhilarating world of video games, one cannot help but notice their surprise at the long-overdue acknowledgment of video game music. We have been here for decades.

The overdue recognition is particularly significant because gamers genuinely appreciate and deeply engage with this music. As someone who grew up playing video games and still indulges in them today, the power of these scores resonates with me on an unparalleled level. The melodies transport me to cherished memories and anchor me in specific moments of time. There is a profound connection.

While I do admire film soundtracks, they fail to evoke the same overwhelming thrill that video game soundtracks do. When I hear the iconic theme of "Halo," for instance, a flood of emotions engulfs me. There is something undeniably profound in that experience.

Individuals who invest themselves in the narratives of video games yearn to relish the music once more, allowing them to rekindle the excitement they felt while immersing themselves in the game. The soundtrack becomes a defining element, encapsulating a fragment of time in which they traversed challenges and embraced the game's wonders. It is an extraordinarily special journey.

Therefore, it is undoubtedly an opportune moment for game music to receive the recognition it deserves because it offers an emotionally poignant experience that resonates with the audience.

Find out more about the fascinating realm of Dungeon Synth: A Transportive, Atmospheric & Bracingly Earnest Realm.

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